After Johnny Manziel's exit, will Texas A&M take that bold step in SEC?

Pat Forde
Coach Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel went 10-6 in in the SEC over the past two years. (USA TODAY Sports)

HOOVER, Ala. – Texas A&M has successfully zigged when everyone thought it should zag so many times now, it's hard to keep track.

A lot of people believed the move to the Southeastern Conference would be a competitive mistake in football, resulting in a bruising succession of losing seasons. The record after two years: 20-6 overall, 10-6 in SEC play.

Some believed Mike Sherman deserved a fifth year when the school fired him in 2011. Nobody's saying that anymore after the upgrade under Kevin Sumlin, who is now making $5 million a year after being wooed for several other jobs.

Nobody outside of College Station expected much when the Aggies named redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel their starting quarterback in 2012. After winning the Heisman Trophy and becoming a first-round draft pick, Manziel goes down as arguably the greatest player in A&M history and inarguably the most-discussed player in A&M history.

Kevin Sumlin (AP)

It's been a good run. And the counterintuitive moves keep coming.

At a time when schools are downsizing stadiums or struggling to fill the seats they have, Texas A&M is adding on to Kyle Field. The two-phase renovation will boost capacity from 82,589 to 106,300 this fall – third-largest in America, behind only Michigan and Penn State. When the renovation is complete in 2015, the stadium will hold 102,512, and the facilities for players will be state-of-the-art.

"Our stadium redevelopment is second to none," Sumlin said. "It's going to be an unbelievable facility. For those of you who have seen the pictures, they don't do it justice."

Now comes the challenging part – keeping the roll going for the long haul.

Sumlin was asked Tuesday at SEC Media Days if this could be viewed as a transition year, given the loss of Manziel and other key performers. He doesn't see it that way.

"I don't know," Sumlin said. "We have our own expectations, I'll put it that way. We have to because year one, nobody expected anything out of us. Last year, we were expected to beat the Green Bay Packers. …

"Our expectations are not going to change. We don't have in this business, and you know this, we don't have time for a bunch of rebuilding years. There would be another guy standing up here real quick.

"We're going to try to go out there, win every game, put our guys in a position to do so, with the mentality that we are here to win. Just to say, you know, this is just one of those years, I don't think I've ever done that as a coach."

Then I guess it's my job to say it: this could be one of those years. Sumlin's blazing work on the recruiting trail has given him a talented roster, but it's young in key positions. And the SEC West isn't getting any easier. And the opener is at South Carolina on Aug. 28.

There is no set starter at quarterback, with true freshman Kyle Allen (the nation's No. 1 QB recruit) battling sophomore Kenny Hill. The offense also must replace its top two receivers, including top-10 NFL pick Mike Evans. And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, the No. 6 pick in the draft, is gone as well.

The defense returns nine starters from 2013, but those guys were part of a leaky unit that allowed 32.2 points and 476 yards per game.

"Can we get much worse than last year?" asked A&M cornerback Deshazor Everett. "We can only get better."

As Sumlin pointed out, the next key phase for the Aggies is developing SEC title-contending depth. Although A&M had three first-round draft picks, it had zero in all the rounds that followed.

"You look at the top of our league, LSU, Alabama have nine and eight guys drafted, that speaks to depth across the board, whether they're seniors, juniors, underclassmen or not," Sumlin said. "For us to be where we need to be, we need to be talented but we need to increase our depth. …

"You go through the first couple years and you try to understand where you are as a program, what holes you need to fill, No. 1; then No. 2, as I said, I spoke about the big thing here is not only is this a line of scrimmage league, but the teams that win consistently have depth in that line of scrimmage on both sides, particularly on defense. So what we've set out to do over the course of the last couple years is to catch up in that race and put ourselves in a position where we have that kind of depth, size and speed, particularly in the front on defense."

QB Kyle Allen was one of the big recruits A&M landed. (Rivals)

That will require developing players, but mostly it will require continued recruiting success. The Aggies have had plenty of that already with the class of 2015, with 18 commitments and a class currently ranked third nationally by (trailing only Alabama and South Carolina). Sumlin is cleaning up in the state of Texas.

That will give A&M a shot at winning an SEC title in the coming years. That should be the goal when you're paying your coach $5 million and expanding your stadium to more than 100,000. The SEC honeymoon period has been enjoyable, but eventually the fans will want more than finishing third or fourth in their division.

As fun as the Manziel era was, it failed to yield a victory over LSU or a BCS bowl bid. The two-game losing streak to end 2013 dropped the Aggies out of the AP Top 20 heading into bowl season, after starting the year in the top 10.

"We haven't accomplished everything we've wanted to accomplish over the last couple years, but I think there's no doubt that we're headed in the right direction," Sumlin said. "Our university is giving us the opportunity, the means and the support to put us on that track to be extremely successful."

Just don't expect that extreme success this year. Texas A&M has gone against the grain of conventional thinking very well the past two years, but it will take more time post-Johnny Football to seriously compete for a national title.