SEC PREVIEWS: A&M joins the mix

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on and we start with one of the SEC's two newest members, Texas A&M, the predicted sixth place team in the SEC West.



The most difficult program for college football pundits to evaluate in 2012 has to be Texas A&M. In 2011, the talented Aggies looked like national championship contenders in the first half of games against Top 10 opponents Oklahoma State and Arkansas only to look like pretenders in the second half by squandering 17-point and 18-point leads, respectively. In fact, the Aggies held the lead in all six losses last season, and those schizophrenic performances ultimately resulted in the firing of head coach Mike Sherman.

The school hired University of Houston's top man Kevin Sumlin and his high-octane passing offense to lead the Aggies into the school's inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference. He tabbed South Florida's Mark Snyder to run the defense and he promptly switched from last season's 3-4 base defense to a standard 4-3 scheme. If that wasn't enough change, Sumlin must also replace senior signalcaller Ryan Tannehill, who was the No. 8 overall pick in this year's NFL draft. Needless to say this will be a year of transition for the Aggies on many levels.

Sumlin made it clear in the spring that he plans to bring his heralded high tempo, explosive pass-oriented offense to Aggieland. In 2011, the University of Houston led the nation in total yards and points scored behind the arm of veteran All-America Case Keenum. But with the graduation of Tannehill, Sumlin's staff won't have the luxury of playing an experienced signalcaller at the most important spot in this pass-happy offensive scheme.

The battle to replace Tannehill under center focused this spring on third-year sophomore Jameill Showers who has completed four career passes at the collegiate level, and redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel with no on-field college experience. Showers can make every throw on the field and has the strongest arm on the team. Manziel is less polished than Showers as a pure passer, but he has a knack for getting outside the pocket and making big plays.

Sumlin has vowed not to name a starting quarterback until the fall, but Showers is the odds-on favorite to earn the Aggies' starting quarterback job. If he can carry the load at quarterback in the fall, the Aggies have plenty of offensive talent around him that could make this unit tough to stop. Helping the newcomer at quarterback will be an offensive line that features a pair of potential first-round draft picks at the tackle spots, juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Overall, four of five starters return to a unit that is expected to be one of the best in the SEC in 2012.

Texas A&M returns veteran playmaker Christine Michael who rushed for 899 yards in nine games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He's expected back at full strength and he'll get help from electrifying incoming freshman speedster Trey Williams. The Aggies are also hoping to receive a hardship waiver for OU running back transfer Brandon Williams that will allow him to play in 2012, but the team won't know his status until late summer.

The receiving corps returns Ryan Swope who led the 2011 team with 1,207 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Senior Uzoma Nwachukwu will also be called upon to be a quick study in Sumlin's new offense, but the new staff is still searching for more playmakers at the position. Help could come from highly-rated incoming freshman Thomas Johnson who switched his pledge from the Texas Longhorns to the Aggies in January. Still, a lack of difference makers at receiver could be an issue in 2012. Defensively, the days of the vaunted Wrecking Crew are long gone, but Texas A&M's defense under coordinator Tim DeRuyter improved over the past two seasons. Still, the unit ranked No. 59 in total defense in 2011. The 3-4 base defense was built for the spread offenses prevalent in the Big 12. That's a problem now that the Aggies are facing more traditional offensive attacks.

New defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has reverted back to a base 4-3 scheme, but a lack of defensive linemen is causing major concern for 2012. Last year's starters Eddie Brown and Tony Jerod-Eddie have graduated from a unit that was already thin. Jonathan Mathis returns after sitting out a redshirt season with a knee injury and part- time starter Spencer Nealy will join the starting rotation. Junior Damontre Moore will spin down from last year's joker position to defensive end and little-used junior Kirby Ennis is penciled in at the tackle spot. Depth at the position will be a combination of inexperienced returning players and young incoming freshmen, so the point of attack will be a challenge in the physical SEC.

The new defensive staff was pleasantly surprised with the performance of the linebackers in the spring led by Sean Porter, who is listed as a first-round pick on several early mock NFL draft boards. Seniors Jonathan Stewart and Steven Jenkins also impressed in the spring along with sophomore Donnie Baggs.

In addition, the coaching staff gave the defensive secondary, especially the young cornerbacks, high marks in the spring. Sophomores Floyd Raven and Deshazor Everett are considered emerging young stars while junior college transfer Tremaine Jacobs and senior Dustin Harris provide quality depth. The safety position is in flux with projected starter Steven Campbell out for the spring with an offseason injury, but part-time starters Howard Matthews and Steven Terrell return to stabilize the position.

The Aggies must replace Lou Groza Award winner Randy Bullock at kicker, but highly-touted Taylor Bertolet has above average range and is expected to do a solid job at the position. Texas A&M has had recent troubles at punter, and the staff hopes strong-legged sophomore Drew Kaser can gain more consistency with another year of experience.

The Aggies will be talented across the board on offense. If they can find a productive quarterback to replace Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M will light up the scoreboard in Kevin Sumlin's high-octane offensive system. However, the team's success in year one in its new conference will depend on the performance of the defense, especially along the trenches. Can Texas A&M's defensive front hold up to the weekly pounding in the SEC? That's the $64,000 question for the Aggies.


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