Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson isn't trying to play down Monday's matchup with Georgia in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl.
He knows what a win over a big-name SEC school would mean for the program.
"It's a huge opportunity," Johnson said. "We think it's a good test for us on offense and as a team. Everybody talks about how good the SEC is, and it will be exciting. A win would do huge things for us as far as recruiting and going into next season."
That's what this bowl game has become for Texas A&M: a chance to springboard into 2010. A win puts the Aggies on everyone's watch list for next season. It will signify that the program has taken another step forward in its quest to be considered an elite team in the Big 12.
"This is what we need," second-year Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "It's a real test for us. They are extremely talented. We have to go and play well, hopefully win a football game, but playing this team is what we need to do at this present time."
The Independence Bowl ends a difficult and challenging stretch for the Aggies. They will have played Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia in three of their final four games. That's a great way to learn about a football team.
The Aggies didn't play well against Oklahoma, falling 65-10 in Norman. They competed hard with the Longhorns, scaring Texas until the final minutes.
So which team will show up against Georgia?
Sherman expects the team that blew out Texas Tech and nearly beat Texas.
"This team is working hard," Sherman said. "I'm most pleased with how they are competing in practice. You have to treat practice like a game, and I think they've bought into that aspect of practice. We are at a point now where the level of practice and the degree of preparation is about wanting to win rather than just playing."
A big key to beating a Georgia team that has been about as inconsistent as Texas A&M is Johnson. The junior has developed into a leader after taking over as the starting quarterback from Stephen McGee, who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.
"He's one heck of a QB and he deserved the attention, but I was in the shadows of that," Johnson said. "This year, I was looked upon as a team leader. Guys depended on me. I've learned a lot about reading defenses and where to go with the ball. It's become second nature, and I'm not thinking about it as much because I've had the experience now."
Johnson introduced himself to the college football nation on Thanksgiving night. He held his own against Texas' Heisman Trophy finalist, Colt McCoy, in that game, throwing for 342 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-33 passing with one interception. Johnson ran for another 126 yards on 14 carries.
"That was not an anomaly for him," Sherman said. "That wasn't out of the ordinary for him. I saw a tremendous competitor on the field and his desire to have the ball in his hand and wanting to win the game up until the very end. He was confident before the game and during it. The spotlight was bright and the stage was big, and he came into his own and showed people outside of here what we already knew about him."
Johnson said it was an important game in reaffirming that the Aggies could move the ball against a good defense if they executed the game plan.
It also showed how far Johnson, who is from Humble, Texas, has emerged. When Sherman arrived in College Station, the coach said, Johnson had never taken a snap under center in high school or college.
"He had to learn the fundamentals of drops and protecting the ball," Sherman said. "He would run with the ball out and looked like he was in the backyard, not protecting it at all. He was tapping the ball before he delivered it. We told him he couldn't play that way. He worked on it and got better quickly."
Sherman now sees a mature quarterback who has applied what he has learned. He tucks the ball when he runs. He isn't afraid to throw the ball away if a play isn't there. And he's checking into a better play when he sees certain defensive coverages.
Johnson knows that what he has to add is consistency. It's something that has eluded the Aggies all season. This is a team that lost by 48 to Kansas State, yet beat Texas Tech by three touchdowns.
It's been a team that's dramatically different at home than on the road. The Aggies were 5-2 at home this season and 1-4 on the road.
"I think that shows how young we are," Johnson said. "The preparation process at home is a lot more comfortable. You have fewer things to think about. For whatever reason, maybe the travel, our focus and attention to detail maybe haven't been there on the road. I know we just haven't executed as well."
Johnson senses the team is close to putting it together on the road or at a neutral site. The players will get a chance to do that in Shreveport, La., where A&M should be playing in front of a pro-Aggies crowd. Johnson and Sherman want to see a solid effort that gives the Aggies momentum heading into the offseason.
"Our program is close," Johnson said. "We have the coaches and everything in place. We have enough talent where we can win big games and championships. It comes down to execution. We've competed with every team we've played this year. But we've had lapses and turnovers, and you can't do that. I think we're close and we'll turn that corner next year."
They can take a huge step toward that with an Independence Bowl win.