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November 29, 2013

Tarp's Saturday Thoughts on Friday

-I didn't know whether or not to write about one topic before or after the Missouri game but I think I'll just go ahead and get it out of the way.

Texas A&M was the sexiest program going in college football during the 2013 off season. They were coming off of a top five season and had not just a reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel but a rock star to boot…the Beatles and Joe Namath all rolled up into one, someone who garnered as much attention for his antics off the field as well as his play on it. In addition, A&M finally had a head coach and an administration that grasped the finer points of publicity, using social and traditional media to spread the word about what a great program and education that A&M had to offer. It was unprecedented break with the ways that past administrations had operated.

However, last year's team prospered not just because of Johnny Manziel or a host of other players that went in the NFL Draft. They had been told that A&M didn't belong in the Southeastern Conference and that it would take years for them to be competitive. In addition, a brand new coaching staff knew that they were on a shorter leash than was usually given to A&M coaches and that a non descript first year campaign would make it difficult to recruit going forward. Collectively, as a staff and as a team, they coached and played with a sense of urgency and with a chip on their shoulder.

They had an exciting player who was undersized but was extraordinarily fun to watch. They ran the ball, stopped the run, and didn't make a lot of mistakes. They got contributions from an unlikely set of players and had a lot of great stories like running back Ben Malena who not only started at running back but played on special teams as well. All of that translated not only into one of the best seasons in A&M history but a team that football fans could relate to.

However, with all of the off season attention came opportunities for everyone in the program to profit from the attention individually. Johnny Manziel went to the NBA Finals and concerts with everything documented and debated to the point of nausea among the national media. When he was accused by the NCAA of committing violations by signing autographs for money, he and the program spent the last month of the off season investigating/defending his actions. In this instance, A&M's emphasis on increasing the media coverage of the program had unintended consequences. While his teammates didn't get those types of off the field opportunities in terms of individual publicity, they unintentionally manufactured their own as multiple players were suspended for the first two games of the season for failing drug tests or being involved in off the field incidents.

When the season began, the Alabama game became A&M's fork in the early in the season….one path led to a possible national title and the other led… well, no one really wanted to talk about it. There was no Plan B for what constituted a successful season if A&M lost the Alabama game among the fans or anyone else because it was at home, against the defending national champions, the Aggies had beaten them on the road in 2012, and A&M had the transcendent player that everyone had been waiting on for a generation…or perhaps even a lifetime.

While no one will argue with that approach and it gave A&M time to rebound if they did lose the game to accomplish many worthy goals, once the Aggies took the other fork the season started becoming an audition for the next level….whatever that level happened to be.

The head coach's name came up much earlier than usual in connection with the USC job because the Trojans pushed Lane Kiffin out to get a head start on their hiring process. When that started to die out as Trojan interim head coach Ed Orgeron began to win games, the Houston Texans started making a run for the number one pick in the draft and talk of Kevin Sumlin going to the NFL supplanted talk of him taking the USC job. There's talk that Sumlin is negotiating his contract once again and his lack of comments on the issue is understandable as a negotiating tactic but regardless of his intentions until something is signed it may not go away any time soon.

With his off season distractions behind him, the quarterback's name came up not only for the Heisman Trophy again but also as to where he would go in the NFL Draft. The team became even more centered around his ability to throw the ball down the field and make other worldly plays which had a detrimental affect on all other aspects of it. Other teammates began to weigh their options for the NFL Draft as well, especially after a second loss realistically ended hopes of a BCS bowl berth.

It's interesting to compare and contrast A&M's first two years in the SEC with that of this weekend's opponent, Missouri. The Tigers were considered a contender for a SEC East title in 2012 while the Aggies were considered to be in trouble playing in the loaded SEC West but by the end of the season it was A&M that was nationally ranked and Missouri that had a losing season. In contrast, this season it's Missouri that has come out with a collective chip on its shoulder because of it's failures last season while it's the Aggies who have the best player in the game but have regressed as a team. The Tigers are doing all of the things that A&M did well last season and in many instances are doing them better, especially on defense. Most notably, Missouri lost its starting quarterback for a time but the remainder of the team picked up the slack. They're playing for a berth in the SEC title game while the Aggies are just playing to see which bowl game they'll be going to.

It's easy to look back and say that we overestimated A&M as a team during the off season. However, last year's team took the fight to the opposition because it understood that teams win as teams and everyone was involved. This year's group has a transcendent player, a supporting cast that hasn't lived up to expectations, and now people with an eye on a future that may not have anything to do with the present.

-Everyone is reading too much into the results of the LSU game in terms of whether or not Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is leaving to take another job. We're looking at his body language from Baton Rouge and the disjointed, dispirited way that the team played and contrasting it to the Conference USA championship game when Sumlin was getting ready to leave Houston for the A&M job. That was Sumlin's lone loss in the 2011 season and it came at home as a favorite and you got the sense in watching that game that everyone…. coaches, players…knew that he was leaving Houston (the rumors had already cropped up by then and everyone understood that A&M was a destination for him).

However, many of the problems that A&M had in that game were on display in previous contests as well. We weren't just paying as much attention to them as was warranted because A&M was winning. It wasn't like we didn't see them coming…A&M's commitment to a downfield passing game overshadowing the lack of a running and move the chains passing game, inattention to detail with penalties and turnovers, lack of physical play. The defensive problems certainly shouldn't have come as a surprise as those items had been diagnosed early on and had never been fixed.

But people are ascribing the inability of the staff to fix those issues to a lack of attention on their part and that's probably not the case. First off, consider this: it took 24 games for a Kevin Sumlin coached team to lose a game by double digits and play so poorly. Sumlin's teams had set such a high standard that we just had come to expect that every time out and it's a difficult standard to maintain, especially on the road.

Second, defenses that don't play well over the course of a season rarely manage to fix themselves. It would be nice to see A&M defenders not overrun plays or understand how to cover a wheel route but those things aren't going to get fixed this season. It's not like the historically bad defenses that we saw in 1982, 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2009 played much better in their last couple of games of those seasons. The issues they displayed never got solved until the existing players got more experience/size, changed positions, or better players made their way into the pipeline and pushed those players out.

Against Missouri, A&M needs to come out and reverse some trends on offense that we've seen this season or at least have Manziel throw the ball better and the receivers not drop any passes. Even with all of the issues the Aggies had with LSU, if they had done some of those things early on the game wouldn't have been pretty but it wouldn't have gotten out of hand like it did.

-That leads to me my last point…overreaction going into the game Missouri itself coming off the loss in Baton Rouge.

I've made this point before but every week in college football is different. You can't just look at one week and extrapolate things from it…you've got to look over the course of a season, discern trends, and examine what the individual circumstances for that particular week. In turn, that means that you can't necessarily think that A&M will get blown out versus Missouri like they did versus LSU because the circumstances won't be exactly the same.

Here's what we know about A&M: despite the lack of defense and a decline in their rushing offense, discipline (i.e. penalties), and ability to force turnovers, up until the LSU game they've still consistently scored 40 to 50 points a game and can play with anyone. They struggle more to score points on the road but that's the case with most teams but even then (for the most part) they get into the 30's.

We'll find out a lot about A&M's coaches and players this week. They haven't had to play in a lot of hostile environments this season (just three road games). They're coming off of their worst performance of the year. They don't have nearly as much to play for as the Tigers. Missouri plays a defense that denies the big play down the field and they're good at all the things that A&M isn't.

Nonetheless, if Manziel plays like he's capable of and his receivers catch the ball (and remember, Missouri doesn't press receivers up and down the field like LSU does), then A&M will do more than just make this a game. In fact, if the Aggies have some early success, then they'll be like a lot of other underdogs and they'll start playing for fun and unburdened by all of the expectations that they've had this season.

But all of that starts a sense of urgency, a desire to be physical, and everyone being on the same page. We'll find out pretty quickly if this a team ready to get the season over with or is willing to continue to build a program that will endure after they some of them are long gone from it.


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