Texas A&M taking advantage of opportunity Texas has offered
I wasn't sure which dateline to put on this column.
Do I go with AUSTIN, Texas? Or should it be COLLEGE STATION, Texas?
I visited both places on Tuesday to take the temperatures of their respective resident major college football programs. Texas and Texas A&M play in different conferences. Their trajectories point in opposite directions. Yet they remain inextricably linked.
If you want to read a frustrating tale of ostensibly smart people banging their heads against the same wall and hoping for a different result, choose the Austin dateline. If you want a tale of people trying not to get too excited about a grand opportunity, choose the College Station dateline.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Longhorns players couldn't possibly answer the questions tossed their way Tuesday. No opinion they offered would be correct. No explanation would satisfy a fan base fed up with high expectations and middling results. What did the players think of the firing of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz? Above their pay grade. The job security of head coach Mack Brown? Ditto. So instead of answering questions, they hammered away with talking points. If the players could run four verticals or defend the read option as well as they stuck to the script on Tuesday, they would have been answering far less combative questions.
"We're not going to let this loss beat us again," offensive guard Trey Hopkins said.
"Don't let this loss beat us twice," Hopkins said later.
"You can't let this last week beat us next week," receiver Jaxon Shipley said.
"We can't let last week beat us this next week," Shipley said later.
What else could they say? They want to win. They're trying hard. The tumult at Texas is in part a result of their blocking and tackling -- or lack thereof -- but most of it is happening way above their heads. Nickelback Quandre Diggs was the only player who didn't embrace the team's talking points. Did the Longhorns have a players-only meeting? "That's really none of y'all's business," Diggs said -- only half joking. Did the outside noise bother the team? "I really don't care what y'all say," he said.
The players -- particularly on defense -- must deal with the reality that the egg they laid on Saturday at BYU cost Diaz his job. Obviously, he bears responsibility for the defense allowing a school-record 550 rushing yards to the Cougars, but his players were, for the most part, physically dominated. Now, with an improved Ole Miss team coming to Austin on Saturday, Greg Robinson, who was great as the defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos and at Texas (the first time) and terrible as the head coach at Syracuse and at Michigan, will take over the unit on the fly. The players got no say in the matter. They must play the hand that Brown has dealt them. "We've got to buy in regardless," Diggs said. "It's our team. It really doesn't matter. We know what we did wrong Saturday. We know we've got to execute. So we really don't need anybody to tell us anything on how to go out and play. We have to put it on ourselves. We're going to be a player-led team."
That may be necessary, because the leadership that Texas has gotten has turned a wealthy, proud program into an also-ran in the Big 12. Brown's teams rolled for most of the previous decade, but then the Longhorns hit a rough patch. This season, with 19 starters returning, they were supposed to burst back into the ranks of college football's elite. But the loss in Provo did away completely with that expectation. The prevailing preseason wisdom was that if Brown could not bring Texas back to the big-time with such an experienced group, he couldn't do it with anyone.
Brown, of course, may yet prove the prevailing wisdom wrong. He may lead the Longhorns to a victory over the Rebels and then storm through the Big 12. But the loss to BYU doesn't give much reason for optimism. If Texas couldn't stop the Cougars' read option, what will happen when Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, who both have better players than BYU, run the same attack against the Longhorns?
Maybe Robinson is the answer. If you watched Brown's press conference on Monday, he might have convinced you by the end that Robinson could right the ship. This is Brown's gift. Like all the best politicians, he is able to project the perfect mix of contrition and defiance, and can craft an explanation that goes down as easily the sweet tea they gulp in his home state of Tennessee.
Asked if he was concerned about Robinson's disastrous stint with the Wolverines, Brown had an answer ready. "When he went to Michigan, they weren't very good," Brown. "We have good players on defense. We just have to play better." If you clicked play on the video and saw Brown say those words, you might be inclined to believe him. He's that good. But if you only read them, then your next thought wasn't, "Mack has a point there." It was, "Those same Michigan players looked pretty good when Greg Mattison coached them."
The popular critique of Texas among the commentariat is that the players are too comfortable, and that if other aspects of the program are as cushy as the recliners in the players' lounge, then the Longhorns are very, very comfortable. I sank into one of those recliners on Tuesday afternoon before the players arrived for interviews, and I also immediately forgot about BYU.
But players in other programs have comfy chairs. Alabama players have waterfalls in their hydrotherapy room. Oregon players can apparently launch spacecraft from their locker room. At Texas A&M, construction workers continue to transform the Bright Football Complex -- the current motif of which is similar to what Tom Wolfe refers to in his novels "good enough for government work" -- into a gleaming pigskin palace.
None of those other programs is being accused of softness. The Ducks and the Crimson Tide certainly haven't had issues sustaining success while providing their players with the best of everything. The Aggies still have to prove that they can do that, but the demeanor of the A&M players and coaches on Tuesday suggests that coach Kevin Sumlin has built a program full of people who expect to win, and who understand the work required to do so.
At Texas, the pool table with burnt orange felt -- yes, they have one of those -- isn't the issue. The players are the issue. Are they good enough when they take the field? Were they evaluated properly? If they were, why haven't they been developed into a steamroller that flattens opponents the way Alabama does? Why haven't they dominated their conference the way Ohio State has? The Longhorns have few peers on the balance sheet, but in recent years, those few peers have had far more success on the field than Texas.
And now, much to the horror of the Austin orange-bloods, that cow college 90 miles to the east has a chance on Saturday to ascend into college football's upper crust.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Here, they don't call Texas A&M a cow college. They call it a cutting edge agricultural and mechanical university that, at the moment, happens to have one hell of a football team. And they love the fact that it drives the tea sips in Austin crazy.
The mood here is cautiously optimistic. If the Aggies beat the Crimson Tide on Saturday, they'll be the favorite to win the SEC. In six of the past seven years, the champion of the SEC has won the national title. In the other year (2011), the SEC West runner-up won the title. But Texas A&M's players and coaches know the dragon they must slay. They beat Alabama last year, but the Crimson Tide still cruised to their third national title in four seasons. The Aggies know how hard they had to work to beat Alabama once, and they know coach Nick Saban and his players have obsessed over that loss for the last 10 months.
The players at A&M also met the media on Tuesday armed with talking points.
"When it comes to our preparation, we are treating it like just another week," tailback Ben Malena said.
"As Ben said, we just prepare for games every week," receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "We try to be 1-0 every week."
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel won't need the talking points, because he won't be talking this week. Sumlin said the attorneys who helped Manziel escape an NCAA investigation with a one-half suspension in Week 1 have advised their client not to give any interviews.
That doesn't mean that Manziel will escape media attention. CBS plans to have a Johnny Cam trained on Manziel at all times on Saturday. Sumlin expressed dismay at this development, saying it takes away from the team concept. CBS has done this before, though. Directors always had a shot available of Tim Tebow when he played at Florida, and since the 1990s CBS has trained cameras on Steve Spurrier so as not to miss a single toss of the visor.
Besides, the attention is good for the Aggies. It helps recruiting, which has gotten much easier of late for A&M. This is where Brown and Texas come in. Most of the older Aggies would be Longhorns if only Brown had asked. Some of the younger ones had the option to play in Austin but chose College Station instead. That shift is yet another reason why Brown's seat has gotten so hot. Before, the Longhorns could select players. Now, they must recruit them -- and Sumlin currently has a better product to pitch. "The move to the SEC obviously has been a boost for us," Sumlin said. "I think it wouldn't be as big of a boost if we didn't have some sort of success last year. ... The ability to compete and win in this league has really helped us in recruiting. You don't have a stage like this for this weekend if you're not a competitive program."
That competitiveness could explain why Texas A&M safety Toney Hurd Jr. sent a bold tweet on Saturday following the Texas's loss to BYU.
Texas A&M is the university of Texas.— Toney Hurd Jr. (@HURDjunior) September 8, 2013
On Tuesday, he explained the context of the tweet. "I just feel like right now around Texas A&M, we have a lot of swagger and a lot of confidence," Hurd said. "I feel like we've kind of taken over the state."
He's correct. They have. So when will the Longhorns wake up and try to take it back?