The Same Old Names Aren’t Atop Texas College Football in 2016

It was a brisk October night in Oxford, Mississippi. Texas A&M was trailing Ole Miss by a score of 23-3 and Aggie quarterback Kyle Allen had just fluttered his 13th consecutive incomplete pass of the third quarter, landing somewhere between its intended target and the fifth row. Aggie fans (and fans of completed passes, quite frankly) watched aghast as head coach Kevin Sumlin left Allen out there to fail repeatedly with no relief in sight.

Aggie faithful wanted to see freshman wunderkind and Aggie legacy Kyler Murray replace Allen at some point, certainly on this night and maybe forever. However, when the time came for Sumlin to give Allen the hook, in came third stringer Jake Hubenak, who mopped up the final few minutes with a pedestrian line of 6 for 11 for 46 yards. Murray sat, in uniform, and watched the waning moments of the 23-3 loss with everybody else.

For a Texas A&M offense that, up until that contest, had averaged 36 points a game, this night was a stark wake-up call, and for a quarterback depth chart that would end up being vacated by the transfers of both Allen and Murray after the regular season, this was the nadir. Allen, the nation’s top-rated passer in his high school class, couldn’t throw a brick into the ocean if you walked him out to the beach, and Murray was flat-out benched, as it turned out, for dog cussing his offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital, the previous week in a loss to Alabama.

Once the regular season ended, both quarterbacks opted to take their talents elsewhere, a rock-hard body blow to Sumlin’s suddenly teetering regime in College Station. You see, Allen and Murray were just the latest in what’s been a three-year mass exodus of quarterbacks from College Station, an oddity considering Sumlin’s head coaching résumé includes the all-time leading passer in NCAA history (Case Keenum) and the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel). Allen and Murray were supposed to be the next Aggie Heisman candidates, and instead, they were the next two in a dubious lineage of departed Sumlin-coached Aggie quarterbacks, a list that includes names such as Jameill Showers, Kenny Hill and Matt Davis.

How does this happen? How does an offensive juggernaut turn into a revolving door of quarterbacks in less than two seasons? Well, some of it may be due to a lack of top-down communication. While Sumlin has generally been an effective head coach in his eight seasons at the helm of Texas A&M and, before that, the University of Houston, his reputation has been that of a delegator, allowing his position coaches to handle the day-to-day interaction with players. That approach can be hit-or-miss with 18-year-old kids.

Rob Sellers, who covers the Aggies for Rivals.com, says that, indeed, a lot of the QB churn has to do with communication glitches and broken promises of guaranteed playing time. “I think it is far more than a coincidence and could be fairly labeled as a clear indication that at least something is wrong on some level,” Sellers indicated. “How relationships are handled with players, in terms of how much contact they have with staff other than their position coach, and promises made on the recruiting trail are two key areas of concern that must yield lessons learned from past mistakes.”

Perhaps the greater shock to Aggie fans, and an indicator of the sea change in college football in the state of Texas, was the transfer destination of Allen. Murray opted to move on to Oklahoma, a college football blue blood if ever there was one. That seemed normal enough. Allen, however, chose to take his career 90 minutes southeast to the University of Houston. Considering Allen was the Aggies’ starting quarterback for most of the season and was slated to start the Aggies’ bowl game before he transferred, his opting for Houston as the place to finish out his career had to feel like a slap in the face to the Aggie faithful and a moment of satisfaction for Cougar fans, many of whom see it as a semi-proportional response to A&M’s taking their head coach in 2011.

If anything, though, Allen’s decision is an indication of the meteoric rise of the University of Houston program on head coach Tom Herman’s watch. Sellers, who’s spent several years covering the Cougars program for Rivals.com as well, sees Houston’s fast track as compelling to players like Allen.

“I think it shows where the situation at A&M was as well as just how hot of a name Houston has become,” said Sellers. “Clearly, Kyle Allen felt the relationship [at A&M] was weakened to the point that he no longer felt that was the place for him. With the re-emergence of the Cougars and the track record of Tom Herman and [offensive coordinator] Major Applewhite, with quarterbacks it grabs a transfer’s eye. Couple that with the increased success of the AAC this past season, including the Cougars, and a continued active effort for Houston to earn their way into a Power Five conference, and it is a very attractive landing spot.”

Allen’s decision, in which he sees the pastures as greener along Cullen Boulevard than at Kyle Field, is really a microcosm of the evolution of college football in the state of Texas over the past half decade. Five years ago, TCU and Baylor were about to fall into the realignment abyss when it appeared Texas and Oklahoma were headed to the Pac-10. Now, those two schools, along with Houston, were not just the only Texas schools to be ranked in the final AP Top 25; they were the only ones to even receive votes.

Imagine living in 1985, when the world’s -superpowers were the United States and the Soviet Union, and then emerging from hibernation a decade or two later to a world ruled by Switzerland, Norway and Jamaica. That’s the world we’ve woken up to in college football here in Texas in 2016. TCU, Baylor and Houston are the pacesetters, and it’s making for an odd dynamic, especially when you consider the aforementioned turmoil in College Station and the Texas Longhorns’ struggle even to become bowl eligible.

The Longhorn/Aggie power vacuum in Texas football has been filled by the Bears, Horned Frogs and Cougars, and nowhere are the effects more evident than on the recruiting trail, where, according to Rivals.com, all three have Top 30 recruiting classes coming in next season, an unprecedented trifecta.

“The emergence of schools like Baylor, TCU and Houston on a national level at the same time mediocrity and turmoil has hit Austin and College Station has pushed more players to explore other, less than traditional options.” Sellers said. “Several top players in the city of Houston chose to stay home and play their college football.”

Both Sumlin and Texas head coach Charlie Strong are at a crossroads at their respective schools, and both made crucial hires at offensive coordinator within the past month, hires that must work or else we could see an offseason in which the two most high-profile head coaching jobs in the state, Texas and Texas A&M, are open at the same time.

Sellers believes that would be a global thermonuclear bidding war. “If the top two jobs in the state of Texas were to come open, especially both in one offseason, the bidding war would be fun to watch,” Sellers said, grinning.

Indeed, a Texas/Texas A&M hiring race would be a spectacular fireworks display of rumors, social media salvos and American currency. When asked who the targets would be, Sellers made no bones about it. “Key targets would have to include all three of [Baylor’s Art] Briles, [TCU’s Gary] Patterson and Herman,” Sellers said. “[Texas and A&M] will make them tell them no before moving past that group.”

It’s college football in Texas in 2016, and right now the stars of the show are Baylor, TCU and Houston. If Texas and Texas A&M can’t beat them, they may have to poach them.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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