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NCAA Football

Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Preview: No. 30 Texas A&M Aggies

August has begun and the beginning of football is just around the corner.  We continue the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series with No. 30, the Texas A&M Aggies.

The Aggies had a disappointing season in their final year as a member of the Big XII Conference, finishing 7-6 after a Meineke Car Care Bowl win over the Northwestern Wildcats.  Now, all of that is just an afterthought.  The Aggies are loud and proud about their move to their new conference, gaining quite a bit of media attention along the way.  Texas A&M just recently won ESPN’s College Gameday Challenge and had one of the networks national commercials filmed at Kyle Field.

The Aggies were well received by the SEC and the move has already paid dividends with new head coach, Kevin Sumlin, being able to reel in a top 15 recruiting class.

Although the Aggies have had success with recruiting and publicizing their move to the SEC over the summer, competing in America’s toughest conference is a whole different ballgame.

Can the Aggies overcome their mediocre past and compete in an even tougher conference?

Impact Players

Offense

The Aggies had an explosive offense in 2011, on the ground and through the air, but most of that talent has departed.  Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, running back Cyrus Gray, and wide receiver Jeff Fuller, a dynamic trio that led the offense, are all on to bigger and better things.

Luckily for A&M fans, the slate is not completely wiped clean.

Fan favorite, Ryan Swope (89 rec, 1207 yds, 11 td) was convinced to return and Christine Michael (149 car, 899 yds, 8 td), who shared duties with Cyrus Gray before tearing his ACL in early November against the Oklahoma Sooners, looks to be back at full speed this fall.  Other notable returns include Uzoma Nwachukwu (50 rec, 639 yds, 2 td), who will likely start at wide receiver, along with basically the entire offensive line.  The Aggies may very well have the best offensive line in the entire SEC this fall.

That’s good news for Jamiel Showers, the lead candidate to replace Tannehill at quarterback.

Showers has shown promise throughout the spring, displaying a strong arm and an ability to escape pressure with his legs.  The Aggies should have a very solid running game with an experienced offensive line and Michael in the backfield, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry last year, which would take a load off of the shoulders of Showers.

The biggest question mark is probably how exactly coach Sumlin’s air raid offense from previous years will fit into a conference that prides itself on defense.  While Sumlin has been known for his relationship with Houston quarterback Case Keenum and their assault with the passing game, that offensive style won’t necessarily make the trip to College Station.  Sumlin has consistently maintained an attitude that a balanced attack must used in order to contend in the SEC.

Sumlin must know the Aggies’ strength this fall will definitely be on the ground.

As the season draws on, watch for Swope to contend for the Belitnikoff Award and Michael to contend for the Doak Walker Award.  Also, several of the offensive lineman could contend for Outland Trophy, including Luke Joekel and Jake Matthews.

Defense

The defense was the unit that received most of the criticism for the Aggies blowing huge halftime leads throughout 2011.  The defensive line and linebackers were solid, tallying 51 sacks which was good enough to be No. 1 in the nation.  The secondary is a different story.  The Aggies gave up an average of 276.3 passing yards per game, placing them at 109th in the nation.

Moving forward, the defensive line and linebackers will likely be the strength of the team.

Demontre Moore, who tallied 72 tackles and 8.5 sacks as a linebacker in 2011, is expected to get more playing time on the defensive line.  Moore’s move should help with the departure of Tony Jerod-Eddie (55 tackles, 5 sacks) up front. Other notable defensive linemen include returning starters Spencer Nealy (45 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Eddie Brown Jr. (29 tackles, 3 sacks).

Jonathan Stewart will likely lead the linebackers after his 98 tackles and 3 sacks last year, but Sean Porter (79 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Steven Jenkins (61 tackles, 1 sack) will provide plenty of defense as well.  The Aggies’ front seven is experienced, and very talented, meaning there will be a variety of 3-4 and 4-3 looks depending on the offense.

While six out of the seven Aggies up front are returning starters, only two defensive backs return.

Texas A&M lost two of their three best coverage backs in Terrence Frederick (54 tackles, 13 passes deflected, 1 int) and Coryell Judie (22 tackles, 5 passes deflected).  Dustin Harris returns as the the lead cornerback with 33 tackles and a pick but was also electric as the return man.  Harris returned 18 punts for 335 yards and a touchdown along with 16 kickoffs for 374 yards.  Defending the pass will likely once again be a struggle for A&M after losing several talented players from a 2011 squad that was already atrocious in pass coverage.

After finishing with All-Big XII honors last season, Jonathan Stewart may be a dark horse candidate for the Butkus Award.  Besides that, there is a lot of work to do defensively for the Aggies.  Good news is that the SEC is not as pass-happy as the Big XII.

Schedule

Simply put, the schedule is brutal.  The Aggies are stuck in the SEC West, the toughest division in the nation’s toughest conference, while the Missouri Tigers got tossed into the much milder SEC East for the time being.  In A&M’s first season in their new conference, the play the previous six national champions.  Florida (2006, 2008), LSU (2007), Alabama (2009, 2011), and Auburn (2010) are all waiting to give the Aggies a warm welcome into the SEC.

Yeah, right.

The Aggies first SEC game takes place in the second week of the season at home against the Florida Gators for a possible College Gameday matchup.  It doesn’t get any easier after that.  Here is the breakdown:

Must-win Games: 8/30 @Louisiana Tech, 9/15 @SMU, 10/6 @Ole Miss, 11/17 Sam Houston State

Swing Games: 9/8 Florida, 9/22 South Carolina, 10/27 @Auburn, 11/3 @Mississippi State, 11/24 Missouri

The Big Ones: 9/29 Arkansas, 10/20 LSU, 11/10 @Alabama

Watch out for Louisiana Tech in the first week.  If the Aggies are looking forward to their SEC debut, a trip to visit last years WAC champion may play spoiler.  The game against LSU on October 20th has been dubbed “Maroon Out” by Texas A&M, a yearly tradition which usually leads to the largest and loudest crowds at Kyle Field.  Also to be noted, with the absence of the University of Texas, 2012 will be the first time since 2007 that the Aggies will not be playing on Thanksgiving day.

You can follow me on Twitter @ColeDolan and Rant Sports @RantSports