Once again, Texas A&M appears to be on the doorstep of joining college football's elite.
The investment in head coach Jimbo Fisher paid big dividends in 2020. The Aggies were 9–1, won the Orange Bowl and finished fourth in the final polls — their highest final ranking since winning the national championship in 1939. But A&M has been on the doorstep before, only to have the door slammed shut.
The task now facing Fisher is to continue the momentum and perhaps emerge as a legitimate challenger to Alabama in the treacherous Southeastern Conference West Division.
That quest seems more realistic than ever. Fisher has compiled three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and has been successful in developing that talent.
Nine starters are back from the SEC's top defensive unit. Skill position players who accounted for 88 percent of A&M's touchdowns last season also return.
The Aggies must replace record-setting quarterback Kellen Mond, four members of a stout offensive line and a couple of defensive stars. If Fisher finds adequate replacements, the Aggies may finally join the elite.
Previewing Texas A&M's Offense for 2021
The Aggies have no shortage of big-play threats. Powerful All-SEC running back Isaiah Spiller rushed for 1,036 yards in 10 games last season and looks to increase that total. He'll have to do it while sharing carries with speedster Devon Achane, the Orange Bowl Most Valuable Player.
The entire receiving corps returns intact. Versatile junior Ainias Smith led A&M in touchdowns and receiving yards while splitting time at running back. Jalen Wydermyer figures to leave A&M as the most productive tight end in school history. Also, Caleb Chapman is expected to be fully recovered from a knee injury that limited him to three games in 2020. He had three touchdown catches before the injury.
The obvious question on offense is who will succeed three-year starter Mond at quarterback. Haynes King has great speed, and Zach Calzada has a rifle arm.
There is also concern on the offensive line, which lost four starters. Kenyon Green shifts to tackle from guard, where he earned All-America acclaim. Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson should take over the other tackle spot.
Previewing Texas A&M's Defense for 2021
Despite the departure of All-SEC tackle Bobby Brown III, A&M's defensive front projects to be just as good as — if not better than —a year ago.
Defensive end DeMarvin Leal is as overlooked as he is overwhelming. He was denied postseason honors even though he posted eight quarterback pressures, three deflected passes, an interception and a forced fumble. He's joined up front by tackle Jayden Peevy and end Micheal Clemons, who both opted to return for super-senior seasons. Clemons posted four sacks in five games before sustaining a broken ankle. McKinnley Jackson was so impressive as Brown's understudy that he should be able to fill the role at tackle without a significant decline in production.
The secondary returns wholly intact with cornerback Myles Jones also opting to take advantage of a super-senior season. He had the best season of his career until missing the final two games with an ankle injury. Yet, he might not be A&M's best cornerback, or its best Jones. Sophomore Jaylon Jones showed signs that he could develop into a special player. When healthy, junior safety Demani Richardson has started every game since his freshman year.
The biggest hole to fill is the one left by leading tackler Buddy Johnson, an emotional leader at inside linebacker. Junior Andre White Jr. was capable in a backup role, but he must prove that he can be just as effective as a starter. Fingers are crossed that White can duplicate the emergence of super-senior Aaron Hansford, a one-time tight end who performed admirably last season, his first as a starter.
Previewing Texas A&M's Specialists for 2021
Kicker Seth Small has converted 80 percent (29-of-36) of his field-goal attempts over the past two seasons. Punter Nik Constantinou averages 40 yards per boot and has a knack for killing the ball inside the 20-yard line. Smith is a threat on punt returns, but the Aggies didn't even try to return kickoffs in 2020. The threat that Achane poses may lead to a change in that strategy.
A projected strong defense suggests that huge offensive numbers won't be required to post victories. The experienced Aggies defense figures to be as good as the unit that held seven opponents to fewer than 30 points last season. That would be a vital for a team with a first-year starting quarterback and rebuilt offensive line.
A favorable early schedule allows new starters to gain much-needed game experience. A&M's first five opponents each managed just four wins or fewer last season. Four of those games will be played in the state of Texas. That will lead up to a mid-season clash against Alabama at Kyle Field.
The Aggies' schedule is as advantageous as it can be in the SEC West, with home games against Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State. A 10-win season is a reasonable goal. If either King or Calzada can play at a high level at QB, the Aggies could challenge for more.
National Ranking: 6
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions
(Isaiah Spiller photo by Craig Bisacre/Texas A&M Athletics)