Sept. 3, Kyle Field
2015 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
2015 Recap: As far as an 8-5 season can be disastrous for a program, Texas A&M's 2015 campaign was just that. The Aggies opened the season fairly strong, going 5-0 through the early stretch, but then lost five of their last eight amid a quarterback controversy that had one of the strangest outcomes we've ever seen, with both talented quarterbacks electing to transfer after the completion of the season. The Aggies' offense, which was supposed to be a strength of the team, was pretty ineffective all season, and especially into SEC play. Texas A&M scored over 30 points just once in SEC conference play last year, and that came against South Carolina, which was just terrible last season.
If it hadn't been for a defense that played close to an elite level for stretches of last season, the Aggies could have easily been .500 or worse. It's safe to say that with all of the offseason turmoil (which seems to only be increasing in the last week, with a good deal of recruiting controversies), head coach Kevin Sumlin is on a very hot seat entering the 2016 season.
Returning Starters: 13 (six on offense, seven on defense)
2016 Projection: If you ever wanted to see a quarterback depth chart worse than UCLA's over the last four or five years, have a look at Texas A&M. The Aggies earned a transfer from former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight, who will be immediately eligible after graduating from Oklahoma, but aside from Knight, the Aggies have very little in the way of depth (seriously, go look -- it's like three identical 5'11 guys who look like holders). Knight, of course, is not exactly Joe Montana, having lost his starting job at Oklahoma to Baker Mayfield after two inconsistent seasons as the starter in Norman. Knight has some ability, but in an era of efficient offenses, he's a career 57% passer who's thrown just 25 touchdown passes against 19 interceptions in a career 490 attempts. He's serviceable, he's fine -- but he's not the answer to what ails A&M offensively.
But perhaps Noel Mazzone is. Texas A&M is hoping that hiring UCLA's former offensive coordinator will be the shot in the arm the offense needs after an unproductive season. There's reason to believe that Mazzone could have a pretty positive effect. First, Mazzone's offense, as we all learned at UCLA, is very, very simple to learn, so it's easy to imagine Texas A&M running it at a pretty expert level by the opening game of the season. Second, if teams aren't completely familiar with the scheme, as Pac-12 defenses became over the years, it can be difficult to deal with. We'd actually bet that Mazzone's presence will improve Texas A&M's offense quite a bit, at least this first year. There are certainly some tools to work with, none more impressive than wide receiver Christian Kirk, who was an all-conference selection last year as a true freshman. Expect him to be featured in a variety of roles in Mazzone's offense.
Defensively, things really boil down to the two-man wrecking crew at defensive end of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. Garrett had 11.5 sacks last year and 19.5 tackles for loss, while Hall had seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Garrett is the more impressive player, but as a combination, this is probably going to be one of the best pass rushes in the nation next year. A&M has that SEC ability to generate a pass rush without blitzing, and that presents serious problems for any offense. Combine that with a secondary that returns three out of four starters, and it's going to be difficult to pass on the Aggies.
That said, running on them might be a good deal easier. Last year, Texas A&M's run defense allowed five yards per rush, which was in the bottom 25% of the country. The Aggies also replace their starting defensive tackles from a year ago, and the linebacker corps took some hits as well. It's easy to assume that the run defense will, at the very least, be a work in progress at the beginning of the season, and could prove to be just as bad as last year.
From a schedule perspective, Texas A&M isn't in terrible shape. UCLA looms as the only legitimate challenge in the non-conference, and the Aggies get the Bruins at home. Aside from that, A&M plays a string of tasty cupcakes like Prairie View A&M, New Mexico State, and UTSA. In the conference season, A&M at least doesn't have to play the best teams from the East, with the one road game coming against a rebuilding South Carolina team and the home game coming against Tennessee, which is dangerous but manageable. There's one sure loss on the schedule -- at Alabama on October 22 -- but the rest of the schedule seems eminently reasonable. If Sumlin can't go at least 9-3 this year, then we could see Texas A&M making a change.
Outlook for UCLA: UCLA is not making it easy on itself in the non-conference season this year. The Bruins get one patsy -- UNLV on Sept. 10 -- but have to go on the road twice, first to Texas A&M and then to BYU on Sept. 17. UCLA has a history of handling things pretty well in the non-conference season over the years, and under Jim Mora, the Bruins have been flawless in regular season non-conference games, but this season's non-conference games are probably going to be UCLA's toughest challenge to date.
While A&M is breaking in a new offense, and that should present some advantages for UCLA, the Bruins will be breaking in a mostly new offense and a somewhat different defense, which could come with some growing pains. UCLA also lost a ton of experience on offense especially, with just four or five starters returning, depending on how you count ( Josh Rosen, Conor McDermott, Kenny Lacy, Kenny Walker, and Darren Andrews). Of course, UCLA is getting Scott Quessenberry back, who has starting experience, and will get Jake Raulerson, the grad transfer from Texas, who has starting experience, but let's just say it's not going to be as experienced as a unit as it was a year ago.
Defensively, in this game, we could see UCLA having a pretty significant upper hand. Even if UCLA isn't the most aggressive defense in the world, the Bruins, of all teams, should have a pretty firm handle on what Noel Mazzone likes to do offensively. With months to prepare, UCLA's defensive staff should be able to devise a game plan to stop all five or six plays Mazzone will run on Sept. 3.
It'll come down to UCLA's offense against Texas A&M's defense, and that's a bigger question mark at this point. A&M's pass rush could prove troublesome even for UCLA's very good tackles in McDermott and Kolton Miller. If UCLA's offense is still figuring things out at that point, which we imagine will be the case, it could make for a pretty long day. We'd imagine the Bruins will lean pretty heavily on the running game, though, given the relative strengths of the two teams, and that could provide the winning solution. UCLA's running game against Texas A&M's run defense might be the biggest mismatch in this game.
Next up: UNLV...