Kevin Sumlin was correct Saturday night. “There is no moral victory in this league,” the Texas A&M coach said after a 27–19 loss to Alabama. “When you play that hard and you play that long, nobody is happy.”
There are no moral victories, but there are some performances that suggest the possibility of more actual victories. Texas A&M’s showing against Alabama felt like one of those. True freshman quarterback Kellen Mond seems to get better every week. The defense continues to drop opponents in the backfield. The Aggies’ trajectory feels markedly different than the last three times they lost to Alabama. From 2014 to ’16, Texas A&M entered the Alabama game with a combined record of 16–2, lost each time and went a combined 8–10 afterward.
It was those late-season collapses, which dropped Texas A&M to either 4–4 or 3–5 in SEC play each year, that placed Sumlin on the hot seat. It was those swoons that caused Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward to essentially lay out the ground rules for Sumlin’s chances at retention during an appearance on the Paul Finebaum Show in May. And after Texas A&M opened with a collapse against UCLA and lost starting quarterback Nick Starkel for the year in the process, most of us assumed the Aggies would follow the same predictable pattern and wind up looking for a new coach.
Now? That doesn’t seem so certain. Yes, Sumlin has to convince his team to play as hard against the remainder of its opponents as it played against Alabama. But if the Aggies perform at the level they reached Saturday night, they can beat every opponent left on the schedule except possibly Auburn. If that plays out, it puts Texas A&M in a strange situation. Instead of hiring a new coach, the Aggies will have to decide whether they want to extend the guy they were ready to run out of town.
My question regarding Sumlin’s job security has always been this: Who is available and will take the job who will give Texas A&M’s administration what it wants? That list is awfully short. The Aggies want to compete for SEC titles, but Saban’s Alabama has sucked the competitive oxygen out of the league in recent years. I would understand if the Aggies didn’t want to stay on the same 4–4 plateau in conference play every year. A change would make sense from that standpoint. But it still might not get them what they want.
But if Sumlin did go 10–2 or 9–3 in the regular season—admittedly a huge if considering how well Auburn is playing and the fact that Texas A&M hasn’t beaten LSU since entering the SEC—what happens then? We have basically assumed the Aggies would change coaches, and Texas A&M’s administration has done nothing to suggest otherwise. Woodward left Sumlin twisting in the wind in May when he said these words on national television…
But what if Sumlin does win and win now? What if the Aggies go to Gainesville this week and beat Florida and then rip off an epic winning streak? What would Texas A&M do?
With apologies to Saban, Sumlin knows this type of talk is just as poisonous as the chatter that he could be fired. Anything that simply assumes a result with multiple games to be played is not something a group of 18- to 22-year-old football players should pay much attention to. But the Aggies have heard the firing talk everywhere. And now they’ll hear this as well, as more people evaluate their play in the last few games and say, “Maybe…”
“What they’ve heard from Week 1—or before the season—to now, they’re hearing a lot of different things from a lot of different people,” Sumlin said on his radio show Monday night. “What I’m proudest about this team is they have believed and trusted in each other and the people in that building. It’s going to be as important or more important this week for the talk that’s in that building to be what they listen to.”
Forces have been aligned against Sumlin in College Station for a while. If his team slips to 7–5, the Aggies pay the $10 million remaining on his deal and move on. If he’s 8–4 again, the choice probably depends on trajectory. If the Aggies feel like they’re trending upward, he has a chance. If the final regular season record is better than that, the Aggies would have little reason to fire Sumlin.
At that point, the question would be whether Texas A&M would extend him. Given the way Sumlin’s current contract—a six-year, fully guaranteed $30 million deal offered in a panic when trustees feared Sumlin might go to the NFL—came into being, it’s likely the school takes a harder line in negotiations. Sumlin’s agent will argue that Sumlin can’t effectively recruit with only two years left on his deal. School officials might be able to fire back that Sumlin has still recruited fairly effectively even after the administration kneecapped him and gave his rivals all the ammunition they needed in the form of that Woodward video clip you just watched. It’s a credit to Sumlin that he’s worked through the noise, but it could wind up hurting him.
Sumlin could try to pursue other jobs to leverage A&M—or to find a place where he’s appreciated more—but his best bet in this scenario might be to stay at A&M with his existing deal and coach what amounts to a “prove it” year with a quarterback who looks like he might be special running the offense. That probably isn’t what he wants, but it might be the best long-term option. If this year ends well and he can follow it with another excellent year, he can stick it to the people who lost faith and reach the point where he could stay in College Station for a long time.
But first, he and the Aggies have to beat Florida. There are indeed no moral victories. But Texas A&M now has a chance to stack up some actual victories that could change everything.