ARLINGTON – All Johnny Football could do was watch. And scream.
"You got this!" former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel yelled at his replacement, Kenny Hill, as the Aggies desperately tried to save their playoff hopes. "You got this! Lead this team!"
Hill led. He led in a way that championship quarterbacks lead. An 86-yard pass to Edward Pope cut an Arkansas fourth-quarter lead to seven. A 59-yard-pass to Josh Reynolds tied it at 28. Then, in overtime, a 25-yard throw to Malcome Kennedy won it. Bang, bang, bang. The Aggies fans here leapt up in one delirious motion when the game finally ended. Players flooded the field, screaming, "We in there! We IN there!" Head coach Kevin Sumlin hustled from the mob to the locker room, stopped to congratulate more of his players, then ripped off his visor and whipped it into the Jerryworld stands. Even a cool customer of a coach had let himself go a little nuts.
They're in there. They are in there. The Aggies are still very much in the national championship chase after a thrilling come-from-behind 35-28 overtime win over Arkansas in the Southwest Classic. And although this group has some rough edges, it's possible an Aggie team without Manziel has a better shot at the national title than it ever did with him.
Just as Tennessee fans wondered what a post-Peyton world would be like during the first year of the BCS, A&M fans had to fret over losing Manziel for the first year of a College Football Playoff. The Vols got to the title game with Tee Martin in 1998, and now the young Aggies have a leader who has also grown up quite rapidly.
"We got characterized as a young football team," Sumlin said after the win, "with a quarterback that's young."
"Kenny Trill," as he's now called, was not Kenny Chill for a good part of this game. Arkansas took the play to the Aggies for most of the afternoon, with a sharp defense that got to Hill in more ways than one.
"Up and down, up and down the whole time," Hill said, describing his emotions. That's often a recipe for disaster when a team is struggling against a physical opponent. Yet Hill and the entire Aggies team were mostly positive when they came into the locker room at halftime. Arkansas had as many rushing yards (194) as the up-tempo Aggies had total yards, but Sumlin calmed the waters by telling his players to "just make a couple more plays."
They did. Three, actually. Hill made them all.
Skeptics will rightfully say this isn't much of a win in the national title race, as Arkansas was dreadful last season and gave the game away late with a missed field goal and some questionable play-calling as time dwindled. Maybe so. But every national champion has one of these games, where it feels like the eyes of the entire nation are watching them lose their shot. It happened last year with Florida State in their narrow win over Boston College. The Seminoles emerged with even more belief in their young quarterback, and so too do the Aggies believe even more in Hill now. Yes, Sumlin's imprint is on everything in College Station. But there came a point late on Saturday afternoon when there really wasn't too much Sumlin could do. It was on Hill, and his receivers, and the defense. The Aggies were attacked through three quarters, and in the fourth, their counterattack was vicious.
"We needed to win a game like that," Sumlin said. "It's the first time we've been in that situation."
It's hardly smooth sailing from here. The Aggies must now travel to Starkville to face a vastly improved Mississippi State team. Then comes Ole Miss, with an offensive line that's even better than the attack Arkansas brought – which Sumlin termed "a nightmare."
Then Alabama. In Tuscaloosa.
That's only October. Auburn, Missouri and LSU wait in the month after that.
The entire schedule is ridiculous; that's the price of playing in the super-hyped SEC. But consider where Hill and A&M are now. The Aggies certainly will make the playoff if they win out, and they might sneak in with one loss. After all, it's hard to find any team that looks convincing this season. Florida State isn't as overpowering as it once was, and the same could be argued about Oregon and the Tide. Texas A&M is ranked sixth without Manziel, without Mike Evans, and without Jake Matthews. Pope, who had 151 yards receiving and two touchdowns on Saturday, was described by Sumlin as, "about 155 pounds or something like that."
The Manziel era, though it cannot possibly be diminished for its impact on the A&M program and the school, did not result in any BCS bowls. That prize is still out there, and it's becoming more likely Hill and his group will be "in there."
Manziel had a few more words for Hill after the game was over and the Aggies had swarmed onto the field.
"Love you bro!" he said.
What else was there to say?