What a difference a year made for the No. 21 Texas A&M Aggies on the gridiron. Even playing against one of the nation’s toughest schedules and with a new staff helmed by former Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, the Aggies (8-4, 5-3 SEC) showed significant improvement across the board bringing a renewed enthusiasm to College Station. The win-loss column did not reflect the vast changes in play on the field but the action within the games and a couple of heartbreaking losses showed this squad is one to take seriously for years to come.
While other first-year coaches were trying to assimilate to their new roster and outwardly complaining about not having “their guys,” Fisher took the challenge head-on, pulling off a near-upset of No. 2 Clemson (28-26) in Week 2 while beating then-No. 13 Kentucky (20-14 OT) and No. 8 LSU (74-72 OT) later on. The change from the spread offense under Kevin Sumlin to a pro-style attack helped the Aggies on defense. Without wearing down late in games thanks to the ball-controlled approach of the new offense, the defense showed marked improvement, from 78th in the nation a year ago (409 ypg) to No. 36 (355) out of 129 FBS teams. The offense also improved, by 59 more yards per game, which ranks it 20th nationally and fourth in the SEC.
There's still one game left to be played, as Texas A&M will face NC State (9-3, 5-3 ACC) in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 31. But, before A&M travels to Florida to take on the Wolfpack, there are some awards to hand out.
Offensive MVP: Trayveon Williams, RB
Williams led the SEC in both rushing yards (1,524) and touchdowns (15) in the regular season, earning first-team all-conference honors by the coaches. The junior showed he could be a workhorse back against top competition, logging 252 carries, an increase from 173 a year ago. When his team needed him most down stretch Williams stepped up with an average of 175 rushing yards per game and eight total touchdowns in November, helping fuel a 3-1 finish. Perhaps his most impressive game of the year was his 35-carry, 198-yard, two-score showcase against LSU in seven overtimes in the regular-season finale. Williams currently has the third-most rushing yards in a season in program history.
Defensive MVP: Kingsley Keke, DT
While the linebackers may get all the headlines, Keke has been fantastic up front all season. The senior has 48 tackles and is second on the team with 10 tackles for a loss and six sacks. His tenacity attacking the ball was crucial in the win against Kentucky as he contributed five stops (four solo) and two sacks.
Best Freshman: Jashaun Corbin, RB/KR
Corbin caught the attention of the 12th Man with his play on special teams, recording 340 return yards on 11 kickoffs. He set the tone in the win against the Razorbacks taking the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. The likely heir apparent when Trayveon Williams departs, Corbin has 305 rushing yards and a touchdown on 57 attempts (5.4 ypc). He's also serviceable in the passing game with 85 yards on 10 receptions.
Best Play of the Season: Kellen Mond's TD to Quartney Davis to Outlast LSU in 7OT Marathon
Top plays come in all shapes and sizes, but there may not have been a more rewarding touchdown for A&M all season than the game-winner against LSU. Kellen Mond had the game of his life in front of the home crowd, throwing six TD passes and adding another on the ground. With the Aggies down 31-24 and one last chance to tie the game, Mond found Quartney Davis for a 19-yard to send it into overtime. But both teams were just getting started, and finally, in the seventh overtime Mond connected with Davis again, this time from 17 yards out. The two-point conversion sealed the deal as Texas A&M posted its biggest win of the year, outlasting the Tigers 74-72.
Best Performance by a Player: Kellen Mond vs. Clemson
For nearly three quarters of action, Clemson dominated Texas A&M on its home turf and built a 21-6 lead. But with a little more than four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Mond found Kendrick Rodgers for the Aggies' first touchdown and the rally was on. A&M came up a two-point conversion shy of tying the game with less than a minute left, but it wasn't for a lack of effort and determination on Mond's part. He finished with a season-high 430 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against a Tigers defense that is fourth in the nation in yards allowed per game and tied for second in points.
Best Game (Team Performance): Road Win vs. South Carolina
With losses on the board against No. 1 Alabama (45-23) and No. 2 Clemson, the Aggies were still trying to establish their identity midway through the season. A two-game winning streak helped build momentum, downing Arkansas (24-17) in Arlington, Texas, and No. 13 Kentucky at home. But A&M needed to go on the road, show it could face adversity and still beat a good team. And that's what the Aggies did on Oct. 13 against the Gamecocks. The Aggies were up 13-0 at halftime but found themselves in a 16-16 game entering the fourth. Seth Small capped an 11-play drive with a 39-yard field and then Trayveon Williams got in the end zone from three yards out for what proved to be the game-winner with 1:36 remaining. A&M outgained South Carolina 458 to 299 and forced the only two turnovers of the contest.
Biggest Surprise: Jace Sternberger, TE
Sternberger was arguably the biggest Class of 2018 signee for any SEC team this season. The junior college transfer, who started his career with the Kansas Jayhawks, leads the Aggies in receptions (47), yards (804), and touchdown catches (10). Those 10 scores are already a new single-season record at A&M. Sternberger has been the SEC's top tight end as he finished seventh in the conference in receiving yards and deservedly received first-team all-conference recognition. The newcomer has posted at least two catches in every game, including a seven-catch, 145-yard effort with a touchdown against South Carolina.
Biggest Disappointment: 28-24 loss to Auburn
Great teams learn how to close out games, and the loss in Jordan-Hare Stadium was a learning lesson for the Aggies. In a back-and-forth contest throughout the first half, A&M appeared ready to pull away after building a 10-point lead early in the third quarter. That margin held until late in the fourth when Chandler Cox scored from one yard out and Jarrett Stidham connected with Seth Williams on an 11-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winner with 1:35 left to play. The Aggies controlled every aspect of the game except the turnover department (two lost fumbles, one INT), which proved to be critical in the loss.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Landis Durham, DE
Switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense is not always easy, but Durham not only made the transition but has continued to make a noticeable impact. After posting 10 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss in 2017, Durham has been credited with 47 total stops, 9.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks this season. In the big home win over Kentucky, he recorded five tackles, a half-sack and knocked down a pass. Also a tip of the hat to classmate Donovan Wilson. The safety is second on the team in tackles (66) leads the way with two interceptions.
Player to Watch in 2019: Tyrel Dodson, LB
With senior Otaro Alaka out of eligibility after the bowl game, Dodson will be the returning leader among the linebackers. A junior, Dodson has played in all 12 games and is third with 61 tackles, including six for a loss. The defense is set to say farewell to four key seniors, but Dodson and other returnees give coordinator Mike Elko plenty to build around in his second year running the Aggies' defense.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Replacing Senior Leadership
One of the amazing things about the Aggies' 2018 season is that this is a young team across the board. A&M has key seniors on both sides of the ball and they will be missed. Two starters along the offensive line (Koda Martin, Keaton Sutherland) will have to be replaced along with defensive anchors Landis Durham, Keke Kingsley, Otaro Alaka and Donovan Wilson. If Trayveon Williams decides to go pro, that also will leave a big hole in the offense. Every spring is vital to the growth of a college football team, but where Texas A&M goes in Jimbo Fisher’s second season will depend on not just finding the right personnel to replace the departing seniors but also identifying some new leaders.
— 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.