Last Thursday, on the opening night of the college football season, a quarterback named Kenny Hill threw for a school-record 511 yards in Texas A&M’s 52-28 blowout of South Carolina.
It felt startling and unexpected, in part because the Gamecocks were at home and a prohibitive favorite, and in part because Kenny Hill had never started a college football game before, but also because Hill was stepping into the gilded tap shoes of Johnny Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football, a.k.a. Johnny Fucking Football (JFF, for short, on your friendly neighborhood message board), who just happened to be the most culturally fascinating and eminently entertaining and Drake-approved quarterback of his generation.
Three days later, on a Sunday evening in Waco, Texas, Baylor bookended the first week’s slate of games by blowing out SMU, 45-0. This was not a surprise, but it felt of a piece with A&M’s victory, if only because both schools were long mired amid the dregs of Texas football until they chose to embrace a path that seems almost counterintuitive in deeply conservative towns like Waco and College Station: They embraced progressivism.
A few years ago, A&M, having fired veteran coach Mike Sherman and his complex NFL-derived scheme, plucked away Kevin Sumlin from the University of Houston, where he had implemented a fast-paced spread offense that relied on players mastering certain basic concepts and ad-libbing within those concepts (in part because college football’s practice and contact time has diminished in the wake of both academic and injury concerns). No one thought it would work immediately, especially with the Aggies jumping from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, where linemen are built like Ford F-150s and defense has long been the prevalent element in the football equation. At his first-ever SEC Media Days press conference, Sumlin endured multiple questions about his “gimmicky” offense by staring his questioners in the face and declaring that he expected to win, right away.
And then, in his first season at A&M in 2012, Sumlin won 11 games, beat Alabama on the road and won Manziel a Heisman Trophy. And until Thursday night, it felt like that equation veered in the other direction – that Manziel had won Sumlin a Heisman Trophy, especially after last year’s slightly disappointing nine-win dénouement to JFF’s career, when the Aggies defense looked overmatched – but Thursday night may have proved that Texas A&M is here to stay. In a way, the Aggies actually looked better without Manziel’s constant ad-libbing, and with Hill’s more fixed presence in the pocket as a traditional drop-back quarterback (the hastily tweeted nickname for Hill, “Kenny Football,” strikes me as both lazy and entirely incompatible); the Aggies’ defense also appears to be vastly improved, which means if they can continue to put up points, they may have a chance to steal away with the state of Texas’s first-ever SEC Championship.
Baylor, of course, still plays in the Big 12, where for years, they were the conference’s embarrassing goiter, a Christian school with no real football tradition that clung to big-time football largely because they’d always been there. From 1992 until 2007, Baylor never won more than seven games in a season, and then the Bears made a radical move similar to A&M’s – they hired Art Briles, a longtime Texas high-school coach who preceded Sumlin as the head coach at Houston. Briles installed his own version of a fast-paced, pass-heavy spread offense (there are now multiple variations on this increasingly popular theme that range from the Pac-12 to the Atlantic Coast Conference), and in 2011, Briles won 10 games and won his own quarterback, Robert Griffin III, a Heisman Trophy.
Since then, Briles has plugged two more quarterbacks into his system – this year, it’s Heisman candidate Bryce Petty – and continued to succeed. And in the first week of this season, the Bears not only put up 45 points despite Petty bruising his back, their defense mustered only the second shutout of the Briles era.
And that’s the thing about both A&M and Baylor: They appear to be only beginning to maximize their potential. At first, they may have been flashy and devoid of underlying substance, but over time, they’ve begun to fill in the gaps. Their linemen are bigger and more talented; their speed is now melding with an undercurrent of power.
This is Texas we’re talking about, and so football talent is everywhere, and traditionally that talent has put the University of Texas first on its list. But as Texas has struggled while running a less-radical offensive system, both A&M and Baylor have played their way into continued recruiting relevance. In the offseason, A&M kept Sumlin by offering him one of the richest contracts in the sport (as well as continued helicopter rides); Baylor assured a long-term place in major-college football by finishing construction of a brand-new stadium.
There’s still skepticism among some old-school southern fans about the viability of hurry-up spread offenses like Briles’ and Sumlin’s. In the offseason, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema raised the question of whether the pace of offenses like these might cause more injuries (despite having no evidence to back up their thesis), and even proposed a rules change to neuter them that was voted down. But the idea that this concept is a fad is starting to feel more and more like an antiquated argument. And perhaps it might be a leap to liken the ongoing changes in Texas football to the potential shift in Texas politics, but here’s what I can say: With each passing season, it feels less and less likely that the progressive college football offense is going to up and fade into obsolescence. With each passing season, it feels more like college football – both within and outside of Texas – is just beginning to develop into what it might eventually become.