Aggies Take Aim at Texas, November

A tried-and-true college football adage is 'They remember November,' and that's why Texas A&M has generally been forgotten on a national scale since winning the Big 12 title in 1998. The Aggies' November record this decade stands at 5-17 primarily because that's when the schedule includes heavyweights Texas and Oklahoma.

KANSAS CITY -- Aggie coaches and players hope to get a running start at their November slate with a soft non-conference schedule, as well as with John Mackovic's former defensive coordinator (Gary Darnell), two Longhorn lettermen as assistants (Van Malone, Les Koenning) and with FL Jordan Shipley's former high school quarterback (Stephen McGee) leading the huddle.

If there is joy in Aggieland in 2006, it will be primarily because McGee has energized the squad with his selfless leadership and plays with the kind of toughnosed "reckless abandon" that coach Dennis Franchione said "makes his teammates love him but makes his coaches cringe." McGee logged his first start against Texas last season and the RS-freshman caught Longhorn coaches off-guard by running the option rather than relying on his arm. After all, McGee had a direct hand in Shipley finishing his prep career at Burnet as the No. 2 all-time national leader in catches (264), yards (5,424) and TDs (73).

"He's still my best friend," McGee said of Shipley during the Big 12 Football Media Conference in Kansas City. "We don't talk every day but I talk to him often."

The former teammates are obviously on opposing sidelines in the in-state rivalry, but that didn't stop the two from working-out this summer when their paths crossed at Burnet. It gives McGee an insight into Shipley's physical and emotional health after the Parade All-American missed his first two seasons at Texas with a torn ACL (2004) and a hamstring injury (2005).

"Aw, man, it's been tough on him. I just admire him so much as a person. I know what he's capable of. I certainly expect huge things from Jordan, knowing what kind of person he is and what kind of competitor he is. I think he's 100 percent. He looks great and he's ready to go. I worked-out with him when I went back home, and we hang out a lot together."

The friendship will take a backseat when the programs collide during the regular season finale in Austin on November 24. By then, Franchione hopes the momentum of a staff shakeup and early-season wins will carry them into a typically tough November that brings Oklahoma and division-favorite Nebraska to College Station before the Aggies travel to Austin.

"Those three teams that we play in November may all be ranked in the Top 10 by the time we get there," Franchione said. "When they handed out the schedule and I saw November, I thought, 'Boy!' Not too many years ago, when there was a Big Eight and a Southwest Conference, nobody in the nation would play Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas in the same season. We're going to do it in November."

A made-for-postseason September schedule has A&M playing four-of-five games at Kyle Field against the likes of Louisiana Tech, UL-Lafayette and The Citadel. The only road game during that stretch is against Army in Aggie-friendly San Antonio. All the Aggies have to do to become bowl eligible is to post Ws against non-conference opponents and win just two Big 12 games.

"We're not assuming that anything's going to be easy in September," Franchione said. "We're not staring at a Clemson, Utah, Virginia Tech-type schedule that we've faced before. It's certainly a friendly schedule. You'd like to hope that you're going to build some momentum and get confidence and play as many players as you can. I remember last year in getting ready for Clemson, the first game of the year, you know it's going to be a hostile place and a tough football game, and you're trying to decide how much to play guys who have never played. You wished so badly that you had a game where they got some experience before you play that game."

This season, A&M will have four contests in which they are expected to clear the bench before Texas Tech comes calling on September 30. That would give first-year Defensive Coordinator Gary Darnell a month to upgrade Division-I's worst secondary in 2005 to where it can hang with college football's top passing team. The makeover started last spring when Darnell replaced A&M's 4-3 base with a 4-2-5 scheme. The transition has been smooth, Franchione reports.

"It's not a big adjustment from 4-3. With all the one-man sets you face today, you're playing with nickel personnel in the game most of the time anyway. That was part of the reason that the adjustment for our defense wouldn't be tremendous other than we could do more things in the secondary, and I thought that was pivotal for our improvement there."

Many Aggie fans were stunned that Darnell was Franchione's choice to orchestrate that improvement. After all, Darnell has become Texas' poster child for porous defenses before he was shown the door as Western Michigan head coach in 2004. When he took the Western Michigan job in 1997, Darnell left a Texas defense that was ranked No. 86 against the run (203.4 ypg) and No. 65 in total defense (373 ypg).

"We did a lot of research and one thing I found, there were 80,000 applicants for the job," Franchione said. "All those people sitting at Kyle Field know defenses every Saturday."

Many of those 80,000 Aggies have made it known that it's time for Franchione to produce. A 16-19 record, including two losing seasons in three years, doesn't cut it in Aggieland even though last year's squad was riddled with injuries. (One big-time Aggie booster and letterman said Franchione "must beat Mack Brown at least once in the next seasons" to keep his job"). Other than Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Franchione sits on the hottest seat in the Big 12. But if Franchione has felt the warming trend, he did not publicly reveal it Wednesday.

"This is just like every other year. I always have a drive to do well, to do the best we can, and get our players in a position to do well. I don't feel a lot different this year than I've felt about any other year that I've been in coaching. There's all kinds of things you (sports media) can talk about. I'm not worried about that right now. I'm worried about this season and going forward. A lot of these players who are juniors now were our first recruits. They've come up through the system and they've played a lot as young players."

In addition, former Longhorn All-Southwest Conference DB Van Malone was hired this year to coach the cornerbacks while former Texas WR Les Koenning is the Aggie offensive coordinator.

Bottom line: the Aggies' early schedule is favorable enough that the program will be bowl-eligible by the time the wicked November slate arrives. A&M should be a slight favorite at home to slip past Nebraska but then Oklahoma and Texas will remind Aggie faithful of how far their program needs to rise to reach the level of those two powerhouses. As he did last season, McGee should at least keep the Aggies in both of those ballgames for four quarters.

Otherwise, when it comes to Aggie football, wake me up when September ends.

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