Spencer Nealy and some of his Texas A&M teammates were discussing potential bowl games even before their first SEC season began.
"We were like, how funny would it be if we made the Cotton Bowl," Nealy said. "We were looking at SEC vs. Big 12 teams. That's what we thought about, that situation."
Well, Texas A&M's season of firsts — coach Kevin Sumlin's first year, quarterback Johnny Manziel becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and the SEC debut — will end with the 10th-ranked Aggies (10-2) playing a familiar Big 12 foe.
In the only bowl matching the SEC against the Big 12, Texas A&M takes on 12th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2) in the Cotton Bowl tonight. Both teams have five-game winning streaks.
"It's a little more than a game," Nealy said. "It's almost like we had a great season but we have to win this one."
In their 16 Big 12 seasons, the only time the Aggies won more than nine games was when they were 11-3 in their 1998 conference title season. They left the league with a winning record (7-6) last season only after a bowl win over Northwestern.
Once in the SEC, which has six national titles in a row, Texas A&M lost its opener 20-17 to Florida. The other loss was 24-19 to LSU before the current winning streak that includes the Aggies' first-ever road win against a No. 1 team — at SEC champion Alabama, which plays in the BCS title game Monday night.
"The first thing we did was, we didn't talk about it very much what happened in the past. It seemed to be what everyone wanted to talk about externally, but internally we just didn't," Sumlin said. "Any time you have to get over a hump or clear a hurdle, you have got to win a game in a certain fashion."
The Sooners seemed certain of a BCS game after clinching a share of their eighth Big 12 title, even though Kansas State had a tiebreaker giving the Wildcats the league's automatic BCS slot. But MAC champ Northern Illinois qualified as a BCS buster.
"For sure, yes, we were disappointed. I was pretty upset about it," Sooners senior quarterback Landry Jones said. "But fortunate enough for us, we got put into this game, which you can rank them right up with those BCS games. … It's a really good matchup, so when I heard that we were going to be in the Cotton Bowl, it kind of eased over the disappointment."
Since Bob Stoops became Oklahoma's coach in 1999, the Sooners have won 11 of the 13 meetings with the Aggies. Jones threw five TD passes as a freshman in a 65-10 win in 2009, though the Aggies won the next year before the Sooners won the final Big 12 meeting between the two last season.
"This is another opportunity to put a stamp on that. We figured last year would be the last time we'd play them for a while," Sooners defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland said. "It does mean something."