IRVING, Texas — Luke Joeckel grew up a Big 12 guy.
His dad played football at Texas Tech. The Joeckels lived in Arlington, 15 minutes from Big 12 headquarters and less than that from JerryWorld, where the Big 12 title game was anchored. Joeckel signed with Texas A&M in February 2010 and went about the business of becoming an Outland Trophy winner.
Joeckel won't trash the Big 12. But he also won't lie. The Aggie All-American loves the Southeastern Conference.
“Things are better,” Joeckel said of A&M's first season in the SEC. “Things are way better.”
The Aggies play OU on Friday night in the Cotton Bowl Classic, and if you're waiting for the Aggies to turn melancholy about their Big 12 days, pull up a chair. It's going to be a spell.
The Ags express ecstasy about their new home. Hard to blame them after a 10-2 season, a victory in Tuscaloosa and a Heisman Trophy for a freshman you couldn't pick out of a boy band.
“Nothing too much do we miss,” said senior safety Steven Terrell. “We're all excited to be in the SEC. The first year, there's so much excitement, people don't really have time to reminisce on the Big 12 days.”
Oh, you can get some Aggies to mention a few things they miss.
Defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Sean Porter miss all the passing. “Only thing I'll say I miss about the Big 12, they throw the ball almost every play,” Porter said. “Pass rushing frenzy. That was fun. Other than that, I don't miss anything about the Big 12.”
Tight end Michael Lamothe misses the hostile atmospheres in Stillwater and Norman and Lubbock. Says they were more unfriendly than what he found in Oxford and Auburn, Tuscaloosa and Starkville. “That was fun,” Lamothe said. “We'll miss those games.”
Terrell admitted missing playing Texas.
“Obviously, A&M has a lot of traditions with Oklahoma, with Texas, with Baylor, Texas Tech,” said flanker Ryan Swope. “There's a part of me that does miss that. But at the same time, we're headed in a bigger and better direction in the SEC. It's the greatest conference in the country.”
Bigger and better. That's the refrain in Aggieland. The SEC is bigger and better.
Lots of people would agree, including no small number of fans in Oklahoma who wanted the Sooners to head for the SEC, too.
But the Big 12 stabilized, and now OU seems bound to the conference that not long ago included not only Texas A&M, but Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado, too.
None of the expatriates were prospering in the Big 12. But only the Aggies have found immediate euphoria.
“There was a lot of great players and great teams” in the Big 12, said A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews. “But what we have in the SEC is something special. We came into the SEC because we wanted to play with the best.”
Listening to the Aggies throw out terms like “special” and “best” and “bigger and better,” the Sooners couldn't be blamed for feeling a little sting. Like an old girlfriend talking about how fabulous is her life now.
Of course, had A&M gone 6-6, like it did in its final Big 12 season, the Aggies wouldn't necessarily be talking like this. But give A&M credit. The Aggies answered the challenge. They went 6-2 in the SEC and became nationally relevant.
“You go to all those stadiums and stuff, you realize SEC football is a big deal,” Swope said. “They say it's the best conference in the country, and you really find out why when you travel to these different venues.”
Said Lamothe, “it was just fun, man.”
The Aggies are living the high life. Win the Cotton Bowl, and this maiden SEC season gets even bigger and better.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
Big 12 expatriates
Since leaving: 10-2, 6-2 in first SEC season.
Big 12 legacy: Solid member, but rarely a contender. Only Big 12 title came in 1998; 37-44 conference record last 10 years in the league.
SEC outlook: Solid. The Aggies will be hard-pressed to win an SEC title, but recruiting to the SEC shouldn't be difficult. A&M ought to be able to play close to .500 in the more prestigious SEC.
Biggest downside: The Ags lost longtime rivalries, not just with Texas, but with Brazos Valley neighbor Baylor and hated Texas Tech.
Since leaving: Overall records of 9-4 and 10-3, with Big Ten records of 5-3 and 7-1. One division title.
Big 12 legacy: Dominant power in the early days of the league, but no conference title since 1999.
Big Ten outlook: Solid. The revamped Big Ten western division likely will include Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa. No reason the Huskers can't be annual contenders with that group.
Biggest downside: None, really. Nebraska culturally was Big Ten-ish anyway, and its Big Red rivalry with OU had lost meaning on the Sooner side.
Since leaving: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in its first year in the SEC. Beat only Tennessee (in overtime) and Kentucky in the league.
Big 12 legacy: Limited. The Tigers became competitive in recent years and twice won the Big 12 North, but Mizzou never won the conference.
SEC outlook: Rough. From recruiting base to schemes to even desire to be in the conference, Missouri was ill-prepared to compete in the SEC.
Biggest downside: Culturally, Missouri is not a fit for the SEC. The Tigers would prefer to be in the Big Ten.