It's been a successful run for Texas A&M athletics in the 2006-2007 academic year. The football team beat Texas in Austin for the first time since 1994. The women's soccer team won another Big 12 title. The basketball team made the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1980, the women's softball team returned to the College World Series, and the baseball team returned to the NCAA Tournament.
But with the close of the 2006-2007 season comes the expectations for the start of the 2007-2008 year, and football is first on everyone's mind.
A&M coach Dennis Franchione's 2006 squad improved by four games over 2005, going from 5-6 to 9-4 and earning a berth in the Big 12's No. 3 bowl slot, the Holiday Bowl.
The 2006 football team continued to build on the rushing success of the 2005 squad, averaging almost 207 yards a contest, ranking eighth nationally. Overall, A&M's total offense finished No. 18 in the nation, a very respectable spot by most standards.
However, it was the beleaguered Aggie defense that made the biggest turnaround in 2006. In 2005, Texas A&M's team defense ranked near the bottom of Division I football at No. 107 (out of 117). In fact, the pass defense was last in all of D-1 giving up 304 yards a game through the air.
With a redshirt freshman and a sophomore manning the cornerback spots, the Aggie pass defense moved up 73 spots to a respectable No. 44 in the nation. Even with the rush defense holding steady at No. 55, the dramatic improvement in the secondary moved A&M's total defense from No. 107 in 2005 to No. 46 in 2006.
The 2007 squad returns a large majority of starters from last year's team, so expectations are even higher for the upcoming season. However, there's one factor that may hinder that improvement on the won-loss standings, and that's the extremely difficult road schedule. The Aggies must visit Miami, Nebraska, Misouri, Texas Tech, and OU in 2007, all very tough road contests. However, A&M brings back a rock solid ground game, and a host of veteran players which is the perfect recipe to combat hostile crowds on the road.
So with that said, let's look at the five keys to success for this 2007 A&M team.
1. Stop the Pass
Yes, the pass defense took big steps forward last year, but the unit still ended the season finishing in the middle of the pack, and if you look at the sheer number of plays run, those numbers aren't quite as impressive.
Because of the effectiveness of the plodding A&M run game, the Aggies typically controlled the clock and the time of possession in most games. That allowed the defense to stay on the sideline and defend fewer snaps per game. In 2005, the defense was on the field for a whopping 818 snaps in just 11 games. In 2006, that number dropped to 767 plays despite having two additional games on the schedule. That's an extraordinary statistic. Now, certainly the defense should be applauded for this dramatic improvement, but it was also facilitated by the success of the Aggie offense that held on to the ball for 870 snaps in 2006.
Regardless, if the Aggies are going to overcome the 2007 road schedule and improve on its 9-4 season, then clearly the defensive secondary will need to again make a marked improvement in 2007. The pass defense gave up last minute scoring drives to Texas Tech and Nebraska that resulted in two heartbreaking losses at Kyle Field. The secondary was one play away by one playmaker from sealing the victories.
Now, both of those games are on the road along with a battle against Chase Daniel and a high-flying Missouri offense, so A&M will need somebody to step up big and start making plays. The likely candidates are returning starters Danny Gorrer and Jordan Peterson, but a lot has been made this past spring of sophomore Jordan Pugh, Arkeith Brown, and Devin Gregg.
Somebody needs to step up and be the playmaker, the go-to guy. If that happens, this secondary will be much better, and if the A&M pass defense is much better, then the Big 12 better watch out—this could be a championship team.
2. Defensive Line Stays Healthy
There's not much discussion needed on this issue. Defensive end Chris Harrington really came into his own last year as a junior and looks to be one of the top ends in the Big 12. Senior Red Bryant has been a monster in the interior since his redshirt freshman year when he's been healthy. However, the Jasper native can't seem to shake the nagging injury bug.
Both veteran linemen sat out the spring recuperating, but both are expected back this fall at full speed. Still, there's always concern when key components of your team miss spring practice, and you have to wonder how much rust needs to be knocked off before they get back to 100% on the field.
It is critical for this defense to have these two potential difference-makers on the field for most of 2007. First, because they are good, and will occupy the attention of every opposing offensive line unit, leaving guys like Henry Smith, Kellen Heard, Cyril Obiozor, and Michael Bennett with opportunities to beat their single man and make the play. Second, because the depth on the defensive line is precariously low, especially at the interior where A&M recently signed JUCO transfer David Tufuga to step in immediately to add much needed depth.
Any significant injuries along the line with spell concern. Injuries to Harrington and Bryant could spell disaster. If they stay healthy, the Aggies could have one of the best defensive lines in the Big 12.
3. Downfield Passing
This key is no secret to A&M fans. For whatever reason, the Aggies had a difficult time throwing the ball down the field, and in the middle of the field in 2006. There was talk about Stephen McGee's arm health. Others felt McGee has a hard time reading defenses downfield, while another group of observers felt A&M didn't have the speed at receiver to get open and make plays down the field.
Regardless of the cause, there is a legitimate reason for needing a downfield passing game. It opens up the rest of the offense, and with the backfield weapons and the veteran offensive line that A&M possesses; spreading the field with a vertical passing game will have Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane licking their chops all season. These guys were gaining yards left and right with defenses cramming 7-8 men at the line of scrimmage. Imagine the running lanes that will open up if opposing defensive coordinators have to lay back to protect against A&M's vertical passing threat? Can you say unstoppable offense?
4. Emergence of Michael Goodson as an All-Big 12 caliber back
We know Mike Goodson is a young, talented running back who showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman in 2006. Now he's an experienced sophomore, and will he develop the mentality to be the bell cow and the workhorse of this team. If Goodson understands that he can be THE go-to weapon in this offense as opposed to a weapon in the offense, then that will take the offense up another notch. Just as a vertical passing game opens up the running game, the emergence of Goodson as a franchise back forces defensive coordinators to account for his presence on the field at all times, and A&M can take advantage of that scenario. If the opposing defense is focused on stopping Goodson, then that leaves opportunities for Lane, Tarrant and Stephens, along with a lot of creative play calling that can come from using Goodson as a decoy. Oh, and getting 1200 yards of production from Goodson won't hurt either.
A big year by Goodson means a big year for the Aggies.
5. Breakout Year for Bennett
Aggie fans love Martellus Bennett. They love his humor, his wit, and his ability to enjoy himself in what has become a pressure cooker known as collegiate athletics. And ever since he signed with the Aggies as the top high school tight end in the nation two years ago, they've fallen in love with his potential to be the best tight end in college football.
Well, Bennett will be a junior this season, and it's time for that potential to turn into reality. He showed flashes of greatness with his catch and run touchdown against Baylor, and he has quietly become the best blocking tight end in the Big 12.
If A&M is going to overcome a tough road schedule and be successful in 2007, they will need Bennett to become a weapon in the A&M offense. He has the ability to stretch the field vertically and use the middle of the field. With his height, he can be a go-to guy in the red zone, and he can open up a lot of holes for Goodson and Lane. But most importantly, he can be a team leader and inspire his teammates with his play. If he plays well, then he raises the level of play for the teammates around him.
If Bennett steps it up in 2007 and comes close to reaching his potential, this A&M offense will be very hard to stop.
Countdown 2007: Five keys to success
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