Thursday, April 19, 2007

Texas A&M Spring Football Preview

(I know Texas is next alphabetically, but I just didn't feel like writing about the Longhorns yet. So we're doing ATM.)


Lucky or good? While Missouri was 0-3 and OSU was 1-4 in games decided by less than a touchdown in 2006, Texas A&M won a whopping five of those games. That’s pretty crazy. What’s even crazier is, they lost another three more! They played in EIGHT tight games in 2006. But when you think about their style of play, it makes sense. Led by 600-pound Jorvorski Lane and super fast Michael Goodson, ATM was content to grind the ball and wear down opposing defenses. They were good enough at this that it kept a lot of games close; however, they weren’t good enough to destroy people with it. Missouri fans like to talk about how ATM “ran all over us”, but they really didn’t. They controlled the clock and ran 51 times...but they only managed 180 yards (an unimpressive 3.5 yards per carry). That was pretty typical of ATM’s 2006 season. ATM’s 540 rushing attempts were third in the conference (behind only OU and Nebraska), but they only ran for more than 250 yards in a game twice. They were definitely consistent, and they finished the year with the most rushing yards in the conference (and the best time of possession), but they weren’t all that dangerous. If you were able to avoid wearing down by keeping your own offense on the field for a while and piling up first downs, you definitely had the opportunity to compete against ATM. Just ask Army. And, chances are, if you lost to ATM, you were pretty pissed about it. Just ask Missouri.

In all, though, whether it was due to talent or luck, the Aggies won 9 games, a 4-win improvement over 2005. They beat four cupcakes (The Citadel, UL-Lafayette, Army, Louisiana Tech) in non-conference play—though they barely held off Army, 28-24—and started Big XII play on a down note, losing at the last second to Texas Tech. They then moved to 7-1 on the season by beating Kansas (last-second TD), Missouri (+3 in turnovers), and Oklahoma State (blocked PAT in OT) by a combined 10 points; by contrast, their 10-point win over Baylor was utter domination.

Lady Luck, however, got tired of bailing the Aggies out after a while, and ATM lost to Oklahoma and Nebraska by a combined 2 points. The 8-3 Aggies then shocked the entire conference by taking down Texas in Austin (cheap-shotting Colt McCoy eleventeen times in the process) and preventing Texas from winning the Big XII South.

And then in the Holiday Bowl, ATM got run off the field by a California team that looked about 4000% faster than them.

In all, it was a strange season for ATM. They returned (at least marginally) to prominence and saved Dennis Franchione’s job (for now), but they didn’t really look all that good in the process. They return a lot of players from 2006’s squad, but does that mean they’ll improve, or is Lady Luck waiting to smack them down again? No matter what, their games will be close ones, I guess.

Key Returnees

On offense, most of the players you’ve heard of return. QB Stephen McGee, RB Michael Goodson, RB Jorvorskie Lane, WR Kerry Franks, TE Martellus “Overrated” Bennett*. McGee is a hard-nosed, competitive guy. He’s the perfect QB for the physical offense that ATM presented last year. The demand on his arm isn’t high in this system—only Oklahoma State and Colorado threw fewer passes last year than ATM—but he’s shown the ability to make clutch plays and avoid mistakes (only 2 INT’s in 2006).

Lane and Goodson made for a nice “thunder and lightning” combination, especially as the season progressed and Goodson gained confidence. As I’ll mention in the ‘Spring Developments’ section, they are receiving challenges for playing time, so they (Goodson in particular) will have to stay on their game. That can’t be a bad thing. In the WR/TE corps, Franks and Bennett return, along with Earvin Taylor and Pierre Brown. This was a decent collection of receivers last year, but there isn’t a deep threat in the bunch (though they did manage to complete two bombs against Mizzou).

No matter how good the backfield was last year, they’d have been nothing without a solid O-line. They do lose OG Grant Dickey, but the rest of the line—led by OG Kirk Elder—returns intact.

On defense, there are many seniors scattered amongst the front seven. DT Red Bryant returns for his 17th season in maroon and white, as does DE Jarrett Jack. Neither are spectacular, but they’ve both made quite a few big plays in their career. The Aggies also must replace LB Justin Warren, who was by far their steadiest presence on D last season. The secondary, much maligned in 2006, does return quite a few contributors, most notably CB Danny Gorrer and FS Devin Gregg, but they lack the athleticism that you need to compile a truly strong secondary in this conference.

Spring Developments

The main goals of the spring for ATM were developing better defensive consistency and integrating at least some semblance of a vertical passing game. However, it’s hard to show progress in both areas since they have to go against each other in practice, isn’t it?

The major development of the spring appears to be the emergence of freshman RB Cornell Tarrant. The Ags have plenty of RB’s already, but he worked his way into the equation with a Demarco Murray-like spring. Goodson’s a good runner, but he was a bit inconsistent last year, so if Tarrant has a good August, you could expect Goodson to lose a few carries a game.

Fun With Numbers

By the numbers, here are the five biggest keys to success for ATM in 2006:

1. First Down Ratio
2. Opponents’ Total First Downs
3. Pass Completion %
4. Opponents’ 3rd Down Attempts
5. Opponents’ Yards Per Rush

ATM played a game of Russian Roulette in 2006. They were content to get first downs, eat the clock and wear down opponents. However, if the other team were able to string together some first downs, ATM was in for a battle. Unless ATM is able to create (and take advantage of) some more big play opportunities, the defense will need to improve significantly to avoid the same situation this year. Luck evens out in the end (unless you’re Mizzou, ahem), and if ATM was 2 games over .500 in tight games last year, there’s a decent chance that they go 2 games under .500 this year.

That, or I’m still bitter that Mizzou lost to ATM the way they did. Or both.

ATM has road games at Miami-FL, Missouri, Texas Tech, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in 2007, but that might not be a bad thing. Somehow (despite the vaunted “12th Man”) the Ags went 1-3 at home in conference last season...and 4-0 on the road. However, if ATM goes 1-3 at home again this year, that means they either lost to Kansas or Baylor in College Station. Possible, but unlikely. In all, I don’t see ATM improving much this season in the record category, but I don’t see too far a regression either. In the end, I’m pencilling them in for about an 8-4 mark.

* I don’t actually have anything against Martellus Bennett. He’s a decent TE. But he’s consistently named on Best TE’s lists on par with (or ahead of) Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman simply because he was a big-time recruit out of high school. In two seasons, he has 56 catches and 6 TD’s. Not bad for a TE. However, in two seasons Chase Coffman has AVERAGED 53 catches and 6.5 TD’s. They are not equals, and I’m really tired of their names being mentioned as if they were.