After Texas A&M started out a disappointing 3-3 last fall, losing to every living, breathing opponent they’d faced so far, Mike Sherman was facing a third straight losing season as head coach in College Station, and at the very least his seat was heating up.
Running back Christine Michael’s season ending injury against Texas Tech, combined with quarterback Jerod Johnson’s nagging shoulder injury and struggles early in Big XII play, necessarily forced respective backups Cyrus Gray and Ryan Tannehill into action. The Aggies tore off six straight wins to close out the regular season, and even with a 24-41 defeat at LSU in the Cotton Bowl, are a top ten preseason pick and expected to contend for a Big XII title.
For many a casual fan, these expectations probably aren’t perceived as altogether unfamiliar territory for the Aggies: they seem to fit in with programs like Clemson and UCLA , who probably presently get more credit than they deserve in the national realm due to their sporadic, but notable spurts of top ten success in the 80s and 90s.
The reality is that the Aggies have only been ranked in the preseason AP poll three times in the past decade: No. 22 in 2007, No. 16 in 2005 and No. 22 in 2002. Each of those seasons, they were nowhere to be found in the postseason poll. In fact, the only time they have finished inside the AP top 25 the past ten years was last season, ending at No. 19.
So why should we believe they’re up for a recently unprecedented leap in prestige this year? Let’s look at it from two perspectives.
WHY THE AGGIES SHOULD BE SUCCESSFUL IN 2011
- The offensive skill players have spectacular talent, are ridiculously balanced in their production and boast solid experience. In fact, you could argue they’re second to none.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill only has seven starts under his belt, sure, but he’s a senior and spent the previous three years on the field as wide receiver, even leading the team in receiving two years ago. He is 6-1 as a starting QB, and had a solid 13-t0-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio last fall. He can only get better this season, and knows the offense like the back of his hand.
Running backs Christine Michael (JR.) and Cyrus Gray (SR.) return. Gray had one of the best seasons of any running back in the country last fall considering what he produced when called upon, ripping off seven straight games with and excesses of 100 yards per game and 4.89 yards per carry. Michael was averaging 5.0 YPC and had 631 yards himself before going down in the Texas Tech game.
There are no questions at wide receiver: Jeff Fuller (SR.) is one of the best pass catchers in the country, Ryan Swope (JR.) came on strong last year, and Uzoma Nwachukwu (JR.) had a second straight solid campaign. The Aggies return eight players that had at least 100 receiving yards last season.
There are no weaknesses in any of those groups, personnel-wise.
- Tim DeRuyter is one of the best defensive coaches in the country, and the Aggies will continue to improve in his second year at College Station.
The Aggies return eight starters from a defensive crew that allowed 21.9 points per game and 364 yards per game last fall – that was a significant improvement from the 33.5 and 426 marks they notched in those categories in 2009. They should take another step forward this year, only losing three players that contributed significantly from that unit. Texas A&M was tops in conference play last year defending the run, in both yards per game (133) and yards per carry (3.6).
- A&M was more the 6-1 team that beat Texas and Oklahoma in the second half of the season than the group that started the season 3-3.
As the season progressed not only was quarterback Jerrod Johnson, playing the most important position on the field, replaced by a better player in Tannehill – but Cyrus Gray turned into one of the best play-makers in the country, and the defense got better each week while learning defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s scheme.
WHY TO BE SKEPTICAL OF THE 2011 AGGIES
- The overall production of the offense hasn’t matched the talent of the skill players, the offensive line is inexperienced, and balance of the scheme isn’t always beneficial. What makes them better than Oklahoma, OSU, Missouri or Baylor?
For all the talk about this possibly being one of the best offenses in the country, they haven’t been extremely productive the past few years with this core of skill players. Production actually decreased last year across most fronts. In 2020, the Aggies had fewer points per game, yards per game, yards per carry, passing yards, average gain per play, and sacks against – than they did the previous fall.
In Big XII play, the Aggies finished No. 4 in points per game, No. 6 in total yards and No. 10 in sacks against. They weren’t near the top of the league in any particular category. Teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Baylor – who were more productive or at least as productive as the Aggies last year – all return eight or more offensive starters this fall. What differentiates them from the others?
In my opinion, Jeff Fuller is one of the elite receivers in the country. He is second in Texas A&M history in receiving yards, and will undoubtedly pass Terrence Murphy for the No. 1 spot, barring any injury. Ryan Swope is a good receiver. There is no reason Fuller and Swope both had 72 catches in 2010. Ryan Broyles at Oklahoma had 131 catches last year. Justin Blackmon had 111. TJ Moe and Michael Egnew had 92 and 90 respectively. Fuller isn’t being treated like the elite talent he is. Get him the ball more often.
The running game only exploded once Christine Michael was out of the picture. Michael is a good player, but Gray showed another level of talent with the tear he went on to end the season. I don’t think splitting carries for the sake of splitting carries is always the best way to go.
In the David Ubben/ESPN article linked above, safety Trent Hunter said it best, unintentionally highlighting my main gripe with the offense:
“They’re so balanced,” Hunter said. “I really can’t even pinpoint one thing they do best. They just do everything so well.”
I’d rather do a couple things great than everything well at the college level. The point is: get the ball to your two potential All-Americans. The tools are their for this offense to be great.
The offensive line allowed 37 sacks last year. I’m sold on their ability to run block, but their duo of sophomore tackles, Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckle, need to take the next step this year to protect Tannehill. There’s only one senior inthe two deep, although they have 5 guys with significant starting experience.
I’m just wondering why they should be any better than their Big XII offensive counterparts.
- The defense is replacing more production than Aggie supporters would lead you to believe. They won’t be an elite crew. Their special teams are not good enough, not living up to the ’12th Man’ name the past few years.
Von Miller was a first round NFL draft choice, and easily the best defender on the team last year. He notched 68 tackles, 10.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss in 2010. Michael Hodges also departs at linebacker. He was the leader in tackles for the Aggies last year with 115, third on the team with 4.5 sacks and picked off two passes. Who will step up and make big plays? That is half of the sacks the Aggies had last year that aren’t there anymore.
I can’t get the awful special teams performance two years ago against Georgia in the Independence bowl out of my head. The Aggies finished No. 98 in Phil Steele’s special teams rankings that year. The special teams coach was fired after that game, but Texas A&M still wasn’t the best last year, finishing No. 57 in the same rankings set. They should be better this year in that regard, with Coryell Judie back returning kicks and the two specialists returning, but Oklahoma State finished No. 1 in Phil’s rankings last year, Oklahoma and Texas almost always have high finishes, and to finish a top ten team, you need to be better than average in that category.
- Oklahoma and Texas will be better this year than they were last. Expectations are tough when you haven’t dealt with them in the past.
To finish near the top ten, Texas A&M will surely have to beat at least one of the two, if not both. The Aggies travel to Oklahoma this year, where the Sooners have only lost 2 games in the past decade, and have drilled the Aggies by 40 points in their last six trips (thank you Phil Steele – cry, Daniel).
The Texas team the Aggies beat last year was easily the worst Longhorn outfit in a long while. They will have had nearly an entire of new coaching under their belts before facing A&M in the last game of the season, and if the Aggies do indeed meet expectations, they will have a lot of the line in that game.
The Aggies made their run last season when no one was paying attention to them after they dropped off the face of the earth with the 3-3 start. Will they handle expectations well? This is a very, er, passionate fan base, and if the Aggies somehow slip up in a few games against SMU, Oklahoma State and Arkansas early in the season, this could turn ugly on them.
WHICH SIDE IS THE WRITER ON?
Hmm, check the title, opening and the word count of the more cynical outlook for the team. I see the Aggies about matching the success of last year’s team, if not exceeding it by a win. I’ll predict a 10-3 or 9-4 final record. The offense is too concerned with being balanced to be elite, and I don’t see what sets their defense and special teams apart from the other Big XII contenders. If they do end up finishing in the top ten, I think it will be a result of the defense being excellent in their second season under DeRuyter. What he did at Air Force a few years ago was incredible, and he has much more talent to work with here.