2011 Season Preview: The Texas A&M Aggies And Too Much, Too Soon

Texas A&M took a nice step forward in 2010, but was it enough of a leap to justify a preseason Top Ten ranking? Probably not.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

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.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 24
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Stephen F. Austin
48-7 W 25.7 - 15.8 W
11-Sep Louisiana Tech 48-16 W 33.5 - 15.3 W
18-Sep Florida International 27-20 W 25.5 - 6.8 W
30-Sep at Oklahoma State 35-38 L 32.3 - 27.2 W
9-Oct vs Arkansas 17-24 L 20.3 - 21.0 L
16-Oct Missouri 9-30 L 26.5 - 31.5 L
23-Oct at Kansas 45-10 W 32.8 - 18.6 W
30-Oct Texas Tech 45-27 W 37.6 - 27.7 W
6-Nov Oklahoma 33-19 W 30.7 - 16.4 W
13-Nov at Baylor 42-30 W 29.8 - 28.8 W
20-Nov Nebraska 9-6 W 24.5 - 4.8 W
25-Nov at Texas 24-17 W 30.8 - 17.1 W
7-Jan vs LSU 24-41 L 39.2 - 31.7 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 31.2 34 21.9 34
Adj. Points Per Game 29.9 40 20.2 12

Part of the rationale behind using recent history (basically a weighted version of Four-Year F/+ History) in our Football Outsiders Almanac projections is that teams don't change overnight.  Change is gradual, and the best way to predict future results is to look at recent results.

However, it is easy to assume overnight change when it comes to Texas A&M in 2010.  The Aggies were limping around at 3-3, and Mike Sherman's time in College Station looked like it might be coming to an end.  Then, they changed quarterbacks from Jerrod Johnson to Ryan Tannehill, and ... voila!  Top 10 team!  A&M beat six opponents (including Oklahoma and Nebraska) in a row, rolled to nine wins and wrapped up This Year's Nebraska status.

Here again is where an opponent-adjusted measure like Adj. Points can tell us a bit more than pure wins and losses do.

QB Games Adj. PPG Adj. PPG
Allowed
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Jerrod Johnson 6 27.3 19.6 +7.7
Ryan Tannehill 7 32.2 20.7 +11.5

Part of the reason A&M was a measly 3-3 after six games is because they played three F/+ Top 16 teams (No. 7 Arkansas, No. 14 Oklahoma State, No. 16 Missouri) over the course of 17 days.  With Tannehill at quarterback all season, they still probably would have been around 3-3 or, more likely, 4-2 after six games.  A&M was absolutely better with Tannehill behind center, but we're probably overstating things a bit.  A scoring margin of +7.7 Adj. PPG over the course of a full season would get you ranked somewhere around 29th; a scoring margin of +11.5 would get you ranked around 18th.  A&M went from a solid team to a good one, but they did not turn into a Top 10 team down the stretch.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 32 24 39
RUSHING 28 20 44 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 36 30 42 54
Standard Downs 26 21 33 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 43 23 58 66
Redzone 71 81 58
Q1 Rk 36 1st Down Rk 42
Q2 Rk 46 2nd Down Rk 28
Q3 Rk 26 3rd Down Rk 25
Q4 Rk 24

Oklahoma may be the standard bearer in terms of pace, but Texas A&M wasn't that far behind, playing at the fifth-highest tempo in the land and, despite Cyrus Gray (1,133 yards, 5.7 per carry, +17.8 Adj. POE, 12 TD) catching fire at times, playing almost as pass-heavy as conference mates Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Missouri.  They passed to set up the run, and they were efficient at both.

'Efficiency' is the key word there.  Both Gray and receiver Jeff Fuller (1,066 yards, 14.8 per catch, 63% catch rate, 12 TD) had some nice explosiveness, but efficiency was what made A&M's engine run when it was running.  They attempted to wear defenses out by moving the chains and quickly lining up to do it again, and in seeing that their third- and fourth-quarter offensive numbers were better than their first and second, you have to figure it worked.

By all means, the efficiency should be there again in 2011.  Never mind Gray and Fuller -- Ryan Swope (825 yards, 11.5 per catch, 70% catch rate) was almost as important in his ability to catch quick passes and move the chains.  He averaged 8.0 yards per target to Fuller's 9.3, and when he was involved, A&M was devastating.  And he was arguably even more important than Fuller to A&M's late success.  Fuller went nuts against Kansas and Texas Tech (16 catches, 292 yards, four touchdowns), but over the last four regular season games (including those against Oklahoma and Nebraska), he caught a total of just 10 passes for 125 yards.  Swope in that span: 18 catches, 261 yards.  Defenses that choose to key on Fuller will pay.

The other interesting aspect of A&M's high-efficiency machine is how much they incorporate flares to the running backs.  Gray, a pre-injury Christine Michael, and Bradley Stephens combined for 53 catches and 496 yards.  "The running back" was a far more important piece of the A&M passing game than Uzoma Nwachukwu or any of the other receivers beyond Fuller and Swope.

Other tidbits:

  • Those buying the A&M hype have another fun, legitimate piece of information to throw at you: not only does A&M return four starters on the offensive line, but two of those starters -- Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel -- were true freshmen last year.  Tannehill justifiably gets a lot of the credit for helping to turn the offense around, but let's not understate the impact that pure experience had on the line.  At the start of the year, they were one of the greenest lines in the country.
  • I should probably touch on Christine Michael a bit here too.  He and Gray both got a lot of work in the eight games in which Michael was healthy, but Michael a) saw a little more of the feature carries, and b) wasn't nearly as effective.  Gray beat him by a bit in terms of yards per carry (5.7 to 5.0) but in terms of both Adj. POE (+17.8 to -0.7) and Highlight Yards per carry (2.43 to 1.60), Gray was the much more impressive back.  Michael is good, but in a lot of ways he is like former A&M back Michael Goodson in that a lot of his speed and athleticism doesn't seem to translate to a specific position.  Gray is probably not as fast, but he's a running back.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 15 15 18
RUSHING 14 16 18 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 23 19 30 10
Standard Downs 14 7 23 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 13 23 10 63
Redzone 6 12 6
Q1 Rk 17 1st Down Rk 12
Q2 Rk 25 2nd Down Rk 35
Q3 Rk 29 3rd Down Rk 11
Q4 Rk 11

To say the least, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's first season implementing the 3-4 in College Station went well.  The Aggies' defense improved from 82nd to 19th in overall Def. F/+, from 59th to 15th in Def. S&P+, from 67th to 15th in Def. Success Rate+, from 83rd to 14th in Rushing S&P+, from 50th to 23rd in Passing S&P+, from 88th to 14th on standard downs, and from 44th to 13th on passing downs.  A&M was completely incapable of leveraging teams into passing downs before DeRuyter, but the changes came rather quickly.  Typically after single-season improvement of this nature, the goal is maintenance instead of further improvement, and the loss of all-world and perfect-for-the-3-4 OLB/DE hybrid Von Miller (17.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 6 PBU) should further make that the goal.  (If you're looking for another similarity between A&M and last year's Nebraska team, the Huskers were also expected to make further significant improvement on defense despite the loss of a Top 5 draft pick; Miller was not as truly transcendent in his position as Suh -- to be that, he'd have needed to rack up about 35 TFL -- but similarities are similarities.)

Looking at their game-to-game progression above, it seems that A&M's defense was very matchup-based.  The 3-4 completely confounded some schools (Oklahoma, Nebraska, Florida International) but got pushed around by others (Missouri, Baylor, LSU); as Big 12 schools get more used to their tendencies, they will become less vulnerable to the unfamiliarity the scheme had in 2010, but as long as the Aggies keep upgrading their own level of talent and experience, they can cope.

The 3-4 defense is fun because even bad versions of the defense rack up huge TFL numbers and big plays, and ... A&M was not a bad version.  Miller's 17.5 TFL/sacks led the way, but eight players had at least 5.0, and five return in 2011 -- tackle Eddie Brown (5.0 TFL/sacks), likely Miller replacement Damontre Moore (6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF as a freshman), outside linebacker Sean Porter (54.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU), inside man Garrick Williams (83.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) and cornerback Terrence Frederick (8.0 TFL/sacks, 9 PBU). There are some exciting playmakers here, and DeRuyter proved last year that he will use them all.

Other tidbits:

  • The work on the line was particularly impressive.  It's easy to perceive the 3-4 as an undersized defense since you're sacrificing a lineman for an extra linebacker, and it's easy to then assume that maybe the defense isn't built to stuff the run ... but the run game was where A&M saw the biggest improvement last fall.  The tackle position is the most questionable in moving from four down linemen to three (are the tackles big enough to occupy more blockers), but Brown and Jonathan Mathis held up beautifully, and end Tony Jerod-Eddie wasn't so bad himself.  When your line is holding up, that's when you can truly unfurl the 3-4 in all of its attacking glory, and A&M's line held up.
  • Virtually the entire secondary returns in 2011.  A&M was perhaps not quite as good at getting to the quarterback as one would expect, and as a result, their pass defense fell behind their run defense a bit (they did, however, still remain in the Top 25 in the category); but the depth and experience here could help them improve a bit.  Frederick is particularly impressive, though cornerbacks Dustin Harris (4 INT, 9 PBU) and Coryell Judie (2.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 4 PBU) had plenty of shining moments too.  The Aggies need to cut down on the big plays a bit, but it's all relative -- this was still a stellar unit.

Texas A&M's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Elevate Me Later" from Pavement? So many fortresses and ways to attack!

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 56
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 20
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -5 / +1
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 17 (9, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.5

As mentioned up top, there is a lot to like about Texas A&M, and they should be in position to maintain 2010's gains, but taking a third straight large step forward is rare.  The Aggies benefited from quite a bit of fumble luck and a somewhat unsustainable YPP margin, but maintenance should not be an issue with the outstanding level of experience and solid talent base.

So basically, we're talking about degrees here.  Is A&M going to be good?  Absolutely.  Just probably not "Top Five" or "Top Ten" good.  And expecting that level of play from a group whose four-year F/+ rank is 56th (behind programs like Wake Forest, Rutgers and N.C. State) is a bit unfair.  A&M has made significant strides since the incredible lows of Mike Sherman's first year (2008), but they most likely aren't an elite team just yet, nor did they play like it even late last fall.

I will say this, however: as overrated as they will likely be in the preseason polls, they will likely be just as underrated in our Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections. They will be expected to regress partially back toward their four-year rank, and maybe that's what will happen, but the gains that the numbers will see as unsustainable could hold steady a bit.  The offense really did improve by about five (schedule-adjusted) points with Tannehill at quarterback, and obviously certain gains for which DeRuyter was responsible are not flukes.  The projections will likely have A&M in the No. 25-30 range when they have probably earned 10-20.

We should probably know what we're dealing with by the second week in October here.  After warmups against SMU (a tricky but extremely beatable team) and Idaho, A&M faces another brutal early stretch: Oklahoma State, Arkansas at Jerry World, and Texas Tech in Lubbock.  If they're 5-0 after that, then they are indeed set up for an elite-level run.  But they'll most likely be somewhere closer to 3-2 or 4-1 and hoping to position themselves for second or third in the conference.  Those who remember the still-recent lows of 2008 should remain very impressed by that; those expecting darkhorse national title contention will find that disappointing.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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