SEC Countdown: No. 9 Texas A&M

Texas A&M running back Tra Carson could take on a bigger role in the Aggies high-powered offense in 2014.

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The exhilarating, dramatic, show-stopping, high-scoring and headline-grabbing Johnny Manziel Era is officially in Texas A&M’s rearview. All that’s left is the offensive mastermind that is Kevin Sumlin, his staff, a bevy of young and talented players and, oh yeah, millions of dollars worth of renovations for Kyle Field. The Aggies program is in plenty good shape with or without its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

Still, the loss of Manziel leaves the roster with its biggest question mark since Sumlin’s first spring in College Station. It will be a storyline throughout the season, too, either the success of Sumlin’s offense in replacing the record-breaking quarterback or the devastating effects of losing one of the most dangerous offensive players college football has ever seen.

Taking a backseat, or perhaps passenger seat, to that narrative is the fact that Texas A&M loses a lot more than that, particularly on the offensive side where two top-10 draft picks will be joining Manziel in playing on Sundays this fall. In what annually proves to be the most difficult division the sport has to offer, Sumlin & Co. have their work cut out for them.

All the same, No. 9 feels a little low for a program that has lost just six games over the past two seasons — all coming at the hands of ranked opponents. So, back to the question: Just how many post-Manziel growing pains will the Aggies have to go through in 2014?

Numerically, Sumlin has plenty of starters returning to the fold. Somewhat unfortunately, though, nine of them come from a defense that finished 96th in scoring defense last season. For that reason, there’s expected to be plenty of potential for movement on texas A&M’s two-deep heading into the season — even if the offense doesn’t miss a single beat (a difficult scenario to envision), the Aggies will need to find more ways to come up with stops if they plan on contending for anything of substance.

That being said, there’s a good chance this unit shows marked improvement. The defensive line is still a very young group, with projected senior starter Gavin Stansbury being one of the few upperclassmen, but an infusion of top-end talent — freshmen Myles Garrett, a consensus top-10 recruit, and Zaycoven Henderson highlight an impressive first-year crop that could immediately challenge for playing time — offers a chance for improvement throughout the year. Texas A&M was one of the worst teams nationally at rushing the passer in 2013 and even worse at stopping the run, so a better showing here is crucial.

There’s more experience in linebacking corps and defensive backfield. The secondary, led by senior corner Deshazor Everett, returns four upperclassmen, while all the word out of Texas A&M’s camp is that sophomore middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni could develop into the team’s defensive leader.

The offense returns just six starters, but the talent influx due to recruiting will help soften the blow. The offensive line lost a top-10 draft pick for the second consecutive season in tackle Jake Matthews, but his brother, center Mike Matthews, is back on the line along with guard Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi, who is projected to become the third straight Aggies tackle to become a first-round pick. Receiver Malcome Kennedy (658 yards, seven TDs) also returns, but it’s the presence of former top recruit Ricky Seals-Jones, whose promising freshman season was cut short after just three catches due to injury last year. Seals-Jones is expected to be the No. 1 target heading into the campaign.

The team’s leading rusher (Manziel) will not be around, but running backs Trey Williams and Tra Carson should provide plenty of firepower if Sumlin looks to utilize them more often.

Other than the obvious departure, Matthews and wide receiver Mike Evans were similarly vital to Texas A&M’s success last season. For both of his standout seasons in college, Manziel was protected by a premier tackle, while NFL scouts tabbed Evans as one of the two or three best wide receivers in college football. Those losses will hurt. College football is a quarterback-driven game, but those two were riding shotgun for much of the way.

Starting linebacker Stevene Jenkins and defensive back Toney Hurd are also no longer around.

The "Who’s Next" component is a much more interesting topic here. Sumlin and his staff have staked their claim as a national powerhouse on the recruiting trail, and the program’s first major transition period under his watch will be one to watch closely. After landing some premier prospects like Seals-Jones in the ’13 class, Texas A&M’s coaching staff hauled in a consensus top-10 class this past cycle, highlighted by Garrett, top-rated quarterback Kyle Allen and wide receiver Devante "Speedy" Noil, all three of whom are expected to land starting jobs this fall.

Much of that focus will deservedly fall on Allen, whose path to Manziel’s former position was opened widely when Matt Joeckel, who was successful in a starting role in Manziel’s absence last year, transferred to TCU. That left Allen and sophomore dual-threat Kenny Hill, who is cut more in the Johnny Football scrambling mode, vying for the job — a position battle that many covering the program believe is Allen’s to lose as the season approaches. Allen, who threw for more than 8,000 yards and 86 touchdowns in an accolade-filled high school career, enrolled early and could be the next NFL quarterback Sumlin churns out. (Then again, given Sumlin’s resume, so could Hill.)

There will not be too many receiving corps in college football boasting the type of one-two punch, from a pure talent perspective, than the Aggies this season with Seals-Jones and Noil. That’s two five-star wideout recruits from the past two classes and if the all-too-brief intro the nation received with Seals-Jones — a 71-yard scoring sprint from the imposing true freshman — offered any clue, it’s that Sumlin and his staff know how to pick them.

Standing 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Seals-Jones is cut from the exact same cloth as Evans — a physical presence with the ability to go up and get the ball as well as out-run defenders (just ask Rice). With a brand new starting quarterback and coming off a significant injury, he shouldn’t be expected to put up a 1,400-yard and 12-touchdown season like Evans did in ’13, but he’ll be watched closely as one of the more promising NFL receiver prospects the conference has to offer, perhaps joining the likes of Amari Cooper (Alabama), Sammie Coates (Auburn) and reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss).

Time will tell is his production can catch up to the potential in his first full season.

On the other hand is Noil, who is not cut in the Mike Evans cloth. If anything he’s cut in the Sammy Watkins-Amari Cooper cloth — not to set expectations to high or anything — and he’s expected to make an immediate impact in Sumlin’s air-raid scheme. The No. 1 wide receiver prospect in the country last year, the true freshman out of New Orleans was targeted by every major college in the country, including Texas A&M rivals Texas, LSU and Alabama. He chose to go with the most pass-happy system of the bunch, and the post-spring discussion centered around the fact that he should see plenty of passes thrown his way in Year 1.

Either lining up opposite of Seals-Jones or in a slot role, the 5-foot-11 speedster should find ample running room in defensive backfields … and if there’s anything his high school tape hints at, it’s not to give him any running room or he’ll find paydirt.

Though Allen or Hill signify a transition at quarterback, the offensive line and skill positions, including a talented receiving corps, should be set up for success. Just how good the Seals-Jones and Noil combination can be from the get-go remains to be seen.

The offense continues to put up big numbers. At this point, it’s just a foregone conclusion that the defense will improve its numbers from a season ago thanks to experience and an infusion of top-tier physical talent. And even if the Aggies do struggle once again on the defensive side of the ball, Sumlin’s track record shows that his offense, year in and year out, will continue to throw up yards and points. Just how much the Aggies can bank on that — and what the definition of "success" is in the first year without Manziel — is the key question.

Assuming the reports are true and Allen is the No. 1 quarterback from Day One, it will be interesting to see just how much of the offense flows through the position in the early going. With Manziel, the running game and the passing game worked off the signal-caller. Will Allen’s presence bring a more structured role, as opposed to the highly entertaining chaos that defined the experience of watching Manziel?

If this is another 35-40 points per game offense even under a true freshman quarterback, who could very well be the next big thing in the SEC if recruiting rankings got it right, it’s extremely difficult to see this as the No. 9-rated team in the conference. But if there are growing pains against some of the conference’s better teams, this still looks like a bowl-bound team.

This is an easy pick on the schedule for practically every single team opening its season with a major conference opponent — all the more easy when that game is a conference showdown. But back to that transition theme: A road game against one of the conference’s most consistent programs (three straight 11-win seasons) is quite the test. It will not define the season, but it will provide the first true taste of where Texas A&M is positioned on the national scale.

Win this game and the schedule sets up rather nicely, or at least as nicely as things get in the SEC West. The South Carolina road trip leads into three straight games against Lamar, Rice and SMU. Those should be wins for the Aggies. After that comes the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that should be better in 2014 but still one that went 0-8 in conference play a ear ago. There’s a very real chance at 5-0 entering the meat of the schedule if the Aggies play well and walk out of Columbia with a win, which would also mean five games of added confidence and experience to a young and talented corps.

After that comes Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama — the midseason stretch that will define Texas A&M’s 2014 place in the division. By the time Auburn, Missouri and LSU roll around to end the season, the divisional and national picture will be much clearer. That 5-0 start would go a long, long way.

The non-conference slate should not be an issue, and if it is then Sumlin has much bigger issues than anyone is aware of. Other than Lamar, Rice and SMU, Louisiana-Monroe is the only other non-SEC team on the schedule. That’s four wins if Texas A&M plays well, regardless of transition and youth.

South Carolina lost its own share of talent, including No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney and starting quarterback Connor Shaw (Manziel’s teammate in Cleveland), but with the return of star running back Mike Davis, oft-used quarterback Dylan Thompson and 14 other starters from an 11-win campaign, a road date with Spurrier’s program is not an easy task. An 0-1 start is the likeliest outcome — not ideal, but not a death knell.

Regardless of the Razorbacks’ improvement, the Aggies simply look better, although Bret Bielema’s team hung around in a 12-point loss a season ago. Perhaps everyone is selling Arkansas short based on last year’s results, but it still feels like it is a year or two away. Then comes the interesting part, and the question of just how good the Aggies can be with Allen (or Hill) under center.

The two Mississippi schools are expected to be improved and competitive this season, and they both — spoiler alert — bookend the Aggies on our countdown. For me, this is a coin flip. If Texas A&M’s young talent can live up to the hype early on, these are winnable games. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are probably safer picks here, but Texas A&M, for me, has the highest upside. For the purposes of a prediction, the Aggies split these two games then fell to Alabama on the road. As for the final three games, I have the Aggies beating Missouri at home and stealing a game from either Auburn on the road or LSU in Kyle Field. If that’s a better season than No. 9 on this countdown suggests … oh well.