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SEC Season Preview: Texas A&M

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Texas A&M Aggies.

Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin – sixth year at Texas A&M; 10th year overall (79-38 overall, 21-19 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Noel Mazzone (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: John Chavis (third season)

2016 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC); lost to Kansas State in Texas Bowl

Returning Starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 3 – at UCLA (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
Sept. 9 – NICHOLLS (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 16 – LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Sept. 23 – vs. Arkansas (Arlington)
Sept. 30 – SOUTH CAROLINA

Oct. 7 – ALABAMA
Oct. 14 – at Florida
Oct. 28 – MISSISSIPPI STATE

Nov. 4 – AUBURN
Nov. 11 – NEW MEXICO

Nov. 18 – at Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at LSU

What We Know

-The defense now has a floor. After two miserable seasons in 2013 and 2014, third-year coordinator John Chavis has brought some stability to the Texas A&M defense. The run defense was slightly better last year than in 2015 and the pass defense slightly worse, but overall, the two Chavis defenses were quite similar. There are too many questions in the front seven for this group to slip below the 20 points per game or 5.0 yards per play marks, but Chavis will ensure at least an average defense.

-The Aggies still have the most exciting player in the conference. Junior wide receiver Christian Kirk can do it all, leading the team with 83 receptions last season and scoring 12 total touchdowns. There will be much more attention on him this year with no other receiver with more than 100 yards in 2016 returning, but Kirk isn’t going to be shut down by any defense. He did average just 11.2 yards per reception last season, which was somewhat disappointing. With primary big-play threat Josh Reynolds off to the NFL, Kirk getting closer to 15 yards per reception is imperative for this offense to work.

-The secondary should be strong. Cornerback Nick Harvey’s season-ending injury this summer stings, but there are three senior starters back in cornerbacks Donovan Wilson and Priest Willis and standout safety Armani Watts. There were too many busted coverages last season, but that should go down this fall with a ton of experience and the safety net that will need to be deployed without the pass rush of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.

What We Don’t Know

-Who in the heck is the quarterback? The favorite is redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, but early-enrolling true freshman Kellen Mond, who played that season at national power IMG Academy, and veteran Jake Hubenak are also in the mix. First-year starters have been no problem for Aggies offenses in the past, with both Johnny Manziel and (briefly) Kenny Hill getting off to fast starts as redshirt freshmen. Starkel doesn’t wow you with any particular skill, but he throws a nice ball and displayed good pocket presence in the spring. This has a similar to feel to 2015, when redshirt freshman pocket passer Kyle Allen held off a more mobile true freshman in Kyler Murray. Unlike 2015, don’t expect both Starkel and Mond to transfer after the season.

-What do the Aggies have behind Kirk? Not only is Reynolds gone, but rangy Ricky Seals-Jones and headcase but appropriately-named Speedy Noil have moved on. Junior college transfer Damion Ratley did virtually nothing last year, but could be the latest example of a JUCO player who arrives with a lot of hype but needs a year of grooming before taking off. If a newcomer emerges as Kirk’s top complement, it’ll likely be true freshman Jhamon Ausbon, who, at 220 pounds, has the physicality to play right away

-Can the Aggies find a pass rush? Garrett and Hall combined for 32.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and now Texas A&M is left with two major holes to fill on the outside. Seniors Jarrett Johnson and Qualen Cunningham are capable players, but a major step down from their predecessors. Can junior college transfer Michael Clemons be an immediate impact player? That’s a big ask. Fortunately, the tackle rotation appears strong with Zaycoven Henderson, Kingsley Keke and Daylon Mack. 

X-Factor

RB Trayveon Williams – We haven’t even mentioned what might be the strongest unit on the entire team. As a true freshman, Williams tailed off late in the season (as is Texas A&M tradition), but he was fantastic in the first half of the season with 100-yard games against Auburn and Arkansas and a 200-yard game against Tennessee. If the Aggies can get a full season from the Williams of the first half of 2016, then this offense becomes the scary unit it has been only at times over the past three years.

Ranking The Units

1.   Defensive Backs
2.   Running Backs
3.   Offensive Line
4.   Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
5.   Linebackers
6.   Defensive Line
7.   Quarterbacks

Season Prediction

With Sumlin squarely on the hot seat, eight wins is probably needed for him to get a seventh season, and at least three of those will have to come in the five games after the bye week given the team’s post-bye week struggles over the past four years. I expect a balanced team with a slightly above-average offense and a slightly above-average defense. That likely leads to a 7-5 season, which probably won’t be enough for Sumlin to survive.

Overall Record: 7-5
SEC Record: 3-5
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Independence Bowl vs. Pittsburgh

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.