Sunday, September 15, 2013
Can A&M, one-loss SEC teams rebound?
By Travis Haney
Can Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M get back in the national title race?
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The Texas A&M Aggies lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, and yet they exited the day desiring to emulate the Tide’s blueprint the past two seasons: lose one game, win the national championship.
“You’ve got no greater example of how to handle one [loss] than the team in the other locker room,” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said after the 49-42 loss. “Our goals are still out in front of us.”
But is that something reasonable for a team that gave up 568 total yards and was nearly left for dead, trailing the defending national champs 35-14 in the second half?
The top of the league’s East Division is likely saying the same thing. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are wondering if they can rally from early-season losses to again become players for the conference and national titles.
A look at the SEC’s one-loss contenders leads off the Week 3 takeaways. Also included: heat checks on Lane Kiffin's and Mack Brown’s seats, an extremely weird finish in the desert (likely after your bedtime) and a hot start to the year for the Pac-12.
1. 'Nine more games left'
When I sat down Friday afternoon with Sumlin, he had already crafted the postgame message to his team in the event of a loss just like the one that played out Saturday on a steamy afternoon at Kyle Field.
No, it’s not that he intended to concede defeat going in, but he had already made it abundantly clear to his team that the season would not be won or lost by the morning of Sept. 15.
“It’s not like it’s going to define who you are,” he told me Friday. “We have nine more games left.”
That was the essence of why the Aggies weren’t going to play tight Saturday. Sumlin and the players offered the same message of a bright future after the loss.
“This isn’t the end of our season; this wasn’t our Super Bowl,” said QB Johnny Manziel, who made a surprise appearance in front of the media after amassing 562 total yards and five touchdowns in a loss that did nothing to damage his legacy.
Manziel then specifically referenced Alabama’s 2012 loss to A&M and 2011 loss to LSU, neither of which precluded the Tide from titles.
“Anything can happen. This is college football,” he said. “Some of the craziest things happen every week, so you never know how things will turn out. All we can do is take care of ourselves and continue to get better as a team.”
That focus, however, has little to do with Manziel and an offense that wound up with more yards than anyone has ever produced versus Alabama. We thought Saturday’s game would come down to A&M’s defense. It did. So will the rest of the season.
During preseason camp, those close to the program were optimistic that the defense had more athleticism than outsiders were giving them credit for going into August. After the up-and-down efforts versus Rice and Sam Houston State, the optimism took a hit, but some remained upbeat about the fact that the unit had not played together collectively, and therefore could play better when everybody was back for the Alabama game. Still, what happened Saturday was not a big shocker to A&M insiders.
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and the Aggies were left hanging on to the hope that gaining big-game experience would pay ultimate dividends.
“It’s a team sport,” offensive tackle Ced Ogbuehi said. “The defense will help us. They’re so young and inexperienced. ... You’ll see a difference from now on.”
Will you really, though? Other coaches have told me the Aggies' secondary has a chance to improve -- although physical, smart safety Floyd Raven (broken collarbone) will be missed for the foreseeable future -- but they wondered if the line and linebackers were good enough to hang in versus the SEC’s best.
Even A&M AD Eric Hyman, when I saw him on the sideline, lamented to me that the defense “wasn’t quite there.” It was the second quarter.
Saturday was an indication that Manziel and the Aggies had better be ready for a few shootouts along the way.
2. Who has the best path of the one-loss SEC contenders?
Here's the silver lining for A&M fans: Even with the continuing defensive questions, who is really going to push the Aggies on offense?
Ole Miss, on the road, could be a serious challenge. Beyond that, there’s the obvious test at LSU, but even the Tigers’ improved offense isn’t what Alabama’s is. The LSU game is also very late in the year (Nov. 23), so there’s a chance that A&M’s young defense could grow up to some extent by then.
But it’s tough to say what the Aggies’ next-toughest game would be. Maybe Sept. 28 at Arkansas? Auburn or Vanderbilt at home?
In short, a bad A&M defense isn’t going to send the Aggies plummeting toward .500. All the Ags need is a serviceable unit that can hold teams to 30 or so points and occasionally come up with a turnover. Giving up 49 points, as it did against Alabama, is too much, but when you combine this offense with a very manageable schedule, you have to give the Aggies a chance to get back into the national title race.
Of the East teams, South Carolina still has the best road to a national title game berth, even if it is the only one of the three division contenders to have racked up a conference loss. The Gamecocks miss the West powers and get Florida at home. Clemson also goes to Columbia.
Georgia is theoretically in the driver’s seat, but it has LSU at home Sept. 28 and the Cocktail Party versus Florida in Jacksonville on Nov. 2. Florida, which still hasn’t played a conference game, has to go to LSU on Oct. 12 in addition to the Georgia and South Carolina games away from The Swamp. So if you're ranking them right now by likelihood to make the SEC or national championship game, you have to put the Bulldogs and Gators a little behind the Gamecocks.
3. Alabama has an offense.
AJ McCarron and the Alabama offense showed a lot of versatility on Saturday.
The Crimson Tide's versatility on that side of the ball might have been the most impressive thing about their performance on Saturday. Snyder said Bama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier displayed a lot of unbalanced lines and formations that the Aggies weren’t expecting, which was clearly difficult for a young defense to figure out on the fly.
I recall being critical of Nussmeier after last year’s game, in which Alabama ran just 13 times in the second half even after it had fought back against the Aggies. It felt as if the Tide had lost their identity. Saturday, they just took what was there.
After the two-minute, quick-strike TD drive that cut A&M’s early lead to 14-7, quarterback AJ McCarron ran to the sideline and hollered at Nick Saban, “We can keep doing that! Let’s go after them!”
And the Tide did, with McCarron throwing for 251 first-half yards and three touchdowns on the way to 28 unanswered points by the break. In the second half, Alabama’s line and backs took charge and A&M struggled to get leverage. The Tide ran for 152 yards in the second half, averaging 6 yards a carry to keep Manziel on the sideline, even when the Aggies were charging back. So rumors of the offensive line’s demise appear premature.
“Alabama’s Alabama,” Ags sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. “They’re always going to have a great offensive line. ... Alabama shouldn’t be worried about their offensive line.”
4. Hot seat checks in Austin, L.A. ... and Lincoln
Texas is 1-2 for the first time since Mack Brown’s first season in Austin in 1998. That team went on to go 9-3. If this season ends with a 9-3 record, Brown will be fine. But if it’s something closer to the 5-7 they posted in 2010, then there will be turnover. As embarrassing as certain aspects of the BYU and Ole Miss losses were, the Oct. 12 Oklahoma game will likely be the one to define Brown’s future.
USC coach Lane Kiffin cooled his seat a bit with a 35-7 home win against Boston College, but I’m more interested in seeing how USC plays against Utah State and Arizona State in the next two weeks. On the bright side for the Trojans, the offense appeared to respond to having one QB, as Cody Kessler completed 15 of 17 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
If you’re looking for another potential hot-seat candidate at a big-name program, the temperature could begin to rise for Bo Pelini at Nebraska.
The Huskers' 41-21 home collapse against UCLA was bad, but Pelini will be judged more for what the Huskers do in Big Ten play. They open with Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota, so they had better be 3-0 in the conference standings by the time they play Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in consecutive games.
5. Wisconsin-Arizona State result hurts Big Ten's BCS chances
If you live in the Eastern time zone, you might have missed the wacky ending between Wisconsin and Arizona State. This recap sums things up pretty well.
My take: The blame game has to start with the officiating crew. When there is confusion like there was after that play, especially after the officials had blown two whistles, they should stop the clock to get things sorted out. Instead, time ran out without the Badgers getting a chance to attempt a game-winning field goal.
The result is a significant one, for more than just Wisconsin and Arizona State. As Brad Edwards detailed this week, the Big Ten needed to perform well in several nonconference games this weekend to bolster the league's chances to land a team in the BCS title game (Ohio State, perhaps?). Instead, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State (against Central Florida), Purdue (against Notre Dame) and Illinois (against Washington) all lost nonconference games.
For the Sun Devils, who are facing Stanford, USC and Notre Dame the next three weeks, this was a big win.
• The Big 12 didn’t seem to have an issue with some questionable calls late in the TCU-Texas Tech game Thursday, but I talked Friday with one Big 12 coach who was incredulous with the way the 20-10 Tech win played out.
He said “someone should have been fired” after a series of poor calls, the worst of which (he thought) was a negated 69-yard punt return TD by TCU’s Brandon Carter, which was wiped off the board after the officials ruled that Carter raised his hand slightly, indicating a fair catch call.
• UCLA coach Jim Mora is one of the more emotional coaches in college football. You’re always going to know how he’s feeling. And after UCLA's win over Nebraska, I was happy for Mora and his team, who were clearly affected this week by the death of receiver Nick Pasquale. Mora’s postgame message to Pasquale’s parents -- “This was for your son” -- was the moment of the week, above anything McCarron or Manziel did. Strong stuff.
• It was a good day to be blossoming Heisman candidate QBs from the Pac-12. UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota did struggle early, but then they torched brand-name opponents, who each had days to forget. From ESPN Stats & Information: Hundley turned a 2.9 QB rating in the first quarter into a 93.8 rating the rest of the game in a complete turnaround at Nebraska. Mariota completed 13 of 14 passes in one stretch as the Ducks reeled off 59 straight points against Tennessee. By the time the sophomore sat in the third quarter, he had gone for 456 passing yards and four touchdowns, plus a rushing TD.
Between the Bruins, Ducks, Sun Devils and Washington Huskies (who are 2-0 following their win over Illinois), the Pac-12 is off to a strong start. Arizona State at Stanford (also undefeated) will be a big game next week.
• I had Oklahoma fans asking me what I thought about QB Blake Bell throwing for 400-plus yards in his first start, a 51-20 win over Tulsa. Two thoughts: One, why wasn’t Bell starting all along? How was redshirt freshman Trevor Knight that much better in practice than someone who had been around and played in games previously? And two, let’s reserve full judgment of the Sooners until they play at Notre Dame in two weeks. Tulsa does not look good defensively.
• Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hinted that QB Kenny Guiton, filling in for the injured Braxton Miller, has earned the right to play even when Miller returns. Is a possible platoon a good or bad thing for the Buckeyes?
This kind of feels like Ohio State’s version of Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner. Michigan was better off with the “passer” when Gardner came in at QB after Robinson's injury last season. Could the same be true for the Buckeyes?