In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 33 Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher was brought to College Station to win SEC and national championships. Neither will happen in 2018, but Fisher has the pieces to take the Aggies in the right direction quickly.
Can All-SEC-caliber talent like Trayveon Williams, Landis Durham and Tyrel Dodson lead them to nine wins for the first time since 2012?
2017 Record: 7-6 (4-4, SEC)
"Coach knows he has to win," Texas A&M athletics director Scott Woodward said of sixth-year head coach Kevin Sumlin in May 2017." And he has to win this year. And we have to do better than we've done in the past."
Sumlin won seven regular-season games — ensuring a fifth straight season without 10 wins — and was fired. It started with a blown 31-point second-half lead vs. UCLA in the opener and finished with a blowout loss at LSU — their third loss by at least 15 points — in the regular-season finale.
While it was one of the most painful seasons in recent memory, it led to a potentially program-altering coaching hire.
Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (1st Year)
You don't sign a coach to a 10-year, fully guaranteed $75 million contract with hopes of winning 10 games. Sure, that'd be a start — especially because Texas A&M has hit 10 wins only twice since 1995 — but that's why not Fisher was given the biggest contract in the history of college sports.
“I understand this league. I grew up in this league,” Fisher, a former Auburn and LSU assistant, said at his introductory news conference in December. “We understand everything that goes with it. I want to take Texas A&M somewhere they haven’t been and that’s the champions of the SEC and then a national championship. I think all the ingredients are here.”
He's right; Texas A&M has the money, facilities, recruiting reach and more to be an SEC and national title contender.
RB Keith Ford, WR Christian Kirk, WR Damion Ratley, OT Koda Martin, S Armani Watts
Texas A&M had multiple players selected in the NFL Draft — Christian Kirk and Armani Watts — for the seventh consecutive season.
While Watts (324 career tackles, 24 tackles for loss) will be missed, the biggest departures came on offense. In addition to Kirk, running back Keith Ford is gone after an up-and-down career, as is big-play receiver Damion Ratley after a breakout senior year (23 yards per reception) and starting tackle Koda Martin (transfer).
Returning Offensive Players
QB Kellen Mond, QB Nick Starkel, RB Trayveon Williams, RB Kendall Bussey, WR Jhamon Ausbon, WR Cam Buckley, TE Jace Sternberger, G Keaton Sutherland, C Erik McCoy, K Daniel LaCamera
Fisher hired offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey away from Memphis, where the Texas native (who began his career as a Texas A&M grad assistant) did a brilliant job with Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson the last three seasons. Dickey and Fisher's concepts are merging and produce a pro-style system that features a little bit of everything: play-action, establishing the run, run-pass options, no-huddle, running down the play clock.
"He’s kept emerging himself as a coach and changing," Fisher said of Dickey, "whether he ran the football at North Texas, they were a great running team, and then you saw him at Memphis, what they did offensively, no-huddle and throwing the football. We want to implement those into our offense."
Quarterbacks Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel split time last year and enter fall camp locked in a competition, though given their different skill sets — Mond is a dynamic runner that thrives with quick passes and RPOs out of the shotgun while Starkel is more comfortable in the pocket and can throw a pretty deep ball — it'd be surprising if Dickey and Fisher didn't pick their guy early in the camp in order to install the appropriate offense.
The winner gets a skill group that lost Christian Kirk but returns all-purpose back Trayveon Williams and a billion sophomore wideouts, including Jhamon Ausbon and Cam Buckley. Buckley (below) only had 13 receptions as a freshman but showed he can stretch the field and could be dangerous, especially if Starkel wins the job.
Even before the transfer of Koda Martin, an offensive line whose sack rate jumped to 5.7 percent and helped average only four yards per carry is laced with question marks. Center Erik McCoy is reliable and Keaton Sutherland is back at guard after starting 11 games last year.
Daniel LaCamera could contend for All-America honors after a strong junior season in which he hit 17 of 20 field goals, including 4-for-5 from 40-49 yards.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Landis Durham, DT Kingsley Keke, LB Tyrel Dodson, LB Otaro Alaka, LB Buddy Johnson, CB Charles Oliver, CB Myles Jones, CB Clifford Chattman, S Derrick Tucker, S Donovan Wilson
Mike Elko was the best coordinator hire last year when he jumped from Wake Forest to Notre Dame. He's the best coordinator hire again this year after a jump from Notre Dame to Texas A&M. He's has done a brilliant job at all his stops, most recently improving the Irish's defense in nearly every area, including:
Points Per Play: 0.391 to 0.286
Yards Per Play: 5.3 to 4.9
Third Downs: 39 percent to 35 percent
Turnovers: 1.2 per game to 1.5 per game
He's installing a 4-2-5 defense — which former coordinator John Chavis ran a version of, though the fifth defensive back is more of a roving linebacker in Elko's system — that prevents runners from getting outside, isn't afraid to load the box and put pressure on the corners, wins on early downs and mixes up pressure schemes.
Elko inherits a unit that was terrible in the red zone, decent on third downs, good enough vs. the run, forced 1.7 turnovers per game and had the fifth-best sack rate in the country. And most of their key pieces return, led by a front seven (or six, depending on how you to classify the rover, which is expected to be Buddy Johnson) that has depth concerns but features an elite pass-rusher in Landis Durham, slimmed-down run-stopping tackle Kingsley Keke, and do-it-all junior linebacker Tyrel Dodson.
Durham (below) will often play from a two-point stance and have more coverage responsibilities in the new system, but the 6-foot-3, 255-pound senior will still flirt with 10 sacks for a second straight season.
The secondary is laced with athleticism and talent but won't take the next step unless they limit field-flipping plays. The Aggies allowed 47 passes of 20 or more yards, or nearly four per game on average. Safety Derrick Tucker is a future draft pick who showed a lot as a freshman, and if corner Myles Jones can improve his footwork and instincts, his 6-foot-4 frame will allow him to be a game-changing player.
WR Jalen Preston, OL Grayson Reed, DE Tyree Johnson
Landis Durham is the present; Tyree Johnson is the future. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound redshirt freshman will get some snaps behind — and potentially alongside Durham — in 2017 before he gets the opportunity to be their top pass-rusher in 2018.
Elsewhere, incoming four-star receiver Jalen Preston did not enroll early, but the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder should play immediately on the outside thanks to, in part, good speed and hands. Grayson Reed was a coveted recruit from Houston in the 2017 class but redshirted last year and has since moved from tackle to guard, where he was reportedly one of the Aggies' most reliable linemen in spring ball.
Clemson at Texas A&M. Saturday, Sept. 8, at 7:00 p.m. ET.
There are other notable games on Texas A&M's schedule but I can't focus on them right now.
Clemson at Texas A&M. Saturday, Sept. 8, at 7:00 p.m. ET.
|Thursday, Aug. 30||vs. Northwestern State|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||vs. Clemson|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||vs. UL Monroe|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||at Alabama|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||vs. Arkansas|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||vs. Kentucky|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||at South Carolina|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||at Mississippi State|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||at Auburn|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||vs. Ole Miss|
|Saturday, Nov 17||vs. UAB|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||vs. LSU|