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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Texas A&M (7-6, 4-5)

Mike Sherman didn’t lose his job by blowing a halftime lead against Oklahoma State. He didn’t lose his job by blowing another sizable halftime advantage a week later, when the Aggies lost to Arkansas in Dallas. It wasn’t Missouri that sealed his fate, even if that loss may have been worse, in a way; the Aggies followed up 17 unanswered points from the Tigers with a field goal to force overtime, only to lose in the first extra frame. Sherman lost his job because of two losses: Oklahoma and Texas. He’s not the first coach at A&M to be dismissed because of losses to the Sooners and Longhorns, mind you. But he will be the last.

It’s a statement on how the program measures success, even if this statement doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, losing to O.U. and Texas spelled Sherman’s doom, but it wasn’t as if he led a ragtag bunch of underachievers and won six games — and should have won nine, or thereabouts.

The season itself was an even greater disaster than the record indicates because of the way A&M lost; because the team should not have thrown away so many wins; because the Aggies entered the year with such preseason hype and acclaim; and because this team was wholly deserving of all the hype and acclaim. This was the best team in College Station in a decade.

Ryan Tannehill was everything he was supposed to be: superb at times, spotty at others. Remember that Tannehill, while a senior, was far behind the normal learning curve; a receiver over his first two years, he didn’t start his first game until late October of his junior year.

The three leading receivers delivered; one, Ryan Swope, exceeded all expectations in posting career highs across the board. The running game was bruising and explosive, as expected. Until each suffered an injury in November, Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael were the Big 12’s best running back pairing, as expected.

The defense got to the quarterback even without Von Miller, the Aggies’ departed all-American. In 2010, with Miller causing havoc, A&M had 29 sacks as a team; last fall, with several new faces dotting the depth chart, the Aggies led the nation with 51 sacks. You’d think, with this pass rush, that A&M would have feasted on opposition that needed to throw the ball in order to mount second-half comebacks.

So much about last season doesn’t make sense. The one thing that does, in fact, is that Sherman’s tenure seemed familiar: like R.C. Slocum and Dennis Franchione before him, Sherman was dismissed because he couldn’t get past Oklahoma or Texas — oh, especially Texas. In a year when the Aggies were purported to be the best team in the state, losing to an up-and-down Texas team was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

From here, A&M needs to remake its standards. Since the formation of the Big 12 — since the university first fielded a team, actually — the Aggies weighed success against Texas. Once Oklahoma caught fire under Bob Stoops, the university began judging its program against these two perennial powers. What does A&M use for a barometer now that it’s part of the SEC?

Will it be Missouri? The Aggies know all about Missouri, having lost five of six to the Tigers since Gary Pinkel was hired in 2001. Will it be Arkansas? The two former Southwest Conference rivals have renewed their rivalry in each of the last three years, with the Razorbacks winning each game. Will it be Alabama and L.S.U., the two top dogs in the SEC West?

It will probably take A&M some time to find its footing in the SEC, to find out what works and what doesn’t, and it’ll take time for the program to find which games — in terms of a rivalry — will decide whether its season can be deemed a success. One thing we know for sure: the standards have permanently changed.

Season grade: D- This team was too good, too talented, too explosive, too familiar with this system and had too many chances to make its mark to deserve anything less than the barest of passing grades. What this team didn’t have was competent late-game coaching, which may or may not have been a byproduct of Sherman’s decision to handle the offense alone; doing so must have played a role in his chronic game mismanagement in the second half. A better delegation of responsibility would have allowed Sherman to devote himself to the big picture, which in turn would have made it clear that throwing the ball with abandon when holding a significant halftime lead — and when running the ball so well in the first half — probably isn’t the wisest coaching decision. What makes his demise all the more painful is that it’s clear that Sherman loved the university; sadly, this good guy finished last — it felt like last, at least.

High point A 55-28 win over Baylor in October. The win featured one of the most impressive offensive showings in program history: the Aggies had 266 yards on the ground, 415 through the air.

Low point Texas. Since the rivalry seems dead, some final numbers. The Longhorns dominated the series, going 76-37-5. In terms of total points, the Longhorns held a 2,297-1,447 advantage. The Aggies had only six multiple-game winning streaks: 1909-10, with two games played in 1909; 1975-76; 1979-80; 1984-89; 1991-94; and 2006-7.

Offensive M.V.P. Tannehill showed his inexperience in three games. After a strong first half against Oklahoma State, his game imploded during the Cowboys’ surge. He was asked to do far too much against Oklahoma, which resulted in a rather painful final line: 32 of 63 for 379 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. Sadly, Tannehill saved the worst performance of his career for, perhaps, the biggest game in program history; he was bullied, harassed and beaten by the Texas defense. Despite these setbacks, Tannehill closed with one of the best seasons by a quarterback in school history. Additional recognition goes to Gray, Swope and the future stars along the offensive line, who should do well in the SEC.

Defensive M.V.P. It’s not going to any defensive back; the secondary’s decline in production was the largest individual disappointment of the season. After finishing 30th in pass efficiency defense in 2010, the Aggies saw that number fall to 67th last fall. After intercepting 16 passes and allowing 6.0 yards per attempt in 2010, the Aggies picked off 7 passes and allowed 7.0 yards per attempt last fall. What made the decline all the more peculiar was a pass rush paced by Sean Porter and Damontre Moore. That pair, along with tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie, made the Aggies’ front seven one of the three best in the Big 12.

Stock watch With all the talk about Missouri, with most believing the Tigers will be no match for the SEC, why has no one asked whether the Aggies have what it takes to survive in the nation’s deepest and most imposing conference? To be fair, it’s not an entirely apropos comparison; unlike Missouri, A&M has the good fortune to recruit in Texas, meaning the talent well will never run dry. In fact, it stands to reason that the Aggies will soon have major inroads in three of the nation’s best recruiting grounds: Texas, Louisiana and Florida. In the long term, the Aggies still have a bright future. In 2012, however, the team may struggle adapting to the new style of play in the SEC. That A&M must break in a new coaching staff and a new quarterback won’t help matters.

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  1. Justin says:

    Why is it that Missouri is going to fare worse in the SEC. I mean they must be worse than A&M . . . oh wait. And A&M has to play in the West. I mean I actually kind of like A&M but I’m tired of the hype. Of course they can recruit. They have a top recruiting class every year. They just never actually win anything. They should be really, really good. It’s seriously one of the greatest mysteries in college sports – how can they not win more.

  2. Parker says:

    Hi Paul

    During the last 20 years, here are the SEC West titles by school:

    Alabama – 7
    LSU – 5
    Auburn – 4
    Arkansas – 3
    Miss State – 1
    Ole Miss – 0

    Over the next 20 years, I expect Texas A&M to have 0 to 3 SEC West crowns. They had 2 Big 12 South crowns in 15 years.

  3. Noefli says:

    Nonsense, Paul; far better teams graced College Station over the past decade. They just didn’t play for A&M.

  4. DMK says:

    I’m with Parker on this one. While I’m willing to view A&M as maybe having a bit more potential than Ole Miss or State, I’m just not ready to put them in the same category as Arkansas and Auburn.

    To do better in the SEC than they did in the Big 12, A&M will have to hold their Texas talent *and* get some good Deep South guys. Louisiana will be key for them because of the geography. As far as excess FL/GA talent goes, I’m not sure A&M offers anything more attractive than do Kentucky, Ole Miss/St., Arky, Vandy, or currently terrible Tennessee. A&M is aiming to do better than these teams.

    I’m excited to see how it all plays out.

    They’re also going to run afoul of the SEC bylaw that states: “No players named ‘Christine’ shall be permitted to suit up in the SEC.”

  5. K says:

    Franchione beat Texas in his last 2 years at A&M. Not too many people caught that, so don’t feel bad.

    They fired Fran because of his overall record and not anything to do with the little internet squabble. The Aggies have a history of firing coaches going all the way back to Folberg. Way before your time but they did the same thing to Stallings before he won the nat championship at Alabama.

    Just thought I would catch you up on your history a little. Read your stuff every week.

    K McG
    Willow Park, Texas

    PS….. Watch out for TCU this year.

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