Johnny Manziel may have played his final game in a Texas A&M uniform, and if that's the case, he had one heckuva finale. Manziel guided the Aggies up and down the field in an impressive second-half comeback against the Duke Blue Devils in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl. His performance taught the world that he's not done impressing football fans. But what else did we take away from this exciting and fun-to-watch football game?
Duke certainly had an impressive season, and we can't ignore the impressive effort put forth by a team no one was giving much of a chance against the Aggies. Head coach David Cutcliffe once again proved why he won the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award for 2013, and his Blue Devils were just a few points short against an A&M team that looked almost shell-shocked at Duke's football abilities.
So Manziel is great. Duke is for real. What else did we learn? Let's see...
We've heard for years about that mystical "SEC speed." Supposedly no other conference could match the lightening-fast athletes SEC programs could put on the field.
So what happened?
In the first half, and for a good portion of the second, too, Duke fielded a squad of athletes who ran right past a Texas A&M defense that seemed to be standing still by comparison. That's right, Duke! Sure, the Blue Devils won the ACC's Coastal Division this season, but the Blue Devils were also flattened by Florida State in the ACC title game.
So what does this say about this great SEC speed? Probably that other conferences have either caught up, or perhaps it was more legend than reality.
Duke put up 661 yards and 48 points on an A&M team that gave Auburn one of its best games of the season. That same Auburn team will face off against the same Florida State Seminoles in the BCS National Championship Game that steamrolled the Blue Devils in the ACC title bout a month ago.
While we don't know what will happen when Auburn and Florida State tangle, it's clear that Texas A&M didn't do proponents of "SEC speed" and stellar defenses any favors with Tuesday night's performance.
Any time a team from a "power five" conference can put together a 10-win season, you have to sit up and take notice. But the fact that this particular 10-win team was Duke gave some people reason to doubt the validity of the Blue Devil's claim to being one of the nation's top programs.
Duke's performance against Texas A&M should silence many of those critics.
While the Blue Devils didn't win, the narrow defeat late in the fourth quarter should prove to everyone that Duke is at least capable of hanging with some top teams. And like Michigan State's turnaround from 7-6 in 2012 to the 12-1 mark in 2013, hanging around one season can quickly turn into a top five-worthy performance the next.
The ACC best beware.
There are only a handful of people who truly know what the terms of David Cutcliffe's contract are at Duke. After all, Duke University is a private institution and not obligated to share its contracts with anyone.
But we do know this: Whatever Duke is giving Cutcliffe, it's probably not enough.
Duke was just 6-45 in the four seasons prior to Cutcliffe being hired. Six wins in four seasons! In 2013, Duke won 10 games, and the future looks very bright in Durham.
Just how bright is that future? Let's take a look at how the rest of the ACC fared in 2013.
If you put Duke up against the rest of the Coastal Division, the Blue Devils are just one of six bowl teams this season. Of those six, only Pitt and North Carolina won their respective bowl games—to finish 7-6. The real recruiting competition—Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech—all lost in rather one-sided defeats.
Duke, on the other hand, showed an ability not only to hang with an SEC team, but hang with a ranked SEC team led by one of the most exciting players ever to put on a helmet and pads.
Don't think some of the region's top recruits didn't sit up and take notice of just how close Duke is to being a really good football team.
With Johnny Manziel being Johnny Manziel, it's incredibly easy to forget that there were two great quarterbacking performances in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke's junior signal-caller, Anthony Boone, threw for 427 yards on a 29-of-45 performance that included three touchdowns and two picks.
While it's easy to focus on the two later interceptions that, admittedly, cost the Blue Devils the game, we can't get over just how solid Boone looked on almost every other play of the game.
Boone is an accurate passer, a solid scrambler and a nearly masterful field general for the Blue Devils. While we're all talking about sophomore Johnny Manziel likely heading off to the NFL next season, Boone will quickly be preparing for his senior campaign in Durham.
That's something to get excited about for Duke fans, and don't be surprised if we're talking about the Blue Devils in the preseason polls come August—in large part because of Boone.
Well, what about Texas A&M? What's next on the horizon for the Aggies program?
Everyone has to admit that the transition to the SEC wasn't as bumpy as many had expected it to be. But we also have to admit that Johnny Manziel was a major reason for the success A&M has seen over the past two seasons.
What is also clear is the fact that A&M just doesn't stack up well against the rest of the conference without Manziel. And being without Manziel is a reality Texas A&M may soon face.
We'll learn over the next few weeks whether or not Manziel will return to College Station for his junior year. But if he doesn't, what can head coach Kevin Sumlin do to stave off the almost inevitable drop in offensive output? Manziel's ability to score points in a hurry is what kept A&M in many tight games and even allowed the Aggies to pull out improbable wins against the likes of Alabama in 2012 and Duke in 2013.
Will the Aggies now have to rely more on their defense? Plenty of A&M fans will be shuddering at that thought.
We've already mentioned the 661 yards and 48 points the Texas A&M defense gave up to Duke. But the story of the game can't be boiled down to pure numbers any more than Manziel's career can be summed up with pass completion percentages.
We're not sure what Kevin Sumlin and his defensive staff said in the locker room at halftime, but whatever it was, it had to have been great. In the second half, the Aggies' defense looked as if they had simply matured both mentally and physically by an entire year in just a few minutes. Suddenly, A&M was capable of doing something it hadn't done once in the first half: stop the Blue Devils from scoring.
Penalties were fixed, missed assignments were fixed, gaps were fixed and missed tackles...well, you get the idea. Those defensive fixes actually had more of an impact on the game than anything because it allowed Johnny Manziel to leave where he'd spent most of the first half: the sideline.
Okay, so we're not quite ready to crown the A&M defense as the cream of the crop in the SEC just yet. But at the very least, there's reason for hope come 2014.
We've talked about what Manziel means to Texas A&M and about what he could mean to the NFL—should he decide to go. But all of that has to do with his on-field talent and ability to seize control of a football game.
But what about all of the extracurricular activity?
Like so many previous games, the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl had its share of Manziel antics. From his sideline confab with wideout Mike Evans early on (after Evans' second personal foul penalty) to his chirping and chippy post-whistle behavior, we saw the full spectrum of Johnny Manziel.
The question now is how this off-field (or at least not between the whistles) nonsense will translate to the NFL. College is a different environment. Players adhere to a relatively strict pecking order, and team captains are often called upon to take charge of fellow players who aren't performing to the best of their ability.
But in the NFL, can a soon-to-be rookie like Manziel get away with grabbing a teammate's face mask? What about getting right up into the face of an opponent and spouting off and making his now-famous "pay me" sign?
NFL scouts and general managers are absolutely giddy about Manziel's abilities. But what happens when he runs afoul of coaches or his fellow players?
We can only promise this: It should make for some great television.
CBSSports.com's Will Brinson has Manziel—along with Mike Evans—heading to the NFL in 2014. But if you ask Manziel, he hasn't thought about it, or isn't thinking about it, or can't think about it or any of the other variations on that theme.
But back in the land of reality, we all know Manziel has thought about it, is thinking about it and likely has already made up his mind.
But if you're an A&M fan hoping for just one more season of Johnny Football's magic, a win against Duke—especially in the manner in which Manziel seemingly willed it to happen—might not have been the best thing. There's something to be said about going out with a bang, and Manziel certainly did that. Perhaps in his mind, there's not much left for him to do at A&M.
So will he or won't he declare for the 2014 NFL draft?
The short answer is, we don't know for sure. But the safe bet is, yes, he's probably preparing to clean out his locker at Kyle Field.
People who have ever ridden horses know that there are animals that follow your every command, responding to the slightest guidance while some other horses just take you along for the ride. Johnny Manziel probably falls into the latter category, and head coach Kevin Sumlin was—for the most part—along for the ride.
That's not a bad thing, or a knock against Sumlin. It takes some smarts, and more than a smidgen of courage to allow an underclassman like Manziel to completely take over the limelight, becoming the center of a team and just allowing it to play itself out.
Sumlin has done a masterful job of coaching young Mr. Manziel. While Manziel often seemed incapable of being reigned in (think back to 2013's opener against Rice), Sumlin deftly gave Manziel just enough slack on the reins to allow Johnny Football to do what he needed to do. Ever so slight movements to either side by Sumlin kept his horse on the trail, but it also allowed Manziel to do what he needed to on that trail to win football games.
Being the unseen master behind the curtain isn't something college football coaches do easily. Sumlin might be the exception to that rule.
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