Senior College Football Columnist

With Johnny Football pulling the trigger, Sumlin's Aggies have settled right into SEC

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To Kevin Sumlin, it's a backhanded compliment -- right upside the jaw.

"People ask me, 'Did you think you guys would do this well?' the Texas A&M coach said. "What you're asking me is, 'I didn't think you were going to do this well and I would like for you to comment on it.'"

Welcome to Johnny Football fallout.

Johnny Manziel -- the Aggie quarterback's Christian name -- has become the fulcrum for the best conference crossover of the realignment era. The No. 15 Aggies find themselves 7-2 in their first SEC season -- equaling last season's win total -- and an Alabama upset away from shocking a conference they officially joined only four months ago.

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Manziel is their best hope. Twice the redshirt freshman has made a mockery of the SEC total offense record -- breaking the 43-year old mark in A&M's fourth game, then re-setting it two weeks later. In seems like heresy that a 6-foot-1, 200-pound quarterback could lead the league in rushing. But heresy reigns lately. Some guy named Cam Newton did just that two years ago.

Manziel has brought the same charisma, escapability and Heisman buzz without the ... baggage.

In a league that prides itself on defense but can be woefully lacking in quarterback talent, A&M has an incredible balance in SEC Year 1. Sumlin's hurry-up offense seemed to be an example of what Nick Saban referred to earlier this season as a threat to "player safety."

In Saban's world, too many plays can cause big, hefty defenders to breathe real hard and get -- wait for it -- tired. That's kind of the idea in College Station. Saturday should provide a wondrous preview if Alabama and Oregon meet in the BCS title game. Consider Manziel and the Aggies' offense as Ducks Jr.

Both A&M and Oregon lead their conferences in scoring and yards per game. Both have redshirt freshman triggermen at quarterback. In fact, if he hadn't signed with the Aggies, Manziel might be lighting it up for Oregon. He committed to the Ducks before switching to the Aggies.

"Tell Chip [Kelly] he did all right," Sumlin said of Oregon's Marcus Mariota, a West Coast version of Manziel. "I don't feel sorry for Chip at all." Survey the realignment landscape to date. A&M has made the transfer better and quicker than anyone. West Virginia, after a hot start, has lost three Big 12 games. TCU (6-3) hosts No. 3 Kansas State in a game that will define its first Big 12 season. In its second year in the Pac-12, Colorado (1-8) is at one of the low points in its history. Utah has struggled as well. Missouri has been overmatched in the SEC. Nebraska has a chance to win the Legends Division in its second Big Ten season.

But the planets may have aligned for an Aggie upset. Alabama has to be fatigued both mentally and physically after the LSU game. It will be Nick Saban's charge to make sure a Tiger hangover doesn't take hold.

In one corner a national championship hangs in the balance, in the other Johnny Football don't care. Johnny Football takes what he wants.

"He had it in high school," Sumlin said of Manziel's swashbuckling nickname.

"He's just got something special about him," said Manziel's high school coach Mark Smith. In this age of comparisons -- Collin Klein-to-Tim Tebow, etc. -- Manziel defies them. He is Kenny Stabler without the hair sticking out of the back of the helmet, Namath without Broadway, although his persona may be getting there. Some photos popped up on the Internet last week showing the A&M quarterback in a Scooby Doo costume.

Johnny Halloween? There are worse times to be had dressing up.

If it looks like Manziel is making it up as he goes along, you're not too far off. Asked how much leeway he has given his quarterback to audible, Sumlin said cautiously, "He's gotten to the point there are some things he can handle."

And that's OK for a redshirt freshman. A&M as a program has to feel ahead of the game. In SEC Year 1, it is guided by a coach in his first head BCS coaching job accompanied by a gun-slinging up-and-coming offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury.

At times, they have all conspired to spit in the SEC's face. Coming into this season A&M had been four games above .500 in the previous decade. Some fifth-year players were on their third position coach and had originally been recruited by Dennis Franchione (2003-07).

Not much was expected of a program in transition picked as low as sixth in the SEC West.

"Basically, I said, 'Hey why would you trust me?' Sumlin told his players.

Turns out A&M was a perfect SEC fit before Manziel took a snap. Its culture is more aligned with the SEC. It recruits extensively in Louisiana. The SEC's commissioner raved about the Midnight Yell Practice during his first visit for the opener against Florida.

The Aggies are merely ahead of schedule. It still starts with the quarterback -- an unlikely, cocky redshirt freshman who was a turnover machine in the spring, busted by the cops in the summer and was still in a battle for the position in late August.

"In the spring, he was very careless with the football," Sumlin said. "Kliff's done a nice job with him. Mechanically he's got better. It's hard to get dramatically better as a quarterback during the season because you're installing game plans and doing all this stuff. What he's done is gotten a better feel for our offense. We're comfortable with him."

A June arrest that resulted in misdemeanor charges for disorderly conduct and possessing false identification has been forgotten as Manziel's football exploits took over. There have been no other reported incidents.

"TAMU has always been, the words that come out are 'huge potential,' 'gold mine', Sumlin said. "We have the resources, a great location. We've got the game day atmosphere that's a fit for the SEC. It comes down to style of play and how you play."

As of this moment, the coach and his quarterback have redefined that style of play. The best SEC defenses Manziel has played have held him relatively in check. He rushed for 60 yards against Florida, only 27 yards against LSU. But the Aggies were in both games playing grown-man football, losing by a combined eight points.

Sumlin was worried about his players' outlook after that season-opening 20-17 loss to the Gators. Hurricane Irene postponed the opener against Louisiana Tech. The Aggies, then, had to dive into the heart of their schedule against Florida without a tuneup. Following his team's first win the next week at SMU, Sumlin stepped onto a nearly silent team bus.

"It's never that quiet after a win," he said.

Then Sumlin noticed his players glued to the TV watching Florida beat Tennessee. The Aggies were already measuring themselves -- silently -- against the rest of the SEC.

"In a weird way it helped our confidence at that point realizing, 'Hey, you know what that [Florida loss] wasn't as bad as we thought,' Sumlin said.

In a showdown Saturday against then-No. 17 Mississippi State, the Aggies made perhaps their biggest statement of the season. Manziel broke out again -- rolling up 440 yards in total offense in a 38-13 dismantling of the Bulldogs. In his last two games, both on the road, Manziel has led scoring drives on 13 of the last 18 possessions while the Aggies totaled 101 points.

His signature move going into Alabama doesn't thrill Sumlin. Sprinting into a wide, arcing rollout, Manziel turns his back to the line then comes out of his turn to survey the field for a pass or run.

"I'm not a big fan of that move," Sumlin said.

But in the receivers, tight ends and running backs position meetings they say the same thing during the week that they say on Saturday: Be ready.

Sumlin got the job, in part, because he is a quarterback maker. At Houston, he coached Case Keenum, the FBS all-time leading passer. During five years as an offensive assistant at Oklahoma (2003-07), the Sooners won three Big 12 titles. His transition from Conference USA to a new BCS school/big BCS conference was smoothed by the fact he had recruited all three scholarship quarterbacks on the A&M roster while with Houston.

"There was a relationship there with Kliff," Sumlin said. "There was a comfort level going in. They knew we weren't going to run the option."

A coach known for his high-flying offenses has developed and united a complete program in the first year of a great adventure.

While it's not a one-man team, it's become OK in College Station to be a one-man show.

-- Bryan Fischer contributed to this story


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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