COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A lot has changed for Texas A&M since its last game against Texas on Thanksgiving.
Mike Sherman was fired and replaced by Kevin Sumlin, but he won't coach the Aggies against Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 31. They'll be led by interim coach Tim DeRuyter, who must help the Aggies prepare for the game before he leaves to become Fresno State's coach.
"There are a lot of distractions, but we're just going to put that to the side," DeRuyter said.
DeRuyter, who was A&M's defensive coordinator before becoming the interim coach, said he worried about how the team would respond after all the upheaval. But so far his fears have been unfounded.
"A lot of crazy stuff has happened around us right now, but we've done a good job of keeping it together," safety Trent Hunter said.
Part of the motivation for players who will return next season could stem from the fact that Sumlin has been watching most of their practices.
"I said: 'Guys, this is your chance to impress him,'" DeRuyter said. "Our guys have embraced that. Having coach Sumlin out at practice has been kind of neat for guys to be able to show him what they can do."
Sumlin, the former Houston coach, has taken over recruiting duties for the Aggies, but has not been involved in bowl preparations. He mostly stays out of the way at practice, occasionally asking about different players.
"We answer questions as we can," DeRuyter said. "He's been good as far as not being high-maintenance. I hope he's been enjoying things."
DeRuyter hasn't had much free time since being hired on Dec. 14 to replace the fired Pat Hill at Fresno State. He has felt torn while handling his duties at A&M and at his new gig. He said he often works 19-hour days to get everything done.
"It's really different," he said. "I'm not sure I was really smart about what I wanted to bite off here. I'm attacking both of them. I'm trying to do right by our players here, which is the most important thing. I made a commitment to stay here and do that, but at the same time at night I'm trying to put a staff together and do some recruiting. It makes for a full day."
Senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill said the team has practiced well and that the Aggies are intent on getting their first bowl win since 2001. He's kept in touch with Sherman and the former coach has given him some advice.
"He said: 'Win this game and pull your teammates together and go out and play hard,'" Tannehill said. "He wants us to just continue on doing the things he's taught us throughout his time here. I think we can honor him that way."
They'll get a chance to do it in what is basically a home game in the Houston Texans' Reliant Stadium, little more than 100 miles from College Station. It was in Houston that the Aggies got their last bowl win, a 28-9 victory over TCU in the same bowl when it was called the Galleryfurniture.com bowl and played in the Astrodome.
Texas A&M entered the season with a top-10 ranking and 18 returning starters, but several close losses doomed the team to a disappointing 6-6 season. Sherman was fired soon after the loss to Texas left his record in four years at 25-25.
"What happened is something that nobody envisioned to start the year," DeRuyter said. "It's a matter of talking to our guys all the time about controlling the things they can control. I say: 'Let's go out and be that team we thought we should have been all year long and have fun.'"
They Aggies have lost five consecutive bowl games, capped by last season's 41-24 loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl.
They could get a boost against Northwestern with the expected return of running back Cyrus Gray. Gray missed Texas A&M's game against Texas with a stress fracture in his left shoulder. The senior ran for 1,045 yards this season for his second straight year with at least 1,000 yards rushing.
"That's huge," Tannehill said of getting Gray back. "Everyone knows what Cyrus can do. He's a great player for us both on the field and as a leader off the field as well."