There may still be a surprise or two as the recruitment of bluechip quarterback Arch Manning nears the finish line, but it seems more and more likely as the weeks pass that he’ll play college football at either Georgia, Alabama or Texas.
If Manning is taking recent success and proven ability to win a national title into account, one of those programs is clearly not like the other. And yet, if you read between the lines on Manning’s recent comments, Texas — yes, eternally underwhelming Texas — is undoubtedly in a great position.
But how much of that interest is tied to whether coach Steve Sarkisian can deliver something better than the 5-7 debacle he offered in his first season?
In a recent interview with 247 Sports that detailed his upcoming official visits with each of those three schools, Manning offered the boilerplate reasoning for why he’d be interested in the two SEC superpowers. Georgia just won a national championship and had 15 players drafted by the NFL. Alabama has become the sport’s preeminent quarterback factory with the success of Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young.
But in evaluating where Texas fits in the mix, Manning had an interesting take: “Coach Sark's first year with a whole new roster was with a whole new roster and no one he recruited. It’s definitely hard to go in and be successful. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do this year. That's kind of my deciding factor there and building a relationship with them. With a year under his belt, let's see what he can do now.”
In other words, Sark, you’re on the clock.
From all the available reporting around the Manning recruitment and his own comments, it’s clear that his relationship with Sarkisian is not merely strong but pivotal to his interest in the Longhorns. The Mannings like Sark. They trust Sark. They think his offense would be a terrific fit.
But they also don’t seem to be totally sold that he can build the kind of program where Arch can slide into the starting quarterback position and compete for a national title. Which makes them kind of like the rest of us.
So often when it comes to Texas, the conversation revolves around how a program with so much money, prestige and brand allure could be stuck in this cycle of mediocrity with four different coaches and five losing seasons in the past dozen years. It makes for great college football debate fodder and lots of easy jokes.
In reality, though, this recruitment is a referendum on Sarkisian. Not necessarily whether he lands Manning, because it’s no shame to lose a five-star recruit to Kirby Smart or Nick Saban, but rather whether Texas has a good enough season to become a plausible option.
And that puts the onus entirely on Sarkisian, in terms that recruits don't normally talk about so explicitly. If the Longhorns want Manning to really consider them an option, they better show this fall that the rebuild is well underway.
That’s not an ultimatum, it’s just smart business when you consider Sarkisian’s track record against the other coaches he’s recruiting against.
Last season was Sark’s eighth as a head coach. It was the fifth time he had lost at least six games, with one other season cut short because he was fired from USC after a 3-2 start. Just once has a Sarkisian-coached team finished in the top 25 of the Coaches’ Poll — and even that was a disappointment, as the 2014 USC team got as high as No. 10 before falling out of the rankings for much of the season and then sneaking back in after winning its bowl game.
None of this is a secret. It’s all right there on Sarkisian’s Wikipedia page, not even really needing that much context.
Sarkisian helped pull Washington out of total incompetence, but never in his five seasons were the Huskies on track to compete for a Pac-12 title. Even if Sarkisian hadn’t been forced to confront his issues with alcoholism, which ultimately triggered his firing at USC, there were on-field performance issues with just a 12-6 record. And though there were certainly the typical extenuating circumstances for a first-year coach last season at Texas, it was an undeniably ugly look to lose six straight games late in the season including to Kansas and West Virginia.
If you’re looking for results to suggest that Sarkisian can get Texas operating at maximum capacity, they’re simply not yet on the résumé.
The fact Texas remains on Arch’s list means they’re giving Sarkisian a pass for Year 1, but that they want to see something different this fall. And from a personnel standpoint, they will.
Texas has turned over a significant portion of the roster, bringing in former blue-chip quarterback recruit Quinn Ewers, former Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsly and all-Mountain West receiver Isaiah Neyor through the transfer portal while retaining star running back Bijan Robinson and adding a top-five recruiting class. That doesn’t solve all the issues, but it’s a start.
Now comes the hard part: Actually winning games.
There will be a lot of eyes on Austin when Alabama comes in Sept. 10, but the Mannings have been around this stuff too long to be swayed by one Saturday. If Texas shows real, long-lasting improvement, maybe Sarkisian can actually close the deal and land a program-changing recruit. If not, it’s hard to see how the Mannings will allow Arch to risk his college career on potential dysfunction.
Relationships are one thing, but this is business. And the proven path toward their goal is undoubtedly at Alabama or Georgia.
But with the Longhorns getting an official visit, the pull of Sarkisian is obviously still strong. It’s up to him now to prove to the Mannings that Texas isn’t too risky of a bet.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Arch Manning considering Texas, but Longhorns on clock to win now