CFN Preview 2013 - Texas A&M Aggies
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Of course last season was special. Of course the emergence of Johnny Manziel was a thrilling and wonderful surprise for an Aggie fan base that's been waiting for a signature superstar. Of course the win over Alabama was the best road victory by anyone in 2012, and of course a case could've been made that A&M might have picked the wrong year to bolt from the Big 12. Of course the first season in the SEC far exceeded even the wildest of dreams, and of course the blowout win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl was the icing on the cake.
Head coach: Kevin Sumlin
2nd year: 11-2
6th year overall: 47-19
Ten Best A&M Players
1. QB Johnny Manziel, Soph.
2. OT Jake Matthews, Sr.
3. RB Brandon Williams, Soph.
4. WR Mike Evans, Soph.
5. LB Steven Jenkins, Sr.
6. OG Jarvis Harrison, Jr.
7. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Jr.
8. RB Ben Malena, Sr.
9. RB Tra Carson, Soph.
10. WR Ricky Seals-Jones, Fr.
9/7 Sam Houston State
9/28 at Arkansas
10/5 OPEN DATE
10/12 at Ole Miss
11/9 Mississippi State
11/16 OPEN DATE
11/23 at LSU
11/30 at Missouri
But here's the thing; it's not like the Aggies actually won anything.
For years and years and years, Texas A&M had always been the program on the No Excuse For Not Being Better short list. Fine, so there was always Texas to contend with, and Oklahoma sort of owned the Big 12 South, but getting talent into College Station has never been too much of a problem, and it always seemed like something big was about to happen if the team could be kissed by just a wee bit of luck. And then there's been the consistency issue.
One year the defense couldn't play dead (2009), another the offense couldn't come through in the clutch in close loss after close loss (2011). One year there would be a huge upset win to suggest that things were on the right track (33-19 over Oklahoma in 2010), and then later that year there would be yet another bowl loss.
It always seemed like there was just one little thing missing, and as it turned out, it was head coach Kevin Sumlin.
Give Sumlin and his staff credit for knowing what Texas A&M was and is. He never pretended he could take the program into the SEC and slug it out with the Alabamas and LSUs of the world, so instead he turned games into a sandlot shootout and did all the same things that helped make Houston such an offensive juggernaut. Meanwhile, he and his staff settled down a defense that had been brutalized at times over the years by high-powered Big 12 attacks.
But, again, A&M didn't win anything.
Going 11-2 was fantastic, and this might have been the second-best team in college football by the end of the year, but once again, the Aggies were also-rans. They spent over a decade since the 1998 Big 12 championship playing third and fourth fiddle to the other Big 12 South teams, and last year they politely excused themselves from realistic SEC title contention by mid-October with a loss to LSU. And now comes the hard part for Texas A&M and its fans – it's going to be even harder to get over the hump.
It's one thing to get the ball close to the pin, but it's not like Alabama is folding up shop. LSU isn't going anywhere, Ole Miss is growing into a power, and Auburn and Arkansas aren't going to stink like that again. Sumlin has the style and he's upping his recruiting game with a whopper of a 2014 class on the horizon following a great 2013 haul, but even though this is now the hot program with the hot coach and hot player in the hot system, it's going to take a whole lot of luck to go from being Cotton Bowl good to SEC title good to national title good. With expectations through the roof after the bar was set so high last season, now the problem will be that 11-2 won't get it done.
Yes, A&M could beat Alabama for the second straight season, but can it win at Arkansas and at Ole Miss? Can it win at LSU and Missouri to close out the regular season? Yes, it'll be good enough to win any of those games, but this is the SEC, and if you're an elite program, you have to win all of those games, or at least only drop one, or it's over. Just ask Arkansas in the Bobby Petrino years.
Fortunately, A&M is closer than it's been in many, many years to contending for a national title, and with the curveball of an offense that's giving the SEC nightmares, a defense loaded with athletes, and a transcendent superstar at quarterback who seems able to raise his game just when everyone starts doubting him, of course Texas A&M is in the national title chase.
Of course, not winning championships isn't okay anymore in College Station.
What to watch for on offense: The running backs. Taking the most scintillating baller of a quarterback and making him hand off might be like LeBron James passing up an open shot so Chris Bosh can take a three, but Johnny Manziel isn't all that big and he's one big shot away from the Aggie season going up in smoke. The less he has to carry the rushing workload, the better. And now there's no excuse not to turn him into more of a pocket passer and let the running backs do more of the heavy lifting. Ben Malena is a solid returning starter who can carry the ground game at times, but Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams has superstar, NFL starter potential. Trey Williams is a home run hitting speedster, and Oregon transfer Tra Carson can do a little of everything. Manziel will still be the most dangerous runner on the team, but the Aggies can still run for over 3,000 yards even if he's not doing all the work.
What to watch for on defense: The depth. The defense was helped in a huge, huge way by the move over to the SEC. The 2011 Aggies couldn't stop anyone from throwing a forward pass, even though they led the nation in sacks and were third in tackles for loss, and while the secondary wasn't too much better overall last year, it was a stronger season. There's a ton of talent and plenty of athleticism to play around with, but the star power is sorely lacking among the starting 11 and there are depth question marks all across the board. The playmakers will quickly rise to the top and relative unknowns like end Tyrell Taylor and linebacker Donnie Braggs should quickly become terrific, but Alabama is moseying into town on September 14th, and everything has to be ready.
The team will be far better if … it outruns everyone. Last year, the two losses to Florida and LSU came on the team's two worst rushing days of the year with 134 yards and two touchdowns in each game. The third-worst output was a 157-yard day against Sam Houston State. It wasn't just a coincidence that those where Johnny Manziel's two worst rushing days, too, and this year he'll have to be prepared for all 11 defenders and the cheerleaders lining up to stop him from taking off. Meanwhile, LSU came up with the only 200-yard rushing day, and while Florida only ran for 142 yards, it ground out the clock holding on to the ball for over 35 minutes. The key for A&M is to control the clock and the game, and Manziel and the running game can do that.
The schedule: The pressure will be on, and the schedule is favorable enough to keep the momentum rolling. The numbers will pile up early with Rice and Sam Houston State to start the year, and the rest of the non-conference schedule won't be a problem with SMU and UTEP down the road. Throw in the gigantic break of missing all the big boys from the East, and there isn't much room for complaining.
The big test comes right away with Alabama coming to Kyle Field on September 14th, and road trips to Arkansas and Ole Miss shouldn't be a problem if everything goes according to plan. There's a week off to prepare for the Rebels, and there's a week off to prepare for LSU in late November. That means there are only two road games – Arkansas and Missouri – that don't come after a bye week.
Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Johnny Manziel. This is where it gets a little tricky. Yeah, Mr. Heisman will go into the season as everyone's preseason All-American and the big star, but senior offensive tackle Jake Matthews is actually the far better pro prospect and the better football player, like former tackle Luke Joeckel was last year. Of course, Manziel is a special college football player and he could be even better if he sharpens up his passing game just a wee bit more. Every time people doubted him last year, he came through. Don't doubt that he might have more to unleash.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Steven Jenkins. He was out this offseason banged up, but he'll be back and ready to be the key veteran for everything to work around. The 6-2, 220-pound outside defender can do it all with pass rushing ability and the quickness to drop into pass coverage without a problem. He won't lead the team in tackles and he won't be the top pass rusher, but he'll do a little of everything right on the way to an all-star season.
Key player to a successful season: Junior DE Tyrell Taylor and sophomore DE Julien Obioha. The Aggies generated an impressive 31 sacks, but Damontre Moore came up with 12.5 of them and the linebackers did a lot of the other work. Taylor will try to be the one who picks up the slack with an explosive first step and good closing ability, while Obioha has star potential with a little bit of time. If the ends don't produce, the D will have to manufacture production from somewhere else.
The season will be a success if … the Aggies win the West. With the Alabama game at home and with Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn and Mississippi State not as good, the Aggies are set up well before the key late game at LSU. Unlike last season, there's no Florida to deal with and Georgia and South Carolina aren't on the schedule – playing Vanderbilt and Missouri from the East isn't bad. With the schedule, so much talent and all the expectations, a division title is a must. However, it might not happen without a victory against …
Key game: Nov. 23 at LSU. The Aggies were run over a bit in last year's loss, and Manziel struggled, but it was still a close battle. This year, the showdown in Death Valley comes in late November and after a week to prepare. If A&M can start out the SEC season with a win over Alabama, and if it can come up with a victory over the Tigers, the West title might be a lock.
2012 Fun Stats:
- Rushing TDs: Texas A&M 46 – Opponents 18
- Fumbles: Texas A&M 22 (lost 11) – Opponents 14 (lost 4)
- 1st Half Scoring: Texas A&M 357 – Opponents 115
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