Does A&M Deserve Better Than No. 25?

The AP Top 25 poll was released over the weekend, and the Texas Aggie football team will start the season ranked No. 25 in the nation. That's good for fourth best in the Big 12, but shouldn't A&M's 2006 performance and a veteran team place the Aggies higher in the poll? Aggie Websider's David Sandhop takes a closer look at the 2007 team.

The AP Top 25 poll was released over the weekend, and the Texas Aggie football team will start the season ranked No. 25 in the nation. That's good for fourth best in the Big 12, behind Texas (No. 4), Oklahoma (No. 8), and Nebraska coming in at No. 20.

Obviously, the pollsters didn't take into account overall playing experience at key positions. Nor did they follow the traditional rule of football that games are won in the trenches, because the 2007 Texas A&M team has plenty of both…experience and talent in the trenches.

Some critics would argue that experience doesn't necessarily equate to talent and elite caliber football, and there's some merit to that argument. A Division II program could have 22 returning three-year starters on the field and it wouldn't matter if they were pitted on the road with a young and inexperienced USC or LSU team. There are certainly many cases where talent supersedes age and experience.

But does that same rationale apply to Texas A&M versus the likes of say Texas, a team the Aggies defeated in Austin less than nine months ago. Did I mention it was on the road?

A&M won that game in Austin and earned it the hard way…in the trenches, where according to most experts games are won and lost. The Aggies outgained the Longhorns 302-230 yards, and they dominated the ground game 244-70 yards.

Since A&M's 12-7 victory, the Longhorns graduated arguably its top three offensive linemen and both starting ends on the defensive side of the ball. In contrast, the Aggies lost one starting offensive lineman and one defensive lineman to graduation.

Yet the Longhorns begin the 2007 campaign in the No. 4 slot nationally while A&M barely squeaks into the polls at No. 25. The experience numbers are even more compelling when looking at career starts. The Aggies have 110 career starts returning among four senior linemen and one junior. Kirk Elder leads the unit having made 35 straight starts heading into his senior year. Cody Wallace and Corey Clark have made 24 starts, while the lone junior, Yemi Babalola, has started 15 games in his career. Senior Chris Yoder rounds out the experienced and productive offensive line with 12 career starts. Even backup tackle Travis Schneider started nine games in place of the injured Babalola last season.

That's 119 career starts for the Texas A&M offensive line, and an average of 22 starts per starting lineman. I haven't looked at every D-1 program's offensive line unit, but I think it's safe to say that no other D-1 team in the country comes close to this amount of collective college experience.

In contrast, Texas returns 20 career starts with most of those coming from senior Tony Hills.

That alone is a pretty remarkable comparison, but looking at last year's statistical performance shows that A&M's returning starters were productive as well and compare favorably to the experienced 2006 Texas line. The Aggies finished in the top 10 in rushing offense at No. 8, gaining 2689 yards and averaging 4.98 yards per carry. The Longhorns generated 2114 yards on the ground and 4.38 yards per attempt, good for No. 38 nationally. In pass protection, both units gave up 19 quarterback sacks in the 2006 season.

In the defensive trenches, Texas A&M returns 61 career starts versus 43 for Texas. Most of A&M's starts come from veteran seniors Chris Harrington (24) and Red Bryant (30). Junior Michael Bennett returns with four starts and junior Cyril Obiozor is back with three starts for a defense that improved 61 spots in the national rankings from No. 107 to No. 46.

The Longhorn defensive line returns two starters and 43 career starts from a defensive unit that ranked No. 22 in the nation last year. Texas gave up only 795 yards rushing, nearly a thousand yards less than the Aggie defense. With seniors Frank Okam and Roy Miller returning, Texas will be stout in the middle although there will be fresh faces at defensive end.

So overall in the trenches, the No. 25 Aggies compare favorably to the No. 4 Longhorns clearly bringing back more experience and production on the offensive line, and closely matching Texas on the DL, returning more career starts but with less production.

So it's natural to look at other areas of the team where the Aggies may be exposed by youth and inexperience to find the difference between a No. 4 nationally ranked team and a No. 25 squad that narrowly made the polls. But A&M appears to have experienced difference makers at several skill positions as well. Led by experience at cornerback with Jordan Peterson, Danny Gorrer, and Arkeith Brown, the Aggies return 45 career starts in the secondary. That's followed by 29 career starts at wide receiver, 25 starts at tight end, 20 starts at running back, 14 starts at quarterback, and 13 starts at linebacker.

And even at positions where career starts are down, there's plenty of veterans with game experience. The top three returning wide receivers, Earvin Taylor, Pierre Brown, and Kerry Franks have combined to play significant minutes in 96 games throughout their careers. The 20 career starts (Lane 14, Alexander 6) at running back doesn't include the 13 games Michael Goodson played last season as a true freshman, leading the team in rushing. 26 year-old military veteran Mark Dodge and 25 year-old Msi Tupe have combined for just 13 career starts at linebacker, but both played in all 13 games last season and are experienced seniors.

Overall, the Aggies lost only five major contributors to graduation. Seniors Justin Warren, Melvin Bullitt, Chad Schroeder, Grant Dickey and L'Tydrick Riley were all productive seniors. However, in an NCAA sport where players come and go in three-to-four year cycles, losing five contributors is very minimal in this day and age. Add in the fact that A&M has the luxury of replacing Schroeder with junior Pierre Brown, Dickey with senior Chris Yoder, Justin Warren with senior Mark Dodge, and Riley with seniors Earvin Taylor and Kerry Franks, Kyle Field will be littered with upperclassmen in 2007.

In fact, throughout the projected starting 22 for the Aggies, sophomores Jordan Peterson and Jordan Pugh are the only underclassmen expected to start when Montana State rolls into town September 1. The rest of the starting roster will be all juniors and seniors, Coach Franchione's first group of recruits to make it through the program. It's easy to see why those close to the A&M program are very optimistic about 2007.

However, the national media doesn't see it that way after the Aggies stumbled in the Holiday Bowl against California. Also, the media seems more focused on A&M's tough road schedule that takes them to Miami, Lubbock, Lincoln, Columbia, and Norman in 2007. Indeed, that's a tough stretch, but the best remedy for a tough road schedule is a veteran squad and a physical, battle tested ground game that can control the line of scrimmage and the clock. If the Aggies can survive the road, the national media will take notice…in a big way.

Texas A&M Units by Career Starts

Offensive line (119)
Defensive line (61)
Defensive backs (45)
Wide receivers (29)
Tight end (25)
Running back (20)
Quarterback (14)
Linebacker (13)

Texas A&M Units Avg Career Starts Per Starting Position

Tight end (25.0)
Offensive Line (22.0)
Defensive line (15.25)
Wide receiver (14.5)
Quarterback (14.0)
Running back (10.0)
Defensive back (9.0)
Linebacker (6.5)

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