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Texas A&M, SMU prepare for season opener with talk of conference realignment front and center
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) ' Texas A&M can't wait to get out of the Big 12 Conference. SMU would like nothing more than to join the league.
The first weekend of the college football season presents a number of intriguing matchups, but perhaps none is odder than No. 8 Texas A&M hosting the Mustangs on Sunday. The usual questions around a team's first game have been overshadowed by a second straight year of conference realignment -- with a twist.
SMU, which currently plays in Conference USA, has been the only school to publicly campaign for an invite into the Big 12 if the Aggies leave as expected.
"I think we add stability to an (automatic qualifier) BCS conference, especially in our region," SMU athletic director Steve Orsini told The Associated Press. "So our goal is to return to the AQ, BCS status that we used to have. They didn't call it that back in the old Southwest Conference, but our goal is to resurrect ourselves to get back there."
Unlike last year, when Nebraska, Colorado and others were all relatively secretive about switching conferences, Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin came right out and said last week that the Aggies are exploring their options and are interested specifically in the Southeastern Conference. The SEC reaffirmed its 12-school membership but kept the door open for expansion.
While the Aggies are looking to improve their standing, the Mustangs are ready to prove that they belong in a BCS conference. Joining the Big 12 would certainly be a big step for a program that has taken years to shed its dark reputation stemming from the 1980s pay-for-play scandal that resulted in the NCAA's only so-called "death penalty" punishment.
The NCAA canceled SMU's 1987 football season and the school decided not to play in 1988, either. The Mustangs posted only one winning record over the next 20 years, didn't reach another bowl game until 2009 and the sanction is believed to have played a part in the breakup and eventual dissolution of the Southwest Conference.
"We're showing that now with the hiring of (football coach) June Jones, with the $80 million in athletic facilities that we have plans to build on our campus, we can expand our facilities to accommodate quality opponents that would be coming from that top-tier regional athletics conference that's here," Orsini said. "And we're a top-tier academic program. "
Texas A&M would rather not discuss conference realignment and prefers to focus on Sunday's game. There are high expectations for the Aggies as they enter the season with their highest ranking since 1999.
Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter believes an upperclassman-heavy squad will help his team avoid getting caught up in the off-the-field distractions.
"We've talked to them and said: 'Hey, the only thing we can control is what's in front of us, and that's SMU right now,'" DeRuyter said. "For our seniors, it doesn't matter what conference we're in. We have a group of seniors that want to have special year and put their mark on Aggie football. I'll be honest, it's all external stuff that our guys are not concerned with right now. They are focused on this week and focused on SMU."
The plan seems to be working, as many players said this week that they haven't paid much attention to talk of A&M leaving the Big 12 and that they don't discuss it.
"Honestly, I don't listen at all," Texas A&M receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu said of the chatter among his classmates. "They'll tell me stuff and I don't really understand what they are talking about, or I haven't heard about it. When you have a team focused on championships, you can't listen to those things or focus on those things."
There is some worry that a departure by the Aggies could jeopardize the future of the Big 12, which is down to 10 teams after Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-12) left the league in July. Loftin has said the Aggies would take into account how their departure would impact the future of the Big 12 before any decision is made.
Missouri Chancellor Brady Deaton, who serves as the chairman of the Big 12 board of directors said Tuesday that the group has formed a committee to look at possible replacements the Aggies leave.
This Sunday's game rekindles a rivalry that spanned for decades when the two teams were in the Southwest Conference. The teams have met just once since the conference disbanded in 1995, a 66-8 victory by the Aggies in 2005.
Orsini says if SMU were to replace A&M in the Big 12, it would allow the conference to gain a footprint in another major media market (Dallas) and bring back some regional matchups that were lost when the Southwest Conference ended.
"Regionalism is important," Orsini said. "I think that's a sign of strength, a sign of stability. Can you imagine if this great Southwest region didn't have a top-tier athletic conference? Meaning, look at what's happening to our current conference. One went West, one's gone to the Midwest and one may go to the Southeast. You know what? This region deserves a great athletics conference and we would add that stability."
AP Sports Writer Jaime Aron contributed to this report from Dallas.