Thursday night marked the first full night of college football for the new season. It also marked the debut of the SEC Network as a live-game broadcast outlet. In the first half of the network’s season premiere game, the Texas A&M-South Carolina clash, the booth team of Brent Musburger and (especially) Jesse Palmer heaped praise on new Texas A&M starting quarterback Kenny Hill. At halftime, the studio panel anchored by Joe Tessitore and headlined by Tim Tebow continued to direct gameday praise toward Hill.
The ocean of compliments toward the Aggies’ new signal caller was very much appropriate, of course. Hill showed very few nerves (a Brett Favre-style push pass early in the game was one of his rare missteps). His feet didn’t dance. He made great reads play after play and did not complicate simple throws that routinely emerged in the gaps of South Carolina’s defense. Hill led a steady series of scoring drives that lasted at least eight plays (each of A&M’s first six scoring drives used up a minimum of eight snaps). It’s not as though he chucked a couple long balls for 80-yard touchdowns to accumulate a huge number of points. Hill’s production was based on relentless, metronomic consistency, the kind you’d expect from a three-year starter and not a man making his first FBS start. Hill deserved every ounce of praise he received on Thursday night.
Yet, what’s the main story to emerge from A&M’s thumping of South Carolina in a road night game?
As great as Hill was, the man who truly deserves to be seen as the architect of the Aggies’ masterclass is the man who had to replace Johnny Manziel this season.
Kevin Sumlin might have gone into this game being seen by many as a man who was made by Johnny Manziel. After all, Manziel captured the nation’s attention in 2012 with a swashbuckling style of play that never ceased to be outrageously, almost impossibly, entertaining. In addition to being a human highlight film, Manziel’s quality of play was also substantive enough to lift Texas A&M, a big-name program, to a victory over the defending national champions — the Alabama Crimson Tide — on the road in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Sure, Manziel received a lot of help from receivers such as Mike Evans and Ryan Swope in 2012, and the people who know their football realized as much. Yet, if you were transfixed by the solo virtuosity of Manziel and dazzled by the fact that he became the first freshman to win the John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy since the award was first handed out in 1935, well… that rates as anything but an irrational response to such greatness.
If you thought Manziel made Sumlin and not the other way around, you had an argument to make.
After Thursday night’s complete destruction of a South Carolina team that had not lost a home game since the early portion of the 2011 season, it’s clear that a new Texas A&M quarterback was able to control the tempo and style of a game in every way possible. Kenny Hill ran the Aggies’ offense as crisply and efficiently as one could possibly expect, and this is not a situationally-adjusted assessment, either. Hill’s efficiency was off-the-charts on an absolute basis, not in relationship to the fact that this was his first SEC start.
If Johnny Manziel’s successor can be that good, that crisp, that clean, that fluid and natural, in an intimidating setting against a preseason No. 9 team with legitimate SEC championship aspirations, the man in charge of the whole operation is probably the person you’d want to credit first.
Jake Spavital certainly gets a big share of the credit for calling the plays for A&M against South Carolina, much as a man named Kliff Kingsbury (ever heard of him?) deserved credit for his work with Manziel in 2012 — it’s why he’s the Texas Tech head coach right now. Yet, what man is cultivating both assistant coaches and quarterbacks from the ultimate leadership position?
His defense is still a huge concern. It was tolerable against South Carolina (especially with the offense performing the way it did), but hardly “good.” That would be too generous a verdict. Yet, if Kevin Sumlin’s ability to create an elite offense in a post-Manziel context was doubted, well, doubt no more.
At Houston and at A&M, with Manziel or without him, Sumlin teaches and coaches offense at an elite level. This we now know to be (even more) true, just in case anyone thought this was a Manziel reason entering Thursday night in Columbia, S.C.
That’s the meaning of the first big game of the 2014 college football season.