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The Beginning: Texas A&M versus Alabama

Homer Norton took the Aggies to new heights as he compiled a 27-2 regular season record from 1939-1941

When Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, many Aggie fans eyed the Crimson Tide with nervous anticipation. There was no doubt that Alabama was the biggest of the SEC big dogs and, ultimately, would be the measuring stick of how the Aggie move to the SEC would go. Without question, every fan anticipated an up-and-down start during the Aggies first year in the SEC, but if A&M could play Alabama competitively, then the Aggies could move forward knowing they could hang with any SEC foe.

What hardly anyone expected was that the Aggies would take down the Tide in year one. Well, that’s exactly what happened. I was fortunate enough to attend that game in person and even as the Aggies continued to play exceptionally well, there was always the feeling that eventually ‘Bama would take over. It wasn’t to happen, as the Aggies used a defensive stand at the goal line to seal the victory and leave Tuscaloosa with a 29-24 win.

Year two, the Aggies and the Tide met again under immense pressure – many SEC fans and even some of A&M’s old Big 12 foes thought the first year victory over the Tide was a fluke. However, Texas A&M showed that 2012 was no mirage as they battled to a one score loss in a 49-42 shootout.

Then came 2014. The ’14 Alabama-Texas A&M game has been so well documented, it’s hardly worth rehashing again here. Whether it was hype getting to the Aggies’ heads, a young quarterback losing his way, Alabama looking to avenge the 2012 loss or something else entirely, 2014 was the exact outcome that some predicted and others feared when the Aggies announced the move to the SEC.

2015 is a new year and the possibility for a new chapter in what was a competitive game in year one and two. If the Aggies were to win this year, it would all but erase the nightmare of 2014. It would even the series between the two schools as conference opponents and allow A&M to seriously consider a SEC West title, a SEC championship and, even, a College Football Playoff spot.

However, conjecture and forecasting is not the purpose of this article. Rather, this article is a look at the history of the Aggie-Tide series.

1941 Texas A&M Regular Season

Just two seasons removed from an undefeated and untied National Championship in 1939, the Aggies again had their attention set on the ultimate jewel of college football – being named the best team in the country. 1940 saw A&M put up a solid effort in defending their title as the Aggies went 9-1 winning the SWC and finishing with a #6 ranking.

Texas A&M would again enter 1941 with high expectations. Through the first eight weeks, everything looked great. The Aggies had outscored their opponents 253-23 while building an 8-0 record. The Aggies had posted five shutouts including three against Southwest Conference opponents (14-0 TCU, 7-0 Arkansas and a whopping 48-0 against Baylor).

Entering Week 9, the Aggies had climbed to #2 in the polls and had just two games remaining. The first would be against #10 Texas and the second an odd December 6 match up against #19 Washington State in Tacoma. Win those two games and the Aggies would almost certainly win their second National Title in three years.

The 1941 Texas Longhorns were no slouch. The ‘Horns opened up their ’41 schedule by blasting Colorado 34-6, LSU 34-0 and Oklahoma 40-7. The tough non-conference schedule allowed UT to jump to #2 in the AP Poll. The ‘Horns were led by former Aggie coach Dana X. Bible (1941 was his fifth year at UT) and looked to be on their way to their own National Championship when, on November 8, UT travelled to Waco to face the same Bears A&M had trounced earlier in the year.

Ranked #1 (the first time a University of Texas football team was ranked #1 in the AP Poll) the ‘Horns arrived at Waco Stadium. Inexplicably, the Longhorns failed to get going on offense and tied the Bears 7-7 almost certainly costing them the National Title. The ‘Horns dropped to #2 the next week and were looking to rebound against a tough TCU squad in Austin. In an even more shocking result, the ‘Horns lost to the Frogs 14-7. Again UT, fell in the polls, this time to #10, but they had a shot at undefeated Texas A&M to right the season.

After two let downs, the University of Texas student body was looking for an edge on the Aggies. After all, the game was at Kyle Field, a place the Longhorns hadn’t won in almost two decades. So, like any normal group of higher ed students, the ‘Horns turned to Madam Augusta Hipple, an Austin fortune teller. Hipple instructed the students on how to “hex” the Aggies and the famous Texas Hex rally was born.

Whether it was Hipple, the Longhorns burning off steam after two let downs or the Aggies looking ahead to the game in Tacoma on the next weekend, things definitely went in favor of the ‘Horns. They downed the Aggies 23-0 and put the only blemish on TAMU’s 1941 regular season.

Fortunate for the Aggies, they had already won the Southwest Conference title, earning their place in the 1942 Cotton Bowl. In preparation for that match, the Aggies made their final regular season trip to Tacoma and beat #19 Washington State 7-0. From 1939-1941 Homer Norton and the Aggies had only lost two regular season games while winning one National Title, the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. How would the 1942 Cotton Bowl go for the Aggies?

1941 Alabama Regular Season

Alabama was led into the 1941 season by their head coach Frank Thomas. Thomas had quite the résumé before coming to Tuscaloosa – he was a quarterback for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame where he roomed and became best friends with “The Gipper” George Gipp.

Thomas would take over the head position at Alabama in 1931 and immediately prove himself a success. Thomas would lead the Tide to four conference titles and two National Championships over his career from 1931-1946. Unfortunately, Thomas was an avid smoker (known to burn through cigars on the sidelines of games) and would become ill with heart and lung disease.

His declining health forced his early retirement in 1946 before he passed in 1954 at the age of 55. However, Thomas remains immortalized outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium where bronze statues of national champion winning Alabama coaches line the sidewalk, placing Thomas in the midst of Wallace Wade, Bear Bryant, Gene Stallings and Nick Saban.

While there is no doubt Thomas was a legendary coach, 1941 was a slow start to say the least. In just the second game of the season, Alabama faced the Mississippi State Maroons for their homecoming game. In Denny Stadium in front of 18,000 Tide fans, Alabama was shutout 14-0. Now just 1-1, the season certainly didn’t have the bright outlook Thomas and ‘Bama fans were hoping for.

In normal fashion, the team responded. Alabama reeled off four straight wins, including victories over Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky, as their record approved to 5-1. The Tide were now ranked #13 and heading to New Orleans to play #14 Tulane. Tulane Stadium would be the biggest venue Alabama would play in during the regular season (yes, Tulane) and the game promised to be a challenge for the Tide.

A crowd of 50-60,000 showed up for the game that November day. It was reported to be the largest crowd ever to watch a regular season game in the south. In what would become common place for the Tide, special teams would play a pivotal role in who won the day. Just four minutes into play, the Tide took a punt, ran a reverse on the return and scored the first touchdown of the game. A missed extra point put the Tide up 6-0.

Tulane wouldn’t go down without a fight and tacked on two of their own first half scores, putting the Green Wave up 14-6 at half. A third quarter Alabama touchdown narrowed the gap to 14-13 before the Tide scored on a two-yard touchdown run in the fourth to go up 19-14 and win the game. Although Tulane outgained Alabama 252 yards to 123, the Tide were now 6-1 and had put themselves squarely in the race for the conference title.

Alabama would beat Georgia Tech the following week before the unthinkable happened. Ranked #7, the Tide were upset by Vanderbilt, falling 7-0 in driving rain and ankle deep mud. The game, played in Tennessee, shocked the football world and knocked ‘Bama squarely out of the conference title race. Now ranked #18, the Tide finished off their last regular season opponent beating Miami 21-7.

With an 8-2 regular season record, the Tide finished third in their conference standings behind Mississippi State and Tennessee. A bowl game wasn’t out of the question, but it was unlikely. Conference champions were guaranteed spots in certain games while the remaining sports were filled with at large bids.

However, in a surprising move, the SEC’s number one and number two teams were passed over (Mississippi State and Tennessee) while their number three (Alabama) and number four (Georgia) teams were selected for bowl games. I haven’t been able to find justification for this but my guess would be either the first two teams declined invites due to costs and the time required from student-athletes or that the bowls went to larger more storied programs (Alabama and Georgia) to try and sell more tickets. (Although this article from 1941 does discuss how Mississippi State was looking forward to a holiday trip, possibly indicating they were overlooked)

While surprising, the move wasn’t altogether unusual. That same year the University of Texas, who finished the season ranked #4 and in second place in the SWC, did not participate in a bowl game while the SWC’s number three team, TCU (who was 7-3-1 and unranked) was invited to the Orange Bowl where they were unceremoniously dispatched by Georgia 40-7.

Regardless, Alabama had been invited to the Cotton Bowl and would be playing Texas A&M in what proved to be one of the best matches from bowl season that year.

1942 Cotton Bowl Program

1942 Cotton Bowl #20 Alabama versus #9 Texas A&M

A game between two storied programs and two incredible head coaches (both Norton and Thomas would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame) the 1942 Cotton Bowl promised to be a classic. Played on January 1, 1942, 38,000 spectators braved the sub-freezing temperatures to watch the game. Not surprisingly, the Southwest Conference had won three straight Cotton Bowls and was looking to add another.

Preparing for the game, one reporter asked the Tide’s Thomas what he thought of the style of football played in the SWC and how it compared to that of the SEC. Thomas responded that he found little difference, “except they maybe use a few more passes out here” (Sound familiar? It’d be like saying Big 12 teams do a bit more passing than SEC teams).

Thomas was right, Texas A&M, in typical fashion aired it out early and often, eventually tallying 42 pass attempts, although that number was inflated as the Aggies fell behind. The Tide would only attempt seven passes while completing just one. It didn’t matter as a game that was tied 7-7 at half grew to 29-7 in favor of the Tide as the Aggies caught the turnover bug in the second half.

All told, Texas A&M threw seven interceptions (yes, the ‘Bama defense caught as many balls from the Aggies as the Tide offense attempted passes) while also coughing up five fumbles that Alabama would recover. One interception would be a pick six and the others would give Alabama short fields to work with. Again, the Tide special teams came up big with a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown.

The Aggies would respond in the fourth quarter against Alabama back-ups making the final a respectable 29-21. Even as Texas A&M dominated totals yards and first downs, the game was lost on an astounding 12 turnovers. Texas A&M would finish the game with 309 yards of offense compared to the Tide’s total of 75. In first downs, the Aggies finished with 13 to Alabama’s one.

After the game, Thomas was a gracious winner saying, “We played our best game of the year and it had to be to win over [Texas A&M who is] as good as any [opponent] we have seen this season.” Tall praise for a team that the Tide had taken care of so easily in the second half. However, it does say something about the Aggie defense that the kept the score as low as they did with the Aggie offense routinely giving the Tide such a short field.

For his part, Homer Norton praised the Alabama effort and, specifically, the Tide’s star player Jimmy Nelson. Nelson was named the game’s MVP for his outstanding play. In short, Nelson had a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown, a 21-yard running sore where he went through five Aggie tacklers and he recorded two interceptions.

The game snapped the SWC’s three-year winning streak at the Cotton Bowl and Texas A&M’s two year bowl-win streak. Perhaps even more surprising than Alabama making the bowl to begin with, the Tide were named a National Champion in 1941 by one selector. The Tide still claim that title to this day (although they share it with Minnesota, the AP and consensus champion that season).

Now members of the same conference, with aspirations of a division title and more, the Tide and Aggies meet once again. Perhaps knowing the history of how this great series started will make your Saturday a little more interesting – if nothing else we can hope the Aggies avenge their defeat on Texas soil, both in 1942 and in 2013.

Watch highlights from the 1942 Cotton Bowl match up here

*Interesting side note: with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces just a few weeks prior to the 1942 Cotton Bowl, many Aggie players actually enlisted for military service during a halftime ceremony at the game*

Looking for current football, including the 2015 TAMU-Alabama game? Check out Week 7 predictions here!

This article was written and researched by Ryan Sprayberry, Collections and Exhibits Manager at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame

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