Aggies' SEC West title hopes will likely hinge on what happens in final two games
If Texas A&M Aggies fans seem to have more enthusiasm and optimism about the upcoming college football season than in years past, there is good reason. The Aggies are a dark-horse contender to win the SEC West. Primary divisional rivals LSU and Alabama lost a slew of top underclassmen to the NFL draft, leaving their rosters more barren than usual. Earning a berth to the SEC Championship Game would put A&M in the conversation for a potential College Football Playoff invitation, with all hinging on a victory in Atlanta. But does the 2020 schedule line up for a potential championship run?
Jimbo Fisher's teams are known for an up-tempo pro-style set, and he has a well-oiled machine with eight returning starters on offense. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko also has eight starters back, which adds to the idea that the path to Atlanta might go through College Station. As schedules go, the Aggies have an easy go of it, facing five FBS squads with new head coaches and arguably only have one very challenging back-to-back.
11. Sept. 5 vs. Abilene Christian
The proverbial cupcake opener against an FCS team that helps work the kinks out against an actual opponent.
10. Sept. 12 vs. North Texas
Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell had momentum going his way until a 4-8 (3-5 C-USA) 2019 season. Picked to win Conference USA's West Division, the team never put a winning streak together and went 0-6 on the road. Might the Mean Green players come to Kyle Field showing a little more fight against an in-state powerhouse?
9. Oct. 10 vs. Fresno State
The Bulldogs were another team seeking to turn things around, but then head coach Jeff Tedford had a rough go, finishing 4-8 (2-6 MW). Tedford resigned on Dec. 6, and Fresno State replaced him with up-and-coming offensive mind Kalen DeBoer. After a one-year coordinator stint at Indiana, DeBoer returns to Fresno, where he previously served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach (2017-18).
8. Sept. 26 vs. Arkansas (Arlington, Texas)
The Aggies have won eight straight against the Razorbacks, although five of those have been one-score games coming down to the wire. Arkansas has a new head coach in Sam Pittman, with former Florida State offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom on defense running their units. This will be the Hogs' third consecutive road game after previously facing Notre Dame and Mississippi State.
7. Nov. 14 vs. Vanderbilt
This may be Derek Mason's swan song in Nashville. Entering his seventh season without a winning campaign and just two bowl berths, even if expectations are low at Vanderbilt, Mason may be looking for a new gig in 2021. Hosting Florida at home before visiting College Station does not make it any easier on the Commodores. The trouble in this one for Fisher is if the team gets caught looking ahead to the final two games.
6. Nov. 7 vs. Ole Miss
After a two-game road trip to Mississippi State and South Carolina, A&M returns home for a two-game stand against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. If the road trips were successful, the Aggies could be undefeated and use this homestand to recharge the batteries for Alabama and LSU. At this point in the season, whatever new head coach Lane Kiffin is doing with the Rebels offense will be clear and should not be too much to handle for A&M at home.
5. Oct. 3 at Mississippi State
The fifth game of the season presents a nice test for the Aggies with a true road game to Starkville. The Bulldogs will need a victory in this one before facing both Alabama and LSU on the road in the next two weeks. Mississippi State is typically a tough team, and that same mantra could be true in 2020 with Mike Leach bringing his Air Raid offense to the SEC. With four games to figure out what is and is not working, Leach needs his squad firing on all cylinders for the Aggies.
4. Oct. 24 at South Carolina
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp is another SEC coach fighting to keep his job in 2020. A head coach's fourth season with the same program is when a team is supposed to hit their stride, but the opposite happened with the Gamecocks in 2019. USC fell to 4-8 (3-5 SEC) with injuries taking a toll. The Gamecocks will be battle-tested, having gone on the road to see Kentucky and Florida then hosting Tennessee, before A&M flies to Columbia.
3. Oct. 17 at Auburn
This meeting was a 28-20 slugfest a year ago, but then Auburn was a senior-laden squad with a ridiculous defense; now the roles are reversed. All those key players are off trying to secure a spot with an NFL team, leaving villainized Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn vulnerable to a difficult season. The Tigers will also be returning home off of their biggest test to this point in the season: Georgia.
2. Nov. 28 vs. LSU
The 2019 LSU Tigers were world-beaters, and their fans will still be cocky and full of enthusiasm, but this team will not be quite the same in '20. So many key LSU All-Americans and All-SEC players are now in the NFL making them an unknown entity in the preseason. LSU could reload and be an SEC West contender or could take some lumps with an inexperienced roster. If A&M beats Alabama, flip-flop this game from No. 2 to No. 1. All the pressure in the world will be riding on the outcome of this showdown.
1. Nov. 21 at Alabama
A road game at Bryant-Denny Stadium that could decide the West side of the SEC title tilt... a dream for college football fans to watch, a nightmare if you are the Aggies. Alabama, much like LSU, has suffered attrition to the NFL but reloads with top recruiting classes year after year. The Crimson Tide go to Baton Rouge and then come home for a late non-conference rest against UT Martin before welcoming the Aggies. No matter what, undefeated or a one-loss team, Alabama will be ready for this pivotal matchup.
Note: Schedule subject to change. Prior to the Pac-12's decision to go with a conference-only schedule, Texas A&M's Sept. 19 home date with Colorado would have ranked ninth on this list.
— 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.