Texas A&M travels to South Carolina tonight, giving the college football (and SEC) season its de facto kickoff. This will be the first game of the Post-Johnny Manziel era. Mr. Fucking Football eased Texas A&M’s transition to the SEC on the field, with 17 FBS wins and an Alabama upset. He revitalized the reputation of the university itself. One forgets that just two summers ago the school was trying to expunge its steadfast dorkiness from the Internet. The natural question: what happens now?
Few would fault Kevin Sumlin’s long-term program building – he has redefined in-state recruiting in three years at the A&M helm – but his Texas A&M team could be poised for a setback during a transition year in 2014. They lose a lot from last season, and last season’s team went 7-4 vs. FBS during the regular season and nearly lost to Duke in the Peach Bowl.
Johnny Manziel Leaves. Johnny Football was college football’s biggest superstar. But, just looking at his tangible production, it will be almost impossible for the Aggies to replace him. As a passer, he completed 70 percent of his passes, throwing for 4,114 yards and 37 touchdowns, while averaging 9.6 yards/attempt. He also effed around and led the Aggies in rushing, earning 759 yards and nine touchdowns on 144 carries. Some of that was the system. A healthy dollop of that was Manziel improv. Can what, in the previous decade, was a middling program compete at the top-level in the SEC without top-level difference-making production quarterback? It’s worth noting here that Kevin Sumlin is 3-7 without Keenum or Manziel and recruited neither of them.
Much of what was around Johnny Manziel leaves. Malcolme Kennedy returns for his senior season. He’s the only Texas A&M player who caught more than 21 passes last season and more than one touchdown. That’s three veteran receivers gone, including Top 10 pick Mike Evans. Ben Malena, the second-leading rusher the past two seasons, departs. So does tackle Jake Matthews, a Top 10 overall pick. The Aggies should have a good offense. But expect some regression from 7.34 yards/play.
Their Defense won’t be good. Texas A&M should improve on defense, returning nine starters. They can’t get much worse. In 2013, the Aggies were 14th in the SEC in yards/play defense, 11th in third down conversion percentage allowed and 14th in red zone touchdown percentage allowed. Texas A&M had to put up 40-50 points against a good opponent to win. Even that was no guarantee. Factoring in substantial progression would get this unit to 10th best in the conference? Is that enough if the offense is not boat-racing defenses with the same efficiency?
Their schedule is relentless. Texas A&M has little margin for error in the 2014 schedule. There are four nailed-down wins and eight SEC games up for grabs. They have trips to South Carolina (tonight), Alabama and Auburn on the schedule. Not to mention Starkville. Their three SEC home games are against Ole Miss, Missouri and LSU. Only one of those is before Nov. 15. They went 4-4 in that conference with Manziel last year. Modest regression could have a massive impact. One could conceive a scenario where A&M is statistically among the best 20-30 teams in the country…and finishes 5-7 against that slate.
YESSIR… Sumlin has been recruiting like a maniac. His 2013 class ranked 11th nationally per Rivals. His 2014 class ranked 6th. He has a Top 5 group on tap for 2015. Those guys are freshmen, redshirt freshmen, sophomores or not on campus for 2014. Recruiting coverage has made these kids “names.” It’s not unheard of for one young player to contribute. But, relying on a wave of them to come through as underclassmen and form a coherent whole tends not to be a success recipe. Kevin Sumlin appears unassailable heading into 2014. But, he’s also a transition year snowballing away from being Brady Hoke, who was in a similar position entering 2013.