For the past two seasons the Texas A&M Aggies have relied heavily on Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. The qb/wr combo had a connection like no other. Head coach Kevin Sumlin needed those two to produce and make big plays every game. They usually did and were in turn able to make up for a defense that was one of the worst in the SEC. Most of the big games they won came by way of shootout with zero help from the defense. The Mississippi State game was no exception. A&M came out on top, 51-41.
Overall, they put together a solid eight win regular season that ended with a 42-38 victory over Duke in the Chick-fil-a Bowl. The problem for the Aggies is that they will be without both Manziel and Evans in 2014, each of whom were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Not to mention they also lost one of the top offensive lineman in the country in the first round of the draft in Jake Matthews. Combine that with countless off the field issues during the off-season, and the Aggies may be in trouble. Barring something unexpected, I like Mississippi State's chances to win this ballgame.
Arrests, Arrests, Arrests!
It's safe to say that Texas A&M is trying to mimic the Georgia Bulldogs this off-season. Overall nine, yes NINE, arrests have happened up to this point. Three of these players were kicked off the team, including linebacker Darian Claiborne, the leading tackler in 2013. DE Gavin Stansbury, named the defensive MVP last year, left the team for "personal reasons" a couple of months following his arrest.
That will leave a big hole in what was already a horrendous defense last year. In conference games, the Aggies ranked 13th out of 14 SEC teams in both scoring and passing defense. They ranked dead last in rushing defense and total defense, giving up just under 500 total yards a game. Yikes. That will need to improve greatly if they want to compete for the SEC west. The good news is it can only go up from here. It certainly can't get any worse.
One of the reasons this defense struggled last year was from playing soft zone coverage (kind of reminds me of the Chris Wilson days at MSU). A&M hired a new secondary coach after the season and that hire looks to have payed off. Terry Joseph came in in the spring and encouraged his corners to play closer to the line of scrimmage on receivers and be more physical. That approach has been effective up to this point, at least against their own teammates. The cornerbacks look to be the most promising part of the defense. Several talented young guys add good depth to the position as well.
"New secondary coach Terry Joseph arrived in time for A&M's spring practice. The corners started playing up on receivers, challenging them and taking away the easiest throws (much like most teams in the SEC). They began to use the shuffle technique which allowed them to break more quickly on deeper routes and still come up and attack receivers on short ones. As a result, A&M's offense had a much more difficult time working against the defense and despite the absence of many members of the front seven in the spring they looked like the strength of the defense that everyone expects them to be in 2014. A&M has recruited well enough so that they have very good depth with several people capable of seeing the field versus multi receiver sets. It's probably the most talented, experienced, and deepest position on the defense which provides reason for optimism not just in 2014 but for 2015 and beyond." -Jeff Tarpley, tamu.247sports.com
The perfect recipe for success is having the right mix of experienced players combined with elite young players. A&M has that on the back side of the defense. Even though they rotated as many as four safeties in and out a year ago, they will look to seniors Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven to provide some continuity at that position. Deshazor Everett and Devante Harris proved to be a nice duo at cornerback and will try to build on that in 2014.
For that to happen, they will need more help from the front seven pass rush than they got a year ago. They were 10th in the conference last season in total number of sacks. With the loss of Claiborne, Stansbury, and Isaiah Golden, A&M will need new leaders to step up among the linebackers and especially the d-line. The uncertainty of defensive tackle Ivan Robinson's future with the team due to health issues also doesn't help matters. A&M is essentially looking at a complete rebuild up front on defense.
On the positive side for the Aggies, maybe starting all over with a clean slate of new players isn't the worst thing in the world. Sure, there will be some learning pains with all the inexperience and youth. But as we mentioned earlier, there is no where to go but up. Aggie fans sure hope so, at least.
On the offensive side of things, the first matter of business is replacing former superstar and crowd pleaser Johnny football. Replacing players of this caliber is never a quick fix process. In fact, it's unlikely to happen at all. Manziel was a once in a lifetime type of playmaker. You just don't find quarterbacks with that much elusiveness and playmaking ability every day. If Aggie fans are expecting another Johnny football anytime soon, they will more than likely be disappointed.
With that being said, incoming freshman Kyle Allen has all the potential in the world to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC before his career in College Station is over. He doesn't have quite the scrambling ability of Manziel, but he sure can throw the pigskin around. He was rated the number one pro-style quarterback in the 2014 class by 247sports.com.
Allen will be battling it out with sophomore Kenny Hill this fall. Hill, also a big prospect out of high school, is more of the dual threat mold. He saw limited action last season as Manziel's backup. He didn't help his case to be the starter for the upcoming season when he was arrested for public intoxication this past March. That has since been put behind him and by all accounts he is back in good standing with the coaches.
Common sense would tell you that Hill has the upper hand, due to experience. That's simply not the case. Both quarterbacks will take equal reps in fall practice, and head coach Kevin Sumlin showed no interest in naming a starter anytime soon at SEC media days.
When asked about the possibility of starting a true freshman opening day, Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said "Oh yeah. It's very possible." The better player is going to play. And don't be surprised if whichever guy ends up starting has a fantastic season. Kevin Sumlin has more than proved his ability to develop quarterbacks in his last two coaching stops.
The transition of breaking in a new quarterback will be made a lot easier by the big guys up front. The line will be the strength of the offense. That may come as a shock to some people, considering A&M lost an outstanding talent in the first round of the draft as we mentioned earlier. However, Matthews is the only departure from the whole unit.
Three of these returning starters were named to the Outland Trophy preseason watch list, which goes to the nation's best interior lineman. Cedric Ogbuehi, Mike Matthews, and Germain Ifedi all grabbed the honor.
Cedric Ogbuehi is predicted by many to be another first round draft pick. If that happens, that would make this the third season in a row that the Aggies have produced a first rounder from the offensive line. That is unheard of. I don't know what is in the water around there or what they're feeding those guys, but I think I want some of it.
They will need that talented offensive line to pave the way for relatively inexperienced running backs. Manziel was the leading rusher on the team the past two years, and the running backs didn't have to carry much of a workload. That will certainly almost have to change this time around, without Manziel at the helm.
Former starter Ben Malena is gone, and Tra Carson is projected to take over his role. Carson saw limited action last season, but he showed strength running the ball. He weighs a solid 230 pounds; That's a type of body that can give A&M 20 to 25 carries a game if need be.
Last but not least, A&M has to find a way to replace their biggest down the field threat and most consistent receiver in Mike Evans. The player in the best position to do this is Ricky Seals-Jones, who has drawn comparisons to Evans since he arrived on campus. His freshman season was cut way too short after a knee injury in the opener against Rice. I would call him the x factor of what the Aggies can accomplish on offense.
Seals-Jones will get help from the veteran leader of the receivers, Malcome Kennedy. Kennedy had 7 td's last year and while you won't see him making a ton of plays down the field, he can be a first down machine. His best game of last season actually came against Mississippi State, when he grabbed 8 receptions for 96 yards. Kennedy and Seals-Jones could form a pretty solid tandem in 2014.
It's a toss-up
Most people at this point in time are labeling this game as a "toss-up" when they look at Mississippi State's schedule, and I would have to agree. It's not one of those games that you're going to feel 100 percent confident going into, and at the same time you're not going to be overly worried. Of course, a lot can change between now and October 4th. As it sits today, I would have to give the edge to Mississippi State given that the game is in Starkville. The Dogs also have a bye week the previous week, which will be greatly welcomed following a trip to LSU. Mississippi State just has far fewer distractions and far less questions that need answering the first few weeks of the season. Just as it was last year, the battle of the maroon should be a fun one to watch.