As construction crews spent Tuesday applying the finishing touches to a $485 million renovation of Kyle Field, the coach of the football team that plays there received some positive feedback about his rebuilding efforts as well.
Texas A&M, which began the season unranked, climbed to No. 16 in The Associated Press poll following a 38-17 pasting of then-No. 15 Arizona State in last week’s opener. Coach Kevin Sumlin celebrated the Aggies’ ascension with shrugged shoulders and indifference.
“I don’t really care, based on what happened last year,” Sumlin said, reflecting on A&M’s midseason implosion after climbing to No. 6 in last year’s polls after a 5-0 start. “What is important is how we approach this week in practice, how we approach the next few weeks and how we approach what our team attitude is. And learning from last year.”
Toward that end, Sumlin held Monday discussions with players aimed at deflating egos and regaining focus heading into Saturday’s public unveiling of new-and-improved Kyle Field (6 p.m., ESPN) against Ball State. But it was hard for coaches and players to downplay their excitement about a defensive effort that included nine sacks, 14 tackles for losses and five forced fumbles against the Sun Devils, who dropped out of this week’s Top 25 after being pounded by the Aggies (1-0).
Jake Spavital, A&M’s offensive coordinator, admitted the dominance shown by first-year defensive coordinator John Chavis’ crew impacted his approach as the contest unfolded in Houston.
“I knew the defense had their number all night,” Spavital said. “That’s very comforting from a play-calling standpoint.”
Rest assured, Spavital never expressed that sentiment last year while trying to score enough points to overcome an A&M defense that ranked last among SEC teams in total defense (450.8 yards per game) for a second consecutive season. When the Aggies hit the meat of last year’s schedule, they went 0-for-October against SEC teams and limped to the finish line with an 8-5 record, including a 3-5 mark in league play.
All of that happened despite a road victory over a top-10 team in last year’s opener (No. 9 South Carolina). That is why Sumlin has issued reality checks to newcomers who shined against Arizona State (WR Christian Kirk, QB Kyler Murray, SS Justin Evans, DT Daylon Mack) and urged his upperclassmen to do likewise. He seeks to avoid Backslide II: Overconfidence Strikes Again.
“The guys who went through that, things were coming pretty easy for them, too,” Sumlin said. “Let’s talk about that. Let’s eliminate those types of things from our practice habits and from life. That takes leadership, not just on the field but off the field. They need to be honest with each other about where they screwed up [last year] and we talked about that.”
Players and coaches also talked about a need to be more consistent on offense, a desire to continue using two quarterbacks in nonconference games (Murray and starter Kyle Allen) and an opportunity to send a message to the 102,733 fans expected for Saturday’s game. After two years of mingling with construction crews working on the stadium, right guard Joseph Cheek said he’s ready to revel in the aftermath of their hard work.
“We understand the commitment of the donors and we’re ready to make a statement,” Cheek said.
Without question, the new Kyle Field has all the creature comforts a fan could want. Expensive chandeliers hang in the high-dollar donors’ suites. The place is wired to accommodate more than 100,000 cellphone calls at the same time. But the home team has won only four times in 11 opportunities at the venue against SEC opponents since joining the league, a statistic that figures to surface … oh, about a cajillion times before No. 25 Mississippi State (1-0) comes calling on Oct. 3.
For now, the on-field concern is Ball State (1-0), and Sumlin owns a 16-0 record against nonconference foes in his A&M tenure. But the bigger issue is avoiding too much September swagger to properly prepare for the season-defining matchups of October and November.
Allen, a sophomore who ran his record to 4-2 as A&M’s starting quarterback against Arizona State, concurs with his coach about the irrelevance of being a ranked team this week.
“As a team, just between us players, it doesn’t add much. But to a lot of people … around the country, it probably brings a little more notoriety to us,” Allen said. “We try not to look at rankings, especially because of last year and how we were No. 6 in the country and we just tanked in the middle of the season. We know how quickly that can go away.”
But the $485 million upgrade to the stadium, that’s staying. It’s up to the Aggies, starting Saturday, to convince their fans that they are getting their money’s worth.
Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760