It’s not often we have the opportunity to see college football history written right in front of our eyes, only for those of us who were fortunate enough to watch Saturday’s Texas A&M-Alabama game, that’s exactly what we were treated to.
The game basically turned into the “moon-landing” for college football fans; a game we’ll long remember where we were, who we were with, and what we were doing when we watched it. It was 60 minutes of football played at insanely high-level, with the stakes abundantly clear for both teams participating. For Alabama (and the SEC as a whole as well), it was a zero sum game, the chance to stay in the BCS title hunt with a victory and the almost certain elimination from the same chase with a loss. For A&M, it was the opportunity for a program defining win in front of a national TV audience, one which could have repercussions for years to come.
So when you really break it down, Saturday was about much more than football. It was about the crossroads for two college football programs, and in turn, the SEC as a whole. Again, it was history being written in front of our eyes.
Well by now I’m guessing you know what happened, and you know that yes, the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide have fallen. Texas A&M went to a place they described as the “Roman Coliseum,” and were personally responsible for taking down the Roman Empire. In the process, plenty of other stuff happened too; Johnny Manziel became a household name to even the most casual of college football fans, Kevin Sumlin proved to be the superstar head coach many of us knew he’d be when the school hired him 10 months ago, and the Texas A&M Aggies- the same freakin’ team which went 7-6 last year- got the program defining win that a generation’s worth of fans have been waiting for.
And really, that’s what I want to focus on today, this Texas A&M program. Because while everyone is using to today to continue and talk about the small-picture stuff, about the simple fact that A&M beat the No. 1 team in the country Saturday, in the big-picture, I think it’s much bigger than that.
How big? Well, with their victory Saturday I have to wonder: Did Texas A&M take the first step toward becoming college football’s next great super-power?
Because I think they did.
Now with a statement like that, I can already hear the chirping from Austin, as well as outposts all over the SEC. In essence, everyone will say some variation of something like this: “Texas A&M is a new super-power Aaron, really? Look, I enjoyed the game as much as you did. I had a blast watching. But this is the same A&M team which lost to LSU and Florida and needed a wild comeback just to beat Ole Miss. Can we pump the breaks just a little?”
Then they’ll also probably add, “Well, it was just one game after all.”
Except here’s the thing: It wasn’t just about one game, and really, it wasn’t even necessarily about just the victory over Alabama either. Instead, what it was really about was the manifestation of everything Kevin Sumlin has done since taking this job back in mid-December of last year. It’s about how far A&M has come in such a short time, and how much further forward they still have to go.
Remember that as easy as it is to forget now, A&M was a bumbling, stumbling shell of a football program as recently as about 10 or so months ago. It was a program whose 2011 season was one of the most epically futile efforts in recent college football history, not so much in terms of their 7-6 record, but instead in how they got there.
To be blunt, in 2011, A&M couldn’t get out of their own damn way. This was a club which lost five of those six games after having leads in the second half, and four of them after having leads in the fourth quarter. It was a program which had Oklahoma State and Arkansas (two teams which finished last season ranked No. 2 and No. 5 respectively) on the ropes and dead to rights with fourth quarter leads, and let them slip out of their grasp. It was team that had a 10-point lead on Kansas State with six minutes to go… and still managed to lose the game! As former Texas A&M running back Brandon Leone said on my podcast last week, “For six straight weeks, the national media was dying to write nice things about A&M. And every week A&M they let them down.”
Really though, it was about much more than losses though.
It was about a program that for the lack of a better term had no real sense of direction. It was a school still proudly holding onto its past, without any real idea of how to navigate the future. One which was excited about joining the SEC, but wasn’t sure what to do once they got there. A program that had such little self-awareness that they elected to fire their last coach (Mike Sherman), while he was in the driveway of a high school recruit…who he was trying to convince to come to Texas A&M!!!! Again, poor Texas A&M couldn’t get out of its own way, on the field, off the field or from a public perception standpoint either. From a pure ineptness standpoint, the only program which could compete with Texas A&M was, well, Texas A&M itself!
That’s also what’s made what happened this year so darn unique: It’s not just that Texas A&M is winning games and beating teams, because, well, they’ve done that before. Instead, it’s about how they’re doing it.
It’s that how with A&M that’s the fascinating part.
It’s about how they’re winning with confidence that they didn’t have as recently as three months. How they carry themselves with a swag that’s so new-found, you half wonder if they purchased it on Craigslist or something. How the Aggies all of a sudden have a belief that they’re not only going to come into town and “try to get the win,” but that they’re going to come into town and “get the win, but stomp on your throat in the process.” Understand that while all those things were on display Saturday in Tuscaloosa, for those of us who’ve been paying close attention, we saw it against Mississippi State the week before, and at Auburn the week before that.
For lack of a better term, it’s all so un-A&M-like. It’s also a credit to Kevin Sumlin. In s sport where there isn’t a bigger buzz phrase than a coach “changing the culture” of his program upon his arrival, Sumlin has done exactly that.
It’s also why A&M is on their way to big things not only in the SEC, but also in the national picture as well. The simple truth is the hardest part is out of the way. They’ve already got the coach to lead them there.
Look, no matter what you think of Sumlin, A&M or college football as a whole, one thing you can’t deny is that at the end of the day, coaches do matter. And the simple truth is that when you have a great coach- I mean a truly great one- the change is sudden and drastic. Remember, Nick Saban won his first SEC West title at Alabama in his second year. Chip Kelly got Oregon to the BCS title game in his second year. Heck, Urban Meyer won a National Championship in his second year too.
And while I’m not saying that Sumlin is already in the class of those guys, what I am saying is that when you’ve got a great coach, you see the results right away. It also makes me laugh when I see someone like Derek Dooley making excuses after three or four years on the job. To the great coaches, there are no excuses, no five-year plans, no need to get “their own” players into the program. The results might not come right away, but the change in culture and attitude is immediate. Well, it’s safe to say that only in his first year on the job, Sumlin has already brought that change to College Station.
Beyond just Sumlin, let’s also not forget that A&M not only has their coach in place, but their quarterback of the present and future in place as well. His name is Johnny Manziel, and I’m guessing by now you’ve probably heard of him.
Now look, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time sitting here and listing off Manziel’s merits, if only because you already know them by now. You know that the guy is no worse than No. 2 on everyone’s Heisman ballot this Monday morning, and is someone who statistically is putting up numbers that no freshman quarterback in the history of college football has ever matched. And really, the crazy part in all this is that Manziel is still just a freshman. As good as he’s been, in theory he should only get better in time.
Like his coach though, with Manziel it’s not strictly about the stats, but instead all the ancillary things that come with them. It’s about the confidence and swag, and the ability to not get rattled by basically anything. And really, no one better personifies A&M’s attitude as a team than Manziel, and no one takes carries “We’re going to come into town and rip and your heart out” credo as seriously either. After all, Manziel is the guy who coined the “Roman empire” phrase that I used earlier, and also the same player who predicted to his former quarterback coach late last week that the Aggies would upset Alabama.
Besides just his own confidence though, what’s maybe more impressive about Manziel is the confidence that he elicits in everyone else around him. When Johnny Football is on the field, everybody just plays a tiny bit harder. Linemen block longer, knowing it could spring their quarterback for a touchdown run, and receivers hovering like an airplane circling a landing pad, looking for any open space on the field. If they find it, they know their quarterback will find them. Speaking of those receivers, we also learned Saturday that Johnny Football isn’t just “an athlete playing quarterback,” but quickly evolving into a quarterback who just so happens to be a heck of an athlete.
What’s maybe most impressive though is how we as fans have taken to Manziel. In a lot of ways Manziel’s freshman season reminds me a lot of Tim Tebow’s, not in a statistical sense (since, statistically there really is no comparison), but in the idea that every time Manziel touches the ball, every single person watching simply expects something good to happen.
It’s also safe to say that Saturday’s national coming out party allowed Manziel to reach cult status not only with die-hard college football fans, but also casual fans as well. You wouldn’t believe how many texts I got during the Alabama game which read something to the effect of “I love this Johnny Football kid! The guy is incredible!! How do I get on the bandwagon? Where do I buy his jersey? Does he have a girlfriend?” I can’t answer any of those questions, but what I can say is that I’m glad everybody else is now enjoying what I have for the past 10 weeks.
Finally, let’s look at the big-picture around A&M. Because if we do that, we realize that not only did the school pick a perfect time to hire Sumlin, but to hit the SEC as well. I discussed it with Brandon Leone on my podcast last week (which, if you haven’t listened to yet, download it… like, right now), but it is worth repeating here.
Now obviously Alabama and LSU are going to remain elite as long as their current coaches are in place, but let’s also not forget that it was as recently as two years ago that Auburn and Arkansas were right there with them too. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and right now, Texas A&M is lucky that both programs are going through major upheaval, and are going to need major time to get back to “elite” status. If they ever get there at all. Beyond those two schools, Ole Miss might be on the upswing but still has a long way to go, and as for Mississippi State, well crap, haven’t they kind of already shown who they are at this point? In essence, isn’t State a good program capable of beating bad teams but not elite ones? More importantly, after A&M laid the smack down on them two Saturday’s ago, isn’t possible (if not probable) that the Aggies have already passed them?
And beyond just the SEC, how about what’s going on at Texas right now, because I don’t know if I ever remember a single time since Mack Brown took over that they appear to be as vulnerable as they are now (By the way, if Manziel thought of Alabama as the Roman Empire, who is Texas? The Incas? Aztecs? Spartans? Regardless, it’s safe to say that if Johnny Football singlehandedly takes them down too, they’ll be writing about him in history books for years to come). Looking at the big picture, while the Longhorns have the same 8-2 record as the Aggies, don’t those records feel a little bit different? More importantly, doesn’t the trajectory of those two programs feel different too?
Look, I’m not trying to pick sides in the holy war between A&M and Austin here, but at the same time, well crap, doesn’t the recent history of the 2012 season speak for itself? Isn’t all Mack Brown's whining getting a little tiresome? More importantly, doesn’t seem a little befuddling that a program with this much talent can, on most weekends, look so average? I mean haven’t the Horns struggled to beat Baylor and Kansas in two of the last three weeks, at the same time that A&M is taking the SEC by storm? At this point, doesn’t it seem like A&M is getting the most out of their players and Texas simply isn’t?
That also leads to a question which a lot of people seemed to be asking on Saturday night: If you were a big-time high school recruit and had the opportunity to play at either school, wouldn’t you at least have to consider A&M at this point? It seems like more and more high school kids are, and while Texas still has the better 2013 recruiting class (especially given how many fewer kids are in it), Sumlin isn’t doing too shabby in his own right, with a group which ranks by most in the 10-12 range nationally. And again, you know what the scariest part is? Sumlin has only been on the job for barely over 10 months! You don’t think things are going to change even more drastically after he’s had more time? You don’t think things have changed just since Saturday?
Again, it goes back to the whole “culture” thing I was talking about before. Beyond just the on-the-field stuff, A&M has quickly turned into one of the “buzz” programs around college football off the field too. They run a fun offense, in college football’s best conference, with college football’s hottest player and coolest coach.
Simply put, A&M is hip, something that they could’ve never been described as in my lifetime.
They’re also college football’s next great super-power.
The scary part is, Saturday was only the beginning.
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