Countdown 2007: Then and Now - Part I

The Aggie Websider looks at the impact of the 2006 season and how last year's performance affects expectations for the 2007 season in this two part feature. In today's feature, we take a look back at an article from this same time last year to revisit the climate of Aggie football one year ago. Tomorrow, we'll update the program's expectations and where Franchione and the staff stand in 2007.

A year ago, Coach Dennis Franchione and the Texas A&M football team was preparing for the 2006 season. Coming off a promising 2004 season that resulted in a surprise Cotton Bowl berth, A&M fans were confused with the disappointing 5-6 season in 2005. At this point last summer, Aggies were giving Franchione mixed reviews on his first three seasons in Aggieland.

The 2006 season generated nine wins, a Holiday Bowl berth, and a victory over arch-rival Texas in Austin. Did the success of the 2006 season right the ship and provide the Aggie faithful with renewed hope for a return to national prominence in 2007?

The Aggie Websider looks at the impact of the 2006 season and how last year's performance affects expectations for the 2007 season in this two part feature. In today's feature, we take a look back at an article I originally wrote at this same time last year to refresh readers of the climate of Aggie football one year ago.

Tomorrow, we'll update the program's expectations and where Franchione and the staff stand after a nine-win season in 2006 with a daunting road schedule ahead in 2007.

2006 Season – Referendum

Season four of the Dennis Franchione era…with three years to implement his system and four recruiting classes under his belt, the turnaround specialist at both TCU and Alabama will be in cruise control leading the Texas Aggie football program. In 2006, his Aggies will be fighting with Texas and Oklahoma for the top honors in the Big 12 and surging up the national polls with a major BCS Bowl berth within reach.

Well, that was the plan in December of 2002 when Texas A&M opened up the checkbook and made Franchione one of the highest-paid college coaches in the country. After all, Franchione had transformed Alabama from a struggling 3-8 program in 2000 to a surging SEC power going 10-3 in 2002 with impressive road wins at Tennessee (34-14) and at LSU (31-0) along the way. He certainly earned his title as the turnaround specialist, and was one of the hottest coaching commodities on the market.

But the blueprint that quickly turned around TCU and Alabama didn't have immediate results in College Station with the 2003 Aggies finishing at 4-8, Texas A&M's first losing season in nearly 20 years. That inaugural season was also punctuated with an embarrassing 77-0 loss to Oklahoma in Norman. The once-proud Texas A&M Wrecking Crew defense had major deficiencies giving up more than 30 points in nine of the team's 12 games and more than 40 points in five contests.

While concerned by the results, most of the Aggie faithful chalked it up to a transition year and rebuilding a bare cupboard left by departed head coach R.C. Slocum.

So, despite stumbling out of the gates in 2004 with a 20-point road loss at Utah (a team that would later be crowned undefeated Fiesta Bowl Champions), Franchione and the Aggies did start to show the turnaround that all Texas A&M fans were banking on when he arrived in 2002. A&M rattled off six consecutive victories, with the last of those six coming against No. 15 ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater where A&M notched an impressive 36-20 road win.

The turnaround appeared back on schedule with the most critical portion of the Big 12 South schedule against Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Texas ahead. However, someone forgot to tell Baylor that losing to Texas A&M is an annual fall ritual, despite not beating the Aggies since 1985. The stunning 35-34 loss in Waco did not sit well with Aggie fans. In their minds, you don't lose to Baylor.

However, the Aggies followed-up the letdown in Waco with a respectable 42-35 loss to No. 2 Oklahoma before finally beating recent nemesis Texas Tech in overtime 32-25. But, the season ended on a whimper with a 26-13 loss in Austin to in-state rival Texas, and a poor showing in the Cotton Bowl losing to Tennessee 38-7.

After starting 6-1 with impressive wins over Kansas State, Clemson, and Oklahoma St., the Aggies finished 7-5 and losing four out of the final five games in the 2004 season. The season was truly a mixed bag of results, and that reflected in the pulse of Aggie fans, with many happy about a return to a New Year's Day bowl game, but also concerned with bad losses to Utah, Baylor, and Tennessee.

Despite some of the hiccups in 2004, many fans felt 2005 was going to be the breakout season of the Franchione era, with many offensive skill position veterans like Reggie McNeal, Courtney Lewis, DeQawn Mobley, and Earvin Taylor returning. In addition, the defensive front seven was considered talented and coming of age.

The schedule was also more manageable than in Franchione's previous two years, with the toughest early season challenge coming from a Clemson squad many picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the ACC. But as in previous seasons, 2005 started off on a roller coaster ride with a 25-24 last minute loss at Clemson followed by expected home wins against Texas State and SMU. With Baylor coming to Kyle Field to open conference play and with payback in mind for last season's upset, Aggie fans were expecting a slaughter. Instead, they got all they wanted and then some with a come-from-behind overtime win over Guy Morriss' cocky Bears.

For the second straight season, the Baylor game had Aggie fans steaming and a once promising season was slipping away the following week with a 40-21 loss to the Colorado Buffaloes.

But the team bounced back with a convincing home win against Oklahoma State and a solid 30-28 win at Kansas State. This two game stretch also showed the emergence of Franchione's power ground attack, gaining 635 yards on the ground in those two contests. The blue print appeared to be taking hold, as the once anemic A&M rushing attack in R.C. Slocum's later years was becoming a major force in 2005.

But as with the past two seasons, A&M stumbled down the stretch losing its final four games. Not only did the Aggies lose all three games to rival Big 12 South foes Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Texas, but they lost a disheartening 42-14 contest to the Iowa State Cyclones at Kyle Field of all places. You can look to that game and the embarrassing outcome at home as a turning point in the season and a turning point for some of the fans in College Station.

The subsequent losses in the final three games brought more division among the A&M faithful. After a 39-point loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock, redshirt freshman quarterback Stephen McGee took over the Texas A&M offense the following week in Norman when senior Reggie McNeal left the game with an injury. McGee rallied the Aggies from a 21-point deficit before falling in the final minutes 36-30.

The McGee-led Aggies also hung tough with eventual National Champion Texas, losing 40-29 despite outgaining the Longhorns 395 to 336 yards.

Once again, Francione's Aggies finished on a mixed note, losing its final four games and finishing with a losing record for the second time in three seasons. However, Stephen McGee provided a spark down the stretch, giving hope for the future. Some Aggie fans look to the competitive games against Big 12 powerhouses OU and Texas and see a new offensive leader in McGee taking the Aggies to new heights with a dominant offensive line that ripped Top 10 defenses at Texas and Oklahoma for a combined 569 yards on the ground.

Others see an A&M program with one of the worst defenses in college football and a combined three year record of 16-19 under Franchione. Add in the embarrassing losses to Oklahoma (77-0) , the inexcusable Baylor loss in 2004, and the combined 1-7 record against Big 12 South competition Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Texas, and some A&M fans are ready to turn the page on the Franchione era.

There's no question a split exists today among the alumni and season ticket holders. That's why the 2006 season will be looked upon closely by the A&M community and the national media. In today's college football environment of immediate results, a coach doesn't make $2 million a year and expect to stay around long without delivering on expectations.

And for Aggie fans, expectations include contending for the Big 12 Championship and a BCS bowl berth in most seasons. A&M hasn't won a Big 12 Championship or participated in a BCS bowl since 1998, and hasn't contended for those achievements since that time. The 77-0 OU debacle, the Baylor loss, and several blowout losses to Texas Tech only adds salt to the wound.

So make no mistake, with the Aggie faithful lined up along both sides of the fence, the 2006 season is a referendum on the state of the program and the status of head coach Dennis Franchione. Another losing season and certainly the winning-starved Aggie supporters will likely put pressure on athletic director Bill Byrne for a change of direction, and a new coordinator won't be enough this time to satisfy the masses. On the other hand, a double-digit win season will without question win over even the staunchest doubters, and 2005 will be seen as a mere bump along the road to long-term success with Franchione at the helm.

But the bigger question is…what happens if Franchione and the team finish somewhere in the middle. That means winning 7, 8, or 9 games. On the surface, those win totals indicate the team will have some good wins and some bad losses, especially given the friendly 2006 schedule that includes seven home games, one neutral site contest, and only four road games.

The four non-conference games against The Citadel, Army, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Louisiana Tech are all very winnable games. With the exception of the season finale at Texas, Texas A&M's stiffest challenges against teams like Nebraska, OU, and Texas Tech all come in the friendly confines of Kyle Field. The other three conference road games come against beatable opponents Kansas, Baylor, and Oklahoma State.

Frankly, the Aggies' schedule will never look this favorable for several years. Thus, simply coming up with seven wins and a winning record may not be enough, despite improving by two wins and a likely bowl berth. Winning seven games means losing five games, and if one assumes the Aggies skate through 4-0 in non-conference, that means the team finishes 3-5 in conference and a fourth place in the Big 12 South. That also likely means losses to Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Texas along with another two losses to either Nebraska, Baylor, Kansas, Missouri, or Oklahoma State.

No matter how you slice those losses, Aggie fans on the fence won't like that outcome.

On the flip side, if the Aggies end up winning nine games in 2006, that means Franchione and his team wins a couple of big games against the top conference teams on the slate while winning all of the games they are supposed to win.

Under that scenario, most Aggie fans will take a 9-3 season coming off the heels of a 5-6 campaign.

So that leaves a season where the Aggies finish the regular season at 8-4. Will Aggie fans be satisfied with Franchione at 8-4, or will they demand more return on their investment? That's where the results will be too close to call. A lot will depend on who the Aggies beat, and where they come up short.

Many fans are pointing to the first conference game of the season against Texas Tech as an important barometer on the season. Indeed, the Red Raider contest in week five will answer a lot of questions that won't get answered in the non-conference portion of the 2006 schedule. Since the formation of the Big 12, the Aggies are 3-2 against Texas Tech at Kyle Field, with the last two meetings ending in overtime so a close game is in order. It's also a game that many Aggie fans feel that Franchione and the team must win to eventually compete with the likes of OU and Texas.

A victory and the Aggies are likely 5-0 with four very winnable games against Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Baylor in October. However, under the 8-4 scenario, a crucial victory over Tech likely means a slip-up along the way to one of these teams in October, along with a winless November against Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. That won't be appealing to those fans that already came into the 2006 season skeptical.

If the Aggies lose to Texas Tech and win those four games in October, they would still finish 8-4 losing its final three games. In this scenario, the Aggies lose to every Big 12 team that they aspire to compete with and beat. Beating those four teams (Tech, Nebraska, OU, Texas) in the long-term is what ultimately will define success for former students and season ticket holders. Also, it's these four teams that Texas A&M will compete with year-in and year-out for bowl positioning in the Big 12. Losing these four games virtually assures the Aggies of a lower-tier bowl, certainly below expectations for most Aggie fans.

And if the Aggies win one of those big games in November and still finish 8-4, that means there was a bad loss along the way either in early September in non-conference play or in October against the four beatable Big 12 teams on the 2006 docket.

Thus, under any scenario at 8-4 given the favorable schedule, there will be at least one heartburn-inducing loss for the Texas A&M faithful.

On the other side of the argument, an 8-4 record will tie for the program's best overall record since the Big 12 Championship season when the Aggies finished 11-3 in 1998. Eight wins means a three-win improvement over the previous season and a return to postseason play with a bowl berth that signals the rebirth of the Texas A&M football program.

Detractors on the other side of the fence will look at 8-4 as a missed opportunity with the favorable 2006 schedule. The situation doesn't get any better in 2007 when Texas A&M flips the conference schedule and plays Texas Tech, Nebraska, and OU on the road and a non-conference game with the Miami Hurricanes that is still scheduled for September, 2007.

Compelling arguments exist on both sides of the fence if the 2006 Aggies finish the regular season at 8-4, and the difference could be the bowl game performance. A good showing and a bowl win moves the record to 9-4 and likely quells any talk of a change. A bad loss in the bowl game and a subsequent 8-5 record could spell trouble for the Franchione regime.

Needless to say, it will be an interesting 2006 in Aggieland. Will it be a breakout season and the start of big things to come, or will it be another mixed bag of results that has plagued the program under this regime in recent years?

No doubt, the results in 2006 will determine the future and the direction of Aggie football for years to come. Make no mistake, Aggie fans are parked on both sides of the fence with regard to its football coach. 2006 will likely determine which way the pendulum of support swings, and with ticket sales and TV revenues in the balance you can bet Bill Byrne will be watching and listening.

It's definitely a referendum season in College Station, and Dennis Franchione is on the ballot. While Presidential elections sway in the balance on several topics ranging from international issues to the domestic economy, make no mistake that Franchione will be judged on only one clear criterion….WINS.

Let the 2006 season begin.

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