ARLINGTON, Texas — Oklahoma certainly didn't expect to see Texas A&M again so soon after it changed conferences.
But here the Sooners are, preparing to face A&M for the 17th consecutive season in Friday's Cotton Bowl Classic at Cowboys Stadium.
Oklahoma easily handled the Aggies, 41-25, in Norman last season; since then, though, Texas A&M bolted for the Southeastern Conference, changed coaches and found itself a once-in-a-lifetime kind of quarterback.
“I think their mindset has changed, but the reality is, we just played these guys a year ago,” said OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell. “We know they have different schemes and different coaches, but we should feel confident in the matchups.”
Former OU assistant Kevin Sumlin became Texas A&M's head coach, replacing the fired Mike Sherman, and a little-known redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel emerged from a four-man quarterback battle to earn the starting position.
Manziel eventually became the first-ever freshman to win the Heisman Trophy; he threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns, rushed for 1,181 yards and 19 scores and directed a thrilling upset at Alabama.
Texas A&M, 7-6 in its final Big 12 season, was widely expected to struggle as a first-year SEC member; the conference has produced college football's last six national champions.
But Sumlin's Aggies went 10-2 and were ranked No. 9 in the final BCS standings. A&M's only two losses were to perennial powers Florida and LSU.
“A lot of the same personnel, but they've made changes on their offense to adjust to the conference they're in,” said OU linebacker Tom Wort. “They're a lot of the same players, but their quarterback is a lot more mobile than last year with (Ryan) Tannehill. They've adjusted to Manziel and his style of play, which has just made their offense even better.”
Sumlin also had to change the program's overall attitude. Last season, Texas A&M lost several games that it led — sometimes by wide margins — at halftime.
“The past seemed to be what everyone wanted to talk about externally, but internally, we just didn't talk about it,” said Sumlin, who was on Stoops' Oklahoma staff from 2003-2007.
On Nov. 10 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Manziel and the Aggies took a staggering 20-0 first-quarter lead on defending national champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide fought back, but the new and improved Aggies held on for a 29-24 victory that shocked the college football world.
Oklahoma, though — led by senior quarterback Landry Jones — has shown resilience itself this season. Jones, the most prolific passer in school history, directed last-minute touchdown drives late in shoot-out victories at West Virginia and against Oklahoma State, showing an ability to perform in the clutch that many doubted he possessed.
Oklahoma (10-2, 7-1 Big 12) earned a share of the Big 12 championship despite its defense struggling mightily against spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks.
Manziel and the Aggies are likely to present the toughest challenge of them all.
“It really all comes down to how we play Friday night,” Norvell said. “It really doesn't matter what happened in the past or happened this year, what matters is what happens Friday night when the gun sounds. We've gotta be prepared to compete and play our very best, and know that it's gonna be a great game.”