There is a renewed enthusiasm for Texas A&M football heading into the 2018 perhaps for the first time since the '13 season. With future college football championship aspirations in mind, former Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher begins a new era in Aggies football on Thursday when Texas A&M plays host to the Northwestern State Demons.
The Demons finished the 2017 season 4-7 in the FCS ranks under former head coach Jay Thomas. When Northwestern State takes the field against the Aggies, Brad Laird will be the new head coach seeking to lead the program from Natchitoches, Louisiana, to the FCS playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season. Laird, a longtime defensive coordinator for the Demons, has an incredible challenge in his first game as a collegiate head coach in facing a hungry Texas A&M squad.
When the Aggies run out of the tunnel fired up to start the season, a win is to be had, but the contest may be more of a dress rehearsal with the Clemson Tigers lurking next week. The Aggies’ coaching staff has shuffled players in and out trying to find the best lineup to bring home a SEC West title in 2018. That approach will continue against the Demons, especially at quarterback.
Northwestern State at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 30 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Three Things to Watch
1. Texas A&M’s quarterbacks
On Monday, Jimbo Fisher named Kellen Mond the starting quarterback against the Demons, but the announcement came with a twist. Both Mond and Nick Starkel will get snaps on Thursday essentially extending fall camp into the first game of the 2018 season. Based on the play under center against Northwestern State, whoever shows a better grasp of the offense with the ability to sustain drives will get the start next week against Clemson.
Of the two quarterbacks, Mond is more mobile capable of beating opposing teams with his running ability while Starkel is more the traditional pocket passer. Will either quarterback force plays against the Demons in hopes of claiming the starting spot against Clemson?
2. Aggies’ offensive line
Over the duration of spring practices and fall camp, Texas A&M's offensive line has been a source of great debate. Aggie Nation, along with Fisher, wants to know if the line can make the transition from a spread attack to a pro-style set that calls for a rugged and physical approach in the trenches for four quarters. With all the mixing and matching to find the best fit, the only change up front from the spring is seeing sophomore Dan Moore Jr. take over at left tackle for Koda Martin, who transferred to Syracuse.
The Aggies' offensive line should overwhelm Northwestern State’s defensive front, but can the group gel and find its groove in the new offense in four short quarters with alternating quarterbacks calling the plays in preparation for Clemson?
3. Expectations for the Demons
Even with head coach Brad Laird calling the shots a year ago on defense, Northwestern State had its issues, giving up 31 points per game. The offense was average among its FCS peers, scoring just 23 points per game. If the Demons did anything well on offense it was through air, averaging 219 passing yards a game compared to 145 on the ground.
Expect Texas A&M's front seven to shut down Northwestern State's offense, led by linebackers Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka. Whichever Demons offensive lineman matches up against Aggies senior defensive end Landis Durham on passing downs is in for a long day. Durham was a beast last season with 10.5 sacks. Expect him to collect one or two in the opener.
Jimbo Fisher will look to put on a show for the home crowd, but expect the play-calling on offense to be generic at best keeping the proverbial cards close to the chest for Clemson. Watching how the offense responds to Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel at quarterback will be the biggest takeaway from the game. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko should get a good feel for what his unit can do in this tune-up game before Clemson.
Northwestern State lost its 2017 season opener 52-24 to Louisiana Tech. There's no reason to expect a different result Thursday night in College Station.
Prediction: Texas A&M 45, Northwestern State 13
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.