Sherman, seniors have Aggies on track

It hasn't been ages since Texas A&M played a game this big at Kyle Field -- it only seems that way.

It was just 2006, in fact, when the Aggies played back-to-back games that easily could be considered as significant to the program then, as Saturday night's bash with Nebraska will be now.

Entering a two-game home stretch against Oklahoma and Nebraska in '06, the Aggies, who were 8-1 and ranked No. 21, lost those games by a total of two points.

Two points.

So what happened? Instead of carrying the momentum of a turning-point season, why did Dennis Franchione instead go 8-7 over the remaining 15 games of his ill-fated career as coach? Why was there such an off-the-cliff drop in the Aggies' fate, with a severe lack of talent and an apathetic attitude permeating the Bright Complex?

If Franchione had found four more points in those back-to-back home games, would everything have been different today? Would five-star recruits have lined up, ready to sign with the Aggies? The answer is no.

The bigger question is, why should we believe that Mike Sherman and the Aggies have gotten it right this time?

It's probably as simple as style versus substance.

We didn't know it then, but we do now: The core, signature players on that 2006 squad were dazzling talents and captivating personalities -- Martellus Bennett, Jorvorskie Lane, Mike Goodson. But they were prone to becoming undisciplined, selfish and flighty. And the coach did little to rein it all in and command respect and a sense of team.

That was a stylish team that deserves credit for having its moments, getting to 9-4 in 2006 and beating Texas twice. But the bones were not there.

When Sherman entered with his more serious business-minded approach, it sounded like lip service, if not out-and-out bluster, when he demanded accountability and character. He said a player's perceived stature didn't matter, the Aggies were going to do things right.

Then he backed it up: not with words, but deeds. In 2008 -- when the members of this year's senior class were relative babies on campus -- Sherman made an example of a campus icon.

Jorvorskie Lane was not conforming. He was overweight and uninspired by a move to fullback. Sherman gave Lane several chances to earn the job. He blew every one of them and finished a dismal 4-8 season with just 93 rushing yards.

You may call it a stretch, but I firmly believe the remnants of Sherman's stand to reclaim the program three years ago will be on the field Saturday night.

It's Senior Day.

"There's not a guy in that group I don't feel strongly about," Sherman said Monday. "People have to buy into what you're doing. Every single one of those guys bought into what we're doing. Their leadership this year has been instrumental."

It's also why the odds are good this time that a change in fortune will stick.

Young players in the secondary see how junior safety Trent Hunter fights and works like a pro. Von Miller never complained about an ankle that probably is much worse than any of us will know. Meanwhile, true freshman Damontre Moore is learning how the game is supposed to be played and is tied for the team lead in sacks.

Talk about growing up fast: QB Jerrod Johnson holds virtually every passing record in the Aggies' record book, but he was benched. And through it all, Johnson has showed class and character, helping junior Ryan Tannehill, the new starter, every step of the way without complaining.

"To see the smiles on [teammates'] faces, to finally win and understand I definitely was a part of that," said Johnson, who admitted Monday his surgically repaired shoulder hasn't been 100 percent. "When I came here, I wanted to be a part of something special, to put this program where it should be.

"Of course, it's not a storybook ending for me. But I don't think you can look at this as a sour situation."

Talk about understanding the value of perseverance: Michael Hodges, the defensive "conscience," as Miller put it, went from the JV at Air Force, to shoulder surgery, to sitting out a year, to junior college, and finally from walk-on to the spotlight, making six of the 12 stops inside the 10-yard-line against Oklahoma.

Forget the talent that freshmen like Moore, Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews and Hutson Prioleau possess. Forget the impact that young sophomores are having on the season.

It's growing up in a different culture of football -- the culture brought in by Sherman and bought into by these upper-classmen -- that should make this turnaround stick long-term.

Sure, the defensive system and the coordinator are ahead of the curve. There is an expanding recruiting base and more recognizable Texas A&M brand, with wins and rankings. There even is a sudden vulnerability of the Aggies' biggest recruiting opponents. And don't forget about a still-possible move to the Southeastern Conference and the raising of stakes and prominence that it could bring.

But at the core is leadership. Substance over style.