By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
A few months ago, Ryan Swope already knew.
During the July circus known as SEC Football Media Days, Swope, Texas A&M’s record-setting wide receiver, was asked how he believed the Aggies’ fast-paced, no-huddle offense of first-year A&M coach Kevin Sumlin would fare against SEC defenses, particularly in the Western Division.
That’s where fellow West member A&M has to annually face Alabama and LSU, who finished last season No. 1 and No. 2 in the national championship race, mainly because the Tide and Tigers finished second and third nationally in total defense.
“I’ve never run as much in my life as in Coach Sumlin’s offense,” Swope said of his first spring with Sumlin. “We just run, run, run. It’s going to be interesting to see how those SEC defenses react to this different kind of scheme that we run.”
With two weeks left in the regular season, here’s how SEC defenses have reacted – A&M, ranked No. 8 in the BCS at 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the SEC West, is fifth nationally in total offense and tied for fourth in scoring offense averaging 545.4 yards and 43.1 points respectively.
Freshman redshirt quarterback Johnny Manziel is averaging 379.4 yards total offense, ranking him second individually and 84th in team offense if he was considered one of the 120 FBS teams.
When the Aggies went into Bear Bryant’s house last Saturday, A&M jumped up 20-0 in the game’s first 14:19 on the nation’s No. 1 team and defending national champ Alabama and then closed out a 29-24 win, I had four reactions.
1. Stunned: Not because I didn’t think the Aggies lacked the talent to beat Alabama. I just didn’t believe a first-year team in the SEC could walk into Tuscaloosa and make Alabama’s defense look silly.
2. Resigned: I had just confidently proclaimed just days before on Tim Brando’s national CBS Sports Network TV show/Yahoo and Sirius Radio show based in Shreveport, La., that if A&M beat Alabama, I would run down Louisiana Highway 1 through the heart of Shreveport wearing just my underwear.
This note to A&M fans: Both of us are trying to come up with a date that we can tie my run to a charity event. And I will wear A&M boxer shorts, an A&M cap and scrawl “Gig ‘Em” across my chest with a Sharpie.
3. Hopeful: That the SEC’s dreams for a seventh straight national champion aren’t dead yet. With SEC teams currently occupying Nos. 4 through No. 9 in the BCS poll with Alabama at No. 4 and Eastern champ Georgia at No. 5, I’m not counting the SEC out yet. No. 1 Kansas State, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Notre Dame all have challenging games left these last two weeks of the season. Of those three teams, only Oregon in the Pac-10 is in a league that has a championship game like the SEC. The SEC champ should get a bit of the boost by the computers, because it appears the SEC title game will pit two teams ranked in the top 5.
4. Reflective: Anyone who follows SEC football wondered at the start of the season how the new kids in the block, Texas A&M and Missouri, would fare in a conference that has been historically built on defense.
Missouri has put up big offensive numbers in recent years in coach Gary Pinkel’s spread offense, but A&M with newbie Sumlin was a mystery.
His previous offenses in his four seasons at the University of Houston posted video game stats and scores so high in Conference USA that it was unfathomable that he could do the same thing in the SEC.
But three weeks before the start of this season when Sumlin found his starting quarterback – Manziel, a doomsday yardage gobbling machine who never seems to quit dodging, darting and ducking – the complexion of A&M’s season unknowingly changed.
Just a few weeks into the sesson, the phrase “impact on the SEC” began being associated with the Aggies and Manziel. I never thought A&M (well, maybe its awesome band) or Missouri would have an impact this season. After all, here in the SEC, we’re supposed to show you how to play football our way.
Oops! The Aggie joke is on us.
"The (A&M) coaches came in with a plan and they told us how it would work, and it's fun because it worked out exactly how they said it would,” A&M wide receiver Malcome Kennedy says. “We knew the defense would be tired against us and it would be hard for them to make sound play calls, with the tempo that we use. It's crazy to see how they (the A&M coaches) said it would work and it's working exactly how they said it would."
In placing in perspective what A&M has done this football season, I jumped in my time machine and traveled back to the last SEC expansion that took effect at the start of the 1991-92 basketball season. That’s when Arkansas and South Carolina became the 11th and 12th members as the league divided into two divisions.
For most of the SEC’s 79 years of operation, the two league members known as the national championship standards in football and basketball were Alabama and Kentucky respectively. ‘Bama has won 14 national titles in football, Kentucky 8 in basketball.
Last Saturday, playing an offensive style best-described as fastbreak football, first-year SEC member A&M walked into the mecca of SEC football and put a whoopee cushion on the king’s throne in front of 101,821 fans.
“We never looked at it as, 'We have to do this, we have to prove people wrong',” A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart says. “Our guys at Texas A&M get recruited just the same as other guys. We can play with top-caliber teams and we can be a top-caliber team. We just have to do what we need to do. If we prepare how we need to prepare and play how we need to play, then we can compete with anybody in the nation."
Back in January 1992, playing an offensive fastbreak, hard-trapping style uniquely known as “Forty Minutes of Hell,” first-year SEC member Arkansas strutted into the Big Blue Mist in Lexington and hammered Rick Pitino’s basketball Wildcats 105-88.
A then-UK home record crowd of 24,324, many of the fans wearing “Pig Roast at Rupp” T-shirts, loudly welcomed the Razorbacks, who went on to win 26 games and the SEC regular season championship on their maiden voyage through the league. In the game’s last 10:55, the Hogs outscored UK 33-15 and the only sounds heard at the final buzzer were the whoops by the celebrating Arkansas players.
It was more than just a game for the Hogs. It was drawing a line in the sand; it was introducing the SEC to a new style of endline to endline hoops that had never been played in the league full-tilt from the opening tip to the final horn.
“When we joined the SEC, we had a chip on our shoulder,” recalls former Arkansas guard Todd Day, the school’s all-time leading scorer who played eight seasons in the NBA. “All the other top teams nationally were from power conferences. We came from the Southwest Conference and we felt we never got any respect for being in that conference. We looked forward to joining the SEC to see what we could do.
“Kentucky was one of the teams we targeted. With the history of its program and all the great players it had, we knew if we beat Kentucky, we could earn respect right away. Our mission was to make a statement.”
And it was also the Hogs’ intent that day to introduce their relentless style of play, a philosophy developed by Richardson who always viewed himself as the unconventional strategist who didn’t fit into college basketball’s traditional square box.
“Coach (Richardson) allowed us to have input,” says former Arkansas guard Scotty Thurman, who hit the game-winning three-pointer in the Razorbacks’ 1994 national title game win over Duke. “There were times in games that he’d call timeout and say, `What defense do you guys want to run? What we’re running right now is not working.’ He’d give us a chance to change it, and that’s what made our team so special. We had a coach who knew which buttons to push.”
There was also that frenetic style of play that Day says was ahead of its time.
“When we came in the SEC, Vanderbilt played a real slow style, Georgia didn’t get up and down the floor and several other teams played that way,” Day says.
“But we didn’t run a lot of sets and plays, we just went out there and let our defense create our offense. The way power forwards play today – big guys who can shoot threes – is the way Coach Richardson saw his power forwards.
“He was a visionary. He always felt people thought he could just coach athletes, that he wasn’t an Xs and Os coach. He wanted to show all the bigwigs in the SEC that he could hang.
“We made everybody else play uptempo. If you watch college basketball today, everybody plays uptempo. There’s no way you can win in college today slowing it down. So in that aspect, we had a big impact on how the game was played in the SEC because of our style.”
Richardson never doubted his philosophy, which he had honed in winning a national junior college championship and then a NIT title at Tulsa, would work. Two years after Day finished at Arkansas, the Hogs won a national title and almost repeated in ’95.
Like Richardson’s unwavering conviction, Sumlin feels the same way about his no-huddle, ratta-tat-tat offense.
“We have a system we believe in,” Sumlin says. “We’re very comfortable in it. We understand it, the strengths and the weaknesses of it. If we didn’t believe it would work, we wouldn’t run it.”
The rest of the SEC had to adjust to Richardson “Forty Minutes of Hell” or be left eating dust. Such a transformation is just starting as the league’s best defensive football minds hope to figure how to derail Sumlin’s Gig-a-bite offense.
“In the future, we’re going to have to practice our No. 1 offense against our No. 1 defense at that tempo, to have our best players who can simulate that speed,” Alabama coach Nick Saban says. “Eight times in the game last week, we weren’t lined up and they ran a fastball play on us. That’s not good coaching, and it’s something we’ll work on in the off-season.”
So will the rest of the SEC.
Because the Aggies, like the basketball Razorbacks two decades ago, have shown they’ve earned their keep after kicking down the SEC’s front door and not-so subtly introducing themselves.