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1. Nailed it (sort of)
From last year's Texas A&M preview:
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. […]
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.
For the second straight season, Texas A&M managed to prove me both wrong and right at the same time. I drank the Aggie Kool-Aid and told everybody I knew that I was pretty sure the A&M would be pretty damn strong in 2012. (Pardon me while I pat myself on the back.)
But I thought the Aggies were going to do so despite some glitches at the quarterback position. I also didn't think they were going to be a top-five team. Like everybody else, I didn't even think Johnny Manziel would be the starter in 2012, and I honestly questioned new head coach Kevin Sumlin a bit when he took the chance on the redshirt freshman.
Searched for "Johnny Manziel celebrate" on the SBN photo tool for tomorrow's A&M preview. It got 75 results. That … makes sense.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) June 2, 2013
Texas A&M caught lightning in a bottle in 2012. As I wrote when the Aggies beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa for their eighth of 11 wins, Aggie Confidence was finally justified by reality. But now comes the hard part.
SEC defensive coordinators have had time to prepare for Manziel. Manziel's blind side will no longer be protected by an Outland winner (at least, last year's Outland winner), and he will be throwing to an almost entirely new receiving corps. The front seven of a defense that was good but flawed has to be rebuilt. Johnny Manziel has gone from scrappy hero to scourge of uptight columnists. And perhaps most importantly, nobody's getting caught by surprise this time around.
Proclaiming A&M a top-15 team a year ago got a pretty condescending, "Yeah, okay" response. This time around, proclaiming the Aggies only top-15 would be predicting disappointment. The game has changed; is A&M ready?
2. A&M was lucky … and unlucky
There were some losses along the way, but for the most part Texas A&M had some very good injury luck in 2012. Their College Injury Report page from last year is strangely small. The same five offensive linemen started every game. Running back Christine Michael wasn't lost for the season for the first time in three years. The starting front seven on defense missed a combined two games.
I mean, this is almost Oklahoma-in-2000 (when the Sooners lost no starts to injuries all season) stuff. It's worth noting, then, that OU quarterback Jason White went down in 2001, and basically every national title contender in Norman since then has had to deal with a devastating injury at a key time, be it to Jason White or Demarco Murray or Sam Bradford. One can never predict injuries, but let's just say that the Aggies had a pretty blessed run in this regard.
On the flipside, however, the Aggies were also unlucky for the second straight year when it comes to turnovers luck. They recovered only 42 percent of fumbles and only picked off 12 of 82 defensed passes (15 percent, well below the national average of 21 percent), giving them negative turnovers luck of about 3.3 points per game, ninth-worst in the country.
Ten most unlucky teams in college football in 2012 (according to turnovers luck):
124. New Mexico State (minus-6.2 points per game)
123. Virginia (minus-4.6)
122. UConn (minus-4.5)
121. Illinois (minus-4.3)
120. Boston College (minus-4.1)
119. Hawaii (minus-4.1)
118. Vanderbilt (minus-3.6)
117. Texas Tech (minus-3.5)
116. Texas A&M (minus-3.3)
115. Southern Miss (minus-3.3)
Considering their only two losses came by a combined eight points, this could have made a significant difference. The Aggies were good enough to overcome this for the most part, but against LSU, they were 0-for-2 on fumbles, and LSU picked off three of its nine defensed passes in a 24-19 LSU win. Split the turnovers luck against the Tigers, and A&M is in the SEC title game and, potentially, the BCS title game.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk: 3|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|8-Sep||Florida||17-20||L||34.7 - 27.7||W|
|15-Sep||SMU||48-3||W||37.6 - 16.6||W|
|22-Sep||S.C. State||70-14||W||27.8 - 21.4||W|
|29-Sep||vs. Arkansas||58-10||W||54.1 - 21.7||W|
|6-Oct||at Ole Miss||30-27||W||39.4 - 26.7||W|
|13-Oct||at Louisiana Tech||59-57||W||34.9 - 25.7||W|
|20-Oct||LSU||19-24||L||27.7 - 17.7||W|
|27-Oct||at Auburn||63-21||W||47.9 - 36.2||W|
|3-Nov||at Mississippi State||38-13||W||43.8 - 27.2||W|
|10-Nov||at Alabama||29-24||W||48.2 - 24.6||W|
|17-Nov||Sam Houston State||47-28||W||43.3 - 25.8||W|
|24-Nov||Missouri||59-29||W||41.0 - 38.8||W|
|4-Jan||vs. Oklahoma||41-13||W||43.0 - 23.8||W|
|Points Per Game||44.8||4||22.5||28|
|Adj. Points Per Game||40.2||3||25.6||43|
3. Cotton Bowl as microcosm
For most of the first half of the Cotton Bowl, Oklahoma played Texas A&M exactly as you should. The Sooners kept A&M's offense off the field with long drives (their first two drives of the game went for 34 plays and 13 minutes), they forced a turnover in the red zone (Javon Harris picked off Manziel), and midway through the second quarter, the Aggies had only seven points. The problem, of course, was that OU had only six after settling for field goals on the two long drives.
And like so many other teams in 2012, the Sooners could only contain the Aggies for so long. In the span of seven possessions, A&M scored five touchdowns, gained 394 yards, and turned a 7-6 game into a 41-13 laugher. Contained for a while, A&M still finished the game averaging a ridiculous 9.6 yards per play and gaining 633 yards. A lot of teams had success against the Aggies over a two-, three- or four-possession span; only a couple (Florida and LSU) could do more than that.
|Q1 Rk||8||1st Down Rk||8|
|Q2 Rk||1||2nd Down Rk||15|
|Q3 Rk||6||3rd Down Rk||1|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Johnny Manziel||6'1, 200||So.||*** (5.7)||295||434||3,706||68.0%||26||9||22||4.8%||7.8|
|Matt Joeckel||6'4, 234||Jr.||*** (5.7)||5||11||42||45.5%||0||0||0||0.0%||3.8|
|Matt Davis||6'2, 206||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Kenny Hill||6'1, 205||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Kohl Stewart||6'3, 185||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
4. It's the passing downs that kill you
A&M didn't have to unleash the crazy, wild version of Johnny Manziel that frequently. The Aggies were 10th in the country on standard downs, mainly throwing short passes to Mike Evans and Ryan Swope, mixing in some carries by Ben Malena and Christine Michael, and moving the ball with strong efficiency.
Strangely, it was when they fell behind schedule that the Aggies became truly dangerous. On second- or third-and-long, it was pretty much Johnny-go-make-a-play time, and Johnny made plays. Manziel's eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head routine, his strangely innate ability to escape a collapsing pocket at the last possible instant and suddenly find himself in the open field with all sorts of run-or-pass options was downright confusing to watch. "How did he know to escape backwards and to the left?? Surely he won't be able to do that again ... that doesn't make any sense." But he did it all year, and A&M had the best passing-downs offense in the country in 2012.
It shouldn't surprise you to learn that passing-downs success is tied rather closely to quarterback play; this means very good things for A&M in 2013, obviously, but with Alabama, LSU, and five other SEC defenses that have now faced Manziel on the schedule, it will be interesting to see what adjustments opponents make.
|Johnny Manziel||QB||6'1, 200||So.||*** (5.7)||162||1,310||8.1||8.2||21||+49.6|
|Ben Malena||RB||5'8, 195||Sr.||**** (5.8)||130||752||5.8||5.4||8||+15.8|
|Trey Williams||RB||5'8, 185||So.||***** (6.1)||59||335||5.7||4.9||5||+4.3|
|Brice Dolezal||RB||5'9, 170||So.||NR||17||70||4.1||1.5||0||-1.0|
|RB||6'0, 192||So.||***** (6.1)||46||219||4.8||N/A||0||N/A|
|RB||6'0, 227||So.||*** (5.6)||45||252||5.6||N/A||1||N/A|
|Mike Evans||WR||6'5, 225||So.||*** (5.5)||121||82||1105||67.8%||9.1||25.5%||67.8%||9.1||144.3|
|Malcome Kennedy||WR||6'0, 200||Jr.||*** (5.6)||36||26||285||72.2%||7.9||7.6%||66.7%||8.2||37.2|
|Ben Malena||RB||5'8, 195||Sr.||**** (5.8)||28||18||111||64.3%||4.0||5.9%||71.4%||4.2||14.5|
|Trey Williams||RB||5'8, 185||So.||***** (6.1)||14||12||171||85.7%||12.2||3.0%||57.1%||11.7||22.3|
|Sabian Holmes||WR||5'11, 175||So.||*** (5.5)||9||6||48||66.7%||5.3||1.9%||66.7%||5.6||6.3|
|Derel Walker||WR||6'2, 185||Sr.||*** (5.7)||9||8||85||88.9%||10.0||1.9%||44.4%||11.1||10.4|
|Nehemiah Hicks||TE||6'4, 250||Sr.||*** (5.6)||8||7||60||87.5%||7.5||1.7%||87.5%||8.3||7.8|
|Edward Pope||WR||6'4, 170||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Boone Niederhofer||WR||6'0, 180||RSFr.||NR|
|Cameron Clear||TE||6'6, 270||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Ricky Seals-Jones||WR||6'5, 220||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Ja'Quay Williams||WR||6'3, 210||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Laquvionte Gonzalez||WR||5'10, 148||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Sebastian Larue||WR||5'10, 175||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Kyrion Parker||WR||6'3, 185||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Bring on the reinforcements
On most teams, Mike Evans would have been a major story; he succeeded at a rather high level as a redshirt freshman despite only marginally decent recruiting rankings. But Manziel one-upped him, the jerk. Evans returns for what should be another prolific season, but most of the rest of the receiving corps will be brand new. Four of last year's top six receivers are gone, including Ryan Swope; in all, Manziel will have to replace 45 percent of his targets. This is not insignificant.
That said, it's impossible not to be a little bit excited about the youngsters entering the rotation this year. Five four-star freshmen, from big Ricky Seals-Jones to tiny Laquvionte Gonzalez, will vie for immediate playing time against four-star redshirt freshman Edward Pope and sophomores Evans and Sabian Holmes. The upside here is huge, but the experience is minimal. How long will it take some of the four-star prospects to play like four-star college football players?
Meanwhile, at running back, A&M will boast two five-star backups. Ben Malena did a lovely job last year, but Trey Williams and Brandon Williams saw all sorts of hype as high schoolers. Neither really did anything to match the hype as freshmen, but between those two and Tra Carson, you have to figure one will at least match the numbers Michael posted in 2012.
|Luke Joeckel||LT||39 career starts; 2012 1st All-SEC; 2012 Outland Trophy|
|Jake Matthews||LT||6'5, 305||Sr.||**** (6.0)||33 career starts; 2012 1st All-SEC|
|Patrick Lewis||C||48 career starts|
|Cedric Ogbuehi||RG||6'5, 300||Jr.||**** (5.9)||19 career starts|
|Jarvis Harrison||LG||6'4, 320||Jr.||** (5.2)||17 career starts|
|Shep Klinke||LG||6'7, 305||Sr.||**** (5.8)|
|Ben Compton||RG||6'4, 307||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Mike Matthews||C||6'3, 280||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Joseph Cheek||RT||6'7, 300||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Germain Ifedi||RG||6'5, 320||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Garrett Gramling||C||6'6, 309||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jeremiah Stuckey||LT||6'4, 285||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Ishmael Wilson||OL||6'5, 275||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
6. Replacing Joeckel
The stats don't quite back this up, but the eyeball test told me last year that A&M was the only team that could even threaten Alabama's Best Offensive Line in College Football title; the sack numbers were iffy, but that comes with the territory when you're attempting to protect the watterbuggiest waterbug quarterback of all time.
A&M was devastating in run-blocking, with three-year starters Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews on the edges and four-year starting center Patrick Lewis in the middle. Joeckel, the Outland winner and No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft is gone, and obviously Lewis is, too (it's hard to become a five-year starter). But between Jake Matthews (who surprised many, including me, in returning to school), some experienced guards and four-star youngsters like Mike "Yes, Another Damn Matthews" Matthews, the Aggies should easily field another good line. It won't be as good as last year's, but it will suffice.
Jake Matthews. Brett Davis, USA Today.
|Q1 Rk||5||1st Down Rk||52|
|Q2 Rk||22||2nd Down Rk||35|
|Q3 Rk||46||3rd Down Rk||14|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Julien Obioha||DE||6'4, 255||So.||*** (5.6)||12||19.0||2.6%||1.5||1||0||6||1||0|
|Kirby Ennis||NG||6'4, 300||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||15.5||2.1%||2||1||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Alexander (2011)||DE||6'6, 255||So.||*** (5.7)||4||8.0||1.0%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Gavin Stansbury||DE||6'4, 270||Jr.||*** (5.5)||11||7.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ivan Robinson||DT||6'3, 270||Jr.||**** (5.8)||10||4.0||0.5%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Alonzo Williams||DE||6'4, 280||So.||*** (5.6)||7||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Isaiah Golden||DT||6'2, 295||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Justin Manning||DT||6'2, 275||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Hardreck Walker||DT||6'2, 280||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Daeshon Hall||DE||6'6, 240||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
7. A gaping hole at defensive tackle
A&M signed three four-star tackles in last year's stellar recruiting class. The odds are good that at least one of them will become a stalwart up front.
But at least one will probably need to play at a high level immediately following the losses of Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis. Nealy was an occasional wrecking ball in the middle, racking up more tackles for loss than the rest of the line combined. In Jim Tressel disciple Mark Snyder's hybrid 3-4 defense (where the rush/OLB spends quite a bit of time with his hand on the ground), the three designated linemen aren't asked to make a lot of plays, just occupy blockers and bat down passes. But Nealy was a disruptive force and will be missed.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Steven Jenkins||WLB||6'2, 220||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||57.0||7.8%||5.5||2||1||2||2||0|
|Donnie Baggs||MLB||6'1, 230||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||22.0||3.0%||4.5||1.5||1||2||0||0|
|Justin Bass||MLB||6'2, 217||Jr.||NR||12||8.0||1.1%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Michael Richardson||LB||6'2, 230||So.||*** (5.7)||9||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Shaun Ward||MLB||6'2, 244||Jr.||*** (5.7)||8||5.0||0.7%||1||1||0||1||0||0|
|Tyrell Taylor||RUSH||6'4, 230||Jr.||** (5.4)||11||4.0||0.5%||1.5||1||0||1||0||0|
|Nate Askew||SLB||6'4, 225||Sr.||*** (5.7)|
|Cody Johnson||WLB||6'1, 220||So.||NR|
|Tyrone Taylor||RUSH||6'3, 240||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Tommy Sanders||SLB||6'2, 215||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Brett Wade||WLB||6'1, 225||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Reggie Chevis||MLB||6'1, 250||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
8. Wanted: LB Depth
Take a look at A&M's spring two-deep (pdf). Six of the eight spots are filled by players who didn't make a tackle last year; three are newcomers (including two projected starters), and one is a former wide receiver. Now, the list doesn't include Steven Jenkins, who missed the spring with a torn labrum. Jenkins was a steadying force last year along side more aggressive players like Damontre Moore and Sean Porter. But Jenkins and Donnie Baggs are the only players who logged any serious playing time last year. The rest of this unit is as untested as untested can be.
If you're looking to win nine or 10 games, you can figure out a way to avoid catastrophe in the front seven when you've got a fantastic offense. But if you're looking to win a national title, you probably can't. This front seven has to be at least competent, and while there's no evidence that it won't be, it's still a question mark until it proves itself.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Toney Hurd, Jr.||BS||5'9, 180||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||54.0||7.4%||4||0||1||1||0||1|
|Howard Matthews||BS||6'2, 200||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||46.0||6.3%||1||0||0||6||0||0|
|Deshazor Everett||CB||6'0, 185||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||43.5||5.9%||3||0||2||7||0||0|
|De'Vante Harris||CB||5'10, 175||So.||**** (5.9)||12||25.5||3.5%||2.5||0||1||3||1||0|
|Tramain Jacobs||CB||6'1, 190||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||19.0||2.6%||1||0||1||3||0||1|
|Floyd Raven, Sr.||FS||6'2, 190||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||14.5||2.0%||2.5||1||1||1||0||0|
|Sam Moeller||FS||5'11, 186||So.||NR||5||9.5||1.3%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Johntel Franklin||BS||6'2, 200||Sr.||*** (5.5)||11||7.0||1.0%||0.5||0||0||2||0||0|
|Clay Honeycutt||FS||6'2, 200||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Kameron Miles||DB||6'2, 200||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Alex Sezer, Jr.||CB||5'9, 180||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Noel Ellis||DB||5'10, 170||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Tavares Garner||DB||6'0, 170||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Taylor Bertolet||5'9, 174||So.||130||63.1||65||50.0%|
|Taylor Bertolet||5'9, 174||So.||67-74||9-15||60.0%||4-7||57.1%|
|Josh Lambo||6'0, 215||So.||2-2||0-0||N/A||0-0||N/A|
|Trey Williams||KR||5'8, 185||So.||25||22.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||89|
|Field Goal Pct||105|
|Kick Returns Avg||87|
|Punt Returns Avg||15|
9. Just think of the points A&M could have averaged…
…if it had a reliable place-kicker. Taylor Bertolet missed seven PATs and six field goals of under 40 yards last year as a freshman. He missed two fourth-quarter field goals against LSU (granted, one was from 52, but the other was from 33), and generally speaking, he looked like a freshman. He was a hell of a weapon on kickoffs (clearly he's got a cannon), but he cannot give away free points this year.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|7-Sep||Sam Houston State||NR|
|12-Oct||at Ole Miss||29|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||25|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||11|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-5 / +9.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||10 (6, 4)|
10. The world stops at 2:30 p.m. CT on September 14
Aside from the LSU game, the Aggies' 2012 season was one for the ages; considering the circumstances (i.e. the move to the SEC), it may have been the best season in College Station since the national title run of 1939. It saw the Aggies' first Heisman campaign since 1957, their first top-five finish since 1956, and their first road win ever over a No. 1 team.
Only an SEC and/or national title run will top last year's (mostly) unexpected success, and Texas A&M's schedule is rather ridiculously well set up for a run at the top five in the polls. The Aggies face just four road games (seriously, schedules with eight home games are just obnoxious) and only one against a team projected higher than 29th. They get Alabama at home and don't host another opponent projected better than 49th.
I don't think A&M will be as good as it was last year -- injuries could be a problem this time around, both lines will regress at least a bit, the receivers and linebackers are terribly green, and we haven't even mentioned the fact that 2012 offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury is now the head coach at Texas Tech -- but it might not need to be. Just beat Alabama on September 14, and it will take a pretty decent-sized upset to knock you out of the BCS top two before the late-November trip to LSU. And hell, even if you lose to Alabama, you're still potentially in decent shape for a title run. This doesn't feel like a title-caliber team to me this year, but that might not matter.
I can't wait to see how A&M proves me both right and wrong this year.
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