Countdown 2007: Then and Now - Part II

Yesterday, David Sandhop reprinted a story that he wrote this time last year about the state of the A&M football program. Today, in Part II of "Then and Now" Sandhop takes a look at where the program has gone after five years of the Franchione era.

The old saying is definitely true. The older you get, the faster time flies by. It seems like yesterday that Dennis Franchione landed at Easterwood Airport on a private jet with a group of reporters waiting in the tiny private aircraft terminal for a glimpse of the new leader of the Texas Aggie football program.

That was 4.5 years and 48 games ago. Wow, I am getting old.

Be that as it may, time moves on and we're on the cusp of another football season, and with it comes time to look within and evaluate where Franchione and the Texas A&M program stands heading into his fifth season in Aggieland.

And while the 2006 season produced nine wins, a Holiday Bowl berth, and a sweet 12-7 victory over arch-rival Texas in Austin, it seems we're right back where we were last summer wondering if this program is over the proverbial hump or treading water.

And the answer to that question depends on who you talk to in A&M sports circles as the fan base still seems divided over where the program stands, or better yet, where it should stand, as we begin season five of the Franchione era.

Going into 2006, the general sentiment was one of "put up or shut up". Former Students wanted to see a winning season, and quality wins against the likes of Big 12 rivals Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas. They wanted to see that the ship was headed on the right course, a course that involved catching up to Big 12 South powers OU and Texas while surpassing the likes of the Red Raiders and Cowboys.

Failure in that area would not be acceptable. A losing season certainly would have put the heat on this staff from the A&M fans and program donors. Franchione was given a Top-10 salary package and some supporters felt it was time for a return on their investment.

Overall, while the former students publicly supported their coach, there was concern from some that another losing record would be overwhelming proof that after four years, Franchione was not the right man for the job.

However, many long-time program supporters recognized the improvements and the foundation that Franchione laid, with three years of seeding the program with better talent in recruiting and better player development in the weight room.

Still, the results of the 2006 season would be a referendum on the Franchione regime, but did the Aggie faithful get their answer from the results of last season? Given the divided landscape of opinions that still exist among program supporters, the answer appears to be "no."

Certainly, every observer will acknowledge that the 9-4 2006 season was an improvement over the 5-6 record of 2005. However, issues were raised over the quality of those nine wins in 2006, especially the non-conference victories over The Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, Army, and Louisiana Tech. Add in the fact that three of the most critical Big 12 Conference games played at the friendly confines of Kyle Field resulted in heartbreaking losses only complicates matters for those looking for answers.

On the other side of the coin, the program showed progress in several areas. The team built on the late 2005 season success of the running game, and A&M established itself as one of the best running programs in the country, finishing the year ranked No. 8 in rushing yards. Mike Goodson, Jorvorskie Lane, and Stephen McGee emerged as a three-headed ground monster that succeeded against primary division rivals OU and Texas.

The defense under new defensive coordinator Gary Darnell transformed itself from one of the worst defensive teams in college football in 2005 to a respectable Top 50 unit in 2006. And finally, Franchione and the team picked up that signature win with a 12-7 defeat of top ten Texas on the road in Austin that resulted in a Holiday Bowl berth.

However, just as fans were getting excited about the direction of the program, cold water was thrown on the party when the Aggies were dismantled by the California Golden Bears on national television 45-10.

Overall, there were many positive moments and milestones in 2006, yet there were many disappointments as well. There was the 34-33 triumph on the road against Oklahoma State, the 25-19 win over then-ranked Missouri, and the big Texas road win. But, there was the 28-24 squeaker over an outmanned Army team that was just two yards and 13 seconds away from delivering the second most stunning loss in program history, the last minute home losses to Texas Tech, Nebraska, and OU, and then the 35-point loss in the Holiday Bowl.

So where does that put the program now heading into 2007? In terms of this debate on the overall performance of Franchione, that leaves A&M in just about in the same place it was this time last year - looking at 2007 for a definitive answer.

Unlike 2006, the 2007 schedule should provide that clear-cut answer. The schedule that was skewed toward the critical match-ups being at Kyle Field in 2006 now reverses this season and the non-conference slate is a little tougher as well. The Aggies must be road warriors in 2007 to be successful, with road games at Miami, Texas Tech, Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma. You won't find a more brutal road schedule in the country, period. Plus, the Aggies welcome Fresno State, Oklahoma State, and Texas to Kyle Field among others.

If the Aggies generate nine or more wins with that schedule, then there's no doubt that this program has gotten over the proverbial hump. That win total means that McGee has found his touch, the offensive line again opened up running lanes, the defense improved even more over its 2006 performance, and the team beat some traditional Big 12 rivals on the road.

Given this brutal schedule, if A&M isn't up to the challenge and doesn't play well for whatever reason, this team will have a hard time staying above the .500 mark and Franchione can't afford a third losing season regardless of the circumstances. R.C. Slocum lost his job without ever registering a losing season in his 14 years at the helm, and the program hadn't seen a losing record in almost 20 years before Franchione's celebrated arrival in 2002. Brutal schedule or not, a losing record simply isn't an option.

In addition, this year's squad is a veteran group, with seniors and upperclassmen projected to start at every position on the line of scrimmage. The Aggies may have as many as 12 senior starters when the season kicks off September 1 against Montana State. If the Aggies stumble in 2007, then you have to wonder where this team goes in 2008 when trying to replace seven starting linemen, two linebackers, and two receivers.

But it's this veteran leadership that gives this team a good chance to succeed in 2007 despite the killer road schedule. The best way to combat a loud, boisterous road crowd is with a veteran team that will keep its composure and run the ball effectively. Thus, the Aggies should hold up well when the crowd gets loud, and the effective ball control offense is the right recipe to reduce that noise and take the crowd out of those games in crucial situations.

Add in a healthy Stephen McGee and an improved downfield passing attack, and the pieces are in place to have a successful season that should be definitive in the eyes of most Aggie fans; a season that ends all debate about the effectiveness of Dennis Franchione, and clears the way for the Kansas native to finish his coaching career at Texas A&M while battling the likes of Bob Stoops and Mack Brown for Big 12 Championships in the future.

On paper, the Aggies have the potential to produce a breakout season in 2007. However, the ball can take some funny bounces occasionally, injuries can bite at the wrong time and the tough schedule leaves little room for mistakes.

Given the strength of the 2007 schedule, every strength and weakness of this team and this program will be exposed, so there should be few questions following this season. If Franchione's foundation holds strong and the team succeeds, it will be a testament to his patience and drive to stick with his recipe of success even when the losses were mounting earlier and the personnel wasn't in place. If weaknesses are exposed and the team isn't successful, then the university supporters may decide that five years has been enough time to build this program.

So while we'll wait to see how the 2007 campaign turns out for the men of the Brazos Valley, it appears that the Aggie faithful should get a definitive answer on their investment one way or the other and we can put an end to this coaching referendum.

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