COLUMBIA, S.C. – The trending topic is the Texas A&M quarterbacks, of course.
The previous one, who was presumed irreplaceable. And the present one, who replaced him with record-setting ease Thursday night.
But the biggest takeaway from the Aggies' seamless transition from Johnny Hasbeen to Kenny The Thrill Hill is this: Kevin Sumlin is building the perfect offensive beast in College Station. As long as he's the coach, it may not matter too much who is playing quarterback. It's all going to work.
In demolishing favored South Carolina 52-28, Sumlin showed that he (along with Auburn's Gus Malzahn) is the present and the future in the Southeastern Conference when it comes to drawing up ball plays and gameplans and recruiting the studs that make the schemes work. And Sumlin showed that at the expense of the man who innovated the league in the 1990s, Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier's team looked like an anachronism Thursday night, while Sumlin's team was cutting edge. Spurrier's team was dial-up, while Sumlin's was plugged into a super processor. It was less a passing of the baton than Sumlin snatching and running away with it at no-huddle speed.
In breaking No. 9-ranked South Carolina's 18-game home winning streak, the Aggies scored the most points on the Gamecocks in four years, and the most an opponent has scored in Williams-Brice Stadium since 2003. And they did it with a quarterback throwing for a school-record 511 yards on a school-record 44 completions in his first college start – a Winstonesque debut performance.
It was shocking.
Especially when you consider who Hill was replacing: Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Everyone expected a step back from A&M without Manziel and fellow first-round NFL draft picks Mike Evans and Jake Matthews – and now you have to wonder if the Aggies have somehow stepped forward. Certainly they are better defensively than last year's porous unit, and they might be every bit as good offensively.
"What we did tonight, we're not a one-trick pony," Sumlin said.
Clearly, the pony has plenty of tricks. Sumlin acknowledged a "chip on the shoulder" after reading media predictions calling for the Aggies' demise.
"Let's see if they can coach now that the best player in college football is gone," he said. "… Probably had some coaches, including myself, who took some comments personal in the offseason."
Sumlin knew what his offense had done before Manziel – when Case Keenum became the NCAA's all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and completions at Houston. So he knew what his offense could do after Manziel as well.
Namely, churn out yards and put up points with spectacular ease. And speed. The Aggies clicked off a staggering 99 plays Thursday, exhausting and bewildering the Gamecocks.
"That's the most plays I've ever been a part of since I've been a defensive coach," South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "Period. Not just here. That's way too many plays. Again, that's my fault."
Said A&M offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi of the South Carolina defense: "They were just tired. They weren't saying much. Our tempo was so fast."
At one point in the second quarter, as Texas A&M kept gashing the Gamecocks defense in a relentless sprint downfield, Ward and Spurrier waved the metaphorical white flag. They called a defensive timeout just to get a breath and try to get a clue.
When that happened, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital went out onto the field pumping his fist, enthusiastically greeting his offense. For a play caller, it doesn't get much better than that.
"You know you've got it good when the kids are asking you to keep calling it as fast as you can," Spavital said.
Hill was perfectly at ease with the breakneck pace. The sophomore son of former Major League pitcher Ken Hill wasn't even named the A&M starter until 12 days before the opener, after a battle with true freshman hotshot Kyle Allen. Many believed Allen was the greater talent, but after Thursday night he should get comfortable on the sideline for the foreseeable future.
Hill isn't just entrenched as the starter, he is an instant Heisman Trophy candidate.
"I was more excited than nervous," he said. "I just came out here and was ready to go. I've been ready for this my whole life."
The Aggies' first possession under Hill was a 67-yard drive for a touchdown. Their second possession was a 75-yard drive for a field goal. They actually punted on the third, but then followed that with five straight touchdown drives stretching deep into the third quarter.
Hill was quick with the ball, getting it into space to A&M's flotilla of receivers. He was accurate, rarely forcing a receiver to lunge, leap or dive for a pass. He was smart, avoiding turnovers and checking out of bad play calls. And he was situationally athletic, able to elude the rush and buy time or scramble.
So he can throw like Johnny. He can scramble like Johnny. He can even party like Johnny, having been arrested last March on a charge of public intoxication. (That earned him an indefinite suspension that definitely was not going to endanger his playing status in the season opener.)
But there were no money signs from Hill to the crowd, no showboating, no personal fouls for taunting. He may not have Manziel's improvisational flair, but he will also be harder for opposing fans to hate with his demeanor. He was disarming in the postgame interview room, at one point giggling and gushing, "I don't know what to say, I'm so excited."
That excitement will be contagious throughout AggieLand. A team many expected to be fifth-best in the SEC West now has a great chance to start 5-0 heading into the October grind of Mississippi State in Starkville, Mississippi in College Station and Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
On the other side, the preseason confidence was thoroughly beaten out of South Carolina. For some reason, most everyone discounted the impact of losing NFL No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney coming into this game – but not coming out.
Now the team expected to contend for the SEC East title must regroup for dangerous East Carolina next week, and then plays four straight league games before an Oct. 11 bye week and then a date with Furman. First-week overreactions are as much a part of college football as tailgates and marching bands. But it's hard not to be alarmed by the state of the Gamecocks after their first 60 minutes of play.
"It was obvious the oddsmakers don't know what they're talking about," Spurrier said. "That team was so much better than us it wasn't funny. They outcoached us, outplayed us, they were better prepared and they knew what they were doing."
Kevin Sumlin knows what he's doing. No matter who his quarterback is.
He is the potent present of offensive coaching in the SEC. And the guy who once was the cutting edge now looks old and dull in comparison.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Kevin Sumlin
- South Carolina
- Johnny Manziel
- Steve Spurrier