I was with you.
When Texas A&M somehow blew a 34-point lead in the final 19 minutes at UCLA in the season opener, I wrote off the Aggies. I saw a team that was still frustratingly weak on defense and I saw a true freshman quarterback who looked in over his head. I saw a team that had no fight and no way to stop the bleeding.
When Sumlin joined the SEC Coaches Teleconference that following Wednesday, I heard a man who sounded like he hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep all week. When I thought about his short- and long-term future in College Station, I pictured it ending abrubtly. When I heard the hot seat talk, I supported the notion that it was only a matter of time before Sumlin was axed.
A month later, I can admit I was wrong about him and his team.
Sumlin did stop the bleeding. While other SEC coaches came under fire in the following weeks, Sumlin has seemingly removed himself from the conversation for the time being.
In this conference and in this era of college football, that’s an impressive in-season feat.
It’s ironic that Texas A&M’s most admirable performance of 2017 came in a loss. But if there was ever a quality loss, staying within one score of Alabama was it.
All signs pointed to the Tide running away with the game after it took a 24-3 lead early in the second half. That’s usually about the time that teams realize what they’re up against. You know, Alabama, the program that won four of the past eight national titles. Or the program that demolished its first two SEC opponents by a combined score of 125-3.
You know, those guys.
And what did the Aggies do? They fought back.
They didn’t cave like they did against UCLA. They didn’t get tight like they did against Nicholls. Instead, they played toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the country for the final 26 minutes of the game. I didn’t think Sumlin or the Aggies had that in them.
Sure, Sumlin voiced his displeasure about there being “no moral victories” after the Alabama game. He’s right. But you’re crazy if you think he wasn’t encouraged by the strides his team made.
It’s one thing for a team to shake off an early-season loss and get back on track. Teams like N.C. State did that. The difference with Texas A&M was, of course, the fact that all the pressure was on Sumlin to deliver. Starting 2-0 in SEC play is delivering. Hanging with Alabama for 60 minutes is absolutely delivering.
The question might not be whether Sumlin’s team has turned the corner. In my eyes, it has. Kellen Mond is still making mistakes, but he’s also making some big-time plays. We’re seeing adjustments from John Chavis’ defense, too.
The question is whether the Aggies can get the wins to really show that improvement. The schedule still isn’t favorable in the near future. Going to Florida on Saturday night won’t be easy, neither will hosting Mississippi State and Auburn. The Aggies can actually play pretty well, go 0-3 and Sumlin can be out of a job by the first week of November.
That’s reality in the SEC. What’s also reality is that his team can go 2-1 in that stretch with a hard-fought loss to Auburn, and Sumlin could be sitting with a 4-2 SEC record with close losses to two top-10 teams. That’s by no means a fireable offense.
The word I keep coming back to with Sumlin is “fight.” It’s cliché but the Aggies really did fight when the chips were stacked against them. Sure, Sumlin’s odds of keeping his job are slim if his best win in 2017 is against South Carolina at home. But you have to credit the way his team fought the last month.
Can Sumlin prove that he can sustain a solid start and actually win some SEC games in October? We don’t know what kind of fight his team will have when it hasn’t been written off.
If the Aggies really have turned the corner, perhaps Sumlin’s seat won’t be nearly as hot as we thought.