Coming off a disappointing 5-6 campaign in 2005, the Texas A&M football team made great strides in the win column in 2006, winning nine games and representing the Big 12 in the Holiday Bowl.
Much of the team's offensive success came from the powerful Aggie ground game that finished in the Top 10 for a second consecutive season. While the reputation of Texas A&M's rushing attack has grown throughout the nation and is feared within the Big 12, the A&M passing game is still somewhat of a mystery after last season's up-and-down performances under first year signal caller Stephen McGee.
However, a closer look at the numbers and a comparison to recent A&M aerial attacks does shed some light on the potential of the Texas A&M passing game in 2007.
First, let's take a quick look at the Aggies' offensive numbers versus the rest of the NCAA in 2006. Overall, Texas A&M finished No. 18 in the nation in total offense, and not surprisingly the rushing game led the way at 206.8 yards per contest good for a No. 8 in the country out of 117 D-1 teams.
The passing numbers were less impressive, but certainly not deficient by any stretch. The team finished the season gaining an average of 190.5 yards per game through the air, good for No. 72 in the nation. However, looking at yards can be deceiving, especially for an A&M team that also runs the ball so successfully.
The rankings also reflect the shift in college football from run-based offenses in the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's to the balanced offenses of the 1980's and 1990's, to the pass-oriented offenses of today. 190 yards passing in a game used to be a pretty solid number, now it places you in the lower half of D-1 football.
In Texas A&M's 1998 Big 12 Championship season that resulted in a Sugar Bowl appearance, the 11-3 Aggies averaged just 159.3 yards per game through the air in what is considered the best A&M football season in the past 10-15 years. Junior Randy McCown and senior Brandon Stewart combined to complete 52.2% of their passes and threw five interceptions in 262 attempts.
In contrast, the occasionally maligned Stephen McGee in his first season as a starting collegiate quarterback in 2006, threw for 190 yards a contest, completed 61.2% of his passes and threw just four interceptions in 330 attempts.
In fact, his 61.2% completion percentage is tops for the nine season window we looked at for this piece. The previous eight seasons combined, A&M completed approximately 55% of its passing attempts. Mark Farris came the closest to McGee's high water mark, completing 59.4% of his passes in 2000. Reggie McNeal had his best overall season in 2004 when he led the Aggies back to the Cotton Bowl, and he had his best season from an accuracy standpoint, topping out at a 58.9% completion rate. Outside of that junior season, McNeal averaged a much lower 52% success rate in completing passes.
Of course, McNeal excelled in other categories compared to McGee and other A&M quarterbacks. McNeal had a nose for the end zone. In his four year career, he accounted for the three highest season touchdown totals, combining with Dustin Long in 2002 to throw 25 pay dirt strikes, 19 touchdowns in 2005, and 18 scores in 2004. McGee threw 13 touchdowns in 2006, which is about average for the Aggie offense in non-McNeal seasons.
But 2004 was clearly McNeal's best season, as he not only threw 18 touchdowns, but he threw only four interceptions in 378 attempts and led the A&M passing offense to 261 yards per contest. McGee's season in 2006 wasn't far behind in the interception category, as he was picked off just four times in 330 throws.
McGee's efficiency at minimizing interceptions and completing a large percentage of his passes is certainly the positives that stick out about his sophomore season. It's also in stark contrast to the 2002 campaign that was clearly the most productive and most mistake-prone passing offense in A&M history.
The 2002 season began with veteran Dustin Long at the helm, where he was very successful moving an A&M offense that had lost the ability to run the ball under R.C. Slocum. That 2002 team averaged a scant 118 yards a game on the ground. Long was very productive moving the offense in the middle of the field, but his lack of arm strength really hurt him in the red zone and frustrations mounted after each critical interception, and there were a lot of interceptions; 19 to be exact. That's more in one season than what A&M has thrown in the past three seasons combined (18).
Thus, Coach Slocum made the move to insert freshman Reggie McNeal in the home game against No. 1 Oklahoma, and it was magic as McNeal threw four touchdowns passes, three of those over 40 yards.
In all, the two quarterbacks combined for 268 yards a game which is the high water mark in recent A&M history, a whopping 25 touchdown passes, and over 14.7 yards per completion which is another top mark in recent history. Even with those accomplishments, the team finished 6-6, and Slocum lost his job.
So what do these comparisons tell us about Stephen McGee and the 2007 passing game?
Well, it shows a signal caller who may not be as flashy or hit the home run, but he is more efficient in his game, completes the throws in front of him, and doesn't make critical mistakes. In short, he doesn't lose ball games.
However, what hasn't been addressed is the fact that McGee put up those numbers as a sophomore with one career collegiate start under his belt. There's also been talk about McGee's arm not being 100% last year, which could be a contributing factor to his hesitancy to throw down the field. What we do know is that McGee had to rest his arm during August two-a-days, and didn't start throwing full speed until a week before the season, so there was an issue about his arm health early in the season.
Assuming McGee starts off fall camp healthy, and his game progresses as he now enters his second full season as the Texas A&M starting quarterback as an upperclassman, there are expectations for improvement and fine tuning in his game.
McGee does need to do a better job of locating his open receivers quickly downfield, and trusting his arm to get it there. The struggles in the vertical passing game were evident, and it allowed opposing defenses to cheat to the line-of-scrimmage to stop the run or the short pass play.
McGee and his teammates averaged 12.3 yards per catch, which is historically low for recent A&M teams. McNeal typically averaged between 14-15 yards per catch. If McGee can improve this number to just 14, then A&M fans will see so many dimensions open up in this offense. A vertical passing game opens up the running lanes for a rushing attack that will be one of the best in the nation. A vertical passing game also opens up the middle of the field, where weapons like Martellus Bennett and Joey Thomas are capable of doing a lot of damage to opposing defenses.
Bottom line, this offense is loaded with weapons at every spot on the field. If McGee can learn to effectively utilize the entire field, this A&M offense will not only be pretty good, but it has the ability to be explosive and deadly.
College football is littered with quarterbacks who made an early splash as underclassmen and looked to develop into accomplished signal callers, only to plateau and never fulfill the potential of a great collegiate career. Others improved throughout their college careers and developed into very successful college quarterbacks.
Stephen McGee is at that crossroads. He was a solid, promising young quarterback in 2006 with some roughness around the edges and areas he needed to improve. If he polishes those edges and strengthens his overall game, the 2007 season will indeed be bright for the Aggies. If McGee does not improve and his game has reached its peak, then A&M will continue to grind it out every week and fight hard for every win, especially on the road. Given the severity of the 2007 season, that recipe isn't exactly ideal for success.
Only time will tell which path the Burnet native will take, but given his work ethic and his leadership skills, I wouldn't bet against him at this point.
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