Texas A&M finds success in SEC
The remodeled lobby of the Bright Football Complex at Texas A&M will feature exhibits of Aggies football history, as well as the team's newest hardware: the Heisman Trophy won by quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Outland Trophy won by left tackle Luke Joeckel.
As far as head coach Kevin Sumlin is concerned, the trophies are right where they belong -- in a museum.
Aggies never lack for enthusiasm. When their football team debuts in the Southeastern Conference by going 11-2 and finishing fifth in the nation, and their quarterback wins the Heisman, and three Aggies are first-team All-Americans, well, the parade down Texas Ave. may still be going.
Sumlin loves the enthusiasm. But he doesn't think the game is over. He's pretty sure the game isn't out of the first quarter. Texas A&M won 11 games for the fourth time in 117 seasons of football. Sumlin won 11 games four times in his five seasons as an Oklahoma assistant. He has won 11 games twice in his five seasons as a head coach.
"We got a top-10 recruiting class but we're fourth in our own division [SEC West]," Sumlin said. "Let's be real here. We're still playing catch-up in this league."
Sumlin understands the difficulty of what his Aggies achieved. They played in a new, tougher conference for new coaches who installed new systems. Because the opener against Louisiana Tech was postponed to mid-October, Texas A&M played 12 games in 12 weeks.
"I think we were really a team that got better every week, which was our goal," Sumlin said. "And I think at the end of the year, [we were] as good a football team as probably anybody."
The Aggies opened the season to great fanfare. "College GameDay" brought the circus to town. Florida brought physicality and the crispness of a team that had played a game the week before. The Gators came back from a 7-point halftime deficit to win 20-17. Same old Aggies. They had lost a second-half lead of nine points or more in five games in 2011.
Sumlin watched the coaches' video a few hundred times the day after the game and realized how well Florida played. His team understood a week later. After Texas A&M took apart SMU 48-3 in Dallas, Sumlin boarded one of the team buses to return home.
"The bus was quiet," Sumlin said. "Usually after a big win, guys are jumping around. We get on the bus and we're thinking, 'What's going on?' It's all quiet. They're all watching the Florida-Tennessee game, and watching Florida going up and down the field [555 yards in a 37-20 victory]. And I think it hit everybody, that you know what? We got a real chance."
Three weeks later, after blowouts of FCS South Carolina State (70-14) and Arkansas (58-10), Texas A&M played its first SEC road game at Ole Miss. The Aggies came back from 10 points down in the final seven minutes to win 30-27. It didn't matter that the Rebels had lost 16 consecutive conference games. For a year, Texas A&M had lived with the memory of losing those second-half leads.
"On the way off the field, [senior linebacker] Sean Porter was crying," Sumlin said. "He was so happy. And it hit me. He said, 'This is the greatest win of my career.' Coming from behind and winning a game."
Sumlin ran into the cramped visiting locker room at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, shoved nose guard Jonathan Mathis in the chest, then ran up and back through the locker room, delivering chest bumps and hollering with joy. In a matter of seconds, every player in the locker room was jumping up and down, slinging energy drinks and outscreaming the head coach. You can't watch the YouTube video just once.
"Everybody makes fun of my Ole Miss locker room scene," Sumlin said. "I know it was a little over-the-top what I did, but it was important."
We got a top-10 recruiting class but we're fourth in our own division [SEC West]. Let's be real here. We're still playing catch-up in this league.” -- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin
Texas A&M committed five turnovers at home against LSU, blew a 12-0 lead and lost 24-19. Still, Sumlin didn't feel as if his team had reverted to its 2011 form. Manziel threw three interceptions. But the video showed that only one could be pinned on him. On the other two, receivers broke off their routes.
"Johnny progressed as a quarterback," Sumlin said. "It wasn't just an athlete playing quarterback but a quarterback who's an athlete. And the receivers and the offensive line had to adjust to that. You have to keep playing because he'll keep plays alive. The LSU game was a big game but the ability to look at who we are, our shortcomings, and say, how can we be better next week? If we eliminate this, this and this, and keep playing with the same effort, we can win."
That's basically what happened at Alabama. Texas A&M didn't play a perfect game, Sumlin said after the 29-24 upset of the top-ranked Crimson Tide. But the Aggies played a complete game. Manziel shredded the Alabama defense for 345 total yards and turned himself into the Heisman favorite. Texas A&M won its third consecutive game and kept playing well, even as the schedule dipped down to Sam Houston State and Missouri.
"You've got to find a way to make every game important," Sumlin said.
No game tests that premise more than a bowl. A month stands between the players and their Saturday-to-Saturday rhythm, a month of final exams, Christmas break and other distractions. When they get to the host city, players are entertained. Some seniors have their eye on the NFL. Others are just done.
And then there is the Heisman jinx. The winners are wined and dined at one award ceremony after another all across the country. Airport time cuts into workout time.
That's what Texas A&M faced as it headed into the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. Before the game, Sumlin asked the Aggies to think about their legacy.
"You guys have a chance to be one of the greatest football teams in the history of this school," he said. He addressed the seniors, specifically, the guys who had played under three or four position coaches, the guys who had stayed the course and succeeded.
"You guys are going to be those guys in maroon coats they bring out," Sumlin said. "Forty years from now, I'll be dead and gone, all right. They'll be rolling you guys out in those maroon jackets at some game. You're the first team to go into the SEC and start a new era. And you guys have the right to come back here and bitch all you want. Because you guys kicked this thing off."
Remembering the 41-13 victory over the Sooners, Sumlin said, "And they played their tails off. It was important to them."
Manziel led the Aggies to four second-half touchdowns. He threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 229 yards and two more scores. He was everything he had been as he Johnny Footballed his way to the Heisman -- and more.
Now comes the aftermath. Manziel is a 20-year-old national celebrity. Sumlin recalled getting up for breakfast one morning the week before Christmas.
"My kid's on Instagram," Sumlin said. "'Look, Johnny's in the locker room with James Harden!'"
Manziel didn't ask to meet "The Beard." Harden asked to meet him.
"No one has had a redshirt freshman win the most prestigious award in college football," Sumlin said. "Particularly in this day and age, when everyone who has a phone takes pictures he needs to be aware. He's done a really good job of dealing with people that want things from him and do things for him."
Earlier this month, Sumlin and athletic director Eric Hyman held a staff meeting to develop a strategy for Manziel to deal with the onslaught. Year 2 of the Sumlin era is beginning from a much different starting line. Playing catch-up or not, the Aggies will have to learn how to play in the spotlight. Let's be real here.