No. 33 Texas A&M
Texas A&M lost more than a dozen key players, including five NFL draft picks, could start as many as three true freshman and have a pile questions on defense. But none of those items was the biggest offseason story out of College Station.
"Coach Sumlin knows he has to win. He has to win this year. He has to do better than he has done in the past."
That was. Athletics director Scott Woodard's 25-word statement in late May was the biggest story. Can Sumlin make it happen?
2016 Record: 8-5 (4-4, SEC)
Trevor Knight hit Christian Kirk for a 25-yard touchdown pass with 12:54 remaining in the third quarter against Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 22. Texas A&M entered the game 6-0 and was now on top of the Crimson Tide, 14-13.
This was it. This was when Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies — who beat Tennessee in double overtime in their previous game — were finally moving past the eight-win seasons and on their to competing not only for an SEC West title but also playoff spot.
Minutes later, Jalen Hurts and Calvin Ridley connected on a four-yard score to take back the lead. They won the game, another SEC West title and earned a playoff spot. Texas A&M, meanwhile, lost four of their final six, finished 8-5 for the third-straight season and failed to win more than four conference games for the fourth-straight season.
Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin (44-21, 6th year)
Kevin Sumlin burst onto the scene in 2012, winning 11 games by beating six top-25 foes, including No. 1 Alabama on the road. It was the program's first 11-win season since 1998 — three head coaches ago — and Sumlin's stock was through the roof.
He's gone 9-4, 8-5, 8-5 and 8-5 since and hasn't finished above fourth in the division. While averaging 8.8 wins is far better than any other coach over the last two decades, the folks in College Station are getting restless.
“Nothing is going change the way I approach life,” Sumlin said after athletics director Scott Woodward implied he's on the hot seat. “And nothing is going to change the way I approach my job. I've known what's at stake ever since I got into this.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Jake Hubenak, RB Trayveon Williams, RB Keith Ford, WR Christian Kirk, G Erik McCoy, G Connor Lanfear, C Colton Prater
After appearing in six games last year, including a few starts, Jake Hubenak entered the offseason as the presumed replacement for Trevor Knight. Seven months later, Sumlin still hasn't named a starter and gave no insight on the senior Hubenak's competition with freshmen Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond.
"It'll probably be around the same time we've done it when there's been any kind of competition," he said at SEC Media Days. "It's usually a couple weeks before the games, something like that."
The winner gets one of the game's best receivers back in Christian Kirk and a two-headed monster at running back in Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford. Kirk, a Freshman All-American in 2015 and Third-Team All-American last year, already has 2,026 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns, along with nearly 1,200 return yards and five more scores.
Williams burst onto the scene with a 1,000-yard season and 6.8-yards per carry average. Though he only caught 19 passes, he is very capable receiver.
“He does some things running the football that nobody can teach,” said his high school Don Price coach. “It’s natural ability and great vision. Tray also knows how to work hard and pay attention, and you never have to tell him anything twice.”
Three starters return for an offensive line that allowed just 21 sacks and averaged 5.7 yards per carry, including sophomore guards Eric McCoy and Connor Lanfear.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Kingsley Keke, DT Zaycoven Henderson, LB Otaro Alaka, CB Priest Willis, S Donovan Wilson, S Armani Watts
Texas A&M held five opponents to 24 or fewer points, only twice gave up more than 33 and ranked a respectable 32nd in forced turnovers with 24. That doesn't tell the whole story. They ranked in the SEC's bottom half in almost every other statistical category and suffered big losses at every level.
Coordinator John Chavis does return two NFL-caliber safeties in Donovan Wilson and Armani Watts (below). The pair combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, five interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2016.
"Armani Watts, who is a fabulous football player, a young man, probably going to be an All-SEC candidate again," Sumlin said. " A guy that had an opportunity to turn pro last year, got an injury late in the year but was not surgical, so sat down with him. He’s decided to come back. He’s doing a great job of — with leadership on our football team, particularly defensively.
The line lost Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett on the outside but bring back two powerful tackles in Kingsley Keke and Zaycoven Henderson. They aren't simply big bodies who clog holes; they blow up the line and combined for seven sacks and 17 tackles for loss.
Chavis is still looking for a stud at linebacker. Otaro Alaka, a 6-foot-3, 240-pounder, has played inside and at strong-side linebacker but could move to weak side this year.
Notable Player Losses
QB Trevor Knight, WR Josh Reynolds, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, WR Speedy Noil, OT Avery Gennesy, OT Jermaine Eluemunor, DE Myles Garrett, DE Daeshon Hall, LB Shaan Washington, S Justin Evans
Texas A&M's losses go far beyond the five players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. Though Myles Garrett, Justin Evans and others will be missed, the Aggies also lost their second- and third-leading receivers in Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, all-conference offensive tackle Avery Gennesy and linebacker Shaan Washington.
Starting quarterback Trevor Knight graduated after one good-enough season. He struggled throwing the ball beyond 15 yards and averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt but still guided an offense that averaged 34.8 points per game.
Notable Player Additions
QB Nick Starkel, WR Kellen Mond, WR Jhamon Ausbon, LB Anthony Hines III
If Jake Hubenak can't get it done in fall camp — or at any point during the season — the Aggies will turn to one of two freshmen. Nick Starkel is a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder who redshirted last year, while Kellen Mond is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound four-star recruit and the nation's third-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 class.
Texas A&M struck gold when they lured four-star receiver Jhamon Ausbon away from LSU last fall. The Christian Kirk expectations for the Houston native and IMG Academy product seem aggressive, though Ausbon capable of having a Kirk-like freshman season.
True freshman linebacker Anthony Hines will start for a group that's badly needs improvement.
After visiting UCLA on Sept. 3, Texas A&M doesn't have a true road game until an Oct. 14 trip to Florida. Their final two non-conference games and two of first three SEC games are at home, including Oct. 7 vs. Alabama. They play Arkansas at AT&T Stadium a week earlier.
They have just four true road games on the season and play just one of nine games on the road between Sept. 9 and Nov. 11.
|Sunday, Sept. 3||at UCLA|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Nicholls|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. UL-Lafayette|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Arkansas|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. South Carolina|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Alabama|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Florida|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Mississippi State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Auburn|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. New Mexico|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Ole Miss|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at LSU|