Beyond the Boxscore
The Mad Hatter will never let on. Any self-respecting poker player knows that you never reveal a tell, never admit to any weakness. And few coaches gamble as well as LSU's eccentric, grass-eating, Les Miles.
So Miles pretends everything is fine after his Tigers escape Kyle Field with a 24-19 victory over Texas A&M.
He calls 19-year-old Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel "gutsy" and "tough." Which is true enough, but it also deflects attention from the fact that Miles is out coached on his Saturday in College Station. If not for Manziel playing like a first-year starter, if not for four Texas A&M turnovers overall, if not for a freshman kicker who goes as erratic as Lindsay Lohan, Texas A&M walks away with a Tiger pelt.
Instead, it's a loss. But it's also a sign of the power to come.
Texas A&M is already as physical as any team in the SEC. The Aggies are not losing games because they're being pushed around.
You can forget all those notions of Texas A&M struggling for years in the SEC. In year one, Kevin Sumlin's program has shown it's more than capable of standing up to the heavyweights of the toughest college football conference in the land.
On a day when Steve Spurrier gets absolutely obliterated by a Florida squad that could only beat Sumlin's team by three, a day when Tennessee loses for the 11th time in its last 12 conference games, the Aggies show that the new kids on the block are the ones who are on their way to being able to knock the block off the SEC's bullies.
If you're screaming same old Aggies because Manziel and Co. lost a 12-0 lead in a 103-second span at the end of the first half, you're missing the bigger picture. Texas A&M is already as physical as any team in the SEC. The Aggies are not losing games because they're being pushed around. They're delivering plenty of punishment — you can bet that LSU will remember its trip to College Station in bruises just like Florida did before it.
The notion that Sumlin will not be able to take the offensive wizardry that worked so well at the University of Houston and translate it into the land where Top 10 teams roam is also proving to be false. It may sound wrong to praise the offensive scheme considering Texas A&M (5-2) scored 17 and 19 points in its two losses to Top 6 teams.
But Saturday's numbers don't lie. Sumlin's offense racks up 10 more first downs (28 to 18), a 103 more yards (416 to 313) and gets off 21 more plays (taking a whopping 94 snaps) than LSU's. In many ways, Texas A&M's offense dictates the pace of the game.
It just cannot win it with Manziel at this stage in his development, with Johnny Football underthrowing an open Uzoma Nwachukwu in the end zone on third down inside the LSU's 15-yard line after Trey Williams' jolting, 76-yard fourth-quarter kickoff return.
Miles will claim something of a defensive victory, reasoning in his halftime TV interview that "it takes a little time against their offense to get your feet on the ground and understand."
Sumlin's offense racks up 10 more first downs (28 to 18), a 103 more yards (416 to 313) and gets off 21 more plays (taking a whopping 94 snaps) than LSU's.
But just wait until the Aggies have more time in Sumlin's offense. League, scheme or personnel regardless, if Sumlin's proven one thing, it's that he can coach offense.
Against non-Top 10 teams? The Aggies are averaging 53 points per game, a number that should seem familiar to University of Houston fans who watched Sumlin's superb schemes torment on a smaller stage.
In a conference like the SEC, where 56-53 and 56-50 wins are not in the cards, where defense is actually played, Sumlin's offensive creativity may end up meaning even more in the long run.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger (11 of 29 for 97 yards) certainly could use a little more help from Miles and his staff.
And you can bet seeing Manziel put the ball in the air 56 times while the Aggies still ran 38 times (only six less than LSU) causes the Matt Hatter plenty of indigestion.
Who's intimidating who?
The game is right there for Texas A&M's taking. Williams rips off that 76-yard kick return after the Aggies defense holds up in the red zone again.
First-and-10 at LSU's 16-yard line. Down by five points. The clock inside eight minutes.
You can forget all those notions of Texas A&M struggling for years in the SEC.
Manziel and Sumlin couldn't have asked for anything more. Three plays later . . . Taylor Bertolet is pushing a 33-yard field goal far right as the boos come raining down.
"We just didn't make enough plays offensively," Sumlin says in his postgame radio interview.
The chances to make the plays are there though. LSU cannot push Texas A&M around. One of the SEC's elite of the elites — a program that has played in the BCS Championship Game twice in the last five years — needs to sweat almost every second against the Aggies in their SEC Year One.
With Sumlin and Manziel and all those fanatics who clog the roads to College Station (the fifth-largest crowd in A&M history shows for LSU), this is clearly a program on the rise. A program guaranteed to build buzz.
Can you really say that with absolute certainty about Miles and the Tigers anymore? About South Carolina with a 67-year-old Spurrier having just watched his last, best chance at the national championship get blown right out the door? At Texas, where a non-Robert Griffin III Baylor team can now put up 50 points in Austin?
Sometimes, it's good to be new thing. Even on a lost day.