One of my favorite television shows was “Friday Night Lights”. Perhaps the best show ever, it aired for several years on NBC until the network pulled an NBC, and cancelled it. One of the characters on the show was a fullback named Tim Riggins, who had a reputation as a boozer who often missed practice and slept with the girlfriend of his paralyzed best friend. One of Riggins favorite lines in fictional Dillon, Texas was “Texas, Forever.”
After one week of the College Football Season, it might just be a special year in the Republic of Texas. We knew Houston was going to be good and with their opening day beating of Oklahoma they didn’t disappoint. However, it was a little less certain at two of Texas’s flagship institutions, Texas and Texas A&M.
Both Charlie Strong at Texas and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M are on the “experts” short list of coaches who are on the proverbial hot seat. In two seasons as the head coach at Texas, Strong had two very un-Texas like seasons going 6-7, losing in the Texas Bowl in 2014, and 5-7 last season missing the post-season completely. Strong wasn’t left with the “strongest” roster at Texas mostly due to Mack Brown’s poor recruiting over the last few years of his tenure, but 11-14 is hard to swallow at some Sun Belt schools, much less Texas. Texas is one of the wealthiest if not the wealthiest athletic department in the country so writing a big buyout check is not a big deal and most figured Strong would meet that fate this season.
But, Strong – who cut his teeth as an assistant coach under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and South Carolina and under Urban Meyer at Florida -isn’t stupid and his off-season moves show his wiliness to adapt. His offense needed an overhaul and so he lured Tulsa’s offensive coordinator Sterling Gilbert to come to Austin to be his offensive coordinator and install an up-tempo spread offense. Gilbert for his part actually turned the job down the first time obviously concerned that this might be a one year move, but after one game an offense that slogged its way to 26 points a game last year, scored 50 in its first game, a double overtime win over Notre Dame. They didn’t make it easy and it wasn’t perfect. Texas blew a 17 point lead, and of all things had to go to overtime tied at 37 when Notre Dame blocked an extra point and returned it for a two point conversion. However, there comes a time when a coach whose going to make it at his school appears to get over the hump and scores what is termed as a “signature win”. This one was clearly Strong’s even though in the midst of last year’s 5-7 misery his team beat both Oklahoma and Baylor. Perhaps Texas has carved a niche with using two quarterbacks like Florida did in 2006 with Chris Leake and Tim Tebow. Shane Buechelle is in the game to primarily lead the offense, while Sterling Swoopes comes in in special situations with the idea of knocking someone on the defensive side of the ball into next week.
On the heels of their signature win, Texas now has the very unusual position of trying to handle success. This week they face UTEP, a pretty below average Conference USA Team before a September trip to Cal, then back to back games against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. It’s way too early to say that Texas is back in the middle of the Big XII race, but certainly not to early to say that it’s off to a “Strong” start.
Texas no longer plays Texas A&M, after A&M got its nose out of joint over the Longhorn Network and moved to the SEC. That’s a loss for College Football as the game became a Thanksgiving Weekend Tradition. It has been nothing if not a turbulent off-season at A&M with constant questions regarding Sumlin’s future and some off-the-field lunacy that appeared to be more appropriate in a Junior High School locker room than in one of the top athletic programs in the country.
With Johnny Manziel at quarterback, A&M went 11-2 in 2012 beating Alabama. The Aggies slipped to 9-4 in 2013, and then back-to-back 8-5 records in 2014 and 2015. Sumlin has become a lightning rod for mishandling quarterbacks. Both top recruits Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen became disenchanted and transferred. This year, Sumlin welcomed Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight who after one game appears to have actually stabilized the position and when you are good at quarterback, you are good. To add to Sumlin’s Pepto-Bismol moments, he was forced to suspend two coaches for two weeks just before the start of practice including offensive line coach Jim Turner. Turner and another assistant made sexual innuendos while explaining football at a women’s clinic at the school. Yes, because no one has ever heard that the point of football is to “stick it in” the end zone. Turner has show his “true colors” before. While he was the offensive line coach of the Miami Dolphins he reportedly consciously disregarded the bullying that lineman Richie Incognito was doing to other players in the locker room. The scandal cost Incognito his job and Turner was out as well only to resurface at A&M.
If A&M can make improvements on offense and after a 31-24 overtime win over UCLA in one of Week 1’s best games, then they have a chance. The Defense is in the excellent hands of the Chief John Chavis, who in a some small way has actually contributed to A&M’s dysfunction by suing his former employer LSU and A&M over his contract at A&M.
Much like Texas, A&M now has to regroup and face one of the worst FCS programs in the country in Prairie View A&M this Saturday. Then there’s the issue of navigating the SEC West. However, for at least one week both Texas and Texas A&M have shown that it might be time to once again not “Mess with Texas”
Notwithstanding A&M’s nice win, it couldn’t have been a worse week for the Southeastern Conference. The conference went 7-7 in its games over the weekend which is skewed by the fact that South Carolina and Vanderbilt played each other. Either LSU coach Les Miles is trying to get fired or just doesn’t care, but all the talk about LSU was apparently just talk. Miles did not do anything to overhaul his offense over the off-season and it showed in a 16-14 loss to Wisconsin. It ended with his quarterback Brandon Harris throwing an interception and one of his offensive lineman cheap-shotting a Wisconsin player drawing a one-game suspension.
Meanwhile, Tennessee needed overtime to beat Appalachian State, who thoroughly out-played and whipped the Volunteers on both the offensive and defensive lines; Florida struggled to beat U-Mass; Mississippi State lost to South Alabama; Auburn had a chance but in losing to Clemson, coach Gus Malzahn looked like an idiot in the way he handled his quarterbacks; Ole MIss lost a 22-point lead to lose to Florida State; Kentucky tanked against Southern Miss, but hey basketball practice begins in just a month; Missouri lost to West Virginia, and Arkansas struggled to beat La. Tech 21-20.
The most impressive is easy. Alabama. For those of us who didn’t think Alabama was the best team, we apologize. Nick Saban gets the best players because he wins championships and he wins championships because he gets the best players. That’s a championship cycle. After Alabama pounded USC, his offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin – the former USC Head Coach – trolled his former employer on Twitter showing his son with the game ball and using the hashtag #3:14 a.m. LAX as in the time and place Pat Haden fired him after a USC loss to Arizona State in 2013.
Equally impressive was Georgia. Playing essentially a home game in the Ga. Dome, the Bulldogs Nick Chubb returned from a knee injury and ran all over North Carolina.
Week 1 was also noteworthy for one big return to the field. Pittsburgh running back James Conner missed last season with a torn ACL and Hodgkins Lymphoma. He beat both and returned to the field this week scoring two touchdowns in the Panthers win over FCS Villanova. And, there may not be a more bizarre story than that of Navy back-up quarterback Malcolm Perry. Perry is the Midshipmen’s 4th string quarterback and was actually in the stands with the remainder of the Academy for Saturday’s game against Fordham wearing his Navy dress white uniform. Starting quarterback Tago Smith waited three years to start, only to tear his ACL in the game and is now gone for the season. His backup went into the game, but Navy didn’t have another back up quarterback as the third stringer was not available for some reason. So, Navy staffers rushed into the stands, took Perry to the locker room and got him dressed to play. He did so taking snaps in the third and fourth quarter. Those are the kinds of stories that make sports the ultimate reality show.
And finally, for those fan bases disappointed in being 0-1, remember the last two National Champions suffered September losses. Ohio State was clobbered by Va. Tech and rebounded to beat both Alabama and Oregon for the National Title and last year, Oklahoma suffered a bad loss to Texas, only to make the National Semi-finals against Clemson. Indeed one game does not a season make.