A&M Preview: They're Improved, But Still Aggies

Did you hear about the Texas A&M football team that scored 35 points against Oklahoma but lost to Baylor? No joke -- the Aggies are better. But do they pose a legitimate threat to win in Austin for the first time in a decade?

"I think both teams and fans feel like they have a very good chance to win," head coach Mack Brown said.

This ancient rivalry been called a 'clash of cultures', and the cultural war between Texas and Texas A&M will be fought for the 111th time Friday. That makes it the third most played rivalry in NCAA D-I history. Texas holds a hefty 71-34-5 advantage in the series. The Aggies haven't beaten the Horns since, well, the 20th Century. Texas has won four straight and seven of the last nine meetings. The Horns hold a 49-13-3 lead in Austin. And it's Senior Day. And did we mention the Aggies lost to Baylor?

Fortunately, all that is not lost on Longhorns players. Or, so they say.

"Each year A&M plays us hard and, regardless of their record, it's going to be a good game until the end," WLB Derrick Johnson said. "This year their record is better but I don't think that makes them much better but they're still going to play. They have a better team this year so it's going to be even harder (to win)."

To be sure, there are key areas where the 7-3 Aggies are vastly improved from last season's 4-8 squad. Brown believes the biggest difference is A&M 's defense.

"Their defense has come a million miles," Brown said. "They're stopping the run much better."

Last season, the Aggies' rush defense finished dead last in the Big 12 after surrendering 225.1 ypg. Now, the Farmers have cut that total nearly in half, yielding 119.5 ypg.

For my money, the Aggies are better because of the elevated play of QB Reggie McNeal. The junior ranks fourth nationally in total offense (299.6 ypg, on the strength of 230.3 ypg passing and 69.6 rushing). In last season's 45-16 Texas romp, the Ags actually moved the ball against Texas when the slippery McNeal was behind center; they sputtered when former QB Dustin Long called the signals. It was actually a close contest until the Horns began to pull away midway through the third quarter. From that point, RB Cedric Benson was a joy to behold en route to a career-best 283 yards rushing.

Benson is currently the nation's second-leading rusher, averaging right at 160 ypg. The Aggies pride themselves in having already faced three of the nation's top 11 rushers and holding them below their averages. If Benson has an 'average' day against a nationally ranked A&M club on national TV, he still won't win the Heisman but he should nail down a well-deserved trip to the Downtown Athletic Club.

The other key factor is the Aggies are ranked second-nationally with just seven turnovers through 10 contests. Last year, the Farmers had 26 give-aways after ten games. They also set a new school record with seven turnover-free games this season. The Aggies are plus-14 in turnover margin this year. Last season, A&M was last in the Big 12 with a minus 11 margin (30 turnovers/19 takeaways).

"The quickest way to turn (a program) around is to take care of the ball," Brown said.

But this remains a relatively young A&M team, especially on defense where there are seven RS-freshmen and three sophomores on the two-deep chart. McNeal draws the inevitable comparisons to Vince Young but, for one more season, the Aggies don't have anyone on their sideline the caliber of Benson and Johnson. Yet the Aggies have a Bevo-sized chip on their shoulder and would love to land in the very Cotton Bowl that the Horns are still hoping to avoid. Texas should win but certainly not by the 31- and 30-point margins it has the past two seasons.

"I do think this is the most interest we've had (in the A&M game) since our first year," Brown said.

DO WE WANT THE AGGIES TO BE GOOD?

Both Texas and Texas A&M enter the game ranked in the Top 25 for just the 10th time in series history. It begs the question: can both teams be outstanding at the same time? There's obviously no shortage of prep talent in the Lone Star State and, given the current scholarship limits in D-I football, there's no reason why the trifecta of Texas, OU and A&M could not match the success that three Florida schools enjoyed from the early 1990s until, well, a couple of weeks ago.

But do we want the Aggies to be that good? Several UT players, as well as Brown, answered affirmatively.

"I think it's good for this state and good for this league," Brown said. "(Former A&M coach) R.C. (Slocum) and I always talked about Florida, Florida State and Miami giving them such a presence nationally. I do think it's good that this matters because more kids will want to stay and play in this game. So, I do think it's good."

Good for the Big 12, to be sure, but it would make securing BCA bids even more difficult under the current ratings system.

"It's realistic for us (Texas, OU, A&M) to be great programs," Brown said, "but it's hard to get into the BCS the way it's set up, when you've got three great programs in your league and you have a championship game. But I think all three teams should win, and should win big."

SENIORS HOPE TO MAKE UT HISTORY

Marquee players RB Cedric Benson and WLB Derrick Johnson will lead a group of 19 seniors one last time onto the field at Royal Memorial Stadium with a chance to become Brown's most successful class during his seven-year tenure. The class has collectively helped the Horns post a 41-8 (83.4 percent) record, trailing only OU (46-6), Boise State (45-6) and Miami (44-4) during that span. One more win and the Class of 2005 will have produced a school-record 42 wins for their career. The group has posted a 21-1 home record during their careers.

"It's the last time we get to play at home and, very possibly, one of the last times you'll ever get to play a football game," senior C Jason Glynn said.

Texas has won 11 straight Senior Day games.

AGGIE OFFENSE

Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson spent part of the off-season watching A&M game films from the 2003 season. Now, he concedes that those sessions will do him little good in prepping for Friday's tilt. That's because the Farmers are coming at ya with a more wide-open, multi-faceted attack than what Texas faced last season, Robinson noted.

"I've never seen a team play six wide receivers at the same time," Robinson joked, before adding, "It's (Aggie offense) got everything in it. It's got power football. It's got option football. It's got all the quarterback running plays. And then they have a nice dropback game. He'll air it out, too."

He, of course, is QB Reggie McNeal. The junior is already the school's only 1,000-yarrd rusher and 4,000-yard passer in program history as well as the A&M record-holder for total offense in a single season (2,996 this year).

What impresses Robinson most about McNeal is the poise he has shown in the passing game.

"Everybody would say he's very athletic and fast," Robinson said, "but I wasn't expecting to see a young guy as poised in the pocket as he is. He stays right in there and he's accurate."

McNeal is 157-of-268 for 2,303 yards this season, including 12 TDs and 2 INT. He ranks third in the Big 12 (NCAA No. 18) in passing efficiency.

"Reggie is playing really well," Brown said. "The difference I think is he is not turning the ball over."

WR Terrence Murphy owns school records for career receptions (159) and receiving yards (2,484). He has posted 605 yards on 43 catches (67.2 ypg) this season.

"Terrence Murphy will be a (NFL) first pick as a receiver," Brown said. "He's really big and strong and good."

Meanwhile, three of A&M's top four leading receivers were high school QBs.

RB Courtney Lewis (a close friend and high school teammate of Vince Young) has rushed for 733 yards on 162 attempts this season).

"Courtney Lewis is really good," Brown said. "He's big and he's fast. He's taking care of the ball."

A&M is averaging 454.5 ypg (189.9 rushing, 262.6 passing) and 32.1 ppg. (The Horns, by comparison, are averaging 472.4 ypg.)

"When you have a quarterback, a tailback and a receiver, you have a chance," Brown said of the Ags.

Robinson's scheme is to try to shut down A&M's ground game and then try to head them off at the pass.

"You've got to try to make them one-dimensional," Robinson said. "It's not easy but you've got to try to take away the running game and make it be a passing game. It's easier said than done. They have a nice passing game. They'll spread you out. It's really well designed. It complements their talent, I think."

AGGIE DEFENSE

The biggest area of improvement for A&M is not just its run defense but also its scoring defense. The Farmers are surrendering 22.8 ppg compared to 38.8 ppg last season.

Junior DT Johnny Jolly was the only returning down lineman this season on a front four that has been spotty in getting pressure on the QB.

Despite their improvement in stopping the run, the Aggies are still surrendering 256.7 ypg through the air. Junior FS Jaxson Appel leads his team not only in tackles (68) but is also the vocal leader of the entire unit. The problem for Appel is that most of his fellow DBs are green as, well, apples. The Ags start a RS-freshman at SS (Japhus Brown) while RS-freshmen are key backups at both corners. At 6-0, Appel is the tallest of the undersized secondary (both CBs are 5-10) so 6-5 SE Limas Sweed could have a field day Friday if Young continues the torrid pace he has shown the past two ball games.

Coach Fran has infused his kiddie corps with JC transfers, none bigger than SLB Lee Foliaki. The transfer from Butler County Community College (Kansas) recovered RB Bobby Purify's fumble in A&M's OT win against Colorado. Sophomore MLB Justin Warren is expected to play Friday after missing the Texas Tech game due to injury. Senior LB Keelan Jackson also is expected back after missing six games with an ankle injury.

Senior RCB Jonte Buhl is the team's second-leading tackler with 66 stops. In fact, the Aggies' top eight tacklers are all within 18 tackles of each other. Last season, 85 tackles separated the team leader (Appel, 135) from the No. 8 tackler (50).

NOT-SO-SPECIAL TEAMS

"The last two weeks we haven't been very good (in special teams)," Brown said, "and it hasn't been one of the things for A&M either."

Thanks, in part, to the KR/PR Selvin Young's season-ending ankle injury, Texas is ranked just No. 111 in KO returns (16.6 ypr) while its kickoff team has allowed multiple runbacks to midfield in recent weeks. Despite all the props he received early in the season, P Richmond McGee is averaging 39.2 ypp (No. 80) while sophomore PR Aaron Ross has averaged but eight ypr (No. 66). Senior Dusty Mangum is rock solid on PATs but is a coin-toss on any FG attempt from beyond the 40.

That's why Brown believes one of the keys Friday will be which team steps up on special teams.

"Two keys for this ball game are turnover ratio, because they've been really good, and the kicking game to see which one can be the best of the two," Brown said. "Neither one has felt as good about it as of late as we need to. Gosh, we worked really hard on it last week so hopefully we'll get some things fixed."

Brown plans to keep speedy freshman Ramonce Taylor as his starting PR, despite netting just one yard on two returns against Kansas.

"He did a good job of catching them this week (in practice) so hopefully we'll be better the second time than the first time."

Texas' punt return coverage, however, has been solid all season.

ONE LAST AGGIE JOKE

This one is my all-time favorite:

Did you hear about the Aggie who died eating Mountain Oysters? The bull dragged him to death.

Hook' Em!


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