Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series wraps up in the SEC West today with Texas A&M. Coming Monday: We switch to the SEC East, beginning with Florida.
I was dead wrong.
Well, not about the first 7 games of A&M’s 2020 schedule. That, I nailed. A 6-1 start that included a win against Florida and a loss to Alabama was spot on.
But I was dead wrong about the Aggies finding an identity and becoming an elite team in 2020. I thought they’d be a faux contender. A product of their schedule? Yeah. A team with an overpaid coach who will never meet lofty, Texas-sized expectations? Yep, that’s what I thought, especially after how lopsided that Alabama game was.
And boy, was I wrong. Very wrong.
A&M turned into a bit of a throwback, vintage SEC team. They could dominate you with the ground game, they had a quarterback who made good decisions and they had a defense that stymied the run. Tell me that wasn’t a bit like a classic Les Miles team. It was.
Did they perhaps get knocked for their inability to stretch the field vertically? Yeah. Had A&M come around 10 years ago, I don’t think it would’ve been picked apart in the same way. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, it was first runner-up for a Playoff spot after closing the season on an 8-game winning streak. Playoff snub or not, it was still the program’s best Associated Press Top 25 finish in 81 years.
So how do you follow that up? That’s the million dollar question.
The (Haynes) King is here … I think
A&M has an ongoing QB competition. Fisher has said he soon will decide between Haynes King and Zach Calzada. I believe it will be King. Either way, it’s a first-time starter.
That’s equal parts scary and exciting. We know that Fisher’s offense isn’t exactly simple, and that he demands a lot of his quarterbacks.
Can he go through his progressions and get it to Ainias Smith when he’s matched up on a linebacker? Can he find Chase Lane when the protection breaks down? Can he give Jalen Wydermyer a chance to make a play in the middle of the field?
These are all questions that we’re going to find out about King (I think) in due time. That’s the good news, though. In terms of surroundings, you really can’t ask for a better spot for a first-time starter. At least in terms of the offensive skill players. He has arguably the best tight end in America in Wydermyer, an elite slot man in Smith, deep threat Caleb Chapman coming back from a torn ACL after a promising start to 2020 and arguably the best backfield 1-3 in America with Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane and Smith.
Assuming he’s given the keys to Fisher’s offense, King probably will have some highs and lows to start. If he comes out throwing for 300 yards and 4 scores on a weekly basis, he won’t be able to escape Johnny Manziel comparisons. Shoot, maybe even 2013 Jameis Winston comparisons would be warranted given the Fisher connection to the redshirt freshmen.
Is that realistic? Probably not. As exceptional of an athlete as King is, there’s a learning curve here.
How well he handles that remains to be seen.
The new Maroon Goons
The foundation of A&M’s 2020 push was largely based on the Maroon Goons. The offensive line had continuity and experience in a way that, quite frankly, we hadn’t seen from a Fisher-coached team since maybe 2015 or 2016. That changed last year with a group who was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in America.
But now, Kenyon Green is the lone returning starter from the Maroon Goons. And he’s making the transition to left tackle. In stepped Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson to solidify the other tackle spot while Luke Matthews (son of Bruce) is ready to finally step in as the starting center.
There are questions at the guard spots, where Layden Robinson and Aki Ogunbiyi are expected to step in. Fisher gave them praise repeatedly throughout the offseason. The A&M coach also said in spring that this year’s Maroon Goons isn’t at the level that last year’s group was at, but that it had more long-term potential.
That’s fair. Unfair is expecting the 2021 line to protect the quarterback like the 2020 line, which only surrendered 7 sacks in 9 regular-season games. And perhaps it’s unfair to assume that A&M will again rank as a top-10 run offense among Power 5 teams. Or maybe it’s not.
If the long-term potential is at the level Fisher suggested, A&M should still push plenty of people around in 2021.
Mike Elko’s defense … his best yet at A&M? (I totally copied and pasted this from last year)
Anybody who has read my SDS content over the past few years knows I’m an Elko supporter, and I think he’s one of the elite defensive minds in the sport. That’s probably why I always predict that he’s going to one-up himself.
Last year’s group wasn’t historically great, and the Alabama game was a tough pill to swallow, but the Aggies were still plenty effective. They were second in FBS against the run and they finished No. 3 in the SEC in scoring defense. You’ll take that all day, every day.
So why should this group be even better? A few reasons.
Let’s start with the secondary. This is finally an experienced AND capable group on the back end. Does Elko’s tendency to load up the line of scrimmage sometimes put them on an island? Sure. Speaking of defensive backs on an island, Myles Jones is coining the phrase “Jones Island” to describe himself and fellow A&M corner Jaylon Jones. And at safety, Demani Richardson and Leon O’Neal Jr. are both potential All-SEC guys who have seemingly been in College Station since the Johnny Manziel era.
The secondary is in a better position to handle being put in those tough spots. And not that A&M has been lacking solid defensive linemen in recent memory, but they have a pair of versatile forces on the defensive line in DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy. They don’t need extra pass-rushers, and they’re both capable of doing the heavy lifting to stop the run. PFF graded Leal as the only returning Power 5 edge defender with 80-plus grades as both a run-blocker and a pass-rusher.
The question is if A&M can get enough pressure up front to help some of the pass defense issues that have surfaced in recent years. As great as Elko has been, the Aggies have to improve in that department, especially to get over the Alabama hump.
But the pieces are certainly in place.
Week 1: vs. Kent State (W)
Dustin Crum is a legit top-25 quarterback in the country. Yeah, it was only 4 games against MAC schools, but Kent State had the No. 1 offense in America last year. The problem? The defense ranked No. 114. A group that allowed 262 rushing yards per game probably isn’t going to be able to get the Aggies off the field, even if things do start off a bit one-dimensional for the home team.
Week 2: vs. Colorado in Denver (W)
Tricky matchup here. Colorado surpassed some low expectations last year, and with an early-season game in Denver, I wonder about A&M cramping with that elevation factor. That’s a good time to have some depth, which A&M has in spades. Consider this a return to the spotlight game for Caleb Chapman. Colorado keeps it close, but Chapman gets behind the secondary twice to fuel a solid road win (sort of).
Week 3: vs. New Mexico (W)
Hey! Terry Wilson returns to the SEC! That’s fun! I’m a big Wilson fan. The issue is that even when Wilson had Josh Allen and Benny Snell on his Kentucky team in 2018, he couldn’t lead a victory in College Station. Something tells me that challenge will be a bit tougher with New Mexico’s roster. Leal gives Wilson problems and A&M rests the starters all 4th quarter.
Week 4: vs. Arkansas in Arlington (L)
Wait, really? An upset of A&M? Yes. As I stated throughout this offseason, I think 2021 has some 2014 vibes in the SEC West. It’s gonna get weird. Once again, it’s turnovers that fuel Arkansas. I think Barry Odom confuses the first-time starting quarterback enough to finally end the 9-game losing streak to the Aggies. Jalen Catalon winds up with a pair of interceptions, including the one to seal a nail-biter victory. A&M’s 2021 SEC debut serves as a major setback. Or perhaps, rather, it’s a springboard game …
Week 5: vs. MSU (W)
I think the days of expecting to go into College Station and push around the Aggies are over. This is a horrendous matchup for MSU in the trenches. As much as Elko loves to load the box and send extra pressure, he has enough studs up front to get pressure with only sending 3 or 4. I won’t be surprised to see a lot more instances like this:
This is nice from DeMarvin Leal pic.twitter.com/LmjuIHRWwa
— Charles Power (@CharlesPower) October 17, 2020
That makes for a long afternoon for the MSU offense, which falls behind early and struggles playing catch-up in the entire second half.
Week 6: vs. Alabama (W)
Yep. I think it finally happens. That is, Nick Saban loses to a former assistant. Why? Didn’t Fisher poke the beast when he said that he plans on beating Alabama’s a– while Saban is there? Perhaps. And hasn’t Fisher’s teams only led for 6 minutes and 29 seconds in 4 career games against Saban’s Alabama teams? Yep. But what’s also true is that this is the 4th game in 6 weeks to start off the season against potentially-ranked foes. I think that takes a toll on the Tide, who might not be able to overcome that A&M front with Leal and Peevy. A 60-minute, back-and-forth thriller is decided on a Chapman touchdown to lift the Aggies past Alabama, sending the college football world into a frenzy. A&M controls its fate to Atlanta.
Week 7: at Mizzou (W)
Dangerous, dangerous game here. And I’m not just saying that because I always think back to when a banged up Johnny Manziel played in a thriller in Columbia and lost in 2013, which was what helped Mizzou clinch the SEC East. Coming off the Alabama win, A&M trails for the majority of this game. But unlike the Arkansas matchup when King forced throws late, he instead settles in and puts together consecutive touchdown drives to fuel a comeback win on the road.
Week 8: vs. South Carolina (W)
I don’t think South Carolina’s 2021 roster is built to hang with the big boys, especially if depth issues are tested late in the season. The Gamecocks will struggle with Elko’s defensive strategy of loading the box and daring them to throw. That proves to be a challenging formula, and against a solid run defense, Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd can’t get chunk plays. After consecutive weeks with some late drama, A&M keeps its foot on the gas and cruises.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: vs. Auburn (W)
Just like with South Carolina, Elko is going to load that box and dare Auburn to beat A&M through the air. To be fair, most teams are going to do that to Auburn this year. Most teams won’t, however, have the luxury of Elko at the controls with dudes up front to take up space and free up linebackers, or just get in the backfield themselves. That’s the difference for A&M. Even against a desperate Auburn team, the Aggies stymie Auburn’s offense to keep their SEC West hopes alive.
Week 11: at Ole Miss (W)
A&M will be able to beat teams in a variety of ways this year. The Aggies have balance and depth on offense that should be unlike anything we’ve seen from the Aggies in recent memory. Against Ole Miss, though, the backs take over. Spiller and Achane take turns breaking off long touchdown runs and Ole Miss finds itself playing behind from the jump. That’s a death sentence against A&M. The Aggies get out of Oxford with a victory and move to an LSU win away from clinching the West.
Week 12: vs. Prairie View A&M (W)
The only thing I wonder about this game is how confused Prairie View A&M fans will be when they hear the words “another A&M touchdown!” Don’t overthink it. It’ll be for the home team.
Week 13: at LSU (L)
Oh, no. It can’t be.
On the brink of an SEC Championship berth, A&M can’t get it done. With a potential New Year’s 6 bowl bid up for grabs, the Tigers play fast and loose, much like they did last year when they spoiled Florida’s Playoff chances. Instead of needing a thrown shoe to close it out, the Tigers turn to their star. Kayshon Boutte saves his best for last once again in what turns out to be a huge day from the LSU sophomore. A&M struggles to find an answer for Boutte, who scores a pair of second-half touchdowns to close out the regular season with a bang. The Aggies’ Playoff dreams die a painful death in Death Valley.
2021 projection: 10-2 (6-2), 2nd in SEC West
This projection is borderline diabolical. I admit it. And for the sake of Aggie fans, I hope they don’t experience pain quite like this.
This scenario would include:
- A) The first loss to Arkansas in 10 years
- B) Fisher becoming the first Saban assistant to beat the master
- C) A 7-game win streak
- D) A loss to LSU to close the regular season and miss out on an SEC West title
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
The painful part of that LSU loss, of course, would be that by virtue of beating Alabama, A&M would control its SEC fate for the majority of the season. Losing it on the final day of the regular season would feel like a massive opportunity missed. There’s no denying that Aggie fans would look back on 2021 as the ultimate “what if.”
Not to put lipstick on a pig here, but also think about this. Once the sting of that wore off — at least a little bit — A&M would have a chance to win a New Year’s 6 Bowl and finish as a top-5 team. You know the last time A&M had consecutive top-5 finishes? Trick question. The answer is “never.” Even Bear Bryant and the Junction Boys couldn’t pull that off.
Yes, the expectation when you pay a coach $75 million is that he’s going to earn multiple Playoff berths. That’s still going to be the measure of Fisher’s success.
But man, think about what type of statement that would make with Texas on the verge of joining the SEC. It’s not like recruiting and developing talent is about to fall off a cliff, either. This type of season would prove that 2020 wasn’t a one-off and that the Aggies aren’t going anywhere.
And hey, that type of disappointment is a whole lot easier to stomach than a November collapse.