Can Myles Garrett and the Aggies' defense improve enough under new coordinator John Chavis for Texas A&M to emerge as a Playoff contender?
Life as a Texas A&M fan can either be viewed from an optimistic or pessimistic stance with no in between. In 2014 the Aggies either exceeded expectations in Year 1 after Johnny Manziel, going 8-5 overall, or floundered after winning their first five games, jumping to sixth in the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll, only to post a 3-5 mark from the start of October through a season-salvaging 45-37 Liberty Bowl win over West Virginia.
Year after year A&M really should be one of the top teams in the nation given all the recruiting talent in the Lone Star State. The Aggies have recruited well, if rankings mean anything, but the signed letters of intent from 4- and 5-star recruits over the past three years have not produced the desired results on the field since Kevin Sumlin’s first season in College Station. That was when the Aggies won 11 games, including a resounding 41-13 drumming of former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Expectations are high once again for Texas A&M, as the Aggies enter the 2015 season No. 20 in Athlon Sports’ preseason poll. This team has a solid mix of six starters returning on offense and six on defense along with a lot of highly regarded but inexperienced talent on the roster.
If Texas A&M is to make a push to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game and aim for a spot in the College Football Playoff, the football gods will have to be on the Aggies’ side throughout the 2015 season.
Three Reasons Why Texas A&M Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. New Defensive Coordinator John Chavis
Cue the harps and heavenly music of the football gods! When the 2014 season was finished Sumlin wisely parted ways with Mark Snyder luring Chavis away from LSU. No other defensive coordinator in the SEC has Chavis’ background or experience, meaning an immediate upgrade on the defensive side of the ball is expected in College Station.
Since heading to Knoxville in 1989 as Tennessee’s linebackers coach, Chavis has effectively stopped opposing offenses around the league, establishing a reputation as the best of the best. His ability to recruit top talent to LSU made the Tigers one of the most feared defensive units in the SEC during his tenure in Baton Rouge.
A&M has recruited well on both sides of the ball but the big question is, can Chavis make a dramatic of enough change in one season to give support to Sumlin’s offense?
2. A&M’s Passing Attack
The roller-coaster ride under center last year between Kenny Hill (2,649 yds., 23 TDs, 8 INTs) and Kyle Allen (1,322-16-7) still produced the SEC’s top passing attack and one that finished 12th nationally at 305.5 yards per game. Hill is gone (transferred to TCU) and Allen is expected to earn the starting spot even though true freshman Kyler Murray is coming to College Station. Murray left Allen High School a high school legend, never losing a game and winning three consecutive state championships.
The key to the attack is the high quality of depth at receiver. Malcome Kennedy is gone but big-play target Josh Reynolds (52 rec., 842 yds., 13 TDs) is back along with Ricky Seals-Jones (49-465-4) and game-changer Speedy Noil (46-583-5). Add incoming 5-star freshman Christian Kirk from Saguaro (Ariz.) High School and this unit might be the best in the nation.
3. Defensive Line
As bad as the A&M defense was in 2014 the one group that played well was the defensive line. The Aggies have two senior starters returning in defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and defensive end Julien Obioha, but the headliner of the group is Myles Garrett. Garrett had 53 tackles last year as true freshman, including 14.0 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks.
The big question about Garrett is can he produce the same big numbers in SEC play? As is the case with most true freshmen, he worn down as the season went on. He picked up two sacks against Lamar, 2.5 against Rice, 3.0 against Louisiana Monroe, and 0.5 against West Virginia. But in SEC play he had three sacks in eight games. Tough to needle his superb freshman All-American season but a bigger presence in tough SEC games will be needed by Garrett if the Aggies’ defense is going to be successful.
Texas A&M's 2015 Schedule
|Date||Opponent||Athlon Projected Rank
|Sept. 5||vs. Arizona State*||13||9-3|
|Sept. 12||Ball State||94||6-6|
|Sept. 26||vs. Arkansas^||16||8-4|
|Oct. 3||Mississippi State||21||7-5|
|Oct. 24||at Ole Miss||11||9-3|
|Oct. 31||South Carolina||37||7-5|
|Nov. 14||Western Carolina||—||—|
|Nov. 21||at Vanderbilt||79||3-9|
|Nov. 28||at LSU||15||8-4|
*Game to be played in Houston; ^Little Rock, AR
Three Reasons Why Texas A&M Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. The Defensive Back Seven
Preseason expectations for the Aggies making a run in the SEC West are largely predicated on the “Chavis Effect.” The reality is A&M allowed 216 rushing yards (109th nationally) and 234.8 passing yards (80th) per game. This defense gave up 28.1 points per game (75th), and finished 102nd in FBS in total defense.
A one-year wonder turnaround can happen, just look at Arkansas’ defense. The Razorbacks finished 76th in total defense in 2013, but skyrocketed all the way to 10th last season under new coordinator Robb Smith. The rub for the Aggies is their style of offense and how quickly the back seven can adjust to Chavis’ style of play.
A&M is an up-tempo, quick-strike offense, which means more time on the field for the defense. This unit might need a year or two before becoming a true Chavis defense.
2. The Running Backs
Recruiting for the Aggies at the running back position has been up and down under Sumlin. In 2012, the recruiting class included 5-star running back prospect Trey Williams. In 2013, Sumlin signed 3-star James White, but no ball carriers were in the 2014 class. Two backs were part of the 2015 class — 4-star Kendall Bussey and 3-star Jay Bradford.
Williams is gone after a disappointing career at A&M, leaving seniors Tra Carson, last year’s leading rusher with 581 yards, along with Brandon Williams (379 yards) as the team’s only truly experienced backs. This lack of proven depth puts even more pressure on underclassmen to step up and become key contributors.
The good news for the Aggies is that running back is a position in the SEC where other young players have been able to have an immediate impact recently. Look no further than what LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb were able to do for their respective teams last season.
3. Offensive Line
For the running backs to have a good season the offensive line has to do a better job of run blocking. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital has worked under some of the better offensive minds in the college game (Gus Malzahn, Dana Holgorsen, now Sumlin) but has to put a greater emphasis on the offensive line in both run and pass blocking.
Hill and Allen were sacked a combined 27 times in 2014, the fourth highest total in the SEC behind Tennessee (41), Kentucky (36) and Ole Miss (31). This also tied for No. 64 in the nation.
The sacks could be overlooked if the running game was not so anemic. A&M averaged 149.9 rushing yards per game (82nd in FBS), but this production dropped dramatically in conference play to just 107.2 ypg.
Third down conversions also hurt the Aggies all year, as the offense was unable to extend drives, especially in short-yardage situations. Auburn (.525) and Alabama (.515) led the conference and were in the top four in the nation in third down conversions. A&M converted just 40.8 percent of its third downs, placing the Aggies 63rd in FBS.
Texas A&M’s schedule, while difficult, could not be laid out any better. Sumlin’s team does not leave the state of Texas for a game until Oct. 27 to play Ole Miss. That’s the seventh game of a 12-game slate. The only other two games outside the state are at Vanderbilt and LSU.
The toughest stretch of the season begins when the Aggies travel to Houston to meet Arkansas. After playing the Razorbacks, A&M welcomes Mississippi State and Alabama then heads off to Ole Miss. The Aggies return home to face a humbled South Carolina team and a tough Auburn squad. The four swing games that A&M must split for a shot at winning the SEC West and staying in the Playoff hunt are Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU. The other games on its slate should be winnable.
The Aggies also can make a very strong opening statement by defeating Arizona State in their season opener. But a loss doesn’t mean the end to A&M’s Playoff hopes either; as all could be forgotten if it goes on to win the SEC West and the championship game in Atlanta.
Finesse offenses can work in the SEC and on the national level if the defense can win a few games, pitching near shutouts or in A&M’s case holding a team to two scores. An 8-4 regular season finish for A&M seems like a fair projection until the nation can see the Chavis Effect.
If a running game is found, a little more toughness is instilled (especially up front), and the Aggies embrace Chavis’ defensive mindset, this team could win as many as 10 games and open a few eyes along the way.
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.