For the past four decades, the Texas A&M football program has produced an inconsistent track record in dealing with elevated expectations.
The deciding factor, without fail, has been the savvy of the guy in the head coach’s office combined with the skill of the player squatting under center. Combinations involving Jackie Sherrill, R.C. Slocum, Corey Pullig, Kevin Murray and Bucky Richardson have thrived and won championships. Other combos before 2012, not so much.
Now comes the acid test.
After delightful debuts last season, coach Kevin Sumlin and quarterback Johnny Manziel are back to try to meet preseason hype unseen in Aggieland in a half-century. But there is one huge difference between the second-year pillars of A&M football.
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Manziel, as the first freshman to win a Heisman Trophy, already is assured of lifetime legend status in College Station. Sumlin, a bright young coach, may join him one day. But he’s not there yet.
And the 2013 season, which begins with A&M’s appearance at this coming week’s Southeastern Conference media days in Hoover, Ala., will go a long way toward determining Sumlin’s legacy at the school.
Too soon? Not really.
Even elite coaches get only a handful of chances in their careers to work with a Heisman Trophy candidate, let alone a Heisman winner flanked by other returning difference-makers from a record-setting offense. Sumlin, 49, has that rare opportunity this fall. What he does with this team, this season, will demonstrate how well he handles lofty expectations as the coach in control of a power program with momentum.
A&M fans, brimming with optimism after last year’s 11-2 record and Top 5 finish, are bracing for a national championship run. But if those expectations are not met — and they could disappear Sept. 14, when A&M meets Alabama, the two-time defending national champion — it will be Sumlin, not Manziel, who is found wanting.
Manziel’s Heisman credentials cover him in Teflon if the Aggies struggle in September. Sumlin, a sixth-year head coach seeking his first conference title, would get stuck with any blame. To paraphrase a local philosopher: That’s how college football go until a coach earns a ring.
Such logic still applies to Sumlin, who was selected Monday as one of the nation’s top 10 coaches by Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel.
Sumlin checked in at No. 7, one spot above former boss/mentor Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma coach on the receiving end of A&M’s 41-13 triumph in the Cotton Bowl. Mandel even surmised that Sumlin, a rising star in the college coaching ranks, would be “even higher on this list in a couple of years,” once he is surrounded by more of his own recruits. He praised Sumlin as a stellar CEO whose “charisma and confidence rub off on players.”
Mandel gets no argument here. Sumlin’s work at Houston (2008-11) and A&M has been top-notch, even without a league championship at either school. But here’s the rub:
To win as much as a berth in this year’s SEC Championship Game, let alone a shot to play for a national title, Sumlin must subdue teams led by two higher-ranked coaches in the SI Top 10: Alabama’s Nick Saban, rated No. 1, and LSU’s Les Miles (No. 6). If Sumlin can pull that off, he will have more than earned his first ring as a college coach and validated his status as a program builder and a possible NFL coach-in-waiting.
Both opponents will have an open date the week before playing A&M this season, a strategic blessing that neither school had a year ago when preparing for Sumlin and Manziel’s spread offense. A&M counters with a bye before its Nov. 23 game at LSU. But the Aggies play Sept. 7 against Sam Houston State while Alabama spends that week honing its game plan to avenge last year’s 29-24 loss to A&M.
Quick reminder: the last three high-profile games Alabama played with extra preparation time resulted in two BCS National Championship Game routs (Notre Dame, 42-14; LSU, 21-0) and last year’s 41-14 wipeout of Michigan in the season opener at Cowboys Stadium.
If the Aggies extend realistic BCS title hopes past mid-September, it will be Sumlin, not Manziel, who must find ways to stop opposing offenses with a defense that lost key playmakers from all three levels of last year’s unit. It will be Sumlin, not Manziel, who must successfully move the chess pieces against Saban in a Sept. 14 showdown when Alabama’s uber-strategist will have additional preparation time.
And it will be Sumlin, not Manziel, who must keep the team on an even emotional keel for the rest of the regular season if the Aggies stun the Crimson Tide for a second consecutive season.
As a combo package, the Sumlin-Manziel duo has a chance to become the most exalted in A&M history. It is no accident that three of the top four spots on A&M’s list of starting quarterbacks with the highest career winning percentages belong to guys who played for Sherrill or Slocum: Pullig (.838), Murray (.797) and Richardson (.790).
Manziel? His winning percentage is .846, on pace to be the best in school history. If Manziel achieves his stated goal of winning this year’s national championship, he’ll receive lots of credit for taking A&M to a level the program has not seen since 1939.
But Sumlin will deserve his share of bows if the BCS title dream becomes reality. It is his legacy, not Manziel’s, that is on the line in 2013.