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Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Manziel, Aggies bloom as college football enters new era

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George Whitfield had never heard of Johnny Manziel last spring when the Texan's mother called up the Southern California-based quarterback coach.

"Honestly, if there's some high school kid breaking records an hour north of here, I probably wouldn't know it," Whitfield admitted.

Manziel's mother had heard about the work the self-described "Quarterback Builder" -- aka "the Broom Guy" -- had done with Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and others. Her son was a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M entrenched in a four-QB battle for the starting job.

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Truth be told, most people figured Manziel, a former 3-star recruit, wouldn't beat out strong-armed Jamiel Showers for the starting job. (Manziel was ranked by Rivals.com as the 14th-best dual-threat quarterback in the 2011 recruiting class and only the 39th-best QB prospect in the country by ESPN.)

Whitfield surfed around the Internet to find high school footage of Manziel and was curious. They agreed Manziel would come out a week after the Aggies completed spring football. The week of training would cost the Manziels $1,500, plus airfare and hotel.

When Manziel arrived in San Diego, Whitfield was surprised. "I really thought he'd be a lot bigger," the 6-foot-ish former small college quarterback said late Saturday night. "We were eye to eye."

Manziel probably looked even smaller because he'd come out to California the same week Whitfield was training Logan Thomas, Va. Tech's super-sized 6-foot-6, 252-pound quarterback. Whitfield started to get a better sense of what Manziel was all about when the young Aggie realized the coach would be training Thomas at a different time of the day along with fellow Whitfield protégé Pete Thomas, another towering QB, who had started at Colorado State and is now at NC State.

"Johnny was pissed," Whitfield says. "He said he wanted to go with Logan. He didn't care what [specific drills] Logan was working on. He just wanted to line up against him."

Thomas told Whitfield he was fine with it, and so there was little Johnny repping and studying every little detail Whitfield imparted on the more high-profile quarterback and competing his butt off every second. It was that same spirit Whitfield was overwhelmed by last Thursday night when Manziel called him some 36 hours before Texas A&M's showdown at No. 1 Alabama and Nick Saban's top-ranked defense.

"Johnny said, 'This is gonna be like going into the Roman Colosseum,'" Whitfield recalls Manziel telling him. "He was talking in this very chilled-out monotone, and then he goes, 'I promise you. We are going to shock the world on Saturday.' And I believed him."

And sure enough, Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M did just that. Their 29-24 upset of mighty Alabama throws the BCS title chase into even more chaos. Thanks to the upstart Aggies, the SEC's staggering six-year run of BCS dominance might be over. Now the SEC needs to hope someone knocks off Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame. Or at least two of the three.

The most ironic part of that is Lane Kiffin, the embattled USC coach, once the scourge of the conference is the SEC's best hope, since the Trojans get a visit from the undefeated Irish and also might get a second crack at Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

The irony's also pretty thick that it's Texas A&M that caused some of this mess for the SEC. In July, Kevin Sumlin and three of his players also had traveled to Alabama. This time it was for SEC media days, the summer circus where it seemed every one of the 1,000 media members personally told the Aggie contingent they had no idea what they were getting into now that they were about to start playing "big-boy football."

Instead, the one recoiling has been the SEC. The Aggies offense has proven to be a major problem for the rest of the league. The squad leads the conference in just about every meaningful stat the SEC holds dear: scoring offense; total offense and rushing offense. It's also not like the Aggies are doing this thanks to getting some lighter league schedule. The Aggies have had to survive the SEC's three best defenses: Alabama, Florida and LSU.

What's most significant is just how much the Aggies have improved from the start of the season when they debuted against Florida. Remember, this isn't just Manziel's first season as a college player, it's also the Aggies' first season playing in the new system Sumlin brought.

Johnny Manziel may be celebrating more than an upset of Alabama. (Getty Images)  
Johnny Manziel may be celebrating more than an upset of Alabama. (Getty Images)  
On Wednesday morning when I spoke to Sumlin, he said A&M didn't need to try and play a perfect game but rather a complete game to stay locked in for four quarters. Easier said than done, of course, especially on the road against the No. 1 team in the country.

The Aggies' modus operandi the past few seasons has been to get out to fast starts and then wilt. That trend, as much as anything, is probably the reason Mike Sherman is back coaching in the NFL and Sumlin is in College Station, not running a Pac-12 program. Against the Tide, A&M again jumped on its opponent as the wizardry of Manziel rattled Saban's defense. Manziel scooted and scrambled and zinged pinpoint passes to give the Aggies the early lead. In fact, it was startling to see him carve up the Tide as A&M outgained Alabama 172 yards to 34 yards in the opening quarter. Bama had only allowed six points in its previous nine games. The Aggies scored 20 and before the opening quarter was over, the entire sports world was buzzing about Johnny Football.

All season no one had a run go for longer than 22 yards against the Tide. Manziel, though, ripped off runs of 29 and 32 yards. The kid's wheels are so eye-popping, it makes you overlook the fact that he started the game 21 of 22 as a passer. And it wasn't just like he was dinking and dunking. He was buying time, resetting, dodging would-be tacklers and still throwing strikes. When Manziel worked downfield, he was also nearly flawless, connecting on four of his five deep throws.

Like Whitfield, Mark Snyder was hardly stunned. The Texas A&M defensive coordinator had a little surprise for veteran Alabama QB AJ McCarron. Snyder was going to break out something his D hadn't used all season -- 2-Robber, a defense where the Aggies would show two "high" safeties but "rock" to one. The coach observed in film study that Alabama loves crossing routes.

Snyder busted 2-Robber out at practice earlier in the week. The coach never tipped off his counterpart, A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, that it was coming. Snyder figured he'd "get" Johnny Football, only at that last split-second the QB double-clutched the ball and took off and beat the defense. In the game Saturday, though, McCarron, a guy who hadn't been intercepted all season, wasn't as fortunate. He got picked off and Bama struggled with the 2-Robber most of the times A&M threw it at them.

That was only one of several wrinkles Snyder had to get the Tide off balance. A&M also opted to shift its undersized, 270-pound defensive tackle Spencer Nealy over the nose to give problems to Bama center Barrett Jones in hopes of disrupting things while inserting 310-pound Kirby Ennis at the 3-Technique. Those moves also worked out quite nicely for A&M. Ennis tied for the team lead in tackles with seven (along with notching a sack). That's half as many tackles as he had in the previous nine games combined. Alabama, which came into the game trailing only the Aggies in rushing in the SEC at 5.3 yards per carry, was limited to 3.9 yards a rush and was forced into three turnovers, including two McCarron interceptions.

Better still for the Aggies, they finished. Clinging to a three-point lead going into the fourth quarter, they outscored the Tide in the final 15 minutes.

"No moment is too big for him," Sumlin said of Manziel after the game. "He gives our players a sense that anything can happen. It's a contagious feeling."

That contagious feeling is spreading well beyond College Station. I've written about the Aggies a lot this year. They are a fascinating team beyond Manziel. All of a sudden Texas A&M, which for years no one outside the state of Texas paid much attention to, is the "it" program in college football.

No, the country's football fans haven't grown tired of Oregon, but we're intrigued by newness and that's what we have coming out of College Station. The Aggies have a masterful head coach, who is as good as there is at managing people -- players and staff alike. Stuff like that really matters when it comes to running a program. Sumlin also put together a fantastic staff and has proven to be a pretty savvy X's-and-O's guy.

Quick Stat of the Day reference: Texas A&M football vs. No. 1 teams all-time with Sumlin on staff: 2-0. Texas A&M football vs. No. 1 teams all-time without Sumlin on staff: 0-10. That other win over a No. 1 occurred in November 2002, when Sumlin took over as the Aggies offensive coordinator and led them to a 30-26 win over Oklahoma.

The most scary part of all this for their (new) rivals and even their old ones (yes, Texas) is that recruits have to be giddy about the prospects of being a part of it. A&M football never has been hotter.

Their young QB didn't just shake up the BCS title picture, he also shook up the Heisman race. Till Saturday morning, I was convinced it was Collin Klein's Heisman to lose. Now, after seeing what Manziel did to Alabama, I'm not so sure.

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 When I visited A&M in February, I chatted with Kliff Kingsbury for awhile about his new QBs. When he spoke about Manziel, his eyes lit up. He said the kid played a lot like Doug Flutie once did. It's an interesting comparison now that we've seen Manziel, who looks like a faster, slightly taller version of the BC legend. Kingsbury also talked about how Manziel was a dunking machine and a freaky athlete. Still, being an elite quarterback has to do with a lot more than only great athleticism, especially when you're in a league loaded with freak athletes.

As I wrote earlier in the week, Kingsbury's stock -- like his young QB's -- is soaring. Kingsbury is only 33, but what he's done with Manziel and this offense has been impressive. Kingsbury is in a very good position. There are likely to be four SEC coaching jobs come open. Also, I'm told Purdue, where his boss, Kevin Sumlin, also played, is going to come open. If I'm Kentucky or Purdue, I'm definitely looking closely at Kingsbury, especially after seeing A&M knock off No. 1 Alabama. But the former Texas Tech star also has Manziel, some exciting young receivers and backs (along with some talented players sitting out this season) coming back. Either way, I suspect Kingsbury's about to get a big pay bump.

 The only QB hotter right now than Manziel (81 percent completion rate in his past two games) may be Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, who has as many TD passes as incompletions in the past two weeks (10). Mariota hit over 82 percent of his passes in the past two games (47 of 57). The other redshirt freshman QB star also has taken some steam away from teammate Kenjon Barner's Heisman candidacy. Barner was banged up in Oregon's win at Cal and has dropped in the race.

Mariota is the new national leader in passing efficiency at 176.96. For comparison's sake: Last season, Darron Thomas was at 158.65 (No. 11), his career-high. Jeremiah Masoli in 2009 ranked No. 56 and was at 129.46. Mariota's accuracy, touch and decision-marking, reflected in those numbers, are only some of the reasons why this is Chip Kelly's best team yet.

 Right now I have it as a tossup between Collin Klein and Manziel, followed by Marqise Lee, Manti Te'o and Barner.

Marqise Lee is too much for the Sun Devils, and everyone else. (US Presswire)  
Marqise Lee is too much for the Sun Devils, and everyone else. (US Presswire)  
 Lee continues to carry USC. The sophomore receiver, who also played some defensive back in the Trojans' 38-17 win over ASU, had 10 catches for 161 yards. The rest of the USC team only had 61 receiving yards. Robert Woods, the Trojans' other standout receiver, had two catches for minus-3 yards. Woods' diminished role in the offense has got a lot of USC fans fired up. Woods had a little fun with it himself Saturday night on Twitter when he tweeted:

@HeismanWoods: This is a funny twitter handle @passWoodsball

Lee's gaudy statline, which also included six carries for 66 yards, doesn't quite reflect how spectacular some of the things he is doing. Check this out.

 Amazing statline for a QB with no shot of getting invited to the Heisman ceremony in NYC: Louisiana Tech's Colby Cameron, who has completed 71 percent of his passes and has a 27-0 TD-INT ratio.

 I'm hearing Derek Dooley is going to get canned at Tennessee, but there are still some issues the school is trying to sort out before it makes the move. Dooley's latest loss, at home against SEC newcomer Missouri, was the latest cringe-worthy moment for the Vol faithful. The Tigers had come into the game 1-5 in the SEC -- with their lone win over visiting Kentucky, who was also at the time about to fire its coach.

The Vols had led 21-7 before finally falling 51-48. Tennessee becomes the first team in SEC history to allow 38 points or more in six consecutive games, as the ESPN Stats & Info group points out. Worse still, this was a defense that had nine starters back from last year, when UT only allowed more than 38 points once.

 Stat of the Day, Take II: This one is courtesy of my old pal John Walters, a Notre Dame authority: Five of Notre Dame's 10 opponents have failed to score an offensive TD. Nine are from AQ conferences (the other program, Navy, is an independent).

 Stat of the Day, Take III: Courtesy of Dallas Morning News writer Chuck Carlton: The beleaguered Texas defense had 10 quarters, from the Oklahoma game through the first half of the Kansas game, where it allowed 127 points and 1,482 yards. In the 10 quarters since then: 32 points and 793 yards allowed.

 Stat of the Day, Take IV: The FBS programs know as KSU -- Kansas State and Kent State-- are tied for the lead in turnover margin at plus-two per game. They are a combined 19-1 this year.

 Speaking of Notre Dame, defensive coordinator Bobby Diaco's name also is coming up a lot in regards to coaching vacancies. He is one to watch.

 Almost all of the talk last spring about who was going to replace Andrew Luck at Stanford surrounded Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes, but after the way Kevin Hogan played against Oregon State, it sure looks like the Cardinal have found a guy to grow with. But next week's trip to Autzen will reveal a lot more about the freshman. Seeing Hogan shine made me think back to hearing OC Pep Hamilton introduce him into the conversation when I was part of a gathering of reporters trying to ID the merits of Nunes and Nottingham. Hamilton said Hogan, along with the other two, had the strongest arms of the five QBs they had and that Hogan was the best athlete of the bunch.

 The Pac-10 was known as the conference of quarterbacks. Maybe the Pac-12 should be known as the conference of quarterback killers. Four of the country's top five pass-rushing teams come from the Pac-12 (Stanford, ASU, USC and UCLA). Tulsa, No. 3, is the lone outsider. And it's not just because the league throws a lot more than other conferences do. In fact only two schools have thrown more than 360 times this year, which is actually not that much, relatively speaking.

 Hats off to Vandy on rallying to beat Ole Miss on the road in what proved to be a very entertaining game between two pleasantly surprising SEC teams. The Commodores (6-4) have now won four in a row and are probably one blown call away (from earlier in the season) from being in the Top 25 right now. What's also really surprising is that the Commodores are doing it despite having only forced eight turnovers all season (last in the country).

 The turnover thing can be a pretty flukey deal. Last season Oklahoma State lead the country in turnovers forced (44). This year, OSU is No. 102 with just 11.

 K-State player we need to talk more about: defensive end Meshak Williams. Every time I flipped over to the TCU game, Williams was making a play. He finished with a team-high seven tackles, three TFLs and two sacks. Bill Snyder worked wonders hitting on a ridiculous high percentage of his JC transfers in the 90s and Williams, a product of Hutchinson CC, is the latest big hit.

 Congrats to Alex Mortensen, the one-time Arkansas QB whose dad is Chris Mortensen, an old friend. The younger Mortensen is proving to be quite the coach. Mortensen's making his debut season as a college coach at DII New Mexico Highlands, the place where the movie No Country for Old Men was filmed. But things are working out just fine for him. Mortensen has helped spark a prolific offense for a program that just notched its first eight-win season since 1998.

 Interesting to hear from sources about how so many of these SEC power brokers covet coaches with SEC experience, and yet the newcomer who is going to win league Coach of the Year honors, Kevin Sumlin, didn't have a lick.

 While the family of Manziel is trying to trademark "Johnny Football", George Whitfield has a new nickname for Manziel. Johnny Football, which came from one of his high school coaches is catchy, but Whitfield suggests Johnny Dragonslayer. "To me, that Alabama defense was getting pressed by two men: Nick Saban and Johnny Manziel," Whitfield said. "Did Saban own that defense, or did Johnny? In the third quarter Johnny couldn't get it going, but he kept battling and then kept making plays. I feel like this is a threshold deal for him. Cam [Newton] became Cam at Alabama too when he had that comeback. This kid had already been in the highlights, but [Saturday] showed his resilience to do it on the road for four quarters. He took big shots. They had zero turnovers. Not everything broke their way, but he still slayed the dragon. Just like he said he would."


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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