Let’s roll back to October 3, 2015. On that date, led by sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen, Texas A&M rolled to a 30-17 victory over SEC rival Mississippi State, their second conference win in as many weeks, and one that vaulted them into the AP top ten. One voter even ranked Kevin Sumlin’s squad as the best team in the nation.
Meanwhile in Fort Worth, the TCU Horned Frogs laid an epic 50-7 beatdown on Charlie Strong’s Texas Longhorns. Worse still, at halftime, with the Horns down 37-0, Longhorns freshman defensive back Kris Boyd somehow got ahold of his cellphone and retweeted an Aggie troll’s offer to accept him (and other Texas players) as transfers once they decided they’d had enough of life aboard Charlie Strong’s foundering ship.
Within the ranks of college football fandom, Boyd’s notorious retweet added to the narrative that not only was Strong at the helm of a historically bad Longhorn team, but also that he had “lost the locker room.” Blowout losses! Players begging to transfer at halftime! Another certain smackdown—this time at the hands of the mighty Oklahoma Sooners—looming next on the schedule.
And around that same time, conventional wisdom had it that Strong’s program was struggling on the recruiting front as well. As recently as last month, Strong’s 2016 class was ranked somewhere in the 40s nationally, lagging not just A&M, TCU, Tech, and Baylor, but also Tom Herman’s upstart University of Houston, and basketball schools like Duke and Kentucky. Message board hotheads were calling for Strong’s head, and rumor has it that some of the program’s big money donors were maneuvering behind the scenes for Strong’s ouster and Herman’s hiring.
What a difference 120 days makes. During that span, Texas beat both Oklahoma and Baylor; Texas A&M lost five of its eight games. As bad as the last two-thirds of the Aggies 2015 regular season turned out, the offseason has been even worse: Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, their top two quarterbacks, transferred to regional rivals, joining previous Johnny Football successor Kenny Hill as post-Manziel signal-calling flameouts.
And then there’s recruiting, the proxy battlefield between UT and A&M after the century-old hot war has turned cold. Now that the faxed letters of intent are all in and the classes signed and sealed, even Aggies have been forced to admit that Strong cleaned Sumlin’s clock. Indeed, the flourish with which Strong finished this year’s recruiting class has been the talk of National Signing Day from coast to coast.
In just 48 hours, Texas jumped from the 39th ranked class in the nation to a finish somewhere around tenth, the top haul in both the state and in the Big 12. Much of that leap came at the expense of Texas A&M, and now it’s Sumlin in the hot seat, while Strong is the toast of Austin. Or at least until the Horns play Notre Dame in the fall…
A (paywalled) December analysis from 247Sports’ A&M arm, filed just before the quarterback exodus in College Station, stated that the Aggies still had ten or eleven spots to fill in their 2016 class, and mentioned sixteen players believed to be in play.
Among them, there was linebacker Jeffrey McCullough, a.k.a. “the Shark.” All signs point toward the Aggies, Hamm opined. Or Stanford or Notre Dame. The Shark signed with Texas today.
There was Waco defensive back Eric Cuffee. The Aggies were then “the perceived favorites for the Under Armour All-American.” Cuffee signed with Texas a week or so back.
And then there was five-star recruit Brandon Jones, the nation’s top-ranked high school safety. “Kevin Sumlin’s program is still the overwhelming favorites to land the Nation’s top rated safety,” the piece assured. Indeed, Jones seemed like such an A&M lock that a crew of Aggies made a short, fawning documentary about the Nacogdoches native, a quasi-romantic mancrush gesture now destined for eternal fame/infamy in the annals of Aggie-Longhorn rivalry .
Spoiler alert: Jones left the Aggies at the altar and signed with Texas today.
This is the second year in a row Strong has pulled off a last-minute coup around National Signing Day. It’s just the way he operates, a deliberate decision. It’s understandable that Longhorn fans might freak about next year’s recruiting class every fall—by that point Mack Brown would have already had a high-ranked (if often underachieving) recruiting class already in the fold—but Strong is Brown’s polar opposite as a recruiter. Instead of signing up ever-younger players, Strong waits and watches as they become young men. Under Brown, each year’s junior day was circled in red on most Horn fan’s calendar. Under Strong, that date has been pushed back more than a year to National Signing Day. The difference in approach could not be more stark.
Especially toward the end of his tenure, Brown came to place undue faith in Texas high school coaches and players from powerhouse programs, whereas Strong is willing to look east (Florida last year, Louisiana this year) for recruits. Yes, Texas is a great prep football state, but might not there be a few great players on the other side of the Sabine as well? Might not kids from the outskirts of New Orleans or the sugarcane fields of South Florida have a little more fire in the belly than those from suburban Dallas or Houston, who arrive in Austin with big heads, already accustomed as they are into playing on field turf in front of 25,000 fans every Friday?
Strong seems to think so. Brown came to believe that all he needed to do was tap in to powerhouse Central Texas and DFW schools, glad-hand their coaches, and the blue-chip recruits and wins would keep rolling in. Between 1998 and 2010, all of that worked quite well. After 2010 it continued to do so, except for the “wins” part.
Meanwhile, with three freshman all-Americans and numerous other underclassman contributors already on Strong’s team, and this haul coming in now, the future looks brighter in Austin than at any time since Vince Young arrived on campus.
Daniels on UT's Charlie Strong: "All I've got to say is that if you don't want to go to Texas, don't let him get on your couch."
— Corbett Smith (@corbettsmithDMN) February 3, 2016
In the end, Texas A&M finished around twentieth in the rankings and Texas about tenth. (Weasel words because the rankings are still fluid right now.) Both are eminently respectable, but the reactions in College Station and Austin, where jubilation reigns, and among neutral observers, couldn’t be farther apart.
The Dallas Morning News called Strong the “best closer since Mariano Rivera.” USA Today said that “the Longhorns took an enormous step toward national competitiveness.” BleacherReport.com had this to say: “Thanks to an unbelievable finish, Charlie Strong and the Texas Longhorns have recruited another top-10 class to Austin. Strong’s 10 commits over the final 24 hours of the 2016 recruiting cycle have become the talk of the nation.”
Meanwhile, in College Station, even the top twenty class en route to Aggieland did little to ramp up enthusiasm about the future of the program: “It’s unfair to the guys who signed an LOI with A&M to immediately jump to the negative—or to let the negative truly define this class. So with that in mind, I’m going to start off with the good news.”
After a couple of paragraphs praising the Aggies signing of a good crop of wide receivers and cornerbacks, the remainder of the article reads as one long lamentation:
“This class missed big time in a lot of areas…” “We needed at least 1 more star LB…” “Not signing a true DT this year is bad news…” “I would have liked to see us take at least one more corner….” “The TE position. Our goal was to take two and we didn’t get any. I’m no math expert but that doesn’t seem ideal…” l “Losing Brandon Jones to the Longhorns is a huge failure on the part of our staff. No real way to spin that loss… “Yet again we’re not going to sign a full class which means that our roster will likely be somewhere between 75-80. We need a full roster to compete in our division.”
And a gracious tip of the hat to Charlie Strong: “It seems that Charlie Strong’s approach to recruiting is working and players are buying what he’s selling. They certainly knew how to sell the uncertainty at A&M through the month of December and I dont fault them for that at all. We got out hustled this recruiting season by the horns, plain and simple.”
Like we said, what a difference 120 days can make.
A few more random notes on other Texas/Big 12 schools…
Baylor, TCU and Houston continued making inroads on the onetime dominance of Texas, A&M, and Oklahoma in Lone Star State recruiting. Both the Bears and the Frogs came in ahead of traditional powerhouses like Penn State, Miami and Oklahoma in this afternoon’s rankings, as well as 2015 playoff team Michigan State. Thanks in large part to the late defection (to Florida) of blue-chip receiver Tyrie Cleveland, Houston fell from the fringes of the top 25 to a respectable 40th ranking, placing them ahead of mid-tier Big 12 teams Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State, as well as Iowa, this year’s Rose Bowl loser.
As many of their former Big 12 competitors feared, it appears now that A&M’s move to the SEC has given Southern schools unprecedented license to plunder Texas recruits. Yes, Texas-adjacent colleges like Arkansas and LSU have long-established pipelines to East Texas, but now quite a few of the state’s best are heading even farther afield. SEC schools signed 13 of 36 top-ranked Texan blue-chips, with Alabama and Ole Miss leading the way with four apiece.
Based on ESPN research, SEC schools have landed 42 percent of the state’s top-100 talent in the past four seasons, compared with 28 percent for Big 12 schools. In the six classes signed before A&M’s move to the SEC, top-100 players from Texas wound up on Big 12 rosters 73 percent of the time.
This year, the Aggies only landed three of the top 36, the same as their new most hated on-field rival LSU. If the Aggies hoped Texas would bear the brunt of those SEC migrants, they were mistaken. This year, the Horns landed seven among the top 36.
Of the power teams in the Big 12, Oklahoma appears to have been affected the most. Around the time the Aggies bolted, Bob Stoops drastically overhauled the Sooners’ recruiting approach—and now the days of Oklahoma’s rosters featuring a majority of defectors from south of the Red River appear numbered. The 2016 Sooner class includes a mere three Texans, the lowest number I can remember. (Stanford—Stanford!—had six.) Oklahoma now recruits coast to coast: this year’s haul is harvested from 11 states and the District of Columbia. As last year’s playoff season attests, the ceding of Texas to the SEC has not harmed Oklahoma’s on-field results all that much, but it probably chaps the coaching staff’s hide having to rack up all those sky miles, rather than just barreling down I-35 and reeling them in.
Which is not to say the Sooners have abandoned Texas altogether. Two days ago their recruiters wooed Cibolo Steele defensive end Mark Jackson Jr. away from his commitment to Texas A&M. Jackson will join A&M transfer Kyler Murray among the diminishing number of Texans on the Sooner roster.