Each season brings a renewed sense of optimism to the college football landscape, but in College Station the Texas A&M Aggies will have their backs up against the wall from the opening kickoff. The pressure is squarely on head coach Kevin Sumlin to break a three-year streak of 8-5 showings that has the 12th Man rumbling about a better fit on the sidelines.
The 2016 season was a near identical repeat of the previous three, as the Aggies had an opening win against then- No. 16 UCLA followed by SEC victories against Auburn, No. 17 Arkansas, South Carolina, and No. 9 Tennessee. But once again the second half of the season was not kind, as Texas A&M dropped three of four games in November, the only victory coming against a non-conference opponent (UTSA). These repeating November crashes might be easier for fans to forgive if close losses in bowl games to Louisville (27-21) in 2015 and Kansas State (33-28) in ’16 had not capped these seasons.
Another recurring theme Sumlin and staff will have to overcome is a fourth consecutive season breaking in a new starting quarterback. It now seems like a while ago since fans enjoyed Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy-winning season. Whoever gets the starting job does have three returning starting linemen to protect him as well as an All-America candidate at wide receiver (Christian Kirk) and 1,000-yard rusher (Trayveon Williams). However, the defense must replace No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett up front.
The schedule is manageable, but still plenty difficult, as is life in the SEC West. Here’s a look at Texas A&M’s 2017 regular season slate, ranked from easiest to toughest game based on recent history, location and matchup.
12. Sept. 9 vs. Nicholls State
On paper the Colonels, who hail from the FCS ranks and went just 5-6 last season, are greatly outmatched. However, Nicholls State nearly knocked off then- No. 9 Georgia in Athens in last’s season’s opener before falling 26-24. One thing in the Colonels’ advantage for a potential upset is that Texas A&M will be coming off of its West Coast opener against UCLA.
11. Sept. 16 vs. Louisiana
The Ragin’ Cajuns finished the 2016 season 6-7, but went 4-3 over the final seven games, including a close road loss to Georgia. The Cajuns have six starters back on offense and on defense, but must break in a new starting quarterback and running back.
10. Nov. 11 vs. New Mexico
After a brutal six-game stretch that starts with Arkansas and includes South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn, the Lobos will be a welcomed sight in College Station. But some caution for A&M fans. After five years in Albuquerque, head coach Bob Davie has turned things around and led New Mexico to back-to-back winning seasons. The nation’s top rushing attack (350.0 ypg) in 2016, this could be a tough matchup for the Aggies’ retooled defense.
9. Sept. 30 vs. South Carolina
The SEC offers no gimmes so the Aggies better be prepared for the Gamecocks. An undermanned South Carolina team put up a fight in a 24-13 home loss to Texas A&M last season and returns a total of 16 starters, including 10 on offense, while also getting All-SEC-caliber linebacker Skai Moore back from injury. The Gamecocks get Louisiana Tech the week before while the Aggies will have just played Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
8. Nov. 18 at Ole Miss
After posting four winning seasons in his first four years in Oxford, head coach Hugh Freeze is on the hot seat. A 5-7 finish in 2016, looming NCAA violations hanging overhead, and a porous defense that could not stop the run last year could spell doom for the Rebels. The continued development of sophomore dual-threat quarterback Shea Patterson might be the best hope for a winning season.
Texas A&M will look for revenge after falling 29-28 at home last year to Ole Miss. The Aggies get New Mexico the week prior, which should help, but Ole Miss also should be in good shape having just hosted Louisiana from the Sun Belt.
7. Oct. 28 vs. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs won last year’s matchup in Starkville, 35-28, one of three Texas A&M losses in November. This meeting comes in October and is at home, so maybe the result will be different. This will conclude a tough six-game stretch for Mississippi State, while the Aggies will be coming off of a bye after facing Alabama and Florida, but have Auburn looming.
6. Sept. 23 vs. Arkansas (Arlington, Texas)
Arkansas had a three-game winning streak against the Aggies (2009-11) but since then the Southwest Classic has been all Texas A&M. The games are always competitive but the Aggies have been able to make the big play in the fourth quarter to come away with the win. The Razorbacks will have two games and a bye week to tinker with their new 3-4 defense before facing Texas A&M in AT&T Stadium. Arkansas’ Sept. 9 home matchup with TCU could serve as a barometer for the Hogs’ readiness to face the Aggies’ up-tempo offense.
5. Sept. 3 at UCLA
The Bruins could be a tough opening draw for the Aggies, especially on the road. UCLA’s defense was supposed to be good last year with eight starters back, but A&M hung 31 points on it in College Station. The Bruins were bitten by the injury bug in 2016 with the team falling apart after the first week of October on the way to a 1-6 finish. High hopes are pinned on junior quarterback Josh Rosen to lead the way for a UCLA turnaround, starting with a win over the Aggies.
4. Oct. 14 at Florida
One thing SEC coaches and their respective fan bases have learned about Gators head coach Jim McElwain after two years in Gainesville is never count him or his team out. Two seasons and two improbable SEC East Division titles lends to great credibility in that respect. Florida once again has to break in a new starting quarterback but has great complementary pieces among the nine starters back on offense. However, a rebuilding defense might be the Gators’ weak link this fall.
This game wraps up three straight in the Swamp for Florida with Vanderbilt and LSU preceding. Texas A&M will have just hosted Alabama.
3. Nov. 4 vs. Auburn
Gus Malzahn and Sumlin have traded punches in this series with the Aggies getting Auburn at the right time last year, the third game of the season. Once again, the Tigers should be tough to stop on the ground with the running back duo of Kamyrn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson back. They were the main reason Auburn led the SEC in rushing with 271.3 yards per game. The Tigers’ defense was solid for the most part in 2016, but struggled against the pass.
The arrival of junior college transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham to lead Auburn’s offense only adds to the intrigue of this game, which is the first (gulp!) in November for Texas A&M. If the Aggies can win this one, it should set up no worse than a 2-2 finish. But if they stumble at home, what does that mean for their head coach’s job security?
2. Nov. 25 at LSU
Death Valley is one of the toughest venues in college football for visiting teams. This has been true for the Aggies, who have dropped six games in a row to the Tigers. There could be plenty riding on this game for one or both teams, so momentum, especially for Texas A&M, could be key. LSU has the tougher road leading up to this game, with the rest of its November slate consisting of road games at Alabama and Tennessee and a home date with Arkansas. Last year’s meeting was a high-scoring affair, with the Tigers topping the Aggies at Kyle Field 54-39.
1. Oct. 7 vs. Alabama
Is it enough to simply write “it’s Alabama” and leave it at that? Sumlin snuck into Tuscaloosa in 2012, winning 29-24, but it’s been all Crimson Tide since. Nick Saban’s team will be more than a month removed from its opener against Florida State and will have just hosted Ole Miss the week prior. Alabama returns just 12 starters, but plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, wide receiver Cameron Ridley and running back Damien Harris. The Crimson Tide defense was No. 1 in the country in 2016 and even with seven members of last year’s unit going in the most recent NFL draft, there’s no reason to expect much different results this fall.
— 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 has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.