Life without Johnny Manziel begins in 2014.
The SEC West is arguably the top division in college football, featuring two likely top-10 teams in Alabama and Auburn, while LSU always has one of the nation’s top rosters, and Ole Miss is a team on the rise under Hugh Freeze.
As we peek ahead to 2014, Texas A&M might be one of the biggest wildcard teams in the nation. The Aggies have recruited well under Kevin Sumlin, the cupboard is stocked with young talent ready to emerge.
However, Texas A&M’s defense struggled mightily last year and is still a huge concern going into 2014. With the departure of quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans, it’s unlikely the Aggies will average 38.4 points per game in SEC contests this season. With Manziel gone, it’s up to the defense to help cover for the losses on defense and help to keep Texas A&M in the mix for a spot among the top three teams in the West Division.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
How Many SEC Games Will Texas A&M Win in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a tough one, but I’m going to go with four. Even though quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and tackle Jake Matthews are gone to the NFL, the cupboard is far from bare in College Station. Kevin Sumlin has recruited back-to-back top-10 classes, so there’s plenty of promising young talent. But that’s part of the problem for Texas A&M. The Aggies are young on defense, and the best quarterback on the roster could be a true freshman (Kyle Allen). Progress should be noticeable on defense in 2014 after allowing 6.4 yards per play last season. However, can the defense make enough progress to offset the loss of Manziel and Evans? Probably not. The opener at South Carolina, a mid-October road trip to Alabama and an early November game at Auburn are the only games I would pencil in an loss for Texas A&M. With swing games against Ole Miss, Missouri and LSU at home and later in the season, it should give the Aggies plenty of time to solidify some of the questions on the depth chart and make a run at repeating last year’s .500 mark in SEC play. When a coach is in the process of rebuilding a program, a small step back may be necessary in order to take a step forward. With all of the young talent on the roster, Texas A&M is only going to get better with each snap and will be a dangerous team heading into 2015.
Adam Cribbs (@AdamCribbs), RockMNation.com
Well first, let's get the obvious part out of the way. Johnny Manziel made Texas A&M a difficult team to beat. There was plenty of talent around him the past couple years in Mike Evans, Christine Michael, Ryan Swope, etc. but the offense would not have been the juggernaut it was without the unpredictability and unbelievable playmaking ability of Johnny Football. Now that he's gone, we'll see if Kevin Sumlin just lucked into finding a guy to carry his team through their first two years in the SEC or if Sumlin deserves more credit than he's been given.
Before Manziel, Sumlin was coaching Case Keenum at Houston. Keenum was putting up MONSTER numbers that year, having thrown for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions. My point is that Manziel isn't the first QB under Sumlin to put up ridiculous numbers, so maybe we should respect Sumlin's contribution to the offense as much as Manziel's. Having said all of that, you have to question just how quickly the Aggies can replace not only a guy like Johnny Manziel, but others like Jake Matthews and Mike Evans and still have success in the powerful SEC West. (Note, I'm only talking about the offense because I honestly don't have much to say about the Aggie defense this last season. They would have won 2-3 more games, including Alabama, if they had any kind of defense in 2013.)
I like the talent A&M has coming up on the offensive line with four returning starters including senior G Jarvis Harrison. At QB, there is a wealth of talent competing for the starting position including Kenny Hill and incoming five star early enrollee Kyle Allen. Malcome Kennedy and Sabian Holmes at WR will have big shoes to fill with Mike Evans on the way out, but it's not a weak receiving corps by any means. Even with this talent returning, the 2014 schedule is not an easy one. I think the Aggies will probably be right around the four win mark again this season, with wins over Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss (because it's at Kyle Field) and one more win coming from either Missouri or LSU. If the defense finds a way to make massive strides from 2013's poor performance, that number could go up, but that would mean some massive improvement.
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
The season opener at South Carolina is a big test for both teams. The Aggies and Gamecocks are both introducing new quarterbacks. But South Carolina appears to have the advantage with Dylan Thompson, who has more starting experience than whichever quarterback Texas A&M chooses. I’ll give the nod to South Carolina. Games at Alabama and Auburn should be the most challenging for Texas A&M, which lost to both teams last season. That should be two more losses for Texas A&M. I have the Aggies finishing with a 5-3 record in the SEC after they end the season with home wins over Missouri and LSU.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
A season-opening road trip to South Carolina and two midseason visits to the State of Alabama to play Auburn and the Crimson Tide are as sure fire a trio of losses as any team in the nation may have in 2014. A home date with Arkansas needs to be a sure fire win for Kevin Sumlin. Otherwise, the rest of the SEC schedule is a bunch of potentially very entertaining swing games for Texas A&M. The Aggies should be able to win at least one - with a very outside shot at two - home tilt against LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri all in the second half of the season. The trip to Mississippi State on Oct. 4 will likely determine SEC West pecking order this fall and could be the difference in a very impressive rebuilding year or a sixth-place finish in the division. At this point, three league wins would be considered an excellent season and two is the most likeliest scenario.
Texas A&M went 4-4 in SEC play last season and that was with Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews on the roster. These three were first team All-SEC performers on one of the nation's most explosive offenses who are pretty much assured of hearing their names called when the first round of the NFL Draft takes place in less than a month. These three also represent the three biggest holes that Kevin Sumlin and his staff have to fill this season. The Aggies' offensive line should be fine with four starters returning and there are some talented pass-catchers on the roster as well. However, Manziel was the engine that made this offense hum the past two seasons and there doesn't appear to be a clear-cut leader when it comes to the next guy who will line up behind center. Yet even with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and an explosive wideout like Evans making plays down field, Texas A&M finished .500 in conference play in 2013, as the fourth-ranked offense in the nation out-gained its SEC peers by a mere 15 yards per game. The Aggie defense was a disaster, finishing dead last in yards allowed and second-to-last in points. While this unit may return eight starters and has some promising recruits coming in, most notably defensive end Myles Garrett, there's no guarantee it will turn things completely around and it won't have Manziel or Evans on offense to help bail it out. The Aggies' margin of error has shrunk drastically, and with a schedule that includes the season opener at South Carolina, a crossover game against Missouri, along with trips to Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State, three SEC wins would have to be considered a successful start to the post-Manziel era in College Station. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Sumlin's squad finishes with just two conference victories, as Arkansas appears to be the only "sure" SEC win given all of the question marks associated with this team.