Texas A&M has been one of the premier teams in America through the first two months the last four seasons, breaking into the Top 10 each year.
However, something happens with the Aggies once the calendar moves beyond Halloween. They have a combined record of 7-9 the last four Novembers. As a result, A&M slipped from the Top 10 to out of the rankings entirely in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Sitting on the hottest seat in the SEC is Ags coach Kevin Sumlin, as three consecutive eight-win campaigns isn’t going to cut it for all the money that’s being thrown around College Station these days. If he doesn’t improve upon that number in 2017, more than likely it’ll be his last campaign on the sideline at Kyle Field. His own athletic director, Scott Woodward, basically said so.
Making matters worse, Sumlin is yet to name a starting quarterback. He has three candidates, but nobody has been able to separate himself from the other two at this point.
2016 Projection: 9-3 (6-2)
Actual Record: 8-4* (4-4)
* doesn’t include bowl game
Sumlin underpromised and overdelivered in Year 1. Texas A&M shook up the West upon making its conference debut in 2012 after leaving the Big 12 for greener pastures.
Of course, he had a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at the controls in Johnny Manziel, who took the league by storm with his pinpoint arm and frenetic legs. The Aggies’ upset of defending national champion and resident bully Alabama is still fresh in people’s minds.
That was five years ago, though. Once Manziel departed so early for the NFL — he had two more seasons of eligibility but nothing left to prove — it’s been a turnstile at the game’s most important position for Sumlin. First Kenny Hill looked like the heir to Manziel. Then Kyle Allen. Then Kyler Murray. But all of them left the program, which necessitated the addition of graduate transfer Trevor Knight in 2016.
It’s fair to assume that Sumlin can only go as far as his QB will take him. He’d better hope that the competition he’s currently conducting in camp produces a bona fide star.
The three-way race is between veteran Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and early enrollee Kellen Mond.
Hubenak has played sparingly in an Aggies uniform the last two seasons and put together a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-to-3, but he’s the low-ceiling option better suited to a backup role. The odds are long that he can get this team over the hump.
While Starkel was only a 3-star recruit in high school, he’s reported to be a better athlete than Hubenak. As a matter of fact, Starkel seems to have the inside track on QB1 if you listen to the chatter coming out of the A&M program these days. Mond was a 4-star signee and has by far the most upside, but Sumlin may not have time to sustain the growing pains associated with starting a true freshman passer.
For Sumlin’s sake, the Ags better hope all three have made some strides since the spring game in April. There were more downs than ups for each of them.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Texas A&M was deep and dangerous at receiver last season, but Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones are all gone.
Luckily, Christian Kirk is still there and continues to be one of the most electrifying players you’ve ever seen — both catching the football and returning it on special teams. Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford form a solid combination in the backfield, too.
Forget the talk about Sumlin’s offense. It’s his D that really needs to do a 180. The Aggies were eighth in the SEC last year vs. the run, 13th vs. the pass, 10th in yards allowed per game and seventh in points allowed per game. And that was with D-end Myles Garrett, a generational talent who just went No. 1 in the draft, commanding everyone’s attention.
A&M also lost its top tackling linebacker in Shaan Washington and most productive safety in Justin Evans. Former reserve Jarrett Johnson now has the impossible task of taking over for Garrett.
Week 1: at UCLA (L)
The Ags needed overtime to escape the Bruins last year at home, even if they looked like the better team for three and a half quarters.
Week 2: vs. Nicholls State (W)
Following a long road trip out West, a tasty cupcake at home is just what the doctor ordered. Hubenak, Starkel and Mond might all throw at least one TD pass.
Week 3: vs. UL-Lafayette (W)
The Ragin’ Cajuns only played one Power 5 opponent in 2016, losing to Georgia on the road by two touchdowns. Expect a similar outcome.
Week 4: vs. Arkansas (L)*
A crucial game, not just in the standings but on the recruiting trail, the Hogs have the superior field general in Austin Allen.
Week 5: vs. South Carolina (L)
It’s a role reversal for coach Will Muschamp, but the Gamecocks plan to win with offense this season and have great skill-position talent.
Week 6: vs. Alabama (L)
Believe it or not, but Sumlin is one of only two current SEC coaches with a victory over Nick Saban. He won’t get a second.
Week 7: at Florida (L)
Texas A&M has two difficult crossover games, as going to Gainesville is immeasurably tougher than a visit to, say, Nashville.
Week 8: bye
Week 9: vs. Mississippi State (W)
The Bulldogs upset the Aggies last year at Davis Wade Stadium. Even switching venues to Kyle Field, this is no upset anymore.
Week 10: vs. Auburn (L)
Not only can the Tigers run it at will with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, but Jarrett Stidham throws it better than any recent-vintage quarterback on The Plains.
Week 11: vs. New Mexico (W)
The Lobos suited up against just one Power 5 foe this past season and lost by double digits. It was Rutgers, too. The Scarlet Knights went 2-10, by the way.
Week 12: at Ole Miss (L)
In his first career start, Shea Patterson arrived in College Station and upended A&M last year. He’s going to get better, of course.
Week 13: at LSU (L)
Derrius Guice set a single-game Tigers record with 285 yards rushing against the Ags in 2016. It’s impossible to unwatch that tape.
* at AT&T Stadium in Arlington
2017 Projection: 4-8 (1-7)
Final Standings: 7th in SEC West
It’s incredible to think that Texas A&M, a team ranked as high as No. 4 in last season’s College Football Playoff rankings, could finish dead last in the West this year.
Those are the stakes in the unrelenting West, though. It’s the toughest division in the country for a reason, and the Aggies might have to learn that lesson the hard way in 2017. The stage is set for a serious step back in College Station.
We all knew that Sumlin’s job was potentially on the line, but when his own AD essentially confirmed those rumors on national radio/television, it turned up the heat on him considerably. This isn’t the time for A&M to be conducting a quarterback competition, certainly not when its coach is known for putting everything on the shoulders of that position.
Knight’s maturity and leadership was a breath of fresh air for the Ags a season ago. Too bad he only had one year of eligibility left.