Another midseason meltdown has trumped another sweet September at Texas A&M, where the Aggies are out of the college football polls and an afterthought in the SEC championship race.
A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC), a top-10 team on Oct. 17, heads into Saturday’s game against South Carolina (3-4, 1-4) with a two-game losing streak and lots of lingering questions about an offense that has been dysfunctional and turnover-prone in consecutive losses to No. 7 Alabama (41-23) and No. 19 Ole Miss (23-3).
Coach Kevin Sumlin said Tuesday he plans to fix that with a “wide-open, three-man competition” for the starting quarterback job between now and Saturday’s kickoff at Kyle Field (11 a.m., SEC Network). Translation: Welcome to the Kyler Murray era as the Aggies’ starting quarterback.
He’s doing the right things and that’s why he … is part of this wide-open, three-man competition.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin on freshman QB Kyler Murray
Seriously, now. What other option makes sense? It’s hard to see this in-season battle royale for playing time arriving at any other conclusion after Sumlin’s Tuesday acknowledgment that Murray, his prized freshman signee, is back in good graces with coaches after a sideline disagreement with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital during the Alabama loss that resulted in Murray being written out of the game plan against Ole Miss.
“I’m not going to get into the specifics of what happened on the sideline,” Sumlin said. “But I will say that Kyler has done the things … that we’ve asked him to do, based on what happened on the sideline, and hopefully that’s been a learning experience for him. Since that time, he’s come back, he’s practiced, he’s doing the right things and that’s why he … is part of this wide-open, three-man competition.”
Perhaps Sumlin, who promised a Friday announcement in regard to Saturday’s starter, will throw a curve and choose Jake Hubenak, a junior-college transfer and former walk-on at Oklahoma State. Hubenak replaced ineffective starter Kyle Allen in the fourth quarter of the Ole Miss game and completed 6-of-11 passes for 46 yards.
But in doing so, Sumlin would have to suspend his “offensive guru” reputation long enough to admit he is benching one five-star signee (Allen) and bypassing another five-star signee (Murray) because he has a better option with the walk-on who never made an impact at Oklahoma State. Sorry, but I just can’t see him doing that.
Nor can I see him sticking with Allen, who has completed 43.2 percent of his passes (32-of-74) in his past two starts and seems to have lost his confidence. Allen had three interceptions returned for touchdowns by Alabama defenders and failed to connect on 18 of his final 20 passes against Ole Miss before being lifted in favor of Hubenak.
That leaves Murray, son of former A&M quarterback Kevin Murray and the most elusive runner in the three-man competition group. That projects to be a useful asset to mix into a stagnant A&M ground game that has averaged 87.3 yards per game against SEC defenses (2.98 per carry). Spavital made it clear Tuesday that he and Murray remain “very close” and have put the Alabama sideline incident behind them.
What Spavital really needs to put behind him is an eight-quarter stretch that has seen A&M score only one offensive touchdown while surrendering three TDs to opposing defenders during season-defining games against Alabama and Ole Miss. If not, he could become this year’s sacrificial staff member this off-season.
43.2 Completion percentage for A&M starting QB Kyle Allen (32-of-74) in consecutive losses to Alabama and Ole Miss
Although Sumlin said Spavital will remain the Aggies’ play-caller, he offered a less-than-glowing synopsis of his coordinator’s recent efforts.
“It’s been up and down,” Sumlin said. “In this business, you’re only as good as your last outing. And our last two haven’t been very good.”
Spavital understands where the finger will be pointed if things do not improve.
“Obviously, it begins with me,” Spavital said. “There’s a lot of things I think we need to get better at. I need to do a better job of finding easy completions for these quarterbacks. This offense is based off of rhythm and once we find that rhythm, we’re one of the most dangerous offenses in the country.”
But there has been zero rhythm the past two weeks under Allen, who seemed to be a rising star until he began scatter-shooting his passes after taking a second-quarter hit to his throwing shoulder against Alabama. Interestingly, both Sumlin and Spavital said Allen was fine physically in Oxford, Miss., despite last week’s erratic performance.
Sumlin called Allen’s ongoing slump “a surprise to everybody” and indicated he is concerned about the quarterback’s mental approach.
“Without confidence, it’s hard to play quarterback. Once that confidence starts to go, if that’s the case, that’s where it is,” Sumlin said.
That brings us to this week’s ongoing evaluation of three candidates to be the Aggies’ starting quarterback against South Carolina. The call belongs to Sumlin. But it’s hard to believe the inside track, at this point, belongs to anyone other than Murray.