Texas A&M beats Alabama, killing the 'spread offense' meme forever

Mike Zarrilli

Two things are no longer debatable: The spread can work in the SEC, and Kevin Sumlin was the absolute perfect hire for Texas A&M.

Texas A&M fans never hesitate to tell you how talented their team is. It is often true, often not, but that really isn't the point. Aggie Confidence never wavers. And after this past Saturday in Tuscaloosa, said confidence is going to have enough fuel to burn for quite a while.

In Texas A&M's stunning 29-24 win over Alabama on Saturday, the Aggies proved that they indeed were not lacking in raw talent. But they also proved what they had been lacking in recent seasons: Kevin Sumlin.

We often overestimate the impact of a coach's persona when it comes to new hires. If Tennessee fans were to get their wish and hire Jon Gruden in the coming weeks, for instance, we will hear endless stories about Gruden's confidence, about his swagger, and about how he carries himself like a winner. That's great, but swagger doesn't matter if you aren't very good at your job. Charlie Weis was downright cocky when he was hired to lead Notre Dame, and while media and fans lapped that up over the first couple of years, it didn't really stop the Irish from collapsing in his third season.


Good Bull Hunting: Remember when A&M didn't deserve the SEC? || A night to remember

Kevin Sumlin, meanwhile, looks, walks and talks like a badass. He oozes confidence and hypnotizes you a bit even when he is simply, confidently delivering the exact same kind of coachspeak you hear from everybody else. But when Kevin Sumlin was hired to replace Mike Sherman last December, I was lukewarm to the idea. Sumlin was clearly successful in his first head coaching stint at Houston, but I was concerned that he only won big when Case Keenum was behind center. (Keenum got hurt in 2010, and the Cougars fell to 5-7.) I didn't hate the hire, but I didn't like it as much as others.

As the offseason progressed, however, I started talking myself into Sumlin quite a bit, not because of his record, but because both his attitude and the staff he was putting together. And when it came time to write the 2012 A&M preview in mid-August, I was volunteering to drive the bandwagon, even though I didn't think A&M would get a ton of sparkling play from the quarterback position.

[I]n a season that saw Texas A&M lose four games by four points or less, they lost an average of 4.3 points per game to sheer luck and bounces. With neutral luck, it is conceivable that 6-6 turns into 10-2. And it is probably worth pointing out that a 10-2 A&M team returns seven offensive starters and all sorts of four-star talent would probably be a top-10 to -15 team heading into 2012. […]

Now it's Kevin Sumlin's turn. Despite constant expectations to the contrary, A&M hasn't won double-digit games in a season since 1998 and have finished with more sub-.500 seasons (four) than eight-win campaigns (three) in that span. R.C. Slocum was pushed out after a 6-6 campaign in 2002, Dennis Franchione after 7-6 in 2007, and Sherman after 6-6 last year, but the Aggies have rarely fared significantly better than those records. But Sumlin has a rare opportunity in College Station: a season for which the expectations might actually be lower than they should be. And now I hop on the bandwagon. Go figure.

(Of course, if Sumlin exceeds expectations in 2012, then look out for the hilarious level of 2013 buzz.) […]

Now, the reasons they are a darkhorse instead of an outright favorite are obvious. No matter how they looked on paper, they did only go 7-6 last year. Besides, a green quarterback and a thin defensive line are not exactly assets in the SEC West. But we should be able to tell quickly whether this team is top 15-20 caliber, or simply top 35-40. […] Just keep an eye on the Aggies, is all I'm saying. For all I know, they'll lose to Louisiana Tech on the first Thursday of the season, and you can forget I said any of this.

Swagger and confidence only really matter if you can first put a check in a lot of other boxes. But if we look at the A&M team Sumlin inherited as a blank slate, we probably should have seen the Aggies' hot start coming. Sumlin inherited an experienced, deep set of skill position players (on an offense that requires a lot of them) and one of the best offensive lines in college football. On defense, lack of depth on the line and in the young secondary could potentially be offset by the return of phenomenal playmakers like Damontre Moore. And again, Sumlin's staff was exciting: Air Raid disciple Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator, Jim Tressel disciple Mark Snyder on defense. And because the bones of this program were solid, Sumlin was in position to deliver the one thing A&M didn't have last year: swagger and late-game confidence.

Shutdown Fullback on Texas A&M beating Alabama

Yes, Johnny Football matters. Without Johnny Manziel running the show on offense, A&M almost certainly doesn't win in Tuscaloosa. He is a relentlessly unique player, and the A&M offense conforms to his personality. But Manziel didn't force two fourth-quarter turnovers. Manziel didn't make the physical catches that Ryan Swope made late. And let's face it: Texas A&M had a pretty good quarterback last year, too. Ryan Tannehill was the eighth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, after all. Manziel has taken the Aggies from good to very good, but Sumlin's impact has been even larger. Despite bad luck, A&M really did blow an incredible number of leads in 2011, faltering late in losses to Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas State and Texas (and in a win against Texas Tech, really).

That a team with much the same personnel came through late in wins over Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech was a good sign; that the team came through against Alabama was Sumlin's masterpiece. Swagger, confidence, etc., can matter if the bones of the program are strong. And Texas A&M's beef-filled bones are not only as strong as I thought in August, they're even stronger.

**********

"There's no one in this league that thought that a quarterback from A&M or Missouri was going do that to this league. Right? No one thought that the pass offenses from the Big 12 entering this league could do that. Me included." -- Gary Danielson

You'll forgive CBS's Gary Danielson for losing track of downs a few times late in A&M's Saturday win: He was going through a bit of an existential crisis at the time. Saying "Right?" after declarative sentences is a relatively common verbal tic, the tiniest hedging of bets. But when Danielson delivered the above quote after A&M scored to take a 29-17 lead in the fourth quarter, the pause seemed both pregnant and quite telling.

Danielson has made no secret of the fact that he prefers power football to pass-happy and big football hits to finesse. Like Bob Davie and other old-school announcers, his hostility toward recent offensive innovations has been palpable. But he revealed in Tuscaloosa on Saturday that while the spread might not be aesthetically pleasing to him, he also revealed that he really, truly didn't think it could move the ball in the SEC. This wasn't some sort of "rawr, pansy ball" reflex -- he literally didn't think it would work. And then it did, with a redshirt freshman, in Tuscaloosa.

Happy Ball beat Murder Ball on national television. And while Alabama's own poor execution bears a considerable portion of the blame for the Tide's tumble -- T.J. Yeldon lost a terribly ill-timed fumble for the second straight week, and A.J. McCarron's late-game accuracy was woeful (twice in the fourth quarter, wide open receivers had to slow down to catch deep balls that, if hitting them in stride, would have resulted in touchdowns; Alabama ended up scoring on neither drive, and this says nothing of Deshazor Everett's fourth-down interception in the game's final minutes, which was thrown a decent amount behind its intended receiver) -- the numbers were still better than just about anybody (anybody not dripping with Aggie Confidence, anyway) could have imagined: 418 yards, 29 points, 167.3 pass efficiency, 23 first downs.

When Texas A&M and Missouri came aboard the SEC ship, the No. 1 thing SEC traditionalists (and much of the national media) mentioned was that they would be forced to make offensive adjustments. "The spread won't work in the SEC" took on incredible life despite the fact that spread innovators Gus Malzahn (as Auburn's offensive coordinator) and Urban Meyer (as Florida's head coach) both won national titles running spread offenses in the SEC. The question has never been about "the spread" (a term that, first of all, encompasses about 27 different offenses in and of itself); the question should have always been about talent and execution.

You can make any offense work in any conference if you have the right personnel and are coached well enough. Missouri's offense has only recently threatened to get off the ground this year, but while good defenses (and, potentially, questionable personnel) have obviously had a role in that, so have crippling injuries at quarterback and throughout the offensive line.

With a healthy (and fantastic) line, a healthy (and fantastic) quarterback, and strong play from skill positions, Texas A&M finds itself averaging 545 yards and 43 points per game in the SEC West. We can debate whether even Johnny Football can keep up this pace next year after A&M both potentially loses a ton of interesting personnel (two All-American caliber tackles who could declare for the draft, Ryan Swope, Christine Michael, etc.), but we can no longer even pretend to debate whether "the spread can work in the SEC." It can. It is. Sorry, Gary.

SEC defensive coordinators are very, very well-paid and will adapt, but there's nothing saying Kingsbury and A&M cannot also adapt. This is going to be a fun chess match to watch.

**********

Last week I caught hell from confident Aggie fans (as if there were any other type) for daring to suggest that LSU's Zach Mettenberger has a stronger arm than Johnny Football. He does, and it isn't even close. But that is not even remotely the same thing as saying Mettenberger has a "better" arm. He does not. As Manziel showed on Saturday, his arm is perhaps the most accurate in college football. And honestly, his lack of ferocious arm strength almost worked to his advantage in Tuscaloosa. On multiple occasions, Tide defenders broke on passes they thought they could intercept, only to fail (and potentially allow their receivers to gain solid yardage) because of pinpoint accuracy.

The spread and its variations tend to put an immense amount of pressure on the quarterback, even more than in other offenses. Quick decision-making and accuracy are terribly important, but Manziel has both in droves. I'm still curious about what might happen when the aforementioned well-coached defenses adapt to some of his tendencies, but you cannot really adapt to "ridiculously accurate."

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