Sumlin, Muschamp add fuel to new SEC rivalry

It’s hard to tell what exactly Kevin Sumlin was hoping to accomplish Tuesday when he suggested Florida’s players were out of shape and “flopping around on the field the second half” at Kyle Field Saturday.

Hard to tell because — and I don’t know if you noticed this — Florida dominated the second half. Florida’s defense was so exhausted that it forced the Aggies to punt every time they got the ball after halftime.

But maybe that wasn’t the point.

Maybe Sumlin was trying to say that Florida’s frequent cramping issues — and they were quite frequent — were part of Florida’s game plan to slow the pace of Texas A&M’s offense. Hard to tell if that’s what Sumlin was saying, because instead of saying that when he was asked directly whether he thought the “flopping around” was the result of a conditioning problem or something else, he said, “You were there,” laughed and the press conference ended.

I was there too Saturday, watching from the international space station otherwise known as the press box at Kyle Field. From that vantage point, I was cynical about all those Gator injuries. The cramping began in the second quarter, which seemed a little early for SEC linebackers and defensive backs to be breaking down on an unusually cool day in College Station. At least one person in the crowd loudly wondered where the Gatorade was. I had not heard anything about the Gators moving their training camp to North Dakota, and I have a hard time believing they were in worse shape than Texas A&M.

But unless Sumlin, who was a heck of a lot closer to the action than I was, wants to come out and say what he’s trying to say, I’m also going to have a hard time knowing what he’s trying to say.

Here’s the thing, though: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because cramping or faking it is not what this is really about. This is about a personal rivalry between Will Muschamp and Kevin Sumlin and, by extension, a rivalry between Texas A&M and Florida.

It’s a shame they aren’t in the same division because this thing is hot already.

Muschamp touched it off by insulting College Station during the summer. Sumlin responded by saying Muschamp needed to worry about his own team. Then came the billboard some Texas A&M fans put up in Gainesville declaring it to have been “annexed” by Aggieland.  

And then came Florida’s postgame news conference. In nine years of doing this, I’ve never heard a coach so clearly, so simply and so directly reduce the opponent’s game plan and explain how the game was won and lost as Muschamp did Saturday.

Muschamp said Texas A&M looks like a passing team, but isn’t really a passing team with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. He then explained that the Aggies were counting on Florida’s defensive line to rush upfield, which would create running lanes for the speedy Manziel to exploit. In the first half, that’s exactly what happened, so at halftime Muschamp threatened to fire everybody if they kept rushing that way. So they stopped, Texas A&M punted out, and Florida won.

That’s how Muschamp explained the game. Not only did it make Sumlin’s scheme sound simple as Ramen noodles, it made it sound like Sumlin either did not recognize the adjustment Florida made at halftime, or did recognize it but did not have the confidence in his quarterback’s ability to pass the ball against a Florida rush that was no longer coming.
Muschamp didn’t say he outcoached Sumlin. He just explained how he did it.  

Now, Muschamp has every right to say whatever he wants in his press conferences. I’m not criticizing him. Football would be more fun to follow if more coaches did that sort of thing. I’m just saying that if you were Sumlin, and you read those quotes, how do you think you’d feel about Muschamp right about now?

Might you feel compelled to offer an alternate explanation for the second half of Saturday’s game? One that introduced a little ambiguity to the narrative?

Might you feel the two of you were something more than opponents? Something less analytical and more emotional.

Nemeses, you might call it. Or rivals.