Even after five seasons under former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, where hopes were high year after year but then quickly dashed come November, there is a wave of optimism overpowering College Station and the Lone Star State thanks to new head Aggie, Jimbo Fisher. Fisher has his team (4-2, 2-1 SEC) playing sound, fundamental football in all three phases and, more importantly, showing improvement every time it steps foot on the field.
One could argue that there is not a better two-loss team in the nation than Texas A&M this season. The Aggies’ two defeats have come at the hands of then- No. 2 Clemson (28-26) and No. 1 Alabama (45-23). The squad has blown out the teams they are supposed to, FCS opponent Northwestern State (59-7) and Sun Belt member ULM (48-10), and have held on for tight wins against Arkansas (24-17) and last week's 20-14 overtime victory over No. 13 Kentucky.
A welcomed sight for A&M fans is seeing an effective rushing attack. The stats were padded thanks to a 503-yard, five-TD performance against Northwestern State, but there has been improvement since managing just 71 yards on 32 carries in the loss to Clemson. In three SEC games, A&M is averaging 157 rushing yards per game.
Another vast improvement that should continue to benefit the team is quarterback Kellen Mond’s completion percentage. After completing a little more than half of his passes (52 percent) a year ago, the sophomore is at 61 percent under Fisher.
With raw talent being turned into elite SEC performers, there are a lot of awards to hand out to the Aggies at the midpoint of the 2018 season. But, with a challenging schedule ahead, what kind of backstretch can we expect from A&M under Fisher?
Offensive MVP: RB Trayveon Williams
A&M fans have not seen this since joining the SEC, but they have a tailback who is leading the SEC in rushing yards with a legitimate shot at carrying the honor through to the end of the year. Williams is seeking to do only what former quarterback Johnny Manziel did in 2012. The junior tailback has 720 yards on 120 carries and currently holds a slight lead over Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. (699 yards). Williams flashed some of his potential during his freshman season when he finished with 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns.
If he wants to maintain his early success, Williams will need to find a way to be effective against tough defenses. Against Clemson and Alabama, he managed just 31 yards on the ground. In the other four games, he's had at least 128.
Defensive MVP: LB Otaro Alaka
The front seven for A&M is getting the job done this year with Alaka leading the way. The skilled linebacker leads the team in total tackles (35) and solo tackles (17) and is second in tackles for a loss (6.5) behind Kingsley Keke (7). With games left against running teams like South Carolina, Mississippi State, Auburn, and LSU, Alaka is on pace for an All-SEC season.
Best Moment of First Half: Trayveon Williams' TD Run Beats Kentucky in Overtime
What appeared to be a signed, sealed and delivered victory against Kentucky slipped away with 4:17 left in the fourth quarter when Kellen Mond fumbled the ball for a Wildcats’ 40-yard scoop and score. A missed 43-yard Miles Butler field goal for Kentucky in overtime swung the momentum of the game back to A&M. Williams then sealed the deal with a 10-yard touchdown run for the win. The victory snapped an Aggies’ six-game losing streak to ranked opponents.
Best Newcomer: TE Jace Sternberger
Unhappy at Kansas in 2016 after only getting into one game, Sternberger left the Jayhawks for Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in 2017 and is now A&M’s leading receiver. The sure-handed tight end is first in receptions (22), receiving yards (351), and touchdown catches (5). Sternberger is a true nightmare for linebackers and nickelbacks.
Biggest Surprise: Defense
The Aggies have always recruited well, but for some reason the talent on the defensive side was not getting the job done late in games, especially late in the season. In Sumlin’s last season with the Aggies, A&M was an average defense across the board finishing 78th nationally in total defense and giving up more yards per game (409) than what the offense was producing (407). There is a drastic difference under new defensive coordinator Mike Elko as the Aggies have cut their yards allowed per game by 82. That turnaround has A&M ranked 23rd nationally thanks to a run defense that's only allowing 83 yards per game.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Kellen Mond the passer
While Mond has improved his accuracy, his performances in the pocket have been up and down. He was able to confuse a very good Clemson pass defense for 430 yards and three touchdowns, but it seems that defenses have gotten a much better handle on him and Fisher's offense since then. Last week had him throw for 226 yards and a touchdown, his best numbers since playing the Tigers, but he's also thrown at least one interception in three straight games.
A&M’s next three games are against teams that are tough against the pass, and each is on the road. South Carolina (ranked 12th), Mississippi State (15th), and Auburn (30th) have talent in the secondary and players up front who can pressure the quarterback. How Mond plays will dictate the outcome over the next three.
2. Navigating the three-game road trip
On paper, the Aggies could rightfully catch college football’s attention by winning their next three games to improve to 7-2 before returning home to face Ole Miss, UAB and LSU, but it will not be easy. South Carolina may not be as improved as advertised, but the Gamecocks are still a well-coached team. The more difficult challenges are Mississippi State and Auburn.
Mississippi State cannot throw the ball and Auburn cannot run it giving the Aggies’ defense a chance to shut down the opposing offenses. The hard part is gaining any yards against the defenses. Because Auburn’s offense is underperforming, the Tigers’ defense is fatiguing.
3. Can Trayveon Williams keep the pace?
Last season, Williams had a career-high 173 carries, averaging 13 per game. This season, Williams is averaging 20 carries per game and is on pace for 260 rushing attempts through 13 games. That is a big difference in workload, especially grinding through an SEC schedule.
It is a team effort, but against good run defenses in Clemson and Alabama, the Aggies could not move the ball on the ground. Fortunately, the only two statistically tough run-stopping teams left on the schedule are Mississippi State, limiting teams to 115 rushing yards per game, and LSU, holding opponents to 122.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 27 at Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s offense is still in flux, especially the aerial attack, but the combination of dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams are tough to stop. Holding down defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons and defensive end Montez Sweat is no picnic.
Luck has it that A&M picks up MSU after the Bulldogs travel to Baton Rouge to face LSU. There should be some mental and physical fatigue lingering for Mississippi State. The other lucky note, the Aggies have a bye week to prepare for the Bulldogs.
2. Nov. 3 at Auburn
Surprisingly, Auburn’s offense is on life support with an offensive line not getting any push in the ground game. The lack of a running presence is affecting the passing game. Tigers’ preseason All-SEC quarterback Jarrett Stidham is having a ho-hum season with zero 300-yard passing games and just five touchdowns tossed in six games.
If Auburn is not careful, this could be a trap game for the Tigers. A&M should have their undivided attention but the following week the Auburn heads to Athens to face Georgia.
3. Nov. 24 LSU
The LSU game could easily be ranked No. 1 here, but the Tigers have a murderer’s row of games left between now and the regular-season finale going up against Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama, (Rice) and Arkansas. The three toughest games, Georgia, MSU, and Bama are all at home. LSU could be a giant slayer come Nov. 24 or limping towards the finish line.
4. Oct. 13 at South Carolina
The Gamecocks do not have a signature win on the schedule, yet, but are coming off a 37-35 home win over Missouri. South Carolina is about as beat up as any team in the nation with injuries but continues to play hard for head coach Will Muschamp. This contest should be a big game for Trayveon Williams.
5. Nov. 10 Ole Miss
With a passing team like Ole Miss that slings it all over the field with quarterback Jordan Ta’amu throwing to perhaps the best receiving corps in the nation, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Demarcus Lodge, a.k.a. “Nasty Wide Outs”, the Rebels have a chance to win any game. The trouble is, once again, the Landshark defense has no bite, allowing 504 yards per game to the opposition. With Trayveon Williams and Kellen Mond, A&M should own the time of possession and the game against the Rebels.
6. Nov. 17 UAB
Look out, UAB is 4-1 on the season and undefeated in Conference USA (2-0). The Blazers were 8-5 last year but appear to be even better this season. UAB has some talent on offense, starting with running back Spencer Brown and receiver Andre Wilson. The Blazers' defense has been strong as well, giving up 303 yards per game (11th in the FBS). This contest can be viewed as the Blazers’ big bowl game. One can assume they will give A&M their best shot.
— 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.