Constantly shouldering the “September champions” criticism under coach Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M picked up a massive October win against undefeated Tennessee on Saturday.
It took double overtime, seven Vols turnovers and a huge game from freshman back Trayveon Williams, but the Aggies stayed unbeaten in the 45-38 thriller, and in doing so have a clear track to traverse to the College Football Playoff.
Can Texas A&M actually do what so few are expecting? There are some huge hurdles to clear, for sure, and a lot of football left to be played.
We’ve broken down the Aggies’ likeliest path to a playoff debut:
Cupcake games (90-plus percent chance of winning)
Week 9 vs. New Mexico State
Key position group: Any offensive player who touches the football
Analysis: The other Aggies have given up no fewer than 32 points this season; Kentucky scored 62 in Week 3 against them, and Troy dropped 52 points in Week 4. No worries here.
Week 12 vs. Texas-San Antonio
Key position group: The defensive line
Analysis: UTSA, on the other hand, just beat a previously 4-1 Southern Miss squad and played Pac-12 foe Arizona State to a 32-28 loss. The Roadrunners aren’t the staunchest opponent — they’ve given up 16 sacks in their first four games, so the Aggies’ pass-rushing platoon should feast — but they will prove a tad trickier than New Mexico State. Junior quarterback Dalton Sturm is efficient, and he spreads the ball around.
Significant games (60-plus percent chance of winning)
Week 10 at Mississippi State
Key position group: Receiving corps
Analysis: The Bulldogs looked pretty darn bad against Auburn on Saturday, but falling on the road, right before a huge matchup with Ole Miss makes it a possible trap game. But the likelihood that Mississippi State’s secondary is able to keep the Aggies’ deep group of wideouts in check is low.
Week 13 vs. LSU
Key position group: Defensive interior
Analysis: Tennessee took advantage of the middle of John Chavis’ defense Saturday. Tailbacks Alvin Kamara and John Kelly gashed A&M for easy yardage between the tackles, and quarterback Josh Dobbs did plenty of damage with his right arm on crossing routes. (Oh, and screen plays, which accounted for a big chunk of Kamara’s 161 receiving yards.) LSU, even with a different offensive coordinator who actually varies his play-calling, is built to be a run-heavy team. Danny Etling is nowhere near Dobbs’ level; stopping Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice on inside runs still renders the Tigers impotent. This will be tough, though, especially if Texas A&M somehow finds itself 11-0. Ed Orgeron is coaching for a full-time gig and would relish playing spoiler here.
Colossal games (less than 60 percent chance of winning)
Week 8 at Alabama
Key position group: Quarterback
Analysis: The Vols, good as they are, were more of a first course dish. Alabama is without question the main event. If Texas A&M can beat Alabama on the road, a rise into the top four would be all but guaranteed. It will come down to whether Trevor Knight can channel some of that magic he found in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and, most importantly, be accurate enough to hit his receivers when they’re actually able to beat the Tide’s stout secondary. However, a close loss here wouldn’t doom Texas A&M; more on that below.
Week 11 vs. Ole Miss
Key position groups: Cornerbacks and safeties
Analysis: When Chad Kelly is having a good game, the Rebels are tremendously difficult to slow. Even some of Alabama’s best — star cornerback Marlon Humphrey, for instance — struggle to defend against all these run-pass options. Tight end Evan Engram had a field day. It will be on a much-improved secondary, headlined by Justin Evans, Armani Watts, Priest Willis and Donovan Wilson, to contain Kelly & Co. If the Aggies beat Alabama and win the rest of their games, a loss here wouldn’t necessarily rule out a playoff berth.
A) Run the table: Obviously, going 12-0 and knocking off the eventual SEC East champion would guarantee Texas A&M a spot in the playoff. An undefeated SEC team would never not get in.
B) One quality loss: This might be Texas A&M’s most likely path to the playoff. The two toughest games left are Alabama and Ole Miss; losing to one, beating the other and knocking off the remaining four opponents would leave the door open for the Aggies either as the SEC’s lone representative, or if Alabama is the one loss, as a second SEC team in the field of four.
C) Two losses: OK, we’re getting into reaching territory. But hypothetically, if Texas A&M suffers close losses to Alabama and Ole Miss, and the Rebels lost a third game, there’s a super-slim chance a 10-2 Aggies squad makes the cut. Why? The Big 12 is likely to be left out, as would a Group of Five team (i.e. Houston). If Washington suffers a regular-season loss and then doesn’t win the Pac-12, it would be a really interesting scenario: Two-loss SEC team vs. two-loss Pac-12 team. Of course, Michigan would also have to have two losses. This would be a real mess, so let’s just remember that this probably won’t happen. Right?