Photo: USA Today Sports
With the start of the 2013 college football season creeping toward being just days away, Texas A&M must answer one rather significant question before the first kickoff. With a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the status of Heisman Trophy quarterback Johnny Manziel, do the Aggies risk proceeding as if nothing is wrong and play their top offensive player when Texas A&M opens the season at home against Rice, or should Kevin Sumlin and the program lend an ear to the advice of a former NCAA enforcement official suggesting not to play Manziel until the NCAA comes to a final decision over an investigation in to his eligibility?
By now you should be somewhat familiar with the story here, with Manziel being investigated for a cash for autographs exchange. Texas A&M has hired the same legal firm that successfully cleared Cam Newton from any wrongdoing during Auburn's BCS Championship run not all that long ago, and as far as we know at this point there is no concrete evidence Manziel accepted any cash, despite the shadiness of the overall scene painted pretty thoroughly to this point. Right now, Manziel is eligible to play football and perhaps the odds are in his favor of being cleared by the NCAA whenever this comes to a close.
And that, in itself, is the biggest question of all. When will the NCAA have a decision made. If history has taught us anything, keeping the NCAA on a tight schedule is nearly as likely to build a reverse peanut butter and jelly sandwich that won't get your fingers sticky. It just does not happen, and you can ask Oregon and Miami all about that. Perhaps this is a situation that will be cleared up a little quicker considering it involves just one player and the potential witnesses have already said they will not be cooperating with the NCAA. In other words, if there is no evidence or testimony to draw on and there is nobody else to discuss it with, the NCAA is running in to a dead end. Unless the Wile. E. Coyote painted an imaginary tunnel for the NCAA to travel through to their own questionable decisions, there will be nowhere for the NCAA to go as far as Manziel is concerned.
Still, until something is decided Texas A&M could be entering dangerous territory. Playing Manziel, who could hypothetically be ruled ineligible later in the season could quickly derail any potential BCS Championship plans Sumlin is putting together in College Station.
“No one wants to play an athlete who's later determined to be ineligible, especially such a high-profile player,” said Mark Jones, a former NCAA enforcement director in a report by San Antonio Express-News. “You don't want to risk having to vacate those games later on.”
Texas A&M opens the 2013 season with two home games that should be relatively easy wins. The Aggies should be able to defeat Rice and FCS power Sam Houston State with or without Manziel under center. If there is even an inkling of doubt about Manziel's future, sitting him out the first two games of the season if the NCAA investigation is ongoing would be a perfectly safe and justifiable decision. The Aggies should manage to win each game before hosting Alabama in one of the top games of the season, and this is when you hope that for better or worse the NCAA has made their ruling on Manziel.
“I would think it is going to be done in an expeditious manner,” Florida attorney and specialist on NCAA investigations Michael Buckner said to the San Antonio Express-News. “I'm pretty sure all sides are working feverishly at this because there is a lot at stake.”
In a sports commentary world where we are asked to embrace debate and it seems outrage and over-reaction is the norm, I suppose one could find a pessimistic spin here suggesting that the only reason the NCAA is rushing this investigation is because they would hate to have the Heisman Trophy winner ruled ineligible and give one of the SEC's top teams a disadvantage. The NCAA should have more to be concerned about that whether or not a title contender has their top player on the field, but at a time when the organization has been widely criticized by fans, media and conference commissioners, the NCAA could be in a position where they feel a need to make an example of somebody or some school. We thought last year the NCAA made that message clear last year with sanctions levied against Penn State. We thought a message might be sent to Oregon. We await to see if any message will be handed to Miami. Could an example be made of Manziel, similar to how the NCAA handled Ohio State?
I'm not counting on it, but I'm not a head coach who has to make that difficult decision. If A&M plays Manziel for a couple of games and wins, only to have the quarterback ruled ineligible after the fact, the Aggies could have to vacate any wins picked up along the way. So long SEC and BCS hopes? Possibly. If the investigation drags on, A&M can afford to play two games without Manziel. The question becomes what they do in the event they reach the Alabama game in the same situation.
That's a decision no coach wants to make.