Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin made one of the biggest hires of the offseason in luring defensive coordinator John Chavis away from SEC West rival LSU. Chavis is a defensive-minded guru who should turn around that side of the ball for the Aggies. Measurable defensive improvement coupled with Sumlin’s offensive repertoire could have Texas A&M going from pretenders to yearly contenders, perhaps as early as this season.
However, it cannot be overlooked that Sumlin has seen his record in College Station trickle from a 11-win debut in 2012, to nine wins in ’13, and just eight a year ago. Former Big 12 foes and in-state rivals, Baylor and TCU, are at an all-time high in terms of on-the-field performance and enthusiasm within the Lone Star State. Even with the Texas Longhorns still struggling to find their footing that does little to change the high expectations emanating from the 12th Man.
The 2015 college football campaign brings promise of a new season along with hopes and a few expectations. Aggie fans expect Chavis to turn around a defense that finished ranked 102nd in the nation under Mark Snyder, are hopeful that Sumlin will find a return to a powerful running attack, while maintaining what was one of the nation’s best passing attacks (306 ypg) in 2014. With seven starters returning on offense and six on defense the possibility for contending for a SEC West title is favorable, once a few question marks are answered, and thanks to the schedule.
Texas A&M’s 2015 slate shapes up pretty favorably. The Aggies do not leave the state of Texas until Oct. 24, which means they six games in front of home state fans before facing a hostile crowd. It’s three more home games after that before closing out the regular season with back-to-back road games at Vanderbilt and LSU. But don’t take this to mean Texas A&M’s schedule is easy, however, as after all the Aggies do reside in the SEC West. All seven teams in the West made Athlon Sports’ preseason Top 25.
Based on home-field advantage vs. being on the road, projected toughness of opponent, and Texas A&M’s style of play vs. opponent, the following is a ranking of the Aggies’ regular season games from easiest to toughest in 2015.
12. Sept 12. vs. Ball State
The Cardinals will be just what the Aggies need after a tough opening game against Arizona State. Ball State finished 5-7 in 2014 out of the Mid-American Conference. Look for Sumlin and Chavis in Week 2 to address any soft spots or areas of weakness that came to light against the Sun Devils.
11. Nov. 14 vs. Western Carolina
The Catamounts amount to a working bye week after an exhausting six-game haul through SEC opponents. Western Carolina, a FCS program out of the Southern Conference, is a nice, padded game after Auburn and before traveling to Vanderbilt.
10. Sept. 19 vs. Nevada
The layout of the schedule may be ideal but the actual quality of opponent is tough. The Wolf Pack is not a rollover team out of the Mountain West. Nevada went 7-6 in 2014, beating Washington State 24-13, putting a scare into Arizona before falling 35-28, and defeating BYU 42-35. Nevada returns six on offense and five on defense making this a tougher early-season matchup than Sumlin and company may want. The Aggies should still come out with a win.
9. Nov. 21 at Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt could be one of the surprise teams in the nation in 2015. The flipside is Derek Mason may not be a head coach but just an excellent defensive coordinator.
The Commodores return eight players on offense and nine on defense. If this was any other squad in the SEC with this much returning talent, national title talk would smother the program. As is, Vanderbilt has a nice mix of seniors coming back complemented by the underclassmen, making this a tricky game.
Favoring A&M is Vandy’s schedule leading up to the showdown in Nashville. The Commodores play at South Carolina, home against Missouri, at Houston, at Florida, host Kentucky, and then host the Aggies.
8. Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina
The frightening thought of playing South Carolina has seemingly disappeared. Steve Spurrier has lost too much talent on defense without replacing it when times were good, same goes for key positions on offense.
The Gamecocks have four starters back on offense and six on defense. At this point in the season whoever has won the right to be South Carolina’s starting quarterback is either getting into a groove or is so shell-shocked by Spurrier’s constant yelling that he does not know what to do one way or the other.
In favor of A&M, South Carolina does not have a “gimme” game on the schedule until facing Citadel on Nov. 21. The Gamecocks do have a bye after playing Vanderbilt before heading to College Station.
7. Oct. 3 vs. Mississippi State
The Aggies have four games on the schedule they should win with the rest potentially going one way or the other. The Bulldogs are another team, much like South Carolina, that seems to be in a rebuilding mode. Mississippi State has four starters back on offense and three on defense but if you listen to the chatter out of Starkville the new starters got valuable game snaps in 2014, making this unit a little bit more experienced than what is on paper.
Facing a quarterback with Dak Prescott’s abilities gives Mississippi State a puncher’s chance. In favor of the Aggies is the Bulloddogs’ prior game against Auburn. The Bulldogs travel to Jordan-Hare. Aggies fans have to hope Mississippi State turns this one into, knockdown, drag-out fight. If Auburn jumps out to a big lead early in the second half, the Bulldogs could their focus to the next game and decide to rest key players in the fourth quarter.
6. Oct. 24 at Ole Miss
The “toughness” scale of this game could easily slide up a game or two if Ole Miss can answer a few questions going into the season. Those questions are the eligibility of left tackle Jeremy Tunsil, the health of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, and the assurance of a running attack. Perhaps the biggest unknown is the production that will come from under center. Bo Wallace is gone and a battle in fall camp has begun between JUCO transfer Chad Kelly, dual threat option DeVante Kincade, and pocket passer Ryan Buchanan.
Ole Miss’ schedule lays out favorably to pick up some momentum in spurts. The Aggies could be facing a Rebels squad with a win-loss record of 6-1 before Ole Miss faces the meat of its SEC West schedule. Texas A&M will test the talented Rebels’ secondary for what should be an entertaining strength vs. strength matchup.
5. Nov. 28 at LSU
Another swing game on the toughness scale for Texas A&M that could move either direction. The highlight of the game is Chavis returning to Baton Rouge to face his old employer, LSU head coach Les Miles. Chavis and Miles know one another’s tendencies, making this a fun college football chess match.
The game within the game is LSU’s secondary vs. the Aggies’ passing attack. Texas A&M has as good of a receiving corps as there is in college football. The same can be said about the Tigers’ secondary.
This is the last regular season game for both teams. If either is dealing with unrealized expectations headed into this game, it could turn out to be a one-sided affair. This also could be a slugfest if one team or both teams are jockeying for a potential SEC West crown or better bowl positioning.
4. Sept. 26 vs. Arkansas (at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas)
The Aggies escaped the Hogs last season, winning 35-28 in overtime after being down 28-14 in the third quarter. Former starting quarterback Kenny Hill exposed the Razorbacks’ secondary in the fourth with two long scoring plays — an 86-yarder to Edward Pope and a 59-yard pitch and catch with Josh Reynolds — to send the game into overtime. On the Aggies’ opening play of the extra period, Hill found Malcome Kennedy for the game-winning, 25-yard touchdown, with the defense stopping the Razorbacks on 4th and 1 to seal the come-from-behind victory.
Arkansas gets a great warm-up game the week before against Texas Tech, which is similar to Texas A&M in terms of offensive philosophy. If Arkansas’ secondary figures everything out against the Red Raiders this could be a tough game for the Aggies.
3. Sept. 5 (Saturday) vs. Arizona State (at NRG Stadium in Houston)
The Sun Devils present a very tough season opener for Texas A&M. Arizona State has five returning starters, plus senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, back on offense and seven on defense. The Sun Devils were 10-3 last year and easily could have been 12-1 suffering an eight-point loss on the road to Oregon State (35-27) and a seven-point defeat to in-state rival Arizona (42-35).
Bercovici is talented and one could easily argue that he should have been the starter last season over Taylor Kelly. As a junior, Bercovici replaced an injured Kelly against UCLA. The Bruins laid a bombshell on the Sun Devils, winning 62-27, but Bercovici still threw for 488 yards and two scores, but also had two costly interceptions. The following week on the road against USC he lit up the Trojans for 510 yards with five touchdown passes and zero picks. Against a tough Stanford defense the next week he completed 23-of-33 for 245 yards with one score and zero picks. Kelly came back in the following week, putting Bercovici back on the bench until the regular season finale against Arizona.
This one could be decided in the head-to-head matchup of Arizona State’s secondary vs. Texas A&M’s passing attack.
2. Oct. 17 vs. Alabama
If you are an SEC fan you should have seen the final two top “tough” games coming. The Crimson Tide may not be as stacked from top to bottom as in recent years, but Alabama still has a lot of talent to work with. No one, not even Nick Saban or offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin knows what Bama will have on offense until a starter under center is named and said quarterback starts to play some games.
One known entering the 2015 season is Alabama’s defense. Saban is a defense-first coach and coordinator Kirby Smart is given credit for being among the best of the best. Bama has seven starters back on defense and a mean and nasty front seven that no offense wants to face this season.
1. Nov. 7 vs. Auburn
The good news is Texas A&M gets Auburn at home. The bad news is Auburn will be ridiculously talented on offense with Jeremy Johnson taking over for Nick Marshall under center and 5-star JUCO transfer Jovon Robinson (6-0, 230) set to replace Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s leading rusher last season.
The Tigers, like the Aggies, upgraded in the offseason at defensive coordinator with former Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Auburn had the nation’s 64th-ranked defense in 2014, giving up 399 yards per game. Texas A&M’s was worse, coming in at No. 102 at 451 yards per game. In terms of reclamation projects, Muschamp seems to have an easier road getting his defense into shape compared to Chavis.
One thing, okay two things, appear to favor the Aggies: 1) Texas A&M beat Auburn last year in Jordan-Hare in a 41-38 shocker. 2) Auburn has a tough stretch of games prior to this one —at Kentucky, at Arkansas, home against Ole Miss. And after the Aggies, Auburn will go back to home to face a potential top-10 team in Georgia. Could this be a trap game for Gus Malzahn’s Tigers?
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.