Final SEC Rankings: Defense cripples Texas A&M

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Johnny Manziel went out with a bang in Atlanta, but Texas A&M’s defense was gashed throughout for the No. 6 Aggies in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.

Final SEC Rankings of 2013:

14. Arkansas
13. Kentucky
12. Florida 
11. Tennessee
10. Ole Miss
9. Mississippi State
8. Georgia
7. Vanderbilt
6. Texas A&M
5. LSU
4. Alabama
3. South Carolina
2. Missouri
1. Auburn

Enjoy the debate.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4)

A repeat Heisman for Johnny Football and a berth in the SEC Championship Game were conceivable goals for Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies this season, but the defense never showed up to play. Plagued by the conference’s worst unit on that side of the football, Texas A&M settled for a New Year’s Eve bowl berth against Duke instead of what many thought would be a BCS at-large spot a few days later.

On-field performance: B-; Too much pressure on Manziel

No team in college football received more coverage than the Aggies during the first month of the season, both a blessing and a curse for a program not accustomed to consistent hype over the last decade. From ESPN cameras zooming in on Manziel’s facial expressions during the first half of the opener against Rice (during which he was suspended for autograph-gate) to the week-long GameDay build up prior to top-ranked Alabama, Texas A&M headlined the sport.

What transpired over the next few months was a bunch of wins over unranked teams and disappointing outings in marquee matchups against the SEC’s elite. Though statistically better based on passing yardage and touchdowns, Manziel was more mistake-prone as a second-year player and had to shoulder too much of a load with the Aggies often playing from behind.

Defenses were able to adjust to his dual-threat abilities and limit his production on the ground. There were several miserable games from the Texas A&M defense, but a 45-41 loss to Auburn could be labeled the most embarrassing. The Aggies built a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter before the tigers responded with three touchdowns over the final 12 minutes — all coming on the ground in Gus Malzahn’s uptempo zone read.

Auburn’s 615-yard outburst was frustrating to say the least.

Expectations: B-; West’s fourth-best team

This is not a misprint: Texas A&M won four SEC games in 2013, a year after winning 6-of-8 during league play its first season down south. Sumlin’s 11-2 combined with Manziel’s freshman Heisman campaign was so impressive, oddsmakers labeled the Aggies 14/1 national champions, the fourth-most likely team to capture the glass football after Oregon (9/1), Ohio State (6/1) and Alabama (5/2).

So what happened?

RELATED: Texas A&M regular season recap

Bluntly, Manziel made some mistakes (13 interceptions) and the Aggies failed miserably on defense. Had it not been for a brilliant offensive performance from the oft-storylined sophomore quarterback in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, preseason No. 7 Texas A&M would’ve finished the season unranked. The Aggies became a national non-story by halftime of a 34-10 loss in Baton Rouge on Nov. 23, a setback that ended Texas A&M’s 13-game streak of scoring 40 or more points.

Coaching: B; Sumlin handles distractions

The prolific Manziel to Mike Evans tandem was exciting for viewers, but a headache for coaches — two players with strong personalities that demanded the spotlight. Tensions ran high late in the year when things weren’t going the Aggies’ way and hit a boiling point during the bowl game when Manziel grabbed Evans after an errant throw on third down.

The previous game against Mizzou, Evans’ frustration was clear on the visiting sideline when he only caught four passes for eight yards. Nothing came easy for the Aggies this season, perhaps a result of the constant cloud hanging over the program concerning Manziel’s eligibility leading up to September.

Sumlin’s job was to bottle up all of the distraction and deliver a memorable campaign for the preseason Top 10 and with a defense, the Aggies may have had a shot. Texas A&M is hoping to improve its staff with the addition of Nebraska defensive backs coach Terry Joseph. The Aggie secondary gave up an SEC-high 31 touchdown passes this season. But it will start in the front seven getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Recruiting: A; Cupboard packed with playmakers

You would be hard pressed to find a group of six early enrollees across the country as talented as the players already in College Station as early high school graduates. Five star standouts Speedy Noil (WR, New Orleans) and Kyle Allen (QB, Arizona) headline a terrific cast of playmakers in this year’s class, ranked No. 3 overall behind Alabama and Ohio State by the experts over at 247Sports.

MORE: Texas A&M signing day recap

Noil showcased his speed in the Under Armour All-American Game with a lengthy touchdown reception down the sideline that brought Aggie fans out of their seats. He joins a talented crop of receivers in A&M’s pass-heavy offense. Allen’s a passer without flaws and was one of the top quarterbacks in the nation in this year’s class. The US Army All-American started the final three years of his prep career and set multiple schools records at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale.

Star in the making Myles Garrett is a five-star defensive end every major program wanted and should play from Day 1 with the Aggies. Texas A&M had the SEC’s worst rush defense a season ago and Garrett’s dominant in the trenches and off the edge. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder tallied 20.5 sacks his senior season at James Martin High in Arlington.

Program momentum: B+; Momentous Kyle Field expansion

The $450 million renovation and expansion of Kyle Field will be one of the SEC’s grand cathedrals when finished, a fully-enclosed sound trapper for the 12th Man with a seating capacity of 102,500.

Joining the SEC and winning early has helped one of college football’s richest football programs transform into a giant and incoming players — as evidenced by Sumlin’s signing classes — are taking note. It remains to be seen how the Aggies will fare post-Manziel, but it doesn’t appear A&M will take a step back with a rabid fanbase, state-of-the-art facilities and deep-pocket boosters that rival any of the game’s elite.

Photo Credit: Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

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