Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin knows the score: win this fall, or get gone. Athletic director Scott Woodward has already made that painfully obvious to the rest of the SEC.
On May 30, Woodward appeared on The Paul Finebaum Show and was asked how he’d define the Aggies’ football expectations for 2017. The answer he gave was blunt, to say the least.
“We’ve had a heck of a spring and recruiting continues to go well, but coach knows he has to win and he has to win this year and we have to do better than we’ve done in the past,” Woodward said.
“Better” is the key word here, because in five seasons at Texas A&M, Sumlin’s worst record is 8-5. He has achieved consistent success in a division shared by Alabama, Auburn and LSU, as well as a once-dangerous Ole Miss program and a Mississippi State squad that rose to No. 1 in 2014.
But the Aggies, who claim the most lucrative program in college football, are restless. They’re sitting on an expensive renovation of shiny new Kyle Field. They’re paying their head coach $5 million annually. And their run of Lone Star State recruiting dominance — remarkable as it has been — likely won’t last forever. Few would admit it, but Tom Herman’s arrival at Texas has to heighten the uneasy feelings.
This is a prime window of opportunity A&M can’t afford to miss.
To everyone eager to see change in College Station: Hold your horses, says one prominent Texas A&M fan.
“All they got to do is be patient,” Kellen Mond’s father, Kevin, told SEC Country. “A&M is right there. They’re right there. It takes time to built a program in the SEC. A&M’s played in the SEC five years. You’re not going to come in and dominate the SEC. You have to build the program.”
Mond, whose 4-star son committed to Texas A&M in June 2016 and enrolled in January, said Kellen feels confident about where the program is headed. The hot-seat talk is inescapable, of course, but the family believes Sumlin can get the job done with time.
Whether Sumlin has time is the key question. How will Woodward define “better?” Texas A&M is one of just three SEC schools with wins against Alabama since 2012. Wins against Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and UCLA peppered last season’s schedule.
And as evidenced by the firings of Mark Richt, Les Miles and Bo Pelini in recent years, even coaches who do have time to build a program aren’t necessarily safe. Predictable,above-average success is no longer enough for the big-money world of college football, whose athletic directors are pressured to pull the trigger faster than ever before.
The Aggies have yet to capture an SEC title, or even a division championship. With a new quarterback and three of last season’s top four receivers gone, can they secure the SEC West, or even hit the 10-win mark?
“It’s right there, ready to turn the corner,” Mond said. “With a few players, that could be the difference to get them over the hump.”
Here are three factors that will determine whether Sumlin can achieve the sort of season that will save his job.
Reestablish a running attack, and stick with it
Texas A&M finished with the SEC’s sixth-best rushing offense in 2016, but the month-by-month breakdown is telling.
- September: 269.25 YPG (1st SEC; 4-0 record)
- October: 229 YPG (5th SEC, 3-1 record)
- November: 154.24 YPG (13th SEC; 1-3 record)
The most shocking performances among those four November games, by far, were against Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
Facing a middle-tier rushing defense (MSU) and a bottom-tier squad (Ole Miss), the Aggies averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry. They actually did better against LSU, which had a top-15 rushing defense!
The Ole Miss/MSU losses underscored just how important Trevor Knight’s running ability was to the Texas A&M offense, as Knight left the MSU game with injury and missed the Ole Miss defeat. Reverse the outcome of those two games and A&M is a 10-win team.
The ground game also proved to be the difference in Sumlin’s closest wins, which came over UCLA and Tennessee.
With the losses of Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, A&M needs to do two things:
- Keep Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford involved in tight games, even if they’re trailing. Williams saw only 34 carries all season when A&M trailed by 14 points or fewer. Ford saw 53 touches in those scenarios. Combined, they averaged 4.7 and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively.
- Roll with Mond as the starting quarterback. Jake Hubenak might have the most experience and the most balanced skill set, and Nick Starkel might have the strongest arm, but Mond’s dual-threat skills give A&M an offensive dimension that neither of his competitors can provide.
Maximize A&M’s interior defensive line talent
While Aggies pass-rushers Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall drew the headlines last season, the entire front seven was excellent at working its way into opponents’ backfields. On a per-game basis, Texas A&M averaged 8.5 TFLs per game — good for fourth-best in FBS.
In addition to the losses of Garrett and Hall, Sumlin and defensive coordinator John Chavis must find a way to replace linebackers Claude George and Shaan Washington from a production, pressure and overall defensive talent standpoint. At first glance, the interior defensive line is their best place to do so.
Zaycoven Henderson, Kingsley Keke and Daylon Mack form a formidable trio in the heart of A&M’s front seven. Reggie Chevis and TD Moton round out a deep, dangerous group. Their ability to penetrate fueled much of the team’s first-half defensive success. They’ll be vital if Chavis wants to establish a respectable, consistent defense at program.
The interior defensive line has talent and depth, and it’s on Chavis and defensive tackles coach David Turner to squeeze everything they can out of this rotation.
Better time of possession
The Sumlin/Noel Mazzone spread offense had the Aggies playing 953 snaps in 13 games, or just more than 73 snaps per game, which was more than all but two SEC teams in 2016 (Ole Miss and Missouri).
The result was an average possession time of 26:30 per game, which ranked 119th out of 128 FBS schools.
So it’s no wonder the Texas A&M defense wore down as the season progressed, particularly in the second half of games.
Here’s the killer: A&M allowed an average of 10.2 fourth-quarter points per game last season, which was worst in the SEC and ninth-worst in college football. The offense’s 39 percent third-down conversion rate didn’t help.
The remedy here is the same one other spread offenses could stand to employ: Find a balance and slow the tempo when needed. Running 100 mph for 60 minutes makes for blown leads, as happened against Tennessee, Ole Miss and UCLA.
And, speaking of third down, Kevin Mond said moving the chains is his son’s greatest strength.