Sept. 3, The Rose Bowl
2016 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
2016 Recap: Texas A&M had effectively the same 2016 season as 2015 season, starting strong enough to be ranked in the CFP top four at one point, and then falling off badly toward the end of the season. The offense, which had been looking pretty good through the first six games of the season, sputtered down the stretch, producing fewer than 30 points in four of the Aggies five losses. This was former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's first year in College Station, and he drew many of the same complaints that he drew in Westwood -- the offense, being too simple and formulaic, was increasingly easy to stop over the course of the season.
While it was a disappointing season, there did not appear to be any serious consideration for firing head coach Kevin Sumlin after the season. Oddly, the noise had been much louder around Sumlin's job security the previous year. It's a fair bet to say, though, that the coming season is going to be a make-or-break one for him.
Returning Starters: 12 (five on offense, seven on defense)
2016 Projection: This is going to be a bit of a transition year for Texas A&M as the Aggies break in a new quarterback, but there are some talented pieces throughout the team. Noel Mazzone has always liked to run the ball, and this offense is very much built to do that, with a bell-cow running back in Trayveon Williams, as well as an offensive line that showed improvement this spring as it continues to grow and gel together. Last year, the offensive line was a weakness with so many young players, but they've grown up some, and it looks like they're due for a pretty nice year. Add that to the fact that star receiver Christian Kirk is back for his junior year, and there are certainly enough offensive weapons to make this a potentially potent group.
So, the stage is set, with a good running game and a decent offensive line, for the new quarterback to not have to be otherworldly for Texas A&M's offense to be decent this year. The question is simply who will win the job. Right now, it's still mostly a three-way competition between returning senior quarterback Jake Hubenak (who played some last year), redshirt freshman Nick Starkel (who UCLA recruited), and true freshman Kellen Mond. Hubenak might have a slight leg up in the competition with his experience, but Mond is the most talented of the bunch and it might be more of a question of when, and not if, he wins the starting job. In any case, the competition isn't over, and it'll stretch into fall camp at this point. Playing quarterback in Mazzone's system is relatively easy, so we wouldn't be shocked if a true freshman like Mond ends up starting.
Defensively, things are going to be in a bit of a rebuild mode. Gone are Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, and the strength of the defense now looks much more like it'll be on the back end in the secondary, where the Aggies return all but one starter from a year ago. The defensive end position is an issue, though, to the point where defensive tackle Daylon Mack, who reformed his body in the offseason, might be asked to move to the edge in pass rush situations since he has so much natural ability. It's very unlikely that the Aggies will rush the passer at anywhere near the level they did last year.
The linebacker corps has some returning bodies, but it didn't perform well last year. The hope is that continued experience from the returning starters and the addition of a talent like Hines will boost up the group a level. The secondary is talented and deep, though, so this could be a tough team to pass on.
Texas A&M's schedule is completely manageable. The Aggies play just four true road games, and their SEC East opponents are South Carolina and Florida. In the non-conference, aside from UCLA, they play Nicholls State, Louisiana Lafayette, and New Mexico. If they go 3-1 at worst in that stretch, and beat Arkansas, South Carolina, Mississippi State at home, they'll need to take just two of Alabama at home, at Florida, Auburn at home, at Ole Miss, and at LSU to equal last year's record. Given the relative ease of the schedule, we'd bet on 8-4 at this point.
Outlook for UCLA: It's certainly a more manageable A&M to deal with this year. Instead of going into College Station with a bad offensive line and dealing with the most fearsome pass rush in college football, UCLA will get to play at home against a much less potent pass rush. Admittedly, UCLA's offensive line probably isn't going to be good, but not being good against A&M's 2017 defensive ends is a whole different thing from not being good against Garrett and Hall.
It shapes up like a pretty decent matchup offensively for the Bruins, from what we know of them at this juncture. The Aggies probably don't have the pass rush to kill UCLA's offensive line the way it did last year, which should allow the offense, and Josh Rosen in his first game back, some time to breathe. This will be a test of the running game, though, because anything is a test after the year the Bruins just had. If the Bruins can't generate anything on the ground against the Aggies that could spell trouble for the rest of the year.
Defensively, UCLA should be overall pretty good, but if we do have one concern, it's the interior rush defense, and it's uncertain how they'll hold up against what is a pretty good rushing attack from A&M. We would bet on UCLA being able to shut down the pass fairly well against an inexperienced quarterback, but stopping the run is going to be a key here, and we just don't know if UCLA will be fully capable at that point in the season.
That said, UCLA played the Aggies close last year on the road in College Station against probably a better Texas A&M team. At home, if the Bruins can generate just a little more offensive punch, it seems like a much more favorable situation.
Next up: Hawaii