For fans seeking a historical context, Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin has morphed into Mack Brown, Y2K version.
In his first two seasons at his new school, Sumlin has energized a huge fan base by helping an inherited asset win a Heisman Trophy and redirecting the flow of the Lone Star State’s top prospects toward his campus. Like Brown in his early days at Texas, Sumlin has been rewarded with one of the top contracts in college football and has triggered a coaching change at the notable program down the street.
Now comes the hard part: Winning the championships needed to keep today’s honeymoon vibes flowing with fans paying for the 20,000 new seats being added as part of an ongoing Kyle Field expansion.
Eventually, Brown needed eight years to claim his first conference title at Texas (2005). But he backed it up in the same season with a national championship, making it easier for Orangebloods to overlook a pair of losses in Big 12 championship games (1999, 2001). A&M fans should reflect on that timetable as it relates to their program-turning coach.
Sumlin, who has as many conference titles on his head coaching résumé as Brown had at this juncture of his career (zero), is capable of helping A&M scale college football’s new playoff mountain … some day.
But it won’t happen this year. Not with a first-year quarterback at the offensive helm and a suspect defense reeling from the off-season dismissals of two returning starters and potential stars (linebacker Darian Claiborne, defensive tackle Isaiah Golden).
Unless the new quarterback has the playmaking skills to match predecessor Johnny Manziel and the defense improves, this projects more as a bridge season to a brighter future than a year when the Aggies will challenge Alabama, Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Missouri (all on the 2014 schedule) for SEC supremacy.
Fans should set the over/under expectation for wins at eight and hope A&M can remain ahead of Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the West Division pecking order. That’s not a given, considering both of those schools return veteran quarterbacks who led their teams to bowl victories last season.
If Sumlin can elicit an SEC title from these Aggies, picked to finish sixth in the seven-team SEC West Division by Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, the man will have deserved a bigger raise than the bump to $5 million per year that he received after last year’s 9-4 season.
No doubt Sumlin will take the dais at this week’s SEC football media days, which begin Monday in Hoover, Ala., and remind folks that the talent cupboard is not bare despite the departures of three first-round NFL draft picks: Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
That much is true. So, too, is the fact that six of the seven teams in the SEC West are worthy of receiving votes in Top 25 preseason polls. Arkansas, coming off a 3-9 season, is the lone exception.
Among the top six, A&M heads into the season with the least stability at quarterback and some of the most glaring defensive issues. A quick look at the division, based on what we know heading into Monday’s start of SEC media days, with last year’s record in parentheses:
Auburn (12-2): SEC champs return a solid nucleus and the league’s top quarterback (Nick Marshall), whose season is not likely to be derailed by Friday’s marijuana possession charge (less than one ounce).
Alabama (11-2): Expectations will be huge, and transfer QB Jake Coker, last year’s backup to Jameis Winston at Florida State, appears to be the primary player entrusted with meeting them.
LSU (10-3): The Tigers’ defense should shine with a quarterback quandary possible. But if heralded freshman RB Leonard Fournette meets expectations, the QB issue becomes moot.
Texas A&M (9-4): Two of the nation’s top incoming freshmen could play major roles: QB Kyle Allen and DE Myles Garrett, an Arlington Martin graduate. The defense has much to prove after a subpar season, and two beasts from the East are on the 2014 schedule (South Carolina, Mizzou).
Ole Miss (8-5): The Rebels return 15 starters, including QB Bo Wallace and a veteran defense. An Oct. 11 game at Texas A&M could be a season-turner for both schools.
Mississippi State (7-6): Upsized QB Dak Prescott (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) is an underappreciated dual threat on a team that returns 16 starters. MSU should be 4-0 or 3-1 when it meets A&M on Oct. 4.
Arkansas (3-9): The Razorbacks closed last season with nine consecutive losses and remain offensively challenged while adjusting to the ground-and-pound philosophy of second-year coach Bret Bielema.