Our ranking: No. 23 TEXAS A&M
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (44-21, entering sixth season; 79-39 overall)
2016 record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 Southeastern Conference; fourth in West Division
Look back: Another fast start gave way to a season-ending swoon, placing coach Kevin Sumlin firmly on the hot seat following his sixth season in College Station.
On the heels of overtime wins against UCLA and Tennessee and at Auburn, the Aggies opened last season 6-0, including 4-0 in SEC play. But a subsequent 33-14 loss at Alabamabegan a skid that saw A&M lose its final four conference games.
Other than during the loss at Alabama, Sumlin’s offense held its own, scoring at least 28 points during each loss. But the defense yielded an average of 40 points during the defeats and ended the season allowing more than 500 yards a game in SEC play.
Offensive starters returning: 5
Defensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: DE Myles Garrett, QB Trevor Knight, WR Josh Reynolds, OT Avery Gennesy, S Justin Evans, WR Kirk Merritt
Top returnees: WR/PR Christian Kirk, RB Trayveon Williams, S Armani Watts, DT Kingsley Keke, LB Otaro Alaka
Strengths: The Aggies, like all Sumlin teams, feature talent at the skills positions.
As both a receiver and punt returner, junior Christian Kirk is the SEC’s premier big-play threat. In 2016, he totaled 14 plays 30 yards or longer and averaged 11.9 yards on 105 touches.
Meanwhile, TB Trayveon Williams burst onto the scene as a freshman, rushing for 1,057 yards and eight scores while averaging 6.8 yards a carry. He will operate behind an offensive line that returns three starters, but neither tackle.
The Aggies lost DE Myles Garrett, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and the team’s top two tacklers from a struggling defense, but do return some impressive pieces on that side of the ball. Playmaking senior S Armani Watts registered 181 stops the past two seasons; OLB Otaro Alaka recorded 74 tackles as a sophomore; and junior DL Kingsley Keke had 37 stops, seven for loss (four sacks), in 2016.
Weaknesses: Sumlin developed Case Keenum at Houston and Johnny Manziel at A&M. Sumlin’s future with the Aggies hinges on whether he can find a top-notch quarterback this season. First-year freshman Kellen Mond is the future but could be rushed into the lineup. Senior Jake Hubenak, who is 1-2 as a starter, is the safety net.
Texas A&M lost its top three receivers behind Kirk and needs someone to complement him. Early enrollees Jhamon Ausbon and Hezekiah Jones will be called upon to provide help. Up front, the Aggies need junior Koda Martin to live up to his billing as a big-time recruit and replace All-SEC LT Aver Gennesy.
Defensively, no one will replace Garrett, but behind Keke and DT Zaycoven Henderson the Aggies defensive front hopes to have better depth. Beyond Alaka, linebacker is a concern. In the secondary, the Aggies need UCLA transfer Priest Willis to bounce back from an injury-riddled first year at A&M.
Outlook: When Manziel was under center, Sumlin, who turns 53 Thursday, was a hot commodity in NFL coaching circles. These days, his flower has faded. After a visit at UCLA to open the season, the Aggies schedule favors another fast start. This time, Sumlin needs his team to close well, too.