CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- ONE MIGHT argue it is too early to make such a pronouncement, but there seems to be a clear winner in conference realignment.Texas A&M. Gig 'em, Aggies!They're gigging 'em, all right. The latest A&M coup was an upstaging of former big brother Texas on national signing day, or so the recruitniks are saying.That comes after the Aggies trashed Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, which came after Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy, which came after the Aggies upset Alabama, which came after Manziel emerged as an unsackable genius, which came after coach Kevin Sumlin's hiring, which came after A&M accepted an invitation into the Southeastern Conference.
All of which unquestionably brightened the recruiting prospects in College Station. That, my friends, is one jolting 17-month cycle.No human could have seen all that coming, but somebody could suspect that the SEC/A&M marriage was a brilliant move by both sides.The SEC was able to expand into a final frontier, the football-crazy state of Texas, and barely stretched the geographic footprint - College Station is just a few hours away from Baton Rouge, La., and Fayetteville, Ark. In return, A&M is able to brand itself as the SEC school of Texas and thumb its nose at the big school and its Longhorn Network. I figured the Aggies would benefit no matter how many lumps they took in their new big-boy league.Sumlin, who made the bold move from his successful gig at nearby Houston, saw the potential. And so did Sumlin's new defensive coordinator, who is ...Mark Snyder.Yeah, remember him? Last we saw of him, he left Marshall's Shewey Athletic Building under duress, resigning after five frustrating years at the helm of the Thundering Herd program. He was not able to coach what would have been his only bowl game.Snyder had his band of supporters, but it was tough to argue against the move. MU's 2008 season ended in epic collapse and the 2009 team had a special season slip through its hands.At the end, I compiled a list of 10 painful losses, some the product of questionable game management, which led to Snyder's downfall. Win half, including that infamous 2009 game at Central Florida, and he stays. I think.Snyder was down, but not for long. When Skip Holtz moved from East Carolina to South Florida, he hired Snyder to run the defense. (Remember, Snyder was defensive coordinator at Ohio State before taking the MU job in 2005.)The Holtz era ended last fall after USF plummeted to 3-9, but Snyder had already vaulted to Sumlin's newly assembled Texas A&M staff. That triggered obvious wisecracks about being hired by coaches who used to take his Herd behind the woodshed.
(If you're wondering, the stats say the Bulls' problems under Holtz rested largely on the offense. Snyder's USF defenses ranked 17th and 39th in the nation in total yardage allowed.)Actually, two of Snyder's most impressive MU wins came against Holtz's ECU team (26-7 in 2007) and Sumlin's Houston team (37-23 in 2008). Both were dominating defensive performances we didn't expect, against rising stars such as Chris Johnson and Case Keenum.And keep in mind the dynamics of football coaching. However tight you think that fraternity is, you're probably underestimating - between the many job changes and all those crossed paths on the recruiting trail, a lot of coaches know a lot about a lot of other coaches.All that networking brought Snyder to College Station, and it brought him to Alabama last November. In a twist of fate, Marshall was playing at Alabama-Birmingham, which put the Herd and Aggies in nearby hotels in that city. Snyder even visited the MU hotel that Friday.As Saturday dawned, both teams went their separate ways, literally and figuratively. In Tuscaloosa, Snyder's defense played well enough for Manziel and the Aggies to shock the Crimson Tide, while his old school suffered a loss to UAB not unlike the ugly 2008 setback at Legion Field.Today, it's stunning to see how different Texas A&M's world looks. Argue that it means nothing, but CBS Sports put the Aggies atop its first 2013 rankings compiled minutes after 'Bama sent Manti Te'o bawling to his girlfriend.
Marshall is not in horrendous shape after a 5-7 season, though it did apply for federal disaster aid for its defense. Its Conference USA neighborhood is changing radically, though.Sumlin's old team is gone with three others, and Holtz's old team heads out with Tulane (really?) after the coming season. Of the eight teams entering C-USA, five weren't even playing football during Marshall's undefeated season of 1999.Rightly or not, Snyder's 22-37 era takes a lot of blame for MU being a passenger in this NASCAR wreck of a realignment. Budget-wise, the school fits better in the new lineup and the Herd may prosper on the field.But you have to wonder: Could the Herd have even gotten into C-USA from the Mid-American Conference in this round?Meanwhile, Snyder might be paid comparably to what he earned at MU, and has a legitimate shot at his second national championship ring. So yes, he has done nicely since leaving Huntington.In this round of conference realignment, there seems to be one human who has hit the jackpot, above all others.Mark Snyder.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.