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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 10: Texas A&M

Welcome to College Station: don’t forget your folding chairs. And your military regalia, love of dogs and knowledge of — don’t hate the messenger — puzzling chants and yells. Pucker up after every touchdown; cheer your voice hoarse for the 12th man; rally behind a one-two backfield punch nearly unparalleled in college football; welcome back a senior quarterback, once again; and rise and welcome a coach who has rapidly transformed from a punch line to a perfect fit. It’s turn back the clock year in College Station, as after the darkest decade in generations the Aggies have reclaimed some of the luster lost during rival Texas’s monstrous revival under Mack Brown. Welcome back to College Station: happy days are here again.

Conference
Big 12

Location
College Station, Tex.

Nickname
Aggies

Returning starters
18 (10 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 34

2010 record
(9-4, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 21

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    S.M.U.
  • Sept. 17
    Idaho
  • Sept. 24
    Oklahoma St.
  • Oct. 1
    Arkansas (in Arlington, Tex.)
  • Oct. 8
    at Texas Tech
  • Oct. 15
    Baylor
  • Oct. 22
    at Iowa St.
  • Oct. 29
    Missouri
  • Nov. 5
    at Oklahoma
  • Nov. 12
    at Kansas St.
  • Nov. 19
    Kansas
  • Nov. 24
    Texas

Last year’s prediction

Surely, this team has turned a corner. (Still), Texas A&M is not yet ready for prime time. While the rest of the offense is in wonderful shape, the defense has yet to prove itself capable of stopping any offense of consequence. This group will be improved, and landing DeRuyter may end up being a coup, but the defense continues to face question marks alone the line and in the secondary. It’s clear that the Aggies have improved, and this improvement will reveal itself in the win column. Eight wins should be expected, thanks to this offense and a schedule conducive to early success. It will be nice to see the Aggies winning games again, especially after the last three years. Having said that, this program remains a season away from having the depth and top-to-bottom talent to challenge the Sooners and Longhorns in the Big 12.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Let’s reverse the regular season, pitting Texas A&M against Texas to start the year and moving backwards through time: in this hypothetical, Texas A&M is ranked in the top three nationally once we reach the midway point. Disagree? Take a glance at what the Aggies achieved over the final half of the regular season: wins over Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas, and extremely impressive home wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska, the latter pair coming over the first three weeks of November. It’s merely a hypothetical, but one that does illustrate just how impressive the Aggies were down the stretch, erasing the foul taste of a three-game losing streak that had the team staring at a .500 mark through six games. In the process, Mike Sherman has the program and its fans in the recently infrequently habit of thinking big: after rejuvenating the program over the second half of 2010, the Aggies are eying a national championship run in 2011.

High point Six straight wins to end the season. The contenders for finest moment: a 33-19 win over Oklahoma, a 9-6 win over Nebraska and a 24-17 win in Austin over the hated Longhorns. At another program, I’d think the win over Nebraska — complete with the best home crowd of the F.B.S. season — would be the choice. Not here: it’s Texas.

Low point A three-game losing streak that coincided with the start of Big 12 play; it also came on the heels of a 3-0 start to the season, evening Texas A&M’s season heading into an Oct. 23 date with Kansas.

Tidbit Texas A&M’s roster lists 118 players, from Alexander to Woodum and all points in between. Of those 118 players, 103 are from Texas — 87.3 percent, which is a lot. Eight players come from Louisiana, two from Florida and one each from Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. America’s Dairyland, you might ask? Well, sort of: defensive back Johntel Franklin played his high school ball in Madison, but he’s in College Station via the JUCO ranks of California.

Tidbit (150-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Ol’ Rock, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Maryland preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Texas A&M Aggies. Take it away, Ol’ Rock; if you remember, Ol’ Rock did such an amazing job answering his quiz question that he earned a shot at 150 words, not the normal 100 words:

The 2011 Fightin’ Texas Aggies look very familiar, returning 18 of the 22 starters from last year, as Head Coach Mike Sherman and Defensive Coordinator Tim Deruyter look poised to show that this experienced Texas A&M squad can be a leader in the new “Big 12-2.” Defense is the biggest question this year, following the loss of All-American Von Miller and MLB Michael Hodges. Seniors Coryell Judie, Trent Hunter, and Garrick Williams will need to take charge to uphold the rejuvenated “Wrecking Crew” title. The offense returns Senior QB Ryan Tannehill, the RB tandem of Cyrus “CyFy” Gray and Christine Michael, one of the nation’s best WR corps headed by Jeff Fuller, and an O-Line bookended by two sophomore phenoms. In the past, A&M has had this hype and failed to live up to it. Will the 2011 Ags step up to the plate or continue to exist in irrelevance?

Tidbit (scoring edition) Texas A&M outscored the opposition by at least 100 points in each year from 1989-95 and in 14 of 16 years from 1985-98. Last fall saw the Aggies outscore their opponents by more than 100 points— 406 points scored, 285 allowed — for only the second time since 1999, joining 2000. A&M has been outscored by more than 100 points twice over the same span: in 2003, Dennis Franchione’s first season, and in 2008, Sherman’s first year.

Former players in the N.F.L.

21 C Matt Allen (Tampa Bay), TE Martellus Bennett (Dallas), DE Michael Bennett (Tampa Bay), DT Rocky Bernard (New York Giants), DT Red Bryant (Seattle), S Melvin Bullitt (Indianapolis), DT Ron Edwards (Carolina), RB Mike Goodson (Carolina), CB Danny Gorrer (Baltimore), C Geoff Hangartner (Buffalo), P Shane Lechler (Oakland), C Kevin Matthews (Tennessee), TE Jamie McCoy (Pittsburgh), QB Stephen McGee (Dallas), LB Von Miller (Denver), LS Don Muhlbach (Detroit), LB Cyril Obiozor (Arizona), DE Luke Patterson (Kansas City), S Jordan Pugh (Carolina), C Cody Wallace (Houston), DE Ty Warren (Denver).

Arbitrary top five list

Big 12′s reasonable choices should A&M be SEC bound
1. Houston.
2. Air Force.
3. S.M.U.
4. Tulsa.
5. Colorado State.

Coaching

Mike Sherman (’78 Central Connecticut State), 19-19 after three seasons with the Aggies. His first year couldn’t have gone any worse, but A&M begin to turn the corner in 2009, adding two victories to its win total and returning to bowl play after a one-year absence. More improvement was expected in year three, as Sherman added several highly-regarded recruits better suited for his offense, and the Aggies didn’t disappoint. In Sherman’s favor from the start was his familiarity with the program, having served two separate stints as R.C. Slocum’s offensive line coach (1989-93, 1995-96). The speed with which Texas A&M went after Sherman – he was hired three days after the besieged Franchione resigned – signaled the faith the university’s administration had in his ability to turn the program around. That optimism, tested over his first two seasons, was rewarded in 2010. Sherman’s impressive resume includes 12 seasons in the N.F.L. as an assistant, a head coach and an executive. His professional career started with a two-year stint as a Packers assistant (1997-98, coaching the tight ends and assisting on the offensive line) under Mike Holmgren, which was followed by one season as the Seahawks offensive coordinator, again under Holmgren. Green Bay, reeling from an 8-8 season under Ray Rhodes, tabbed Sherman as its head coach before the 2000 season, a position he held through 2005. Sherman had a six-year record of 59-43, though that was hampered by a 4-12 season in 2005; through five years, Sherman’s .640 winning percentage was second in Packers history to Vince Lombardi. Sherman held an executive post in the Packers front office each of his six seasons, including, like his professional mentor Holmgren, the role of general manager from 2001 to 2004. He was fired after the 2005 season, then moved to Houston, where he was the Texans assistant head coach from 2006 to 2007.

Players to watch

Pre-Ryan Tannehill — and I’m giving him the Kansas game — against F.B.S competition: 2-3. With Ryan Tannehill: 7-1. And that’s all you need to know, though I could go much deeper than that; 18 turnovers in six games under his predecessor, 12 with Tannehill, for example. What’s amusing to consider in hindsight is how many questioned Tannehill’s desire to continue plugging away at quarterback while the chance was there for him to play a major role at receiver, as he did as a freshman. Credit the senior for sticking to his guns and answering the call when opportunity knocked, as it did in mid-October when it became clear that the offense could go no further with Jerrod Johnson, who has since graduated.

Tannehill stepped in a delivered immediately, though opening his full-fledged quarterbacking career with Kansas and Texas Tech was a stroke of good fortune. But Tannehill piloted wins over Oklahoma, Baylor, Nebraska and Texas, among others, and while the difference offensively wasn’t quite night-and-day it was clear that the Aggies were playing on a different level following the change under center. For the year, Tannehill hit on 65.0 percent of his attempts for 1,638 yards, 13 touchdowns and 6 picks, with three of those interceptions coming in bowl play.

Everything is in place for Tannehill to continue his torrid pace; everything is in place for this offense to take a significant step forward off last year’s totals. The only issue, in fact, lies at backup quarterback: should Tannehill go down to injury, the Aggies will call on either redshirt freshmen Matt Joeckel and Jameil Showers or true freshman Johnny Manziel, if not some combination of the three.

So it’s a very comforting fact to see what’s taking place along the offensive line, which may not be the best in the Big 12 in 2011 but will certainly top the list in 2012 and 2013. By that point, sophomore tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews won’t be mere all-conference candidates but all-American candidates, if not national award candidates. Yes, this bookend pairing is that good: already way ahead of schedule as true freshman starters at left and right tackle, respectively, Joeckel and Matthews will quickly become the Big 12’s best with added experience. They’re two of the four returning starters up front, joining left guard Brian Thomas and center Patrick Lewis, who moves over from right guard to replace Matt Allen. That leaves a gap on the strong side, one A&M looks to fill with either senior Evan Eike or sophomore Shep Klinke. The latter topped the depth chart heading into August, but you can’t ignore Eike’s past starting experience — he started the first half of 2010 before going down to injury.

The wide receiver corps is the best in program history. Say what you will — the Aggies aren’t known for receivers — but that’s still a lofty statement, one that properly conveys the number of talented targets at Tannehill’s disposal in the passing game. Senior Jeff Fuller (72 catches for 1,066 yards and 12 touchdowns) is one, and he’s one of the nation’s best. Unlike the offense as a whole, Fuller suffered a second-half lull last fall. He was able to rebound with a nice bowl game, but he needs to put together a complete season. Joining Fuller in the starting lineup, once again, are juniors Uzoma Nwachukwu (36 for 407) and Ryan Swope (72 for 825 and 4 scores). It rarely seems like Swope’s going to hurt you, but then — what do you know — he does. Depth is not an issue, not here, not when A&M can tout rising understudies like Kenric McNeal (23 for 202), Nate Askew, Brandal Jackson and more. There’s a reason this is the best crop of receivers in program history.

Hey, remember when Texas opted for Chris Whaley over Christine Michael three years ago? How’d that turn out for the Longhorns? Whaley has since been moved to defensive end while Michael (631 yards, 4 touchdowns) continues to produce at a very high level, though he was limited by injuries a year ago. He makes up one part of one of the nation’s best one-two backfield tandems, teaming with Cyrus Gray to give the Aggies talent to burn in the running game. Remember before when I insinuated that Tannehill was the defining factor behind A&M’s surge? That’s not entirely correct: it was Tannehill and a dedicated ground game that propelled the offensive forward, as the Aggies averaged 180.2 rushing yards per game in finishing the regular season 6-0.

It was Gray who did the heavy lifting over the second half, ending the year with six consecutive 100-yard performances. A forgotten man prior to that point, Gray illustrated just how productive he can be when given the opportunity. Gray and Michael: both are very, very special. And they’re not all that dissimilar. Both have made a living outside rather than between the tackles, though Michael has added some weight to take on a bigger role running inside. Both are big-play threats. Both can make plays in the passing game. Both are absolutely superb. With this pair and a rapidly developing offensive line, A&M might have what it takes to run on any team on its schedule.

I’m not going to say A&M’s preparing a statue outside of Kyle Field, but second-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s a popular guy in these parts, thanks to his immediate impact upon an underperforming group last fall. After hitting rock-bottom from 2008-9 — an average of 35.4 points per game allowed — the Aggies ended 2010 ranked 34th nationally in scoring, allowing about two fewer touchdowns per game. Just think about that: two fewer touchdowns, 14 points, in each game. Basically, that’s how you get from 10-15 over two years to 9-4 and in the Cotton Bowl. And the defense should improve with time, though there are holes to fill off last year’s depth chart.

The most daunting are at linebacker, which I’ll touch on below. The three-man front in DeRuyter’s aggressive 3-4 system lost a three-year starter — that’s a lot of threes — in end Lucas Patterson, though his counterpart on the opposite side, Tony Jerod-Eddie, brings 25 career starts into 2011. Jerod-Eddie (49 tackles, 2.5 for loss) would play inside in a more typical defensive alignment, but he has perfect size for a 3-4 end. The same can be said of senior Jonathan Mathis (41 tackles), who played nose tackle in 2010 but is a better fit outside. Another factor behind Mathis’s move to end was the projected arrival of JUCO tackle LaMarc Strahan, a true 3-4 tackle with the sort of size DeRuyter’s defense desires in the middle.

So much for that: Strahan was unable to pass the grade academically, leaving A&M scrambling to find a starter at nose tackle. DeRuyter didn’t have to look far to find junior Eddie Brown (25 tackles, 5 for loss), a part-time starter — he started six games, Mathis seven — over the nose in 2010. Of course, the Aggies could always return Mathis to nose tackle and have he and Brown continue to share snaps; that would lead A&M to call upon a returning contributor like junior Spencer Nealy (20 tackles, 5 for loss) or senior Ben Bass, if not opt for a relative unknown like sophomore Ivan Robinson or redshirt freshman Gavin Stansbury. I think the Aggies will keep Brown inside, where he played well last fall, but depth will take a hit without Strahan in the mix.

The secondary returns intact, and don’t give me any guff about this being a bad thing, not a good thing. Save it: the overall numbers belie how effective this secondary was for the wide majority of 2010 — take into account, for example, the fact that while A&M finished 89th in the country in yardage allowed per game the defense ranked 30th in pass efficiency defense. You’re bound to give up some yards in the Big 12; you’re bound to give up even more when leading by a touchdown or two in the second half, which occurred often down the stretch.

I can’t think of any reason why the pass defense won’t improve, minus one: the pass rush needs to find another star. If the Aggies can remain potent on third down, there’s enough returning and rising talent for A&M to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the Big 12. The star of the secondary is senior cornerback Coryell Judie (57 tackles, 4 interceptions), a former JUCO transfer who debuted well despite a nagging shoulder injury. Judie should be better in 2011, thanks to his clean bill of health and the added year in DeRuyter’s system. Judie also makes a huge impact on kickoff returns, taking two back for scores in 2010. His running mate will again be senior Terrence Frederick, unless Lionel Smith leapfrogs ahead, with junior Dustin Harris (43 tackles, 4 interceptions) rounding out the top quartet.

The safeties could use some work. But there is adequate depth behind starters Trent Hunter (62 tackles, 2 picks) and Steven Campbell, particularly at free safety, where Campbell should get the nod. He split time last fall with fellow junior Steven Terrell, but neither provided much production or consistency at this key spot in the defensive backfield. Look out for a handful of redshirt freshmen, Louis Swope and Clay Honeycutt in particular, as the opportunity is there for both to earn snaps at free and strong safety, respectively. Finally, one important note: DeRuyter knows defense, but he really knows pass defense.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker Von Miller has moved on, yet he remains the primary topic of conversation when discussing A&M’s current defense — as in, What are the Aggies going to do without Von Miller? I’ll you what they’ll do: Miller’s irreplaceable, but throw enough bodies into the rotation and you’ll find a way to recoup his lost production. In essence, no one player is going to fill his shoes, but three of four rush linebackers can maintain A&M’s standing among the top half of the Big 12 in getting to the quarterback. But who replaces Miller in the starting lineup? It would be sophomore Damontre Moore (40 tackles, 5.5 sacks), should he ever extricate himself from Sherman’s doghouse — not a fun place to be at all, from most accounts. Moore’s won’t be Miller overnight, but there’s no doubting his potential. One player who has surprised everyone with his play in August has been freshman Tyrell Taylor, a lightly-regarded prospect whom most viewed as a multiple-year project. As of now, Taylor’s in line for some significant snaps. As is junior Caleb Russell, who might be the starter if the season started today. Lost in the hubbub regarding Miller’s departure is the loss of inside linebacker Michael Hodges, a former transfer who held a major role — on the field and off — for the Aggies in 2010; for evidence of his importance to this defense, take note of how A&M folded up shop once he was lost to injury in the bowl loss to L.S.U. Junior Jonathan Stewart is the leading candidate to fill his spot, though yes, Kyle Mangan is also an option. The winner of that slight position battle would line up alongside all-Big 12 candidate Garrick Williams (team-best 112 tackles) in the middle of A&M’s 3-4. Rounding out the starting quartet is outside linebacker Sean Porter (74 tackles), a converted safety who may just be the best of this entire group.

Game(s) to watch

S.M.U. will be aiming for an upset in the season opener, but don’t bet on that happening. The Aggies don’t have a true road game until the second Saturday of October and play only four true road games all year, though the date with Arkansas is on a neutral field. The big games, in order of importance: Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Arkansas. Maybe the off-and-on rivalry with Arkansas will become a yearly occurrence in 2012?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell You almost want to find an excuse not to be so high on the Aggies, as it’s very easy to get wrapped up in a fine half-season and over-rank a team’s capabilities heading into the following year. That could be the case in College Station; A&M was mediocre through six games, absolutely outstanding over the next six games and a disappointment in bowl play. Yet try as I might, I can’t find a rational excuse not to have A&M among the top 10 teams in the country, behind only Oklahoma in the Big 12 and very much in the mix for a B.C.S. bowl berth. And yes, part of that — a very solid portion, in fact — stems from the way the Aggies ended last season. The quarterback change was a no-brainer at the time, but few could have predicted how well Tannehill would perform under center. The running game is a behemoth thanks to two outstanding backs and an offensive line that may develop into one of the nation’s best by the time the Aggies round out Big 12 play. The receiver corps, as noted, is the best in program history. You look towards the defense and have a few concerns — interior of the line, rush end and safety — but I have tremendous confidence in DeRuyter, the second-year coordinator whose units only grow stronger with more experience. What’s not to like? Well, I could point out non-home dates with Arkansas and Oklahoma and games at College Station against Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas as enough rationale for placing A&M here, not three or four spots higher. This team won’t go undefeated; I think closer to 10-2, though every game is winnable. Remember when the Aggies were an afterthought? It seems as if times have changed.

Dream season Texas A&M beats Oklahoma, tops Texas by 35 points and survives a close game against Arkansas to finish the season 12-0 and in the national title game.

Nightmare season We took too much from last year’s second-half surge: the Aggies slide back to 7-5, 5-4 in the Big 12.

In case you were wondering

Where do Texas A&M fans congregate? As one would expect with a bigger program, the independent sites are coming fast and furious: the best of the bunch is TexAgs.com, where the vast majority of A&M fans hang out. Still, don’t forget about Ag Times and Aggies Fans. For recruiting news, visit Aggie Yell and Aggie Websider. For a blog’s take, check out I Am The 12th Man and The Midnight Yell.

Word Count

Through 111 teams 351,119.

Up Next

Who is No. 9? Tomorrow’s program outscored its opposition by more points in 2010 than it had scored in all but 12 years of its existence heading into last fall.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    I’m wondering if it is the Ducks, who outscored their opponents by a whopping 350 points last fall…

    As an Oregon student, I hope they’re not this low!

  2. RVa says:

    Stanford

  3. Eksynyt says:

    I guess Oregon could be this low.

  4. michael says:

    Paul, i’d really like to know your thoughts on all the A&M-to-the-SEC craziness from the last few weeks. Where do you weigh in on it? What are your thoughts on how realistic a probability it is, who the SEC would add alongside them, what the ramifications might be?

  5. George says:

    I’m going to say Oregon. As a FSU fan, I’m fairly certain it isn’t the Noles, which makes me happy they’re higher than #9.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. Papa John says:

    Hmm, #9 can’t be Stanford. Stanford outscored its opponents by 298 in 2010. Looking through the team’s media guide, I counted 17 seasons in which they scored more than 298 points.

    From what I can tell, besides Stanford, it could be:
    Alabama
    Boise State
    Florida State
    LSU
    Nebraska
    Oklahoma
    Oregon
    Virginia Tech

    I’m going with Boise State.

  7. manicblue says:

    It’s definitely Oregon.

  8. Xenocide23 says:

    It’s Oregon. Even though I’m a huge Duck fan I can’t argue with a #9 ranking. The ducks are lacking a large amount of experience in a few key positions and, as a result, I expect them to drop about 2 regular season games. I am, however, surprised that Stanford will be ranked higher than Oregon since they will be losing about the same amount of starters and talent in addition to their head coach and, more importantly in my mind, their defensive coordinator.

  9. schedule nit says:

    I can’t believe that hideous game they played against Okie State doesn’t get mentioned as their “low point”.

    But I understand, I too have made every effort to forget that awful display of unsightly football. It just must horrible to be a fan of a team in that conference.

  10. Uberd says:

    19-19 is pretty mediocre and sherman was out the door during parts of last season, now he’s their savior and a&m is a top tier program again-not buying it. still think this team has a long way to go. wouldn’t be surprised if j jones & the ponies leave college station with the city on fire.

  11. BobJ says:

    The record book shows that it’s Oregon. My comments tomorrow.

  12. Dave says:

    @ michael –

    Among other ramifications (e.g. a race to a handful of 16-team superconferences that will exacerbate the differences between FBS haves and have-nots), it will seriously dilute any strength-of-conference arguments. After all, how meaningful is it to emerge undefeated from a conference when you didn’t even play 4 of your in-conference rivals?

  13. SJohns says:

    During the three game slide, fans in College Station were calling for the end of the Sherman era. Expectations were too high for Sherman from the start. People forget that the starting quarterback last year, Jerod Johnson, was coming off shoulder surgery on his throwing arm and the weakness that resulted helped to cause the turnovers that plagued the A&M team in the first six games. The three game slide that happened last year was due in large part to the poor play of Jerod Johnson. He threw the interception that lost the OSU game and was basically a walking turnover. I think that things could have been much different if Tannehill had been the starter from the start. If you actually look at the majority of interceptions thrown by JJ you can see that they were underthrown to wide open recievers. Tannehill would have had no problem getting the ball to open recievers.

  14. Ol' Rock says:

    Whoop!! Great Write Up Paul. Looking forward to the rest of the list!…Best way to countdown to 1st day of football!

  15. Burnt Orange says:

    I love watching the young tackles play – except on Thanksgiving. They took some lumps last year, but these guys have great bloodlines and barring injury, we will be watching them play for years. Luke Joeckel in particular is fun to watch – athletic for a big man ( his twin brother is the back up qb) with a mean streak.

  16. Pet says:

    I am hoping for a year full of surpeises with teams that traditionaly do not do well, will be in the top 5 and win the national championship. It gets old having the same poeple up every year.

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