COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In a matter of minutes in Saturday's fourth quarter, Kyle Field went from loud and hopeful to half-empty. In some ways, it mirrored what Texas A&M football has become the past four years: full of optimism at the start followed by an underwhelming finish, one that leaves, fans puzzled and unsatisfied.
In this particular edition, when the Aggies failed to convert a fourth-and-2 in an attempt to pull to within a score and Auburn responded by grinding out a 96-yard, 13-play touchdown drive to put Texas A&M away, scores of fans migrated out of the nearly half-a-billion-dollar facility. It's one that's been as friendly to opponents as it is ostentatious: the Aggies haven't beaten an SEC West opponent there since 2015.
And for the fourth straight year, the Aggies are following an eerily similar script: a strong start (this time 5-2) followed by failures to defeat their league rivals in crunch time. On Saturday, Texas A&M lost its second straight game to a division foe by double digits, falling 42-27 to Auburn a week after losing 35-14 to Mississippi State.
Different season, same story. And familiar questions linger around the future of Kevin Sumlin, a coach who seemingly has been on the hot seat for nearly two years.
Is this the beginning of the end of the Sumlin era at Texas A&M?
Back in May at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward put it in no uncertain terms: "He has to win this year," Woodward said then. "He has to do better than he has done in the past."
The recent past has gone as follows: 8-5 in 2014, 8-5 in 2015, 8-5 in 2016 (those followed 5-0, 5-0, 6-0 starts). Currently, the Aggies sit at 5-4 and the best they can finish the regular season is 8-4, the same regular-season record they sported the past two seasons. That's not better, so the implications seem clear.
The shortcomings of the past two weeks have awakened familiar feelings for Texas A&M observers. Sumlin and the Aggies built up much goodwill en route to a 5-2 start. They recovered from a disastrous season-opening loss at UCLA, one in which the Aggies surrendered a 34-point second-half lead and lost 45-44. The defense was deeper and playing better than it had in the past five years. The offense, while touch-and-go given the true freshman starting quarterback (Kellen Mond) and an ever-changing offensive line, was sufficient given how the defense was performing. The Aggies were no longer a high-flying, uptempo, we-have-to-outscore-you-to-win outfit that they were when they first crashed the SEC party in 2012.
This team looked different. Despite its youth in key spots, it looked like it learned how to close out games. The Aggies could grind out low-scoring wins. But in Week 9, after a bye week, they were unable to consistently move the football and the offensive shortcomings caught up with them as they were dominated by Mississippi State. On Saturday, after the offense generated just a field goal followed by four consecutive three-and-out drives, Sumlin turned to Nick Starkel -- who started the UCLA game but missed the next six with an ankle injury -- and suddenly the offense had life, but not enough to beat a productive Auburn unit.
The No. 14 Tigers (7-2) found as the game went on that the run lanes became wider and quarterback Jarrett Stidham settled in. The Aggies' defense, quick to return to the field after those three-and-outs, fatigued. The Tigers, balanced and talented, asserted their will at times and took advantage of A&M mistakes in others. In one key stretch late in the first half, the Tigers turned a 13-7 deficit into a 21-13 halftime lead, thanks to a 75-yard touchdown drive and a Nick Ruffin blocked punt on A&M's ensuing drive that teammate Sam Sherrod recovered in the end zone. Auburn never relinquished the lead after that.
The Aggies, who had seven three-and-out possessions in their first 10 drives (not counting the last drive before the half, which started with only 20 seconds), dug themselves too big of a hole to climb out of.
The struggles are familiar and the numbers are glaring. The Aggies have lost seven straight games to SEC West teams in Kyle Field. November, the most critical month for Sumlin given the recent struggles, is off to a noticeably familiar start. Texas A&M is now 3-10 versus SEC competition in November games since 2013.
After going 11-2 in their debut SEC season in 2012 and 20-6 in their first two seasons, the Aggies invested heavily in football: more than $500 million for the renovation of Kyle Field and other football-related facilities and nearly $10 million in their coaching staff. The fans, the alumni and even Woodward have made it clear that more than eight wins was expected for a return on that investment, expectations created from their surprise start in the conference. It may have been fool's gold, but it doesn't matter much anymore, because the expectations are set.
And with another potential eight-win season staring the Aggies down, it's a wonder how much longer Sumlin will have to try to provide such a return.