Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series wraps up in the SEC West today with Texas A&M. Coming Monday: We switch to the SEC East, beginning with Florida.

My, how the turntables … forgive that reference from “The Office,” Aggie fans. But yes, I’d argue that things have changed a considerable amount in the past couple of months.

And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with any massive injuries, though the loss of Baylor Cupp is a major bummer. It would have been exciting to see Cupp and Jalen Wydermyer run double-tight end sets and become a deadly red-zone combination for Kellen Mond.

The turntables, er, “tables,” have turned because of the schedule. A&M’s schedule is no longer as favorable as one could ever ask for in the SEC West. The Aggies originally had just 1 matchup in its first 10 games against a team who had 7-plus wins (Auburn). Now, it has 2 preseason top-10 teams in its first 3 games.

In other words, the gauntlet is back on.

Silly it was that some based preseason rankings on A&M’s favorable schedule. Preseason rankings are supposed to be about how good a team looks if it stepped on a field tomorrow. Instead, however, some got caught up in giving A&M the benefit of the doubt because of what that schedule looked like (I think Rece Davis and Phil Steele do tremendous work, but you can’t tell me that didn’t factor into having them in the top 5).

I bring that up because I’ve been a broken record all offseason about A&M. If you’ve heard this stat before, I’m sorry. It bears repeating just 1 last time in order to understand why I was baffled with some of the preseason love.

A&M played 300 minutes of football against (5) teams that finished in the top 15 of the AP Top 25 last year. The Aggies led for just 7 minutes and 42 seconds of that time. Now combine that with the fact that the program has 1 top-15 finish in the 21st century, and it came when one of the best college football players ever was there. Starting to understand why I’m not all in yet?

Rant over. Let’s talk storylines.

Favorable schedule or not, it’s still a pivotal Year 3 for Jimbo Fisher

No, the guy with $60 million left on his deal isn’t getting fired. That’s not what I’m saying.

What am saying is that the guy who signed the $75 million guaranteed contract needs to be more than a halfway decent team in Year 3, otherwise the public — and more importantly the recruiting world — is going to start to question if Fisher will ever get on LSU or Alabama’s level.

This is the first year in which there really isn’t much of a crutch for Fisher to lean on. It’s not Year 1 with Kevin Sumlin’s players. It’s not Year 2 with arguably the toughest schedule in college football. It’s Year 3 with the league’s most experienced quarterback to lead a roster that has been mostly recruited by Fisher’s staff. Also of note, Fisher retained both coordinators.

In a way, it’s sort of fitting that Fisher is going to get this all-SEC schedule in 2020. Once upon a time, the idea of Fisher leaving Florida State for a place like LSU or A&M didn’t make sense because he’d essentially sign himself up for regular-season matchups against Alabama instead of postseason matchups. That, of course, was before Clemson became what it is today.

Think about this, though. Fisher has a .500 record in conference play in his past 3 years as a head coach. That’s at Florida State and A&M. What would that say about him as one of the nation’s top coaches/developers if he has a disappointing 5-5 regular season? While I tend to think that we shouldn’t make any long-term assumptions based on this weird year, that would still mark 4 consecutive seasons of not even reaching a New Year’s 6 bowl.

Keep in mind that this batch of 2021 recruits were in 4th grade when Fisher won it all at FSU. You better believe Fisher wants to get back to being nationally relevant.

Kellen Mond is what he is

That is, a sometimes frustrating, skilled, versatile, inconsistent veteran starting quarterback. We’ve seen 2.5 years of his starts, including a 2019 season in which he struggled against elite competition. To think that there’s some major improvement on the way seems ambitious. Sure, it could happen. We’ve all seen the potential. Mond has more ways to beat you than any returning SEC quarterback.

He has been flashing this potential for 3 years:

But Mond is also 3-6 as a starter in true SEC road games under Fisher, and the lack of success against elite teams is still a thing. He still makes plays like this every now and then:

A&M fans know and understand that. They also understand that improved offensive line play, with 4 starters back, could be as big of a determining factor as any in determining A&M’s ceiling.

It’ll be interesting to see how Mond handles the grind of a year like this. He still has some intriguing skill-player weapons with Jhamon Ausbon and Wydermyer back with Isaiah Spiller presumably in the hunt to lead the SEC in carries. But what would make us say at season’s end that Mond truly made a major step? An 8-2 record and a first-team All-SEC season? A 30-touchdown regular season in just 10 games? Yes, yes and yes.

Mike Elko’s defense … his best yet at A&M?

I think it has to be. And that’s coming from someone who thought Justin Madubuike’s presence was underrated nationally. The Aggies went into the spring ranked in the top 1/3 nationally in percentage of returning defensive production. A pair of A&M defensive backs opted out since then, but this is still a group that is capable of being one of the SEC’s best in 2020.

Sophomore safety Demani Richardson has All-SEC written all over him, and Bobby Brown has potential to be the run-stuffing force that A&M needs to hang around with the conference’s elite. In between those 2 is a linebacking core of Buddy Johnson and Anthony Hines, who combined for 150 tackles and 20 tackles for loss in 2019. Add in the bevy of 4-star recruits that Fisher signed on that side of the ball the past couple of years and there’s reason to think the Aggies could have everything working well on the defensive side.

The key for this group is getting off to better starts. Last year in those 5 games against teams that finished in the top 15, A&M allowed an average of 20 points in the first half. As a result, they were down at half by an average of 15.4 points. Sure, Elko usually found a way to make some solid halftime adjustments, but that won’t cut it if A&M wants to take that next step.

With the returning starters at every level and the potential depth behind them, this unit should be in much better shape to put the clamps on from the jump.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

And who says there aren’t any Cupcake Week games to start the season? A&M got the best draw possible. Vandy is the ultimate “get back in the swing of things” opponent for 2020. We’ll get to see how A&M can line up, tackle and make plays in space. It wouldn’t surprise me if A&M wasn’t in tip-top shape from the jump, but by game’s end, it’ll be as lopsided as any SEC game on opening weekend.

Week 2: at Alabama (L)

I think we tend to underestimate just how much Alabama returns in the front 7 from injuries alone. Dylan Moses, LaBryan Ray and Joshua McMillon are all back from a group that struggled much more than usual against the run last year. Teams who force A&M into being 1-dimensional on offense are going to be a problem. The Aggies aren’t built to string drives together exclusively using the passing game. At least not yet. Mond might have his moments in this one, but even in front of a reduced crowd in Tuscaloosa, I’ll take my chances on Mac Jones having a big day en route to Alabama’s 8th consecutive win against A&M.

Week 3: vs. Florida (W)

Yes, I’m calling for the upset. This will serve as a reminder to Florida after a 2-0 start that winning the SEC in a year like this is no joke. The Aggies’ defense knocks that Florida offensive line back down a peg after an encouraging start. Ultimately, a Gators squad that comes into College Station a touch too confident sees an offense that adjusts well to the speed in the front 7. This ends up being a day in which Mond makes multiple big plays with his legs to lead A&M to a statement win to avoid that dreaded 1-2 start.

Week 4: at Mississippi State (W)

This is exactly the type of game that I think Mond’s road woes won’t surface like they normally would. A reduced Starkville crowd means a reduced dose of cowbell. MSU fans will be saying by day’s end that they needed more cowbell to disrupt the flow of Mond in that offense. Spiller and Ainias Smith should both have their fair share of success against that defense in transition. Elko’s defense allows a couple of big passing plays, but ultimately gets the late step to get out of Starkville with a huge victory to stay in the West hunt.

Week 5: Bye

Week 6: vs. Arkansas (W)

It’ll be weird not to have Arkansas-A&M in Dallas, but chalk that up as another reason that the Aggies should control the tempo in this one. As long as they can get to the bye week still in the hunt, they could potentially get some added depth back if quarantines are in issue in the first half of the season. This is when Elko’s defense should really shine. Against an Arkansas offense that doesn’t want to be in pass-only situations, Richardson and Leon O’Neal Jr. both lull Feleipe Franks into making some errant throws that result in key turnovers. That’s the difference in a lopsided A&M win.

Week 7: at South Carolina (W)

This is quietly a solid matchup in the trenches. South Carolina might actually be better on the defensive line than it was with Javon Kinlaw, which is saying something. Injuries/quarantines could absolutely swing a game like this into South Carolina’s favor. But for now, I’ll take my chances on A&M shutting down South Carolina’s ground game and forcing the Gamecocks to do it all with the passing game. I can’t trust the Gamecocks to win a game like that against an elite team. A late Wydermyer score gives A&M a monumental win to keep West hopes alive.

Week 8: at Tennessee (W)

This is one of those games that could largely be determined by who is healthiest. As of now, give me the Aggies to continue their trend of capitalizing on limited road crowds. In a relatively low-scoring game, I’d expect points to be hard to come by. But again, if the Aggies can take away that Tennessee ground game — that’ll be easier said than done against Eric Gray and that offensive line — then I like their chances of forcing Jarrett Guarantano into some costly mistakes late. I’ll bank on that happening and A&M keeping its SEC title hopes alive.

Week 9: vs. Ole Miss (L)


Why am I calling for this upset? My thinking is that coming off consecutive physical games against South Carolina and Tennessee, A&M takes its foot off the gas against a capable Ole Miss offense. Perhaps there’s a little bit of peaking ahead to LSU and Auburn with the finish line in sight. Whatever the case, A&M suffers one of the more surprising 2020 upsets and essentially ends its SEC title hopes after not overcoming a slow start on both sides of the ball.

Week 10: vs. LSU (L)

You know who won’t take a trip to College Station lightly? Ed Orgeron. Something tells me that 2018 game will fuel a statement win from the Tigers. Assuming that Myles Brennan is still healthy, I still expect him to have plenty of success throwing against A&M’s defense. Those weapons will be experienced by Week 10. It won’t exactly be reminiscent of last year’s beatdown in the Bayou, but a frustrating showing turns a once-promising start into an all-too-familiar reality.

Week 11: at Auburn (L)

I have 3 reasons I’m worried about an A&M team coming off consecutive losses going to Auburn. Seth Williams, Seth Williams and Seth Williams. Have I said that enough? Why will this be a big game for him? Well, against Elko’s defense, which likes to bring safeties into the box to force teams to throw, I think we see a lot of good 1-on-1 matchups for Williams downfield. That’s where he thrives. This is the type of game where he can look unstoppable late, just like he was against Georgia last year. He has 3 touchdowns in 2 games against Elko’s defense. It wouldn’t surprise me if he matched that total en route to an Auburn victory to close the regular season.

2020 projection: 6-4, 4th in West


Go figure that in a lot of ways, this year’s script could still follow the pre-2020 schedule change that many had written up for A&M. A promising start that vaults A&M into the Playoff picture … turns sour in November.

How high would A&M be ranked with a 6-1 start with only a road loss to Alabama? No. 4? No. 3? I don’t know. It has been 25 years since A&M got to the top 4 of the AP Top 25. That was back in the Southwest Conference days. In other words, you’d better believe the A&M hype train would be cruising at top speed.

But that won’t satisfy the masses, even in a year like this. Barring a rash of injuries/COVID-related absences, the expectation is for A&M to reach a New Year’s 6 Bowl. If that can’t happen in a year like this with only 3 Power 5 conferences active with all of those aforementioned things still working in Fisher’s favor, it’s fair to wonder what it’ll take for that next step to happen.

For what it’s worth, a winning record in conference play is nothing to be ashamed of in a year like this. If A&M still racks up some quality wins against the likes of Florida and Tennessee, that won’t be a wash. And if they’re more competitive against elite foes than last year — the bar is low for that — then that could still suggest the Aggies are trending in the right direction.

A fascinating, telling season is on the horizon in College Station.