Kyle Field was ROCKING! The 12th Man was loud and proud as the Aggies played their inaugural SEC Conference game – and first game of the 2012 season. (The scheduled season opener against Louisiana Tech was postponed until October courtesy Hurricane Isaac.) Finally, A&M was out from beneath the shadow of those hated Longhorns.
A redshirt freshman was starting at quarterback as new head coach Kevin Sumlin was making his debut in College Station after leading UofH to a perfect regular season – losing the Conference USA title game to Southern Miss in his final game coaching the Cougars – and everyone was confident Sumlin would solve the ills of the Mike Sherman era.
A&M was hosting the Florida Gators, a team that finished 7-6 in Will Muschamp’s debut season the year before. Under the former UT defensive coordinator the Gators played solid defense in 2011 – finishing 25th nationally – but did little offensively. The Aggies showed flashes in ’11 under Sherman – their final in the Big 12 – but couldn’t finish games off and also went 7-6 and even worse losing the final encounter (for now) against UT 27-25 on a Longhorn 27 yard field goal as time expired in College Station. Time – and the 12th man’s patience also expired on Sherman.
So on a “chamber of commerce” day of September 8, 2011 everything seemed right for A&M. New conference – the best in college football (Maybe a “homer” take, but as the saying goes, “it ain’t bragging if it’s true.”), new coach, and if memory serves ESPN’s Game Day on campus and Paul Gallant’s love interest –
Samantha Steele, now Ponder, in town. An unheralded three-star recruit named Johnny Manziel led the Aggies to a 17-10 half-time lead over the 24th ranked Gators. It was immediately obvious why the QB quickly earned the nickname “Johnny Football” going 5-6 for 53 yards passing as he escaped Gator blitzes by improvising outside the pocked. JFF ran nine times in the first half for 41 yards including a pair of scrambles for first downs.
At the half, the Gators adjusted and stop blitzing, preferring to let Manziel beat them from the pocket. It didn’t happen. After averaging 5.8 yards per play in the first half the Aggies managed just 2.8 yard per play after the break, Florida rallied for a 20-17 win.
However, the game wasn’t an indication of things to come. While the Aggie defense held the Gators to just 300 yards of offense in the loss that was a mirage. The Aggie D finished 8th in the SEC in total defense. Offensive struggles were also a mirage as Manziel won the Heisman leading the offense to almost 45 points a game, 550 yards a game and an 11-2 season capped by a 41-13 shellacking of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Last season Manziel’s stats improved as the Sumlin offense racked up 44.2 points a game and 538 yards, but the defense dropped to last in the conference giving up just short of 500 yards and 32 points a game. A season that started with title aspirations finished at 9-4 with a fourth place finish in the SEC West.
Tonight the 2014 campaign begins for the Aggies in Columbia, SC against a South Carolina team that has finished 11-2 the past three seasons. Odds-makers have made A&M a 10 underdog. While Sumlin has been praised for his recruiting efforts – deservedly so – the judgment on what those efforts mean in terms of wins and losses and competing for SEC or national titles begins tonight. Williams-Brice stadium may not be the biggest or loudest in the conference, when “Sandstorm” starts blaring through the PA system and fans start “rocking” the house, it’s still an intimidating facility for visitors. So will be an offense that returns nine starters – despite the loss of quarterback Connor Shaw, who’ll be replaced by Senior Dylan Thompson who’s thrown for 14-TD’s vs. 5-INT’s and a quarterback rating North of 140 in limited action the past three seasons. South Carolina does have to replace Texans (and NFL) first overall pick JeDeveon Clowney on defense – as well as five other starters on defense – but Darius English did have 19 tackles and a forced fumble subbing for Clowney as a Freshman last season and was the top-rated defensive player from talent-rich Georgia the year before. As the majority of my gambling buddies has told me, “lay the points and take SC tonight.”
As for the entire ’14 season, it will answer a lot of questions – positively or negatively for the Aggies, and their “firm grip” on the top talent in Texas may hang in the balance. For the first time in his coaching career Sumlin will oversee a team run at quarterback by a man he recruited. The competition for the job between Sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen – a 5-star recruit from Scottsdale, AZ rated the top QB prospect by Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN.com – was won by Hill, who completed 16-22 for 183 yards and one TD in mostly mop-up duty last year against Sam Houston State, SMU, Vandy and UTEP. While Hill came to College Station as a more heralded prospect (4-star/16th best QB in ’13) than Manziel, it’s tough, check that impossible, for me to believe he’ll replace JFF without a somewhat significant drop-off.
That means the defense will have to make up for whatever production the offense cannot replicate. Not gonna happen. While the recruiting should help the defense improve from last in the conference even middle of the pack is asking a lot. Many Aggie fans are counting on Myles Garrett – the top DE prospect of 2014 to make a major impact. Tough for a freshman to do, plus Garrett will have to make up for the loss of A&M’s best d-lineman last year Gavin Stansbury, who’s now at UH. (Trust me I watch Robert Nkemdiche enter Ole Miss as not only the top DE prospect in ’13, but the top overall prospect and while he did earn freshman All American honors last year – this will be the season he earns the recruiting hype – it takes time.)
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