If Texas A&M’s game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Sunday was not the most highly anticipated matchup of Week 1, it may have been the most important. Neither the Aggies nor the Bruins project as College Football Playoff contenders, but irrespective of the final score, it was plain the head coach of one of the two squads would exit with less job security. The other one would deflate the pressure that has mounted on him leading into this season.
Kevin Sumlin is the unmistakable loser of The 2017 Hot Seat Bowl after the Aggies squandered a 34-point lead in the second half to the Bruins and lost, 45–44, a year after edging them in College Station. This wasn’t just a devastating non-conference defeat for Texas A&M against a talented, if flawed, opponent. It was a snoozer turned thriller that produced the second largest comeback in NCAA history, according to the Fox broadcast, and spotlighted a transcendent quarterback with a bright future.
Before getting into what this means for the Aggies, it’s worth recounting the absurdity of what unfolded on Sunday in Pasadena.
The Aggies bossed UCLA on both sides of the ball in the first half, outgaining the Bruins 342 to 151 yards and converting 5 of 9 third down attempts to their 2 of 9. The onslaught began early, with running backs Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams finding the end zone on a pair of first and goals in the first quarter, and by the time the Bruins realized the severity of the damage, it was almost too late for them to put the outcome in doubt.
Then Josh Rosen got to work. The UCLA junior signal-caller began showing why he’s projected to be selected near the top of the first round of next year’s NFL draft. With the Bruins trailing 44–10 late in the third quarter, Rosen led UCLA to 35 unanswered points, including a winning touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone to wide receiver Jordan Lasley with 43 seconds left after a fake spike. Rosen was splendid, and the Aggies had no answers for him during the Bruins’ scintillating second-half push after bottling him up through the first two-plus quarters.
This result will raise the temperature on Sumlin, but it does not fundamentally alter his position as Texas A&M’s coach. The Aggies won’t abide mediocrity, and one loss over a Power 5 opponent coming off a four-win season won’t change what AD Scott Woodward said on The Paul Finebaum Show in May. “Coach knows he has to win, and he has to win this year,” Woodward said. “And we have to do better than we’ve done in the past.”
It’s hard to know what to make of this result until Texas A&M gets through the bulk of its conference schedule. The Aggies have lurched to disappointing eight-win finishes in each of the last three seasons after starting 5–0. Just last season, it entered a showdown with No. 1 Alabama ranked sixth in the country, only to get crushed by the Crimson Tide and lose four of their final six games, with the two victories coming against Group of 5 lightweights New Mexico State and UTSA.
Texas A&M gave up a seemingly insurmountable lead to fall to UCLA, and that’s a really bad look, but Sumlin’s fate won’t be decided until the second half of the season. Alabama comes to College Station in early October, Auburn will pay a visit about a month later and the Aggies travel to LSU on Thanksgiving weekend. Those three contests, more than anything else, will determine whether Sumlin is back leading Texas A&M a year from now.
The product the Aggies delivered in the first half on Sunday suggests they’ll fare better in their high-leverage games than they have in recent years. Without fearsome end tandem Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall off to the NFL, Texas A&M flustered Rosen by consistently winning battles up front and covering well downfield, and the Bruins’ run game didn’t compensate for their neutralized passing game. In the second half, though, the Aggies self-destructed in humiliating fashion as Rosen starred.
The biggest personnel-related question the Aggies faced this offseason remains something of a mystery. Between redshirt freshman QB Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, Sumlin may have the reliable distribution and mobility needed to carry Texas A&M against formidable SEC defenses. It’s too soon to tell. Given the way the running game looked Sunday, serviceable play under center could suffice: Williams and Ford combined for 317 yards and five touchdowns.
Ultimately, this game could end up painting a misleading picture of Texas A&M. Sumlin should lead his team into its SEC opener on Sept. 23 against Arkansas on more stable ground, having subdued the growing clamor surrounding his job status with a 2–1 record (their next two games are vs. FCS pushover Nicholls and Sun Belt foe Louisiana). That would make for a decent start. Those are not unfamiliar to Texas A&M.
To secure Sumlin’s future, it will need to avoid a letdown over the ensuing two months.