There is a buzz in College Station that has not been felt since the R.C. Slocum days of the early 90s when the Texas A&M Aggies were regularly producing 10-win seasons and bringing home conference titles. But those days featured wishbone offenses and were had against Southwest Conference foes.
Since the Aggies moved from the SWC to the Big 12 in 1996 and onto the SEC in 2012, A&M has captured just one conference championship, a Big 12 title in 1998. Since that 11-win '98 campaign, A&M has had just one double-digit victory season, an 11-2 romp in Kevin Sumlin's first season on the sidelines. After two hard seasons of molding his squad and due diligence put in on the recruiting trail, A&M is finally in position to contend for an SEC West title under third-year head coach Jimbo Fisher, with hopes of making a push to the 2020 College Football Playoff.
Over the last two seasons, the schedule was not kind to Fisher, even beyond the regular divisional games. The Aggies had featured non-conference games against Clemson and had a home-and-home series against Georgia that two losses on the resume each year and took the squad out of playoff consideration. The schedule lightens up in 2020, and with 16 starters back from last season's 8-5 (4-4 SEC) run, dreams could become a reality for Texas A&M fans.
Three Reasons Why Texas A&M Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. Kellen Mond
The 2019 season was a mixed bag for Mond. In some areas of his game, like completion percentage (61.6), he showed improvement, but in other areas, like passing yards (3,107 to 2,897) and touchdown/interception ratio (20/9), he regressed. As a four-year starter working behind a veteran offensive line with a promising run game to support him, Mond should challenge as a first-team All-SEC honoree. Mond has to rise to the challenge for A&M to make a run to the SEC Championship Game. If he is pushing a 3,500-yard, 28-touchdown kind of season, this offense may be too tough to stop with a strong defense backing their play.
2. Returning talent
No other SEC West team has as much veteran leadership returning to the roster top to bottom as the Aggies. The receiving corps lost some key talent to the NFL in Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers, but have standouts returning in Jhamon Ausbon and Jalen Wydermyer returning. The defensive front seven for A&M should control games by shutting down the opposition's rushing attack while being able to put pressure on the quarterback. If the Aggies can avoid an injury bug, there is no reason this team cannot be elite.
3. Weaker SEC division
No matter what, the SEC West will always be tough. There is too much recruiting talent being pumped into that side of the conference every year for a horrible falloff. But there will be a significant drop in returning starters on key squads like Alabama, Auburn, and LSU that should give A&M an advantage. Alabama and LSU should still compete for a share of the SEC West title but will be doing so with inexperienced players, which leaves a window of opportunity open for the right team.
Three Reasons Why Texas A&M Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. The pains of the SEC schedule
What could be an advantage for A&M could also be a detriment. A&M has two challenging spots on the schedule, a two-game road trip to Auburn and South Carolina and end-of-season showdowns against Alabama (road) and LSU. If the Aggies can pull through their late October road trip without troubles, they could once again be in a familiar role of entering November as a late-season contender. History shows us that it is not likely for a team to go undefeated in the SEC. Since Tennessee won out in 1998 only Auburn (2004, '10), Alabama ('09), and LSU ('19) have gone undefeated. If they suffer a loss, will that be the loss that keeps them from going to Atlanta?
2. Roster depth
Injuries play a factor for every college football team, and only the top recruiting programs can overcome those obstacles without losing ground. A&M is set up to have four seniors starting on the offensive line, but the depth behind them is young and inexperienced. The same holds true for their linebacking unit. Preseason camp will be a blur just to get the starters ready for opening week, but attention to the second string is needed to make it through the attrition of an SEC gauntlet. Does A&M have enough talent and depth to make a run if injuries occur?
A generation has passed since A&M last won a conference title, and the Aggies have never achieved that goal as a member of the SEC. Until an upstart team can take that next step by supplanting the blue bloods, there will always be doubt among the fans, players, and media alike. The A&M players and fans may talk the talk about an SEC championship, but when the chips are down on the table, needing a score in Bryant-Denny or Death Valley late in the second half, will the Aggies believe in themselves to make that play that propels them to that next level of college football greatness? Nine years ago, A&M was very good but not great. Is this the year they rise to the cream of the crop in the West?
College football fans have seen A&M in this position before, repeatedly, under Sumlin before going into a November slide. Playing Alabama and LSU on the back end of the schedule will do that for any team. Fisher has championship pedigree, notching three ACC titles (2012-14) and one national championship (2013), but even for Fisher, it has been a few years since he has been a true contender for anything of national importance in the postseason.
Alabama plays host to Tennessee-Martin before welcoming A&M, and LSU will have just tangled with Auburn on the road. The best hope is for a split between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers winning a tie-breaker for the right to continue onto the SEC Championship Game. This squad has championship-caliber opportunities. There is a great chance the Aggies can post an 11-1 record in the regular season but may still need outside help for a College Football Playoff berth. If A&M can emerge from Bryant-Denny undefeated, there should be no stopping this squad from making history. But that is a big if.
— 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.