Oh, Who? Manziel Affirms Life After Heisman.
Obviously, I thought, he'll win a national championship.
But I couldn't really entertain that dream until I saw how the Aggies fared in their Cotton Bowl matchup with Landry Jones and the Oklahoma Sooners. A&M drained an otherwise unstoppable Crimson Tide this season, and the Aggies ended the 2012 season a smarter, stronger team than the one that kicked off in September. But the Aggies don't get to face Florida and LSU again this year. If the season started today, would the Aggies, could the Aggies, go undefeated?
The 2013 Cotton Bowl was the closest I'd come to finding out.
Texas A&M started strong Friday night, scoring first on a Manziel touchdown run with 12:21 left in the first quarter. But near-perfect play from Jones kept the Sooners close throughout the first half. Sixteen- and 18-play drives ended in OU field goals before the Aggies answered with a five-yard touchdown run from you-know-who to go up 14-6. The Sooners countered with another long drive, and Jones finally connected with Justin Brown in the end zone just before halftime. The Aggies took a 14-13 lead into the locker room.
Unfortunately for the Sooners, perfection rarely lasts. In the second half, the Aggies realized they could stop playing run defense, dropped back to deny Jones the pass, and shut out the Sooners for the remainder of the game. Oh, who? Wrecking crew.
The Aggies last won 11 games in 1998, when I was a mere "fish," bobbing in Aggieland's big waters. Back then, A&M played defensive ball under R.C. Slocum, and we spent much of every game with our hands in the air, busting "WC" signs like gangsters.
But defense has never been the story this season, and the Cotton Bowl was no exception. This is the Johnny Manziel show, folks. The post-Heisman talk-show circuit didn't faze him at all. Rushing, Manziel averaged 13.5 yards per carry for 229 yards. In the air, the QB posted big numbers, too, racking up 287 yards on 22 of 34 attempts. Oh, who? Number two.
One interception mars Manziel's stats: when the quarterback dodged defenders and unleashed an end-zone pass to Malcome Kennedy's hands, the receiver bobbled the ball, and Oklahoma's Javon Harris was there to clean up. The pick and a third quarter failed PAT by freshman kicker Taylor Bertolet were the only miscues in a night that otherwise played to Kevin Sumlin's script.
For the first-year head coach, the night ended with a 41-13 win, a Gatorade-soaked polo, a smug hug for former boss Bob Stoops, and high praise for the freshman quarterback that led his team to national relevance.
Friday night's Cotton Bowl proved Texas A&M has one of the best football teams in the country. Can the Aggies win it all next season?
A&M loses a class of seniors that had a huge impact on the team, especially in the six-game winning streak to end the year, and most notably on Friday night's big stage. On fourth-and-five from the OU 33, senior receiver Ryan Swope caught a touchdown pass from Manziel that put the Aggies up 34-13 in the third and all but sealed the game with a quarter to play.
Uzoma Nwachukwu caught the final touchdown pass of his college career in the fourth quarter. Near game's end, four-year starter Sean Porter sacked Jones for a seven-yard loss, capping a stellar collegiate career. And Patrick Lewis anchored an offensive line that gave Manziel acres of running and throwing room all night.
A team that finishes 11-2 in the SEC is bound to lose some juniors to the NFL draft, too. So far, pass rusher Damontre Moore has declared for the draft, and most expect A&M's star tackles Jake Matthews and Outland Trophy winner Luke Joeckel to answer opportunity's knock. Which would you rather have, an eight-figure salary or a national championship? Sorry, dumb question.
Even so, after Friday's Cotton Bowl Classic, the championship looks ripe for the Aggies' taking. "It depends on how hard people want to work in the offseason," Manziel said. "I am going to call the guys up and ask them, 'How hard do we want this? Do we want to have all this hype and not back it up, or do we want to grind this summer?' If we want to put in the work, the sky is the limit."
What's next for Johnny Manziel? No one can say for sure. But when the best player in college football embraces that kind of mentality, great things are bound to happen.