As Texas A&M prepares to renew its rivalry with LSU at the Cotton Bowl (which, as would be expected in the illogical world of college football, is not played at the actual Cotton Bowl), Aggies fans may feel like they've been here before. And they have.
In 2006, coming off a 9-3 season, the Aggies appeared poised to break out of the mire of mediocrity they had found themselves in ever since winning the 1998 Big 12 title. Buoyed by a win over 10th-ranked Texas (the team's first since 1999), A&M headed to the Holiday Bowl with high hopes. Instead, the Aggies received a rude 45-10 awakening at the hands of Cal. After a disappointing season in 2007, coach Dennis Franchione was gone.
But talk to any Aggies fan, and they'll tell you that this team is different. Coach Mike Sherman not only brings a level of experience and confidence Franchione never possessed, but, more importantly, the once vaunted defense has enjoyed a resurgence under first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
After languishing near the bottom of college football for the past several seasons, the Aggies rank 14th in rushing defense (117 yards per game), 27th in scoring defense (20.3 points per game) and in the top 50 in total defense (357.5 yards per game). It's no longer a stretch to say that the "wrecking crew" is back.
Another thing this year's team has over the 2006 squad is its performances in so-called "statement" games. Granted, the 2006 team only lost to Oklahoma and Nebraska by a combined two points. Still, the 2010 Aggies beat Oklahoma by 14 and topped Nebraska by three under the lights at a raucous Kyle Field.
Which brings us to the Cotton Bowl. After a 3-3 start, a Cotton Bowl berth may seem like icing for a team making baby steps back to national relevance. But for A&M, a school with all the pieces in place to be a perennial contender - a rich recruiting base, top-notch facilities as well as cherished traditions and a psychotically loyal fan base - beating a premier SEC team is a necessity if it hopes to contend again for actual championships.
Win or lose, this will be the first year A&M finishes in the top 25 since 1999. Looking ahead, however, a win would put the Aggies in the top 15 and could propel them into the preseason top 10 next year, which, in the twisted world of the BCS, can be the difference between a national championship berth and a consolation prize.
Additionally, a win would provide an immeasurable psychological boost to a program with a dismal recent history in bowl games. The Aggies have only won three bowls since 1990, the last of which was the 2001 Galleryfurniture.com Bowl (no, you can't even really consider that a bowl). So, after a forgettable decade, the team really has no room for regression.
Throw in the fact that the game will mark the first against historical rival LSU since 1995 and you have the makings of the most crucial of all the statement games the Aggies have encountered this year.
The good news for Aggies fans is that this team is different. The Aggies haven't lost since Sherman replaced struggling quarterback Jerrod Johnson with receiver Ryan Tannehill. And following their coach's lead, they've adopted a mentality that says big wins over premier opponents aren't upsets. They're to be expected.
So, things truly do look brighter in College Station. Which is why the stakes for this Cotton Bowl are so high. The better you get, the bigger each game gets.
And for the first time in over a decade, it looks like A&M has a team that thrives on that reality.