CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

College football preseason countdown, No. 21: Texas A&M

Here's the surprise, ruined: The Times' Chris Dufresne was set to put Texas A&M at No. 1, but the situation over quarterback Johnny Manziel, autographs and possible ineligibility has him hedging.

This is a first in countdown history — an aborted mission. Stop the rocket launch.

The executive committee, in a unanimous decision, ruled it was time to pull the plug and spoil the surprise party:

Turn on the lights and come out from behind the couches. Texas A&M was going to be this year's preseason No. 1.

But that was before NCAA helicopters started circling around quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Texas A&M without Manziel is like a car without an engine.

Balloons were filled and champagne was on ice, but we were starting to get a bad vibe — similar to Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Boston Celtics.

Lakers' owner Jack Kent Cooke put balloons in the Forum rafters in advance of his team's "sure" win.

Boston center Bill Russell looked up, saw the balloons, and said "Hmmmm."

Game over.

We don't want balloons stuck in the rafters.

Mind you, nothing Manziel did in the off-season chased Texas A&M off our No. 1 spot. We didn't need Johnny to be good … we just needed him to stay eligible.

The Aggies deserved preseason No. 1 after finishing 11-2 last year with a stunning win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

Texas A&M was the only team to defeat Alabama, last season's national champion. And the Aggies did it in Tuscaloosa, with Manziel driving Nick Saban's defense crazy with his zigs and zags.

There was no risk in making Texas A&M this year's No. 1, especially with Alabama coming to College Station on Sept. 14. If Texas A&M won, the ranking was deserved. If the Aggies lost, Alabama could simply be nudged up into the vacated spot.

That set-up changed with Sunday's ESPN report that the NCAA was investigating whether Manziel had been paid for signing autographs. It got more ominous Tuesday when ESPN interviewed a broker who claimed he paid Manziel $7,500 for signing autographs. There is video and audio of Manziel scribbling his signature.

How many other videos exist?

That was a countdown game-changer because, if Manziel took money, his season might be over.

The countdown had to hedge and reevaluate Texas A&M the way Las Vegas bookmakers are doing.

Re-slotting Texas A&M at No. 21 at least leaves some wiggle room. If Manziel is ruled ineligible, it's a short walk out the rankings door. If Manziel ends up playing, the Aggies can rocket right back with a win over Alabama.

It's too risky, right now, to bet the countdown on Texas A&M.

What a shame, because this had the makings of a magic carpet ride. Texas A&M was going to be 2-0 after wins over Rice and Sam Houston State, with Alabama coming to town.

Suddenly, though, the game of the year is clouded in mystery. Will Johnny play, or won't he?

It's never good news when your first training camp move is hiring a law firm. Texas A&M has to be careful because it can get sanctioned by the NCAA if it plays somebody who turns out to be ineligible. Ask USC about that.

If the matter isn't resolved by late August, the school can probably get away with sitting Manziel the first two games. But then would come a huge decision about Alabama.

Auburn took a similar risk in 2010 with quarterback Cam Newton and it paid off with a national title. Those allegations, though, came much later in the season.

So who will be No. 1 now?

Stay tuned.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

 

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