The Anti-Manziel: Can Kyle Allen Lead Texas A&M Past Alabama?Tony Gutierrez/AP
The final score said everything. There’s nothing “misleading” about 59-0. There’s no gloss that will make 59-0 presentable, no spin that will explain why 59-0 isn’t as bad as it looks. 59-0 defies context. 59-0 is what it is.
For Texas A&M, last year’s 59-0 beatdown at the hands of Alabama was rock bottom. If anything, it might have been even worse than the score suggested: At halftime, the Crimson Tide led 45-0, boasted 22 first downs to A&M’s two, and had outgained the Aggies by nearly 400 yards. A&M couldn’t block, couldn’t tackle, and couldn’t have looked further from the outfit that just two weeks earlier had been ranked among the top 10 in the nation. It was all Nick Saban could do in the second half to prevent his team from racking up 60 points, or 100 points, or however many points he wanted. In the end, limiting the damage to 59-0 was an act of mercy typically reserved for nonconference scrubs.
“It felt like we were a high school team playing a college team, quite honestly,” quarterback Kyle Allen told reporters earlier this week, in anticipation of the undefeated, ninth-ranked Aggies’ rematch with no. 10 Alabama in College Station. “It’s not a feeling we ever want to feel again. I know for coach [Kevin] Sumlin especially, that’s a feeling of embarrassment.”
As much as it was a nationally televised pantsing, the 2014 debacle in Tuscaloosa was also a wake-up call. For most of the first half of that season, Texas A&M had the look of a legitimate playoff contender behind its emerging headliner, sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill, and was as high as no. 6 in the AP poll through five games, matching its best regular-season ranking with Johnny Manziel at the controls. By mid-October, though, the early hype had already begun to unravel in lopsided losses to a pair of fast-rising underdogs, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and the no-show at Bama was the fatal blow to any lingering hopes of recovery. It marked a three-game losing streak against ranked opponents in which the Aggies had trailed by at least 28 points in each, accompanied by the first crisis of confidence of Sumlin’s tenure.
The previous December, Sumlin signed a contract extension that raised his salary to $5 million a year, the highest figure for any college coach at that point except Saban, based largely on his initial success against Alabama. After all, while Sumlin’s first two campaigns in College Station hadn’t produced an SEC title or a major bowl bid, they had produced the galvanizing 2012 upset over Bama that propelled Manziel to the Heisman and put Texas A&M on the map as a bona fide SEC player. In 2013, the Aggies racked up more yards (628) and points (42) against the top-ranked Tide than any opposing offense had in the Saban era, confirming even in a shootout loss that Sumlin’s version of the Air Raid was a force to be reckoned with. In a league that prided itself on stifling defense, A&M had managed to carve out a wildly entertaining niche, and Sumlin’s stock was clearly on the rise.
59-0 was the ultimate repudiation of those assumptions, a wholesale collapse that threatened to recast Sumlin as the Charlie Weis of the SEC. And coming when it did, on the heels of two other sobering defeats, forced a reassessment of Sumlin’s program. Mentally and physically, the Aggies had been beaten back to square one. “When you lose 59-0,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said this week, “there’s got to be some evaluations going on.”
The first and most obvious evaluation came at quarterback. In his first career start, a 52-28 romp over heavily favored South Carolina, Hill smashed many of Manziel’s single-game A&M passing records and made an indelible mark on a national audience tuning in for the first game of the 2014 season; by the following morning, the nascent “Hill for Heisman” bandwagon was already up and running. With each passing week, though, Hill seemed to regress, gradually becoming less decisive and more turnover-prone, until the Crimson Tide ground the offense to a halt. Within days of the Bama loss, Hill was suspended for a violation of team rules, a prelude to his inevitable transfer to TCU at the end of the season. Hill sat out the final five games.
In Hill’s place, the Aggies turned to Allen, a five-star prospect from Scottsdale, Arizona, who was generally regarded as the top quarterback in the 2014 class. As a freshman, he didn’t exactly look the part: Slender1 and baby-faced, Allen is still growing into his 6-foot-3 frame even as a sophomore. But he wasted no time making his embattled predecessor expendable, passing for four touchdowns in a 41-38 upset at Auburn in his second career start, and he proceeded to complete north of 62 percent of his passes in each of A&M’s last four games. Allen closed on a high note by earning MVP honors in a 45-37 win over West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl, effectively guaranteeing his return this year as the entrenched starter.
And so far, so good: Through five games, Allen has quietly reaffirmed both the recruiting hype and Sumlin’s reputation as a quarterback whisperer by turning in a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-to-2 and the SEC’s best pass efficiency rating. In the SEC opener, against Arkansas, he helped the Aggies overcome a nearly two-to-one deficit in time of possession by passing for 358 yards on just 21 completions, an average of more than 17 yards a pop. In the fourth quarter, Allen led an 85-yard touchdown drive to send the game to overtime — a drive keyed by a 63-yard heave from Allen to Josh Reynolds — then threw a go-ahead touchdown pass in the extra frame that proved to be the game winner. In A&M’s most recent game, a 30-17 win over Mississippi State, he passed for 322 yards and two touchdowns with nine completions that gained at least 15 yards apiece. In keeping with their high-octane reputation, the Aggies rank second in the SEC in both scoring offense and total offense, and Allen has personally accounted for nearly 60 percent of the latter.
I say “quietly” in the preceding paragraph for a couple of reasons. One, although its wins over Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Arizona State were all prime-time ESPN affairs, Texas A&M has yet to play a game this year on a big national stage like the one it will have this weekend against Alabama.2 And two, although the playbook is essentially the same, at his best Allen might be described as the anti-Manziel: Johnny Football’s reputation hinged on the improvisational, freewheeling panache of his game as much as it did on his staggering production, but Allen is cerebral, patient, and precise; his success derives almost exclusively from his accuracy and his increasing mastery of the script.
Admittedly, that isn’t as much fun as watching Manziel run literal circles around would-be tacklers. But Allen’s pocket-bound style probably is a more natural fit for Sumlin’s system, a derivative of the Air Raid that, before going electric with Manziel, helped turn the pedestrian Case Keenum into the most prolific passer in FBS history during Sumlin’s tenure at Houston. In Allen’s case, all of the necessary traits were on display in the victory over Mississippi State:
Anticipation. On his second touchdown pass against the Bulldogs, Allen diagnosed the coverage immediately and easily exploited the indecision created when receiver Christian Kirk motioned into the slot. When the Mississippi State safety over-pursued in anticipation of a quick screen to Kirk, Allen led sophomore Damion Ratley into the vacancy on a slant with a clear path to the end zone.
This wasn’t exactly a next-level throw into a tight window, but it was a quick, decisive read — the ball is out of Allen’s hands in about a second and a half — and it was put in exactly the right spot to allow Ratley to take it to the house without breaking stride.
Patience. On this play, Allen surveys the field for nearly five seconds before finding what appears to be his third option — Kirk, on a deep crossing route that required him to clear two linebackers — in the no-man’s-land between defenders in zone coverage.
The offensive line deserves a lot of credit here for keeping the pocket clean (although Mississippi State was rushing just three), as does Kirk, for obvious reasons. But also note exactly what Allen was looking at as he released the ball:
Most 19-year-olds would be looking to tuck and run by this point in the play, even with the lack of pressure. Very few have the wherewithal to recognize an open zone before the receiver himself has actually come open, much less the patience to wait for it to develop or the accuracy to throw him open for more yards after the catch.
Arm Strength. No one is going to mistake Allen’s arm for, say, Christian Hackenberg’s in terms of outright firepower. But he is more than capable of giving his receivers a chance to come down with the occasional deep ball, as he proved on a 49-yard bomb to Reynolds from deep in his own end zone.
As you’ve probably surmised by now, Allen is also blessed with immensely gifted receivers, none more so than Kirk, another five-star recruit from Allen’s hometown of Scottsdale3 who may be the closest approximation of Percy Harvin that SEC defenses have encountered since Harvin himself. In his first college game, Kirk stole the show against Arizona State by housing a punt return and later turning a short screen pass into a zigzagging 66-yard touchdown. As defenses have gotten more wise to his presence, the Aggies have experimented with Kirk as a receiver out of the backfield, which yielded a huge gain against Arkansas:
Between them, Kirk and Reynolds bring in two-thirds of the passes thrown in their direction for more than 12 yards per target; Kirk leads the SEC in receiving yards (519) as a true freshman, while Reynolds tops the conference in yards per catch (21.3). Behind them, sophomores Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are also former five-star recruits with the potential to do just as much damage if given the opportunity. Noil, who got most of the offseason star treatment after a frequently spectacular debut in 2014, has been supplanted by Kirk mainly because of a lingering knee injury; the A&M coaches hope to have Noil back in the lineup this weekend, which could pose a mind-bending problem for the Crimson Tide — Kirk and Noil on the field at the same time — that they haven’t seen on film.
Of course, it should go without saying that Alabama’s defense poses a few problems of its own. A couple of weeks ago, I suggested ahead of the Crimson Tide’s trip to Georgia that the aura of invincibility that had surrounded Saban’s program for so many years was waning. Two days later, the Tide crushed the Bulldogs, 38-10. The message was explicit: Until further notice, Bama is still Bama.
But it’s not at all clear yet what to expect from Texas A&M, on Saturday or beyond. Since last year’s debacle in Tuscaloosa, the offense has changed quarterbacks and embraced greater variety in its formations and personnel groupings. The oft-abused defense has undergone a complete overhaul under longtime LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, who’s made good use of supremely athletic defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. (Garrett leads the SEC with 7.5 sacks, and A&M leads the nation in Adjusted Sack Rate.) The baseline talent level continues to rise with blue-chip arrivals like Kirk, defensive tackle Daylon Mack,4 and backup quarterback Kyler Murray, whose raw speed and elusiveness ensure he’ll get touches Saturday in customized packages despite his obvious limitations as a passer. Of the 22 players who started against Alabama last year, only five5 are listed as starters on the current two-deep.
“Mentally, I thought we just kind of gave in [last year],” Spavital said. “We’re a completely different team. Physical toughness, mental toughness, physical strength, we can see that progressing. It’s a different team.”
But just how different is an open question. The 2014 Aggies, who rose as high as no. 6 in the polls, were also 5-0 before hitting the skids. While all the pieces appear to be in place on paper in 2015, the most important piece in A&M’s epic 2012-13 battles with Bama — Johnny Manziel — is long gone. Fairly or not, after the way last year’s match unfolded, the rematch will serve as the defining test both of Sumlin’s system and the quarterback with whom it’s been entrusted. As much potential as Allen has shown, as far as beating Alabama is concerned it remains just that: potential. If he is the quarterback the Aggies hope he is, by Saturday night they should know for sure.