June 8, 2016
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin stood in front of reporters during SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, earlier this month and didn’t receive a single question about his job status, the state of the program or the future of Texas A&M football.
We didn’t need to ask him.
It was already clear that Sumlin, the SEC’s second-highest-paid coach at $5 million per year, according to the USA Today coaching salary database, is coaching for his job in 2016. He even said as much to Sports Illustrated‘s Pete Thamel last month in an in-depth interview.
Wherever I’ve been a head coach and whenever you’ve been that guy, you know that you get paid on results. And like I said, from my standpoint it’s—there are two ways to look at it. It’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I get that. And like I said, over the course of time, there’s no doubt this program is better than it was, from every statistical deal you can have. And can we get better? Yeah.
So from an urgency standpoint, there’s always been a sense of urgency. When I got here and people said, ‘I don’t understand why you’re going there, to play in the SEC West.’ And in that short period of time, we’ve created an expectation, which is a good thing, for people to say, ‘Hey look, here’s a team that just basically was coming into the SEC and was hoping they could survive’ to a team that’s expected to win.
So what if Texas A&M struggles and decides to make a change?
The Aggies play UCLA out of the gate, have likely SEC East favorite Tennessee as their rotating cross-division game, have road trips to Alabama and Auburn and have a 6-9 record vs. SEC foes at home since 2012—with the only home win over a conference team that finished the season in the AP Top 25 coming against Vanderbilt in 2013.
A lot has to change for Texas A&M to be competitive. If that doesn’t happen in 2016, a shift at the top might come in 2017 and could bring a quick fix to Aggieland—especially if that change brings Tom Herman up the road from Houston to College Station.
After all, the offensive problems that have plagued Texas A&M over the last year-and-a-half shouldn’t happen under an offensive-minded head coach like Sumlin.
The Aggies finished eighth in the SEC in yards per play in 2015 at 5.59 according to CFBStats.com, have averaged under six yards per play in conference over the last two seasons combined and have become a far cry from the Johnny Manziel-led offenses that gained over 6.6 yards per play against SEC foes during Sumlin’s first two seasons in College Station.
Sumlin jettisoned one of the problems when he fired former coordinator Jake Spavital in January and replaced him with Noel Mazzone—who runs more of a power attack with tempo out of the spread. That’s what Texas A&M was built for last year as well, but Spavital shied away from that part of the playbook more than he should have. If the same thing happens, it’ll be clear that it’s more of a Sumlin problem than a coordinator problem, and the eyes of Aggieland will likely turn to Herman.
Regardless of who the specific hypothetical replacement is, Texas A&M has staying power.
Star wide receiver Christian Kirk will be a true junior in 2017 and will be the centerpiece of the Aggies offense whether Sumlin is there or not. James White and Keith Ford are both juniors this season and could return in 2017 to provide another one-two punch in the Aggie backfield ahead of youngster Trayveon Williams—who’s loaded with home run potential.
Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones are both draft-eligible after this year but could return. Plus, the offensive line should lose two pieces of the puzzle from this year’s squad.
Defensively, it’s safe to assume stud defensive end Myles Garrett will jump early whether Sumlin is there or not; and bookend Daeshon Hall will exhaust his eligibility after this season. But tackle Daylon Mack is a true sophomore this year who has to return, and linebacker Otaro Alaka got a medical redshirt last year and will play as a sophomore in 2016.
Defensive backs Armani Watts, Priest Willis and Donovan Wilson will all be around in 2017 unless they jump, and Justin Dunning is the next in line once the upperclassmen defensive backs move on.
Are there quarterback issues on the horizon?
After Trevor Knight leaves following the 2016 season, Jake Hubenak will be there to hold down the fort along with 2016 signee and summer enrollee Nick Starkel. One good thing for the Aggies’ future is Knight—a two-time captain at Oklahoma, including in 2015, when he wasn’t even its starter—is leading by example this offseason with Hubenak and Starkel looking on.
“He’s a grown man,” Sumlin said at SEC spring meetings. “He’s already got a degree and been in big games. Everybody talks about the positives, but what helps him is that everything always hasn’t been great for him. He’s been MVP of some big games, but to lose his job, he has a great understanding because of the experiences both positively and negatively. Being able to communicate that from an older guy who’s seen a lot to our players has been fantastic.”
Is quarterback uncertainty going to hinder Texas A&M moving forward?
It’s hard to say how much since we don’t know who will be running the program.
But first-year starting quarterbacks have won six of the last seven national titles, and 10 of the last 14 starters in the national championship game were first-year starters (as long as you consider Cole Stoudt, not Deshaun Watson, Clemson’s starter in 2014).
The cast around the quarterback matters more, and Texas A&M should have a solid one beyond 2016 as long as there are no surprising departures.
The 2016 season will be a critical one for Sumlin and Texas A&M.
If the Aggies can put things together for a full three months, there’s no reason they shouldn’t contend for the SEC West. If they don’t, and Sumlin is shown the door, the new guy will have plenty of talent leftover to right the ship.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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