It's a strange time for college football in the state of Texas. Baylor and TCU are the state's reigning kings. Houston has generated more buzz than anyone in the past 12 months. For only the third time in the game's 78-year history, the most recent Cotton Bowl did not feature a Southwest Conference or Big 12 team. And Texas and Texas A&M no longer play each other. The Longhorns and Aggies are going on five seasons and counting now without meeting on the field. You'd have to go back to 1888 through 1893 to find the last time that happened.... and Texas A&M didn't start playing football until 1894. Unprecedented times, these are.
And, yet, the rivalry between UT and A&M may be hotter than ever. Divorce tends to have that effect. (Speaking from personal experience -- which doesn't date back to 1894, or even close to it -- the animosity between all things burnt orange and maroon is stronger now than at any point in the 20-plus years I've followed the sport.)
It's created an odd dynamic for Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin. They are men who did not grow up in the rivalry, have very little professional experience inside it (Strong spent the 1985 season as a graduate assistant at A&M), have both stated on the record they'd like to see the game brought back but have no power to actually bring it back, yet are tasked with captaining these mammoth, divergent-yet-colliding ships. The two have never competed on the field, but are primary rivals on the recruiting trail. Logic dictates their programs should operate as frenemies -- better a player Texas can't have go to A&M, where Strong and company will never see him again, than Baylor or Oklahoma, and vice versa for Texas A&M. College football rivalries and rational logic tend to follow different paths of thought, though.
So now we enter a season where Strong and Sumlin need to be each other's biggest fans. Each enters this 2016 campaign off of multiple years of falling below expectations. In Strong's case, they're the program's. More arrows point upward than downward for the first time of his tenure, largely because he's recruited better than anyone in the Big 12 since his arrival. There are more NFL players in the program now than anytime since the Colt McCoy days. But 11-14 is 11-14. Poor hiring choices on the offensive side of the ball have created a situation where a new play-caller, his third in three years, has to hit immediately with either a true freshman or a reclamation-project senior at quarterback in a make-or-break year. In Sumlin's case, the unmet expectations are the ones he set himself in 2012. The maroon masses would've accepted his 25-14 mark from 2013-15 if not for his 11-2, Heisman-winning, Alabama-busting, Oklahoma-thumping debut season of 2012 and the half-billion dollar facilities upgrades it inspired. Constant instability among his assistants and a continued inability to keep a quarterback on campus haven't helped matters. But there are signs for optimism here, too. Trevor Knight will be a steadying force on the offense, and A&M has a defensive end tandem multiple NFL teams would dump their own for if given the opportunity.
I wrote earlier this week that I think both coaches win enough this season to hold their jobs. But optimism isn't an excuse for tunnel vision.
The brightest star in the coaching market sits just down the road at Houston. Tom Herman is just 41 years old, looking all the world like the Urban Meyer of his generation -- or, at the very least, a person doing a very good impersonation of someone pretending to be the next Urban Meyer. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce Herman would jump on either job, or that Herman would be the top choice for both schools.
That leads to a scenario where both schools enter the season with doomsday scenarios on the table. For Texas, it's another subpar season -- the seventh straight overall, dating back to the Mack Brown days -- where even Herman himself views A&M has surpassed Texas, and does so in the most public of fashions by embracing the Aggies over UT, thereby ceding the state to A&M and the rest of the SEC West, forcing Texas to pick a second-level coach while playing in a second-rate conference. For A&M, it's a fourth straight underperforming season followed by Herman confirming a century-plus of evidence that Texas is, despite a half-decade of respite, still and always will be first in the state, all the while the Aggies are still playing catch-up to Alabama, LSU and the rest of the SEC West.
As a source toldSports Illustrated's Pete Thamel:
"This is going to be a sea change year in college football, particularly in the state of Texas. I expect places to be unbelievably aggressive this year, especially if they've had enough at Penn State and Texas A&M. Could Texas be squeezed if it drags its feet?"
Each team's early season slate is full of toss-up games that could provide either a launching pad or a trap door. A&M opens with UCLA, visits Auburn two weeks later, meets Arkansas in Dallas a week after that, then hosts Tennessee on Oct. 8. The Aggies take the next weekend off, then visit Alabama Oct. 22. It's possible A&M heads to Tuscaloosa undefeated and ranked in the top five. It's also possible they have three losses by then. Texas opens with Notre Dame at home, visits California two weeks later and takes a week off before opening Big 12 play at Oklahoma State and opposite Oklahoma in Dallas. Again, it's possible Texas is unbeaten and in the top 10 at this time. It's also possible Strong's lost multiple games again, mirroring his 2-4 starts of 2014 and '15.
Either way, consensus could arrive on both coaches on or around Oct. 15. And, oddly, how the other coach is doing will matter just as much if not more than how he himself has fared.
Texas and Texas A&M have always monitored each other closely, but typically out of some combination of spite, jealousy and schadenfreude. This time around, it'll be business. Texas A&M may be inclined to move on from Sumlin after a 3-3 start with a trip to Alabama waiting, but they'll be even more eager to do so if Strong is 2-3 with losses to Notre Dame, Oklahoma State and OU. On the flip side, Texas could be ready to move on to a new coach after a 2-3 start, but a 6-0 start at A&M could take their foot off the accelerator.
Again, strange times create strange bedfellows.
Chances are, one or both coaches will win enough to keep Texas and Texas A&M from competing in the same market and bidding on the same coach -- a dream scenario for agents, and a nightmare for ADs and presidents. (By the way, the 'Horns and Aggies have swam in the same coaching pool only once in the modern era, and not since 1951.) As I said, I think both will.
But, if only for their own goods, Strong and Sumlin should take some time this fall to cheer for each other. It's smart thing to do.... as long as they do it quietly.