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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. 34: Texas A&M

Texas has A&M's number, but not on that night. The Aggies hope to do it again in 2010.

The Aggies are making noise, on the field and off. Year three of the Mike Sherman era opens with unbridled optimism, as Texas A&M — for the first time since 2007, if not earlier — holds genuine Top 25 hopes. A few things may need to go its way, such as a victory over Texas, for instance, but the pieces are in place to run Sherman’s offense at full tilt. Off the field, the university is making perfectly clear its intention to collect on the $20 million yearly bonus promised to them by the Big 12 following A&M’s dalliance with the SEC earlier this summer. A&M says pay us, or we’ll walk. Just so you’re prepared: keep Texas A&M on the tip of your tongue, as this program is poised to make waves — on the field and off.

Conference
Big 12, South

Location
College Station, Tex.

Nickname
Aggies

Returning starters
15 (6 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 72

2009 record
(6-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 66

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Stephen F. Austin
  • Sept. 11
    Louisiana Tech
  • Sept. 18
    F.I.U.
  • Sept. 30
    at Oklahoma St.
  • Oct. 9
    Arkansas (in Dallas)
  • Oct. 16
    Missouri
  • Oct. 23
    at Kansas
  • Oct. 30
    Texas Tech
  • Nov. 6
    Oklahoma
  • Nov. 13
    at Baylor
  • Nov. 20
    Nebraska
  • Nov. 25
    at Texas

Last year’s prediction

Regardless of how poorly equipped Sherman may be to handle this job, or how inept the defense was a season ago, the Aggies should be able to roll out of bed and reach six wins this fall. Why? A 3-0 start should be a guarantee, for starters, despite last fall’s slip-up to Arkansas State. I give the team one win over Iowa State, one out of Kansas State and Colorado, and a third win over Baylor. Yes, the Baylor team that pushed the Aggies around a season ago. But this game is in College Station, where the Bears haven’t won since 1984. So that’s my prediction: 6-6, but no better. One thing is clear: A&M is as far off the two big dogs – Oklahoma and Texas – as it has been in some time.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Yes, A&M finished 6-6, as predicted. And yes, the Aggies were relatively far off from Oklahoma and Texas; the Aggies lost by 55 points in Norman, but only 10 points two weeks later against the Longhorns. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe the gap has been narrowed. Take the play of this offense, which finished last season ranked 19th nationally in scoring (32.8 points per game), 16th in passing (281.6 yards per game), 31st in rushing (184.2 yards) and fifth in total yardage (465.8) despite featuring a patchwork, underachieving offensive line. Of course, it was the defense that let Texas A&M down — again. This program has allowed at least 33.5 points per game in each of Sherman’s two seasons, with last year’s total including that 65-point effort against Oklahoma, 62 points allowed at Kansas State, 47 points to Arkansas and 44 points to Georgia. If A&M had allowed 25 points per game — quite an improvement, I know — it would have won at least eight games. That’s the goal in 2010.

High point A 38-3 win over Baylor on Nov. 21. Beyond earning A&M a measure of revenge after falling to the Bears in Sherman’s first season, the victory vaulted the Aggies into bowl play after a one-year absence. The most satisfying moment, however, was a 52-30 road win over Texas Tech. Not only did that game come on the heels of a monumentally poor performance at Kansas State (a 62-14 loss), it settled the summer-long sniping between Sherman and Texas Tech’s Mike Leach. Remember that nonsense? Oh, how innocent we were in those days, before we even knew about storage closets, cellphone cameras, etc.

Low point That epic meltdown at Kansas State, the third of three straight defeats after a 3-0 start, was the low point of the season. (After Sherman’s 2008 season, a loss to Texas Tech the following weekend could have spelled trouble for his future.) It wasn’t the last ugly setback of the season: A&M lost to Colorado, its third consecutive loss in Boulder, and to Oklahoma by 65-10. It’s not quite 77-0, but ugly nonetheless. And before I forget, the Aggies put forth a solid effort but fell, for the second year in a row, to hated Texas.

Tidbit And now, back by popular demand, another tidbit involving Texas A&M and the University of Texas (or texas university, as Aggie fans derisively refer to their rival.) The decade of the 2000s saw A&M post a 2-8 record against the Longhorns, making it the program’s third-least successful decade in the long history of the series. Pre-Snap Read’s older readers can likely recall the 1940s, which saw the Aggies go 0-9-1, and the 1960s, when A&M went 1-9. The program’s happiest period came in the 1980s: 7-3, with three wins in Austin.

Tidbit (Internet bickering edition) More from the A&M-Texas feud. There’s nothing quite like Internet banter between rivals, particularly on a neutral field. Take this comment on the Web site of The Dallas Morning News, where an A&M fan, Dookey, responds to a particularly sharp jab from sportzmon, obviously a fan of the Longhorns:

Dear Sportzmon,
Thank you for your vote of confidence for us AGGIES. I guess I need not remind you that college football runs in cycles. I can remember when your precious longhorns could not BUY a win in the 90′s. I believe I remember Jeff Watson and the Baylor Bears whipping you in Waco in 1997! Yes, we deserve your “ribbing” for the past ten years of play. However, the last 2 out of 3 years, your team got OWNED by the men from College Station. Get your bong ready, you will be hitting it early this Thanksgiving. Go back to your “green” home and recycle your High times magazine.

“Get your bong ready” is the new “get your popcorn ready,” in my opinion.

Tidbit (A.P.B. edition) The short-lived, wildly unpopular “Where is Franchione?” series has yet to move beyond one post. I had such high hopes. If any A&M fans want to chime in, send an email to audible@presnapread.com to let me know about Franchione’s latest dealings. When I last heard, the former A&M coach was golfing in Horseshoe Bay, Tex., an affluent suburb located 50 miles outside of Austin.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Dr. Norris Camacho, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Vanderbilt preview earned him the opportunity to write a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? Texas A&M. He also opted to take advantage of the chance to write his preview in a foreign language, in Dr. Camacho’s case Afrikaans. I think someone had World Cup fever when he sent in his preview. Check out the bottom of the post for a translation. Take it away, Dr. Camacho:

In ‘n wilde buite seisoen vol herbelyning spekulasie, kan dit maklik wees om te vergeet van die sokker. Een Aggie jy moet nie vergeet is ‘n senior QB Jerrod Johnson. Na ‘n vaste junior seisoen, is hy gereed om alle vorme van skool rekords te breek nie. Met ‘n ster ondersteun gooi wat die volgende insluit Jeff Fuller groot ontvangers, EZ Nwachukwu, en Ryan Tannehill, en stage sensasie file Christine Michael en sy backfield vennoot Kores, Gray (ook’ n KR spesialis), kon dinge opwindende in College Station. Ongelukkig het ons ook het ‘n verdediging te speel. Iemand moet dringend te versterk en Von help as Tim Miller se verdediging Deruyter gaan onmiddellik sukses te hê.

Former players in the N.F.L.

24 TE Martellus Bennett (Dallas), DE Michael Bennett (Tampa Bay), DT Rocky Bernard (New York Giants), DT Red Bryant (Seattle), CB Melvin Bullitt (Indianapolis), OT Corey Clark (San Diego), DT Ron Edwards (Kansas City), CB Aaron Glenn (Houston), RB Mike Goodson (Carolina), CB Danny Gorrer (New Orleans), C Geoff Hangartner (Buffalo), DE Chris Harrington (Jacksonville), P Shane Lechler (Oakland), C Kevin Matthews (Tennessee), FB Jamie McCoy (St. Louis), QB Stephen McGee (Dallas), DE Mike Montgomery (Minnesota), LS Don Muhlbach (Detroit), LB Cyril Obiozor (Green Bay), CB Jordan Pugh (Carolina), C Cody Wallace (San Francisco), DE Ty Warren (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Not included in this group: this energetic corpsman, brandishing an honed saber in combat.

Texas A&M alumni in the military
1. Lt. Gen. A.D. Bruce.
2. Lt. Gen. Jay T. Robbins.
3. Maj. Horace S. Carswell, Jr.
4. 2nd Lt. Lloyd Herbert Hughes.
5. Lt. Cmdr. George H. Gay, Jr.

Coaching

Mike Sherman (’78 Central Connecticut State), 10-15 after two seasons with the Aggies. Could his first season have gone any worse? No, probably not. Last season, however, saw A&M begin to turn the corner under the third-year coach, adding two victories to its win total and returning to bowl play after a one-year absence. More improvement is expected in year three, as Sherman has added several highly-regarded recruits better suited for his offense, not the run-first attack popular under his predecessor. In Sherman’s favor is his familiarity with the Aggie program, having served two separate stints as R.C. Slocum’s offensive line coach (1989-93, 1995-96). Most coaches need a year to acclimate themselves to a new program, so Sherman undertook this endeavor with a leg up over any other candidate A&M could have considered. Not that it has done him much good thus far. Still, the speed with which Texas A&M went after Sherman – he was hired three days after the besieged Dennis Franchione resigned – signals the faith the university’s administration has in his ability to turn the program around. That optimism, surely tested over his first two seasons, will be rewarded in 2010 and beyond. 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, being 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

With some help, quarterback Jerrod Johnson is a Heisman contender. What does he need? His team to succeed; in this day and age, anything less than a nine-win season is not going to land you the necessary votes. Johnson also needs to improve his accuracy, something Sherman has made a point of emphasis during off-season workouts. Sherman says his goal is to have the senior hovering around a 70 percent completion rate. That might be pushing it, though it wouldn’t be too much to ask of Johnson to complete, say, 65 percent — he completed 59.6 percent of his passes a year ago. If one was to find fault with Johnson’s 2009 performance, that would be it.

Even with the sub-60 percent completion rate, Johnson was superb. He threw for 3,529 yards with 30 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions, the latter total two fewer picks in 171 more attempts than in 2008. Johnson added 506 yards rushing and 8 scores on the ground, pushing him into third place nationally in total offense. We all saw flashes of this potential in 2008, but few expected such a breakout season. Believe it or not, Johnson could take another significant step forward in 2011. Again, his Heisman hopes depend on A&M’s win total — which, in a way, depends on Johnson. His backup, Ryan Tannenhill, should see more time as the Aggies prepare for life after Johnson.

Tannenhill will also contribute at receiver, where he finished second on the team a year ago in receptions (46) and receiving yards (609). He remained a consistent presence despite splitting time at quarterback — especially during practice — though Tannenhill was slightly more productive as a freshman. This dip can also be attributed to the impact made by freshman Uzoma Nwachukwu, who led the Aggies in receiving yards (708) and yards per catch average (17.7). Junior Jeff Fuller was equally productive when healthy, but he missed four games due to injury. This trio, along with sophomore Ryan Swope, give the Aggies four experienced leaders at wide receiver. Call me crazy, but this might be A&M’s most talented receiver corps in program history. Am I crazy?

There’s a similar story at running back. Junior Cyrus Gray and sophomore Christine Michael form a dangerous one-two pair in the running game, with the duo combining for 1,601 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago. Michael is particularly dangerous, as evidenced by his 97-yard touchdown run against Baylor. However, Michael began to earn the majority of touches as the season wore on, perhaps signaling that he will take on a larger lead back role in 2010. Regardless, even if Michael eventually becomes a 20-carry performer, look for Gray to continue to contribute. The Aggies would be foolish not to take advantage of such a running back pairing. By all accounts, Michael was even better during the spring than he was a season ago.

If A&M can merely put forth a competent defense, look out. The offense is that good; conversely, the defense is poor enough to consider an average finish an improvement. As noted earlier, this defense has struggled mightily in Sherman’s first two seasons. In that case, perhaps a coaching change is just what the doctor ordered: Joe Kines, the coordinator from 2008-9, opted to retire following last season; he’ll be replaced by former Air Force coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who brings with him the 3-4 base set. He also brings a shining resume, one augmented by Air Force’s dominating effort against Houston in last season’s Armed Forces Bowl.

He’ll have his hands full in the secondary, a group that allowed 254.7 yards passing per game and 30 touchdowns while intercepting only eight passes in 2009. Obviously, with A&M’s schedule — Arkansas, Missouri, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Texas, among others — a strong defensive backfield is a must. It’s a must, yes — but the Aggies don’t have a good secondary, let alone a strong one. If there’s a saving grace, it’s DeRuyter: his pass defenses at Air Force, a team that never features A&M-like talent, were nearly always superb, particularly last fall.

In A&M’s defense, the team does return some experience. Trent Hunter, last year’s leading tackler (95, 1.5 for loss) returns at strong safety. Sophomore Dustin Harris (40 tackles, 1 interception) and junior Terrence Frederick (61 tackles, 2 interceptions) return at cornerback after starting 11 and 13 games a season ago, respectively. It will be Steven Terrell’s job to lose at free safety, with the sophomore spending his debut season in a reserve role. What about depth? The Aggies will rely upon Coryell Judie to be their third cornerback, but the former JUCO transfer must remain healthy after missing all of last season due to injury.

The linebacker corps ranks in the top half of the Big 12, if only due to the all-American play of senior Von Miller. The switch to the 3-4 will have little effect on Miller, whose 17 sacks paced the nation last fall. He’ll continue to be asked to get to the quarterback, disrupting plays in the backfield and making the job a little easier for the maligned secondary. Miller is capable of doing all that — and then some. His junior totals are all the more impressive when taking into account the lack of production A&M received from the rest of the defense; if another player could step up in the front seven, drawing attention in the process, Miller could do even more. In any case, Miller is a premier rush linebacker, a consensus all-American and a heavy contender for national hardware at the conclusion of the season.

He’ll be joined at outside linebacker by sophomore Sean Porter, who made 42 tackles (4 for loss) and a sack as a rookie. Like Miller — but to a far lesser degree — Porter will be asked to get into the backfield in DeRuyter’s defense. One of the two inside spots will be held by junior Garrick Williams (74 tackles, 8.5 for loss), a starter at outside linebacker last fall. Williams’ biggest challenge will be growing accustomed to taking on interior linemen in the run game, something he rarely had to do a year ago. The Aggies return sophomore Kyle Mangan (70 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 picks), a 10-game starter in the middle last fall, but he’ll be pushed to maintain his starting role by senior Michael Hodges.

Much less will be asked of the new three-man defensive front, particularly with Miller moving to outside linebacker. The most important position is nose tackle, of course, which asks a lineman to occupy multiple blockers to help keep his linebackers clean. Senior Lucas Patterson will start the season in that role, though it remains to be seen if the returning starter has the size and strength — he might be too tall, in a strange way — to play effectively over the center. A&M could also turn to junior Eddie Brown, who has added a solid amount of weight to his frame since arriving on campus. Sophomore Spencer Nealy (19 tackles, 1 sack) will start at one end spot, with junior Tony Jerrod-Eddie (23 tackles, 1 sack) starting on the opposite side. At 6’4, 300 pounds, Jerrod-Eddie is built like a 3-4 end. With that frame, and his experience at tackle, he’ll be able to move inside on passing downs.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line It’s not about what Texas A&M has lost, though the Aggies must replace three departed starters. It’s about what the Aggies have added: several well-regarded freshmen linemen, including one that will open the season starting at left tackle. Of course, such a move is instantly cause for trepidation. A true freshman — albeit one on campus in time for spring ball — starting on the blind side? We have no choice but to give Sherman, an accomplished line coach (regardless of the performance of last year’s group), the benefit of the doubt. For now, it will be Luke Joeckel at left tackle. It might be another true freshman, Jake Matthews — whose father, Bruce, is in the N.F.L. Hall of Fame — at right tackle, though Matthews won’t open the season in the starting lineup. For now, the starting job will likely fall to sophomore Brian Thomas. The rest of the line will remain somewhat static. Senior Matt Allen, who started at right guard last fall, moves inside to center. Junior Evan Eike remains at left guard. After stepping in for Allen over the second half of last season, sophomore Patrick Lewis will take over at right guard. This line should suffer no letdown in the run game, where it performed well a season ago. Where A&M will face the most questions is in pass protection. If Matthews eventually claims a starting job on the right side, can the line survive with true freshmen starting at both tackle spots? Even if he doesn’t, can Joeckel fend off Big 12 pass rushers at left tackle?

Game(s) to watch

A&M hopes to be a Big 12 contender. Well, guess what: you have to beat Oklahoma and Texas to win the Big 12. Those games are key, as is the Oct. 30 home game against Texas Tech, which should determine third place in the division. As for the rest of the schedule, I’ve got my eyes on A&M’s non-conference tilt against Arkansas and its late-season home game with Nebraska, the latter a team that might be firmly in the national title picture when it comes to College Station.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I said in last year’s preview that A&M should be able to roll out of bed and win six games. In a similar vein, I count five such guaranteed — as far as any game yet to be played can be guaranteed — wins in 2010: Stephen F. Austin, F.I.U., Louisiana Tech, Kansas and Baylor. I count another three games where, as of now, the Aggies should be favored: Oklahoma State, Missouri — with the game in College Station — and Texas Tech. And I count four games that will decide the season: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. Surely, this team has turned a corner. How far it has come will be dictated by its performance — and record — against that final quartet. Using these four games as the standard, Texas A&M is not yet ready for prime time. Even with its high-profile additions, the offensive line remains a concern; these talented prospects are unproven, remember. 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.

Dream season Welcome back to the national picture, Texas A&M. The Aggies lose a neutral field affair to Arkansas and a home game against Oklahoma, but end the regular season 10-2, 7-1 in the Big 12, and in the B.C.S. hunt.

Nightmare season With this team’s talent and the relatively forgiving schedule, another 6-6 season with be nothing short of a disaster.

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.

Tidbit (Internet translation edition) Not sure what Dr. Camacho wrote earlier? Well, neither am I. However, the good doctor was kind enough to send along a translation, one gleaned either from years spent caring for the ill in South Africa or through hours of careful examination of an Afrikaans-English dictionary. Here’s the translation:

In a wild off-season full of realignment speculation, it might be easy to forget about the football. One Aggie you shouldn’t overlook is senior QB Jerrod Johnson. After a solid junior season, he is poised to break all kinds of school records. With a stellar supporting cast that includes wide receivers Jeff Fuller, EZ Nwachukwu, and Ryan Tannehill, and sophomore sensation tailback Christine Michael and his backfield partner Cyrus Gray (also a KR specialist), things could get exciting in College Station. Unfortunately, we also have to play defense. Someone desperately needs to step up and help Von Miller if Tim DeRuyter’s defense is going to have immediate success.

Up Next

Who is No. 33? Those interested in making a F.O.I.A. request might be wise to consult the experts at our next university, which houses the nation’s first center devoted to the topic.

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

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Comments

  1. Dr. Klahn says:

    Missouri is next!

  2. george howley says:

    Next up is Florida although it would seem that the top journalist school would have a Freedom of information center.

  3. havik912 says:

    Florida at anything outside the top 25 is absurd, 18th at the lowest.

  4. Alex Payne says:

    Freedom of Information Act I believe, implying a journalism school.
    Missouri should be around this area, so let’s go with the Tigers of Columbia.

  5. Joel says:

    His team to succeed; in this day and age, anything less than a nine-win season is not going to land you the necessary votes.

    Toby Gerhart came in second from an 8-win Stanford team

  6. M Meyer says:

    I agree with Missouri. Both schools evidently have Freedom of Information centers, and both have journalism schools. But, even a reloading Florida has too much talent to start this low.

  7. Zaboo says:

    Yes, Gerhart came in second. Second.

    Another win might have changed that.

  8. Patrick says:

    There can only be one school that has the “first” FOIA Center, so this question shouldn’t have to be answered based on deductive logic.

  9. [...] A&M comes in at No. 34 on The New York Times preseason look at college [...]

  10. [...] country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 34, is Texas A&M. You can find a larger Texas A&M preview at Pre-Snap [...]

  11. Mark P says:

    Gig ‘em

  12. Levi M says:

    Pat Williams? Seems kinda hard to miss…

  13. Kelly W says:

    Aggie Websider has the best recruiting info on A&M bar none.

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