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Kevin Sumlin can save his job — and here’s how

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin watches during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Alabama Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/AP photo

When reflecting on last Saturday’s college football slate, you could argue that the biggest win didn’t come courtesy of Michigan State, Iowa State or Miami. Heck, you could argue that the biggest win didn’t come in an actual “win” at all.

Instead it came in College Station, Texas, where the final score at Kyle Field read “Alabama 27, Texas A&M 19,” but where the subtext to the game made it that much more interesting. It was a game where Texas A&M fell down early and looked like another hapless SEC team ready to get steamrolled by the freight-train that is Alabama. But instead, the Aggies battled back like few teams do, giving up just three points over the final quarter-and-a-half of play, giving them a chance to tie things up late.

It was a game where, if you take out a couple dumb turnovers early and one 75-yard Damien Harris run, Texas A&M could’ve and maybe should’ve won the game.

It’s said that there are no moral victories in college football, and to a degree that’s true. Still, if ever there was a moral victory, playing Alabama to a one-score game, with a true freshman at quarterback, feels like one.

It also made me wonder something else altogether:  In a season where so many (myself included) just wrote off coach Kevin Sumlin and assumed that he’d be fired at the end of the year, can he now do enough to keep his job? Considering that the Aggies are 4-2 with a bunch of games left that they can win, the answer is absolutely “yes.”

Of course, with Sumlin, the context is so much greater. This is a guy with a history of hot starts and late collapses, filled with losses that no one saw coming. Therefore, the next few weeks in College Station will set up like college football’s version of a bad Hollywood action movie with The Rock in the leading role. I can already hear the tag line: To save everyone around him, Kevin Sumlin must overcome the one thing that has always held him back.

That’s right, for anyone who has followed Texas A&M the last few years, they know the painful history. That is also why they’re so cautious right now. The Aggies are off to a hot start in 2017 because, well, Texas A&M always gets off to hot starts. The problem has been finishing just as strong. Since Sumlin’s first season – when he rode Johnny Manziel to an 11-2 finish – Texas A&M has been unable to close things late.

For those who don’t follow this program day-to-day, here is a quick history lesson:

2013: With Manziel back for his second season, the Aggies started 8-2, with their only losses coming in a shootout against Alabama and to an Auburn club which would go on to play for a national championship. Unfortunately, A&M fizzled late, losing their final two games of the regular season.

2014: The Aggies start 5-0 before losing five of their final seven games. Of the two wins, one came against Louisiana-Monroe, and the second came at Auburn, a club which had its own late-season meltdown, finishing 1-4.

2015: There was another 5-0 start, and entering November the Aggies sat at a respectable 6-2. Then came a disastrous November and December stretch where Texas A&M went 2-3, and the only victories were against Western Carolina and to a bad Vanderbilt club. The season ended with a bowl loss to Louisville after the Aggies’ starting quarterback and his backup (Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray) transferred shortly after the regular season.

2016: And then there was last season. Texas A&M began 7-1 and was actually ranked No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff poll. Then came a bad road loss to Mississippi State (the Bulldogs finished 5-7 in the regular season), and a few weeks later came another bad loss to Ole Miss. History will remember that game as Hugh Freeze’s final victory in Oxford.  After November 1, the Aggies’ sole victory was over Texas San Antonio.

So, just looking at that history, it’s pretty easy to understand why Texas A&M fans are dubious heading into the home stretch in 2017. It’s also easier to understand why Sumlin was on the hot seat entering this season. Sumlin’s defenders will continue to point to the fact that he’s won at least eight games every season in College Station. His detractors will continue to tell you that it’s not about how many wins the Aggies got, but how few came when things mattered late. Texas A&M is just 5-7 in November over the last three years, and 2-7 against SEC opponents in that same stretch. They’ve also lost their last two bowl games as well.

Therefore, you can understand why Aggies’ fans are proceeding with caution right now. At the same time, it’s also hard to look at the schedule and not have optimism. It’s also not hard to look at what’s ahead and think to yourself, “Man, Sumlin really could keep his job, couldn’t he?”

Part of that is due to the fact that the Aggies appear to be different this season (with the Alabama game as the best example yet), but part of it is also the schedule. Outside of Auburn in a few weeks, what team do you look at on paper and say “Texas A&M is going to have trouble with that team?” None immediately jump out.

It starts on Saturday with a trip to Florida. Historically, the Gators are tough in the Swamp, but then again, there is nothing about this Florida team that resembles recent history. They have already lost one game at home (LSU), should have lost another (to Tennessee) and if we’re being totally honest, should be 1-4 overall right now. In the process, a school which was once known as “Quarterback U” is juggling QB’s like Derek Jeter used to juggle girlfriends back in the day, with an offense that has about as much firepower as a water gun. If the old saying goes that “if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none,” then what happens when you have three quarterbacks? You’re a disaster like Florida, that’s what.

As for everyone else, here’s how things lay out: There is a home game against Mississippi State, a club which plays well in Starkville, but is abysmal everywhere else (the Bulldogs lost back-to-back road games by a combined score of 80-13 earlier this season). Ole Miss is beat up, playing under an interim coach and banned from the postseason. Think the Rebels will have quit by the time the Aggies play them in mid-November? New Mexico should be a cakewalk, and even LSU – a club which the Aggies haven’t beaten since joining the SEC – is as weak as its been in years. If there is ever a year that Texas A&M is going to take the Tigers down, this feels like it.

That’s also why there is suddenly light at the end of the tunnel for Sumlin. Assuming just that one loss to Auburn, Sumlin will absolutely keep his job, and he obviously would as well with a miracle 10-2 finish. It’s also very plausible that he would keep it with an 8-4 record, depending on where that loss came from. A solid, hard-fought road loss at Florida or LSU might be enough for him to stick around.

The one thing the Aggies can’t afford is an all-out meltdown like in years past. They can’t afford to lose the games they’re supposed to win, nor allow one loss to snowball into two or three.

Ultimately, the ball is in Sumlin’s court and his future is in his hands. If he just wins the games he’s supposed to, he’ll be back at Texas A&M in 2018.

Of course, when it comes to Sumlin and the Aggies, history tells us that’s easier said than done.

— Aaron Torres is covering college football for FanRag Sports this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_TorresFacebook or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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