Last week, I went on a podcast with my good friend Greg Tepper from Dave Campbell's Texas Football. It was a rapid-fire exchange about every FBS school in Texas. Here's an exchange we had about Texas A&M:
Tepper: You look at Texas A&M, do you think that there's a chance that they compete right away, or is this kind of a first-year rebuilding year under Kevin Sumlin?
Me: What's funny is, from a numbers perspective -- you know, last year on this podcast I said A&M was overrated, and they were going to underachieve--
Tepper: And you nailed it.
Me: Well, from a numbers standpoint, they really didn't. They were a top-20 team on paper. The problem was those consistent collapses, you know, that teeny, tiny problem of being terrible in the fourth quarter. This is a perfect situation for a sleeper pick, really, because they were a top-20, top-25 team on paper, and now they get a new coach, and hopefully in A&M's case, a new mentality and ability to close games. And if they close games, you know, they're going to play in enough tight games in the SEC that aren't against Alabama or LSU, that they really could put together eight or nine wins if things click a little bit.
Numbers are funny. They tell you the story behind the scoreboard and give you a much more accurate read of quality than win-loss record. But they can't prevent an awkward, pointy ball from bouncing in odd ways.
They can't prevent a quarterback that was previously flawless from throwing two picks in three passes in the third quarter (which happened against Oklahoma State).
They can't convince your coach to go for it on fourth-and-1 from near midfield when your 18-point lead has quickly shrunk to eight, and your defense has no hope of stopping the opponent's offense (which happened against Arkansas).
They can't keep a fourth-down pass in overtime from being batted down at the line after you've blown a 14-point halftime lead (which happened against Missouri).
They can't keep a decent pass defense from suddenly, inexplicably breaking down and allowing a late fourth-quarter bomb to a team that wasn't good at completing bombs (which happened against Kansas State), and they can't convince your coach to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the opponent's 3 in the fourth overtime when your defense has been allowing almost eight yards per play thus far in OT (which also happened against Kansas State).
They can't predict that your defense will suddenly break down on the final possession of potentially your biggest rivalry game ever (the last one) allowing a quarterback who had completed 12 of 22 passes to suddenly complete four of five, then scramble for 25 yards to set up the game-winning (or losing) field goal (which happened against Texas).
It took a lot, so much, for Texas A&M to finish 7-6 last year. It took untimely conservatism from a coach who chose the wrong moments to bring an NFL mentality to the college game. It took some ill-timed sweaty palms on the field. And make no mistake, it took a lot of really bad luck. Only six FBS teams suffered more than 2.9 points of bad turnovers luck (50/50 fumble recoveries that didn't go your way, broken-up passes that should have been interceptions, etc.) per game in 2011, and only one (SMU) came anywhere close to the 4.3 points that A&M lost.
I'll restate that: in a season that saw Texas A&M lose four games by four points or less, they lost an average of 4.3 points per game to sheer luck and bounces. With neutral luck, it is conceivable that 6-6 turns into 10-2. And it is probably worth pointing out that a 10-2 A&M team returns seven offensive starters and all sorts of four-star talent would probably be a top-10 to -15 team heading into 2012.
Texas A&M managed to simultaneously prove me both right ("they aren't going to win as many games as people think") and wrong ("they won't play like a legitimate top-10 to -15 team") last year. And heading into 2012, the Aggies really aren't that far away from the level of greatness many predicted of them last year, even if everybody has given up on them for a little while.
They're typically pretty easy to spot. Nebraska went 10-4 in 2009, lost the best defensive tackle of a generation, and began the 2010 ranked eighth in the preseason AP poll. Ole Miss went 9-4 in 2008, their best record in a while, and began 2009 ranked eighth. Clemson went 9-4 in 2007 and started out ninth in 2008. Football analysts get bored with picking the same teams every year, so they're always looking for the Next Big Thing, and they inevitably overrate a "darkhorse" team each preseason. (Bandwagon effect typically assures that everybody's focused on the same team by August.)
Honestly, this is unfair to those teams. Ole Miss won nine games again in 2009, but because of ridiculous expectations, that felt disappointing. (Nine wins should never be disappointing for Ole Miss.) Nebraska won ten games last fall, just as Football Outsiders predicted, but between the preseason expectations and Taylor Martinez' September and early-October supernova, that wasn't enough to live up to the hype. Hype is always potentially dangerous, but it is particularly so when you have not proven worthy of the hype with your recent performance.
This year's bandwagon team is pretty clearly Texas A&M. SI's Andy Staples ranked them seventh this week, and we've seen them as high as fourth or fifth. This despite the fact that they have averaged 6.5 wins over the last four seasons. They got hot at just the right time last season and finished with the magic 9-4 record. Make no mistake, there is a lot to like about A&M ... as, say, a Top 15 team. But this just screams "too much, too soon" for Mike Sherman and the Aggies, and in the end it does them no favors.
It really was an incredibly frustrating season in College Station. According to Adj. Score, A&M played well enough to beat a perfectly average team in 12 of 13 games, but with a loaded schedule, they barely actually PLAYED average (or worse) teams. They were good enough to build double-digit leads over six of the nation's Top 33 teams, but they were only good/lucky enough to win once. They blew home leads versus Oklahoma State (No. 3 in F/+), Texas (No. 19) and Missouri (No. 25). They blew a neutral field lead over Arkansas (No. 14) in Arlington, and they blew a late 10-point lead at Kansas State (No. 33).
After the Oklahoma State and Arkansas games, the Aggies threatened to rebound -- they held on to win at Texas Tech, pummeled Baylor by 27, and won at Iowa State -- but it didn't last. The late home loss to Texas, in the last game of the rivalry (for now), sealed Mike Sherman's fate. Despite the fact that he had improved the Aggies from 110th in F/+ in 2008, to 57th in 2009, to 25th in 2010, to 16th in 2011, he just couldn't win enough to keep his job. (And the aforementioned unfair expectations certainly didn't help.)
Now it's Kevin Sumlin's turn. Despite constant expectations to the contrary, A&M hasn't won double-digit games in a season since 1998 and have finished with more sub-.500 seasons (four) than eight-win campaigns (three) in that span. R.C. Slocum was pushed out after a 6-6 campaign in 2002, Dennis Franchione after 7-6 in 2007, and Sherman after 6-6 last year, but the Aggies have rarely fared significantly better than those records. But Sumlin has a rare opportunity in College Station: a season for which the expectations might actually be lower than they should be. And now I hop on the bandwagon. Go figure.
(Of course, if Sumlin exceeds expectations in 2012, then look out for the hilarious level of 2013 buzz.)
"You do what you're good at." That's what new Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said about A&M's new Air Raid offense in a defense-happy SEC. For most of this offseason, the story lines have been obvious and merciless: can the spread offense work in the SEC? But really, that's entirely the wrong question to be asking. No matter what system you have in place -- pro-style one-back, I-formation, spread, Wishbone, Flexbone, A-11 -- your level of success will be determined by the quality of your talent and execution versus that of the defense you are facing. Alabama, for instance, doesn't shut down spread offenses because "the spread doesn't work in the SEC," but because they are bigger, stronger, faster and more disciplined than the offenses they face.
Here, then, is what we know about A&M's talent and potential level of execution:
1. Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury tend to lead good offenses. Kingsbury is a relative newcomer in the coaching ranks. After serving as Mike Leach's first quarterback at Texas Tech, he stuck around in NFL Europe and the CFL until 2007. He served under offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, then got promoted to co-coordinator when Holgorsen left for Oklahoma State. He showed enough promise that he is now an SEC offensive coordinator in his fifth season in the profession.
We only know of Kingsbury from his work at Houston, but Sumlin's resume stretches further back. He was his alma mater Purdue's receivers coach in the days of Drew Brees and the Boilermakers' trip to the Rose Bowl. He became Texas A&M's offensive coordinator in the dying days of the R.C. Slocum era (2001-02), then ended up on Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma for five seasons (he was offensive co-coordinator in 2006-07). The spectacular success of the beginning of the Sam Bradford era earned him a head coaching job at age 43. And all he did at Houston was win 35 games in four seasons, went to two Conference USA title games, and damn near make a BCS bowl in 2011. He was part of the Purdue offenses that tore apart the big, physical Big Ten, and he helped to lay the groundwork for some seriously high-paced, record-setting Oklahoma offenses. And under his watch, Case Keenum basically broke every statistical record a quarterback can break. He does not get the credit that the Holgorsens of the world would, perhaps because he has succeeded at fewer places, but he has succeeded nonetheless, and he typically figures out how to rack up the yards, both on the ground and through the air.
2. Having fantastic skill position talent helps. If talent and execution are what truly matter when it comes to your offensive philosophy of choice, then it behooves you to inherit pretty good talent to which to distribute the ball, no? Well, assuming 100 percent health, Sumlin and Kingsbury inherit quite a bit. In the backfield, you've got senior Christine Michael, fresh off his annual injury (last year it was a torn ACL; the year before that: a broken leg). Michael was not as consistent of his now-graduated backfield mate, Cyrus Gray, but his potential is off the charts. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns in just 149 carries, and according to his plus-8.0 Adj. POE, he was a little more than a touchdown better than the average FBS back last year, given his carries, blocking and opponents. He will be joined by five-star freshman Trey Williams, a potentially spectacular change-of-pace back who ripped off a 77-yard touchdown run in his first fall scrimmage, along with junior Ben Malena and, perhaps, sophomore Brandon Williams, ANOTHER former five-star back who might or might not be eligible in 2012 after transferring from Oklahoma this offseason. (My guess is that he won't. My guess is also that it might not matter.)
Of course, they're going to chuck the ball around in the Sumlin/Kingsbury Air Raid offense, and in theory, senior Ryan Swope (1,207 yards, 9.4 per target, 70 percent catch rate) and Uzoma Nwachukwu (639 yards, 7.4 per target, 58 percent catch rate) can't catch every single pass. Last year, Case Keenum targeted three players at least 114 times and another three at least 43 times; so who else does A&M have? There is some experience kicking around on the depth chart -- seniors Brandal Jackson and Kenric McNeal and junior Nate Askew combined to catch 22 of 46 passes for 294 yards last year -- but the upside might reside more in the youngsters. Four-star receivers Thomas Johnson and Edward Pope (along with three-star Sabian Holmes) could see the field quickly, and big (6'5) redshirt freshman Mike Evans could quickly become a contributor as a possession man. And if there's a place for tight ends (there really wasn't at Houston), A&M has a couple of interesting ones in junior Nehemiah Hicks and senior Michael Lamothe. The two combined to catch 26 of 32 passes for 215 yards last year.
3. Having one of the best offensive lines in the country also helps. Despite the late-game glitches, the offensive line was as good as advertised in 2011, and it returns four starters and six total players with starting experience (95 career starts). Two-year starting tackles Luke Joeckel (first-team All-Big 12 in 2011) and Jake Matthews (honorable mention) join three-year starting center Patrick Lewis, while guards Cedric Ogbuehi (sophomore), Jarvis Harrison (sophomore) and Shep Klinke (junior) have combined for 14 starts. A&M ranked 10th in Adj. Line Yards and seventh in Adj. Sack Rate, and there is little reason to think that the line won't at least match those stats in 2012.
4. Having a Case Keenum (or a Drew Brees, or a Sam Bradford) helps the most. It bears mentioning, right? The best offenses Sumlin has been associated with have all had incredible college quarterbacks behind center. First, he simply had to coach receivers to catch passes from Drew Brees at Purdue. Then, he was a part of Jason White's coaching staff at Oklahoma. Later, his one year running the show for Sam Bradford got him a head coaching job. Then, in his three years leading Case Keenum, his Cougars went 30-10. The OTHER years on his resume, however, tell a different story. When Keenum got hurt in 2010, his offense still put up decent numbers, but Houston fell to 5-7. In the years between White (24-3 in 2003-04) and Bradford (11-3 in 2007), Oklahoma went a more mortal 19-7 with only a decent offense. And his first tenure as an offensive coordinator, with Dustin Long and Reggie McNeal behind center at Texas A&M, got his head coach fired. Sumlin is clearly a good offensive coach, but whether we want to talk about SEC mystique or not, there are a lot of really good defenses in A&M's new conference, and without a great quarterback it might not matter what else he might have going for him.
Is there a great quarterback on the A&M roster? It's probably doubtful for 2012, but signs are at least somewhat encouraging. On the heels of an incredible first August scrimmage, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel was named Sumlin's starter. Sophomore Jameill Showers began the fall as perhaps the slightest of favorites, but Manziel quickly made a case for himself (going 18-for-22 in a scrimmage will do that), and Sumlin surprised some by not only naming Manziel his No. 1, but by doing it rather quickly.
It is probably fair to say that Manziel (or, potentially, Showers down the line) won't be ready to immediately play at a Breesian/Bradfordian/Whiteian/Keenumian level. But it's worth pointing out that A&M only plays Alabama and LSU once each. With that skill position talent and that line, they should still be able to move the ball quite well against everybody else.
While we've been focusing on the "Will the Air Raid work in the SEC (where it was kind of born)?" question, we have probably been ignoring what might be the chief reason A&M fails to succeed in 2012 (if it indeed fails to succeed in 2012): the defense. Now, it is worth pointing out that the A&M defense suffered a bit from Big12itis last year -- the disease that accompanies even excellent defenses when they allow boatloads of points and yards in the most offense-friendly, fast-paced major conference in the country. The Aggies ranked 59th in total defense, 59th in yards per game allowed, and 109th in PASSING yards per game allowed; but when adjusting for pace and opponent, we see that the Aggies ranked a healthy 23rd in Def. F/+ and 21st in Passing S&P+. That isn't bad. Both the defensive line and secondary have dealt with a solid amount of turnover this offseason, which is never particularly encouraging in a year that finds them moving from the Tim DeRuyter 3-4 back to a 4-3 set. But the baseline is probably a lot higher than a lot of us assume.
It really didn't take DeRuyter very long to craft a set of personnel perfect for his 3-4. Players like Damontre Moore and Sean Porter (combined: 34.5 tackles for loss, 18 sacks, five forced fumbles) could fly off the edge as pass-rushing outside linebackers while the defensive line focused primarily on occupying blockers and opening up attacking lanes. In 2012, A&M defenders must learn (or, in many cases, RE-learn) the fundamentals of defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's 4-3. A Jim Tressel disciple who coached with The Vest at both Youngstown State (1991-96) and Ohio State (2001-04), Snyder spent the last two years piloting a Top 25 defense (according to Def. F/+) at South Florida, one that excelled in run defense thanks to a dynamic set of linebackers.
Snyder's success in 2012 could be dictated by how well last year's attacking stars fit into new roles. In 2012, Moore will be lining up at defensive end, Porter at outside linebacker. They made a full third of A&M's tackles for loss last year, and considering the turnover in personnel, they will have almost no choice but to make a similar number of plays this fall. Moore is joined up front by an interesting set of ends -- senior Spencer Nealy, junior Caleb Russell and sophomore Gavin Stansbury combined for 15.5 tackles for loss last year -- but the most experienced tackle on the two-deep, junior Kirby Ennis, logged just 8.5 tackles, period, in 2011. Senior Jonathan Mathis started three games (and made one tackle) before getting hurt; he returns, but the Aggies will need a decent contribution from youngsters like four-star sophomore Ivan Robinson and redshirt freshman Shayvion Hatten.
A&M's line stats were strong last year (12th in Adj. Line Yards, sixth in Adj. Sack Rate), but in the run-up to the season, the line could be the thinnest, weakest part of the Aggie defense. If the line holds up, however, then the move from the 3-4 should assure A&M of solid linebacker depth. Porter, Jonathan Stewart and Steven Jenkins all return, and quite a bit is expected (eventually) of players like sophomore Donnie Baggs and freshmen Michael Richardson and Jordan Richmond.
The line may get current "thinnest unit" billing, but the secondary will be relying on quite a few youngsters after the departures of safety Trent Hunter and three of last year's top four corners (Terrence Frederick, Lionel Smith, Coryell Judie). Senior corner Dustin Harris (one interception, eight passes broken up, 2.0 tackles for loss) does return, but physical sophomore Deshazor Everett will have to continue his strong spring for the A&M pass defense to thrive. At safety, Howard Matthews, Steven Terrell and Toney Hurd Jr., combined for two picks, a pass broken up and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. There is potential here, but anytime you skim off the top layer of a unit, it is cause for at least a little concern.
As mentioned above, expectations are not as high this year as they often are in Aggieland. And even if A&M is as good as I think they can be (top 15-caliber, potentially), well, they play four other top 15 teams (three at home), and following an absolutely enormous visit from LSU on Oct. 20, they do get three straight road games before finishing up with Missouri, a team that has beaten the Aggies in two straight trips to College Station. So it's probably smart to hedge my bets and set the bar at a conservative seven or eight wins, even though I think a 10-win season is conceivable.
Every year, by mid-October, we reflect on the exploits of some unexpectedly hot, highly-rated team, and we realize we should have seen their rise coming. Last year, it was, to some degree, Clemson (who faded) and LSU (who did not). In 2010, it was perhaps Oregon. I'm not saying Texas A&M will be that team in 2012, but if you're looking for a darkhorse, they are a pretty good one.
Now, the reasons they are a darkhorse instead of an outright favorite are obvious. No matter how they looked on paper, they did only go 7-6 last year. Besides, a green quarterback and a thin defensive line are not exactly assets in the SEC West. But we should be able to tell quickly whether this team is top 15-20 caliber, or simply top 35-40. Florida, Arkansas and LSU must all visit College Station, and trips to Louisiana Tech (in Shreveport), SMU, Ole Miss, Auburn and Mississippi State are all winnable for a top-15 team. Of course, on the flipside, if this is only a top 35-40 team in Sumlin's first season, then a 3-6 start is as likely as 9-0.
Just keep an eye on the Aggies, is all I'm saying. For all I know, they'll lose to Louisiana Tech on the first Thursday of the season, and you can forget I said any of this.
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