Preseason countdown: No. 11 Texas A&M
It’s amazing how quickly the world of college football can turn.
Last year at this time, Texas was coming off a national title appearance, Ohio State was rolling right along with business as usual, and no one knew what the words Cam and Newton meant.
And Texas A&M was 10-15 under coach Mike Sherman.
It’s not that the Aggies hadn’t been a great watch, with an offense that was always blowing up and a defense that was the working definition of fun-bad, but the results weren’t there. Sherman was a questionable hire to begin with, and while he was building over his first few seasons, the program was a clear second class citizen in the Big 12 South.
Last season didn’t start out well, either. After rolling through the 3rd Annual Texas A&M Early September Invitational against the meek and the sad, the real part of the schedule kicked in and then it was seemingly Texas A&M being Texas A&M with losses to Oklahoma State, Arkansas, and Missouri. Sherman had a 13-18 career record, an 0-2 start in Big 12 play, and the season and the future of Aggies football were in disarray.
Starting quarterback Jerrod Johnson went out, Ryan Tannehill went in, and the entire fortunes of a program changed.
It’s not fair to say that Johnson being forced to the sidelines was the difference, and he handled the entire situation as classy and professionally as possible, but the team needed a spark. Playing Kansas and Texas Tech in back to back games helped, but there was more confidence and more production on both sides of the ball as things stated to come together in time to shock Oklahoma, get by Nebraska, and beat Texas to cap off a six-game winning streak to end the regular season.
Even with the Cotton Bowl drubbing to LSU, the expectations are greater now than they’ve been in over a decade with a whopping 61 lettermen coming back, 18 starters returning, both kickers, and the experience and confidence to know that yes, this program can compete among the big boys.
Beating Texas at the end of last year wasn’t like beating Texas; it was like hooking up with with Talia Shire in Rocky if you weren't Rocky. The Nebraska win was just plain weird with A&M, who finished with 101 penalties on the year, getting flagged twice at home in the defensive dominated game, while the Huskers were nailed 16 times. The Texas Tech win was also at home, as was the Oklahoma win, but there’s no taking anything away from the victory over the Sooners as A&M played a terrific game. Beating Kansas and Baylor is beating Kansas and Baylor, even if that was the best Baylor team since the Big 12 was formed.
This year’s Aggies squad is so talented, so deep, and so loaded that there’s no excuse not to keep winning all the games their supposed to win. This team is supposed to be good enough to hang around and catch the right breaks like it did against Nebraska, and it’s supposed to be strong enough to expect to beat teams like 2010 Oklahoma, and it’s supposed to show that things really have changed and that the six week run at the end of the regular season wasn’t a fluke.
Had the Aggies gone 4-2 after the Missouri loss instead of 6-0, there might be a new head coach right now. Again, that’s how quickly things can change.
The 2011 offense shouldn’t be stopped. The offensive line is more experienced and should be far better in pass protection, while Tannehill just needs a little bit of time to let his dynamic and special receiving corps rip apart secondaries for a full 12 games. Balancing things out will be star running back Christine Michael, who’s back from a broken leg to form a devastating 1-2 rushing punch with Cyrus Gray.
The defense loses Von Miller and leading tackler Michael Hodges, but it should be even better with more than enough talented players ready to pick up the slack and production. No one’s going to run on the front three, and four starters and a few terrific backups return to the secondary. The kicking game might not be great, but it’s experienced, and Coryell Judie is back after finishing sixth in the nation in kickoff returns.
It’s all there. The coaching staff has been building to this season, the momentum is rolling, and the talent is in place. The expectations are also there, too, but unlike past seasons, this Texas A&M team should be able to handle them.
What to watch for on offense: The running game. Ryan Tannehill completed 65 peferecnt of his passes for 1,638 yards and 13 touchdowns with six picks in half a season, and he led the way to a six-game winning streak with victories over Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas. And he’s the weakest part of the A&M skill players. If the receiving corps isn’t the best in the nation, it’s in the top three, making it tempting to let Tannehill bomb away with a high-octane passing attack, but with the healthy return of Christine Michael from a broken leg, combining with the lightning-fast and ultra-productive Cyrus Gray, and A&M might be tempted to let the ground game control the offense.
What to watch for on defense: The front three. Bigger than the emergence of Tannehill for the offense was the job done by Tim DeRuyter, the first year defensive coordinator who came in from Air Force turned the run defense around in a hurry. The 3-4 alignment worked, and now it should be even better with a huge front three that will get even bigger if JUCO transfer LeMarc Strahan is as good as advertised on the nose. The Aggies won’t be flashy up the middle, and they’ll leave the fun and the big stats to the linebackers, but no one will run up the middle on this group.
The team will be far better if: The running game consistently cranks out 140 yards or more and gets into the end zone. For all the hullaballoo over the emergence of Tannehill, RB Gray’s second half of the year might have been more important. A&M went 8-1 last year when it ran for 140 yards or more, with the one loss coming in the 155-yard performance in the Cotton Bowl loss to LSU. When the attack was held to under 140 yards, the Aggies were 1-3 with the lone win coming against Nebraska, and even then the ground game ran for 138 yards. In 2009, A&M was 6-1 when running for 140 yards or more and 0-6 when it was under the mark. More interestingly, A&M ran for 18 touchdowns in the nine wins and just one, a short Christine Michael run against Arkansas, in the four losses.
The schedule: The Aggies have a not-that-awful non-conference schedule with SMU certain to be dangerous, Idaho a competitive low-end bowl team, and Arkansas as good a game as anyone in the Big 12 has to face. The conference season starts out with a bang against Oklahoma State, and it might be a must-win at home with Arkansas to follow and the next Big 12 game at Texas Tech on the horizon. Having five conference home games is a plus, and getting Oklahoma State, Missouri, and Texas at home is as big a break as A&M could ask for, while going to Oklahoma could be a make-or-break moment of the season. The Aggies don’t leave the state of Texas until late October with a trip to Iowa State, and they only leave twice overall with the other date at Kansas State.
Best offensive player: Senior WR Jeff Fuller. There’s no arguing if you think running backs Michael and Gray might be better than Fuller, but the 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver is the consistent star who led the team with 14.8 yards per grab and caught 12 of the team’s 28 touchdown passes. He’s big, is great at getting deep, and has the talent to be an ideal No. 1 receiver.
Best defensive player: Sophomore DE/LB Damontre Moore. Call this going out on a limb for a slew of reasons. The sophomore was dominant at times this spring and looked more than ready to build on his 5.5 sack season in place of Von Miller at the Joker position, but he has to get past a pot possession arrest in early June. Assuming all is fine, he could match Miller’s 10.5 sack total and could be the Big 12’s newest star.
Key player to a successful season: Junior G/OG Patrick Lewis and/or junior OG/C Brian Thomas. Everyone is back on the Texas A&M offense except center Matt Allen, and while he’s replaceable, finding a new starting man in the middle is the key to the rest of the front five. The tackles are set and there are several options at guard, but the question will be whether or not it’s Lewis or Thomas who’ll get the start, or even senior Danny Baker.
The season will be a success if: A&M wins ten games. 1998 was the last time the program finished a season with double-digit wins, and that’s the only one since 1994. There are just enough tough games against Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and yes, Texas, to ask for a truly special, BCS Championship Game-level campaign, but this team is too talented and too experienced to not be in the Big 12 title run all season long. Nine regular-season wins and a bowl victory would be fantastic, even if Aggies fans might be dreaming of more.
Key game: Sept. 24 v. Oklahoma State. Out of all the problems to have against Big 12 South teams, or teams formerly in the Big 12 South, Oklahoma State has given A&M the most trouble over the last three seasons. The Cowboys won last year’s 38-35 shootout, came up with a 36-31 thriller in 2009, and blew up in a 56-28 victory in 2008. It’s the Big 12 opener at home, so if A&M can’t pull this off, it could be uh-oh time for conference title dreams with road games at Texas Tech, and Oklahoma still to deal with.