December 10, 2011
As poorly as Mike Sherman's exit went over last week, at least the Aggies have something to show for it: As expected, A&M has landed the hottest name in the offseason coaching market, Houston's Kevin Sumlin, thereby guaranteeing next year's transition from the Big 12 to the SEC will come with a heavy dose of heavy passing.
Sumlin leaves Houston with the best winning percentage of any coach in school history (.672) and a single-season record for wins (12) under his belt. He returns to College Station as the first black head coach in A&M history and the new steward of the same expectations that got Sherman fired just one year after an apparent breakthrough in 2010, as the Aggies brace themselves for landing in the toughest division in college football.
If Sumlin knows anything, it's throwing the ball all over the field, all day long. He was wide receivers coach at his alma mater, Purdue, when Drew Brees ruled the skies there from 1998-2000. He was an offensive assistant at Oklahoma for Jason White's Heisman run in 2003, the Sooners' return to the BCS title game in 2004 and the beginning of Sam Bradford's emergence as a sharpshooting robot in 2007.
For the last four years, he's overseen the most prolific passing career in the history of college football courtesy of Case Keenum, who leaves Houston with Division I records for total yards, passing yards, completions and touchdowns. With Keenum at the controls, the Cougars led the nation in total and scoring offense this season for the second time in three years, after finishing second in total offense in Sumlin's first season, 2008. With Keenum out for nearly all of 2010, the Cougars still averaged 38 points on 480 yards per game.
After this season, though, Sumlin's tenure at Houston is also notable for what it lacked: A Conference USA championship. As West Division champs in 2009, Keenum was picked off three times in the C-USA Championship Game en route to a 38-32 loss at East Carolina. Last week, with an automatic BCS bid and millions at stake for all of the "Have Not" conferences, Keenum was humbled again in his worst game of the season, a 49-28 loss to Southern Miss that derailed the first perfect season in school history. Faced with anything resembling a real defense — which didn't happen often — the Cougars' version of the "Air Raid" noticeably struggled.
Which brings us to the bigger questions about its transition to Texas A&M: a) How will Sumlin's offense fare without the most prolific quarterback in college football pulling the trigger? And b) How will it fare against the defenses in the Aggies' new conference, the SEC, which has resisted the rise of up-tempo, spread passing attacks for more than a decade? Sumlin was never an offensive coordinator before he landed the top job at Houston (he had the title of "co-offensive coordinator" at Texas A&M and Oklahoma, but didn't call plays and wasn't primarily in charge of the offense at either stop), and no one has successfully imported a pass-first system in the SEC since Air Raid guru Hal Mumme was run out of Kentucky ten years ago. The only other coach who's tried, Tommy Tuberville, was fired after his team rejected a spread transplant by offensive coordinator Tony Franklin in 2008. This year, the only SEC offenses that passed more often than they ran in conference games were Arkansas and Tennessee, and it was a roughly 50/50 proposition in both cases.
Houston passed more than it ran in every single game of Sumlin's tenure with Keenum in the lineup, and in almost all of the games that he missed. In 2009, the Cougars put the ball in the air more frequently than any team in the country; this year, they were third behind their Air Raid brethren at Texas Tech and Arizona. Sumlin will almost certainly be accompanied by his offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, who was the first of a succession of prolific spread passers under Mike Leach at Texas Tech.
Texas A&M has already embraced the fast-break philosophy that Leach's success spawned throughout the Big 12. Sumlin's arrival just makes it official: When the Aggies touch down in the SEC next fall, they're coming out of the chute firing.