Updated June 20. 2017
COLLEGE STATION Tex. – This is a town of growing sophistication. The population exceeds 100,000, and some of its restaurants are as good as you find in Houston or Austin 90 miles away. No longer does fine dining mean a mound of barbecued beef on slick butcher paper with a hunk of cheese.
But what hasn’t changed in the past four decades: Texas A&M football is the primary business if not the main reason to live.
A&M’s move five years ago to the vaunted Southeastern Conference was viewed as a step to the top rung of college football. Under head coach Kevin Sumlin the quality of athletic talent has been championship-worthy, recruiting classes consistently in the top 10.
But the won-lost ledger has not matched the talent. Sumlin was 11-2 in his first season, 2012, when the magical and all too ephemeral Johnny Manziel beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa and won the Heisman Trophy. A&M was nationally ranked No. 5 that year, but since has fallen far from contention.
A 9-4 and three 8-5s would be commendable at most schools, even in the somewhat overly saluted SEC. But the Aggies feel entitled to more.
This pleasant yet unimposing little city, just off the Hill Country, sees itself as the rightful mecca of college football. Why Tuscaloosa, and not College Station?
A&M’s Athletics Director Scott Woodward said recently: “Coach knows he has to win, and he has to win this year.” Strong stuff, very close to saying Coach is sleeping with the fishes. “Last year was extremely disappointing,” Woodward told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum. “Fell off like we’ve been doing.”
Sumlin’s defenders point to unusually high injury attrition as the cause of late-season skidding, as in last year’s team losing four of its last five. His detractors say: “So where’s all that great depth he signed?”
All agree he hasn’t had distinguished quarterbacking since Manziel departed to infamy in the NFL and out. But some of us who live in Aggieland – the Central Texas farm belt — believe Sumlin has mismanaged his assets.
Well known quarterbacks have complained that they did not know where they stood with him. Kyle Allen, Kyler Murray and Kenny Hill started for A&M but fled to other highly ranked and presumably more forthright programs.
Sumlin is in usual error mode, publicly dithering over who will lead his team as training camp looms. Last week he told reporters he has decided, but he’s not revealing the decision.
Well that’s comforting. Probably to the senior, Jake Hubenak, who filled in fairly well when starter Trevor Knight was injured late in 2016. If Coach has truly decided, he probably would not be sold this soon on either of two freshmen competing with Hubenak.
While Hubenak, seasoned and steady, may be the safest of the options, he hardly looks like Playoff material. Which, thank you, Mr. AD, is what Coach needs in order to stay here.
So he may turn to redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, whose powerful arm draws approval from NFL scouts. But he’s not a dual threat, like Sumlin prefers.
Which leads us to Kellen Mond, 4-star recruit who schooled at the nation’s most esteemed prep football academy, IMG at Bradenton, Fla.
Mond dazzles with his feet more than with his lively but errant arm. As a true freshman he probably needs a year to learn the playbook and hone his accuracy. Unless he is indeed another Johnny Football, whose quarterbacking talent was overlooked by the ‘Horns and Tide but was immediately recognized by Sumlin.
If he can avoid the dread Quarterback Controversy, Sumlin could be heading for job-saving success.
The schedule is favorable. He gets Alabama and Auburn at home. What could be a tough road date – Mississippi – doesn’t happen until Nov. 18. By then, the Rebels’ program may be in disarray with coach Hugh Freeze under increasing fire for a massive cheating scandal.
But lurking over Sumlin’s shoulder – and perhaps Freeze’s — is Chip Kelly, designer of Oregon’s hyper-ventilated offense who is said to be longing to return to college after three disappointing seasons in pro ball.
Many see Kelly back in Eugene, where he won a national title. But bridges may have burned when the university was punished for recruiting misdeeds on his watch. So there’s hope here that Kelly’s next coaching gig will be with the giggers.
Yes there would be embarrassing irony, as a few of his most notorious violations involved recruits from Texas high schools.
But the truth is that A&M is an ideal destination for a downtrodden coach to stage a comeback. By facing Nick Saban twice a year, Kelly would have an opportunity to dethrone the king of college football.
Caution: you haven’t heard anyone say Kelly is as skilled at recruiting as Sumlin. Kelly is an introvert, not a schmoozer. He should do well as ESPN studio analyst. He has the gift of glib but not of gab.
Among his peers, Sumlin is highly respected as a strategist. When Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was looking for help at stopping the zone read, he came here to learn from Sumlin.
Where Sumlin falls short is in discipline and guidance of young athletes, not just quarterbacks. They’re looking for direction, not dithering. He tries to shelter them — some call it coddling – and some have veered shockingly off the rails. Manziel, of course. More recently, Kirk Merritt, 4-star wide receiver who transferred from Oregon and became the subject of a sex scandal.
Merritt last November was charged with indecent exposure. His attorney claimed he “had a bad case of jock itch” that led to accidental uncovering of genitals. In front of two women on successive days. Yes, really.
Merritt was dismissed from the Aggies in April, but after practicing with them in February. Some influential alumni feel Sumlin is not properly shaping the culture at Aggieland.
They fear that in a storm, his loose ship won’t make it to port. A&M’s off-the-field troubles are not lessened by Sumlin’s indecisiveness in choosing his on-the-field leader. If Coach doesn’t change, it will be forced upon the program.