Texas A&M is a preseason national title contender. Really. It’s a logical prediction, at least for those who pine for college football in July, considering the Aggies return Heisman Trophy quarterback Johnny Manziel and surprisingly had few problems dealing with last year’s premiere in the Southeastern Conference.
Yet for A&M, such a lofty preseason ranking is rare. For good or bad, the Aggies historically have hovered under the radar as teams across the country kick off August training camps.
Consider that over the last three decades, A&M has begun a season ranked in the top five only two times. And last year was the first time they’d even finished ranked in the top five since 1956, when Bear Bryant was head coach.
So they have no solid historical base on how to deal successfully with what’s been billed as the most anticipated season in program history. Work has started on a $450 million renovation of Kyle Field, and Manziel is constantly in the news, be it headlines on a sports or gossip site. So unlike this time a year ago, there is no such thing as Aggie anonymity.
The A&M logo appears all over Alabama’s weight room. Last year’s loss against the Aggies sometimes plays on all the televisions in the workout complex to remind the Crimson Tide of their lone setback of 2012. South Carolina’s celebrated defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the likely No. 1 pick of next year’s NFL draft, even has bragged how he’d have no problem catching the slippery Manziel in the open field and hitting him in the mouth.
“If they’re really gunning for us, then bring it on,” Manziel told reporters at the SEC media days.
But there are big concerns. Players report Aug. 4 and practices follow the next day to prepare for the Aug. 31 season opener against Rice. A home game against two-time defending national champion Alabama follows two weeks later.
Throughout the offseason, Manziel has generated tons of negative publicity as everyone wondered if he’d paid as much attention to football as he did hanging out with the gliterrati. While Manziel has openly embraced his celebrity status, defensive staffs at Alabama and LSU have scrutinized game film of the quarterback to get an on-field edge.
“On the field, he has done an exceptional job,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said at SEC media days. “Off the field, there’s no question he’s made mistakes.”
Even A.J. McCarron, the Bama quarterback, seemed to take a shot at Manziel, even though the two vacationed together this offseason.
“My job is to play football,” McCarron said, “not be a celebrity.”
When Manziel left SEC media days for the ESPYs in Los Angeles earlier this month, McCarron reminded his Twitter followers that he was staying home and working on football.
Manziel is getting used to new quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who came from West Virginia and once worked for Sumlin at Houston. Spavital replaced Kliff Kingsbury when Kingsbury took the head coaching job at Texas Tech days after Manziel won the Heisman.
Aggie running backs coach Clarence McKinney, a long-time Sumlin assistant, was promoted to offensive coordinator. There shouldn’t be a significant change of philosophy, although the Aggies may tinker with using a tight end and rely more on a bevy of running backs.
The A&M offense seems to be in good shape, although the Aggies will be replacing left tackle Luke Joeckel — the No. 2 pick of April’s draft — and Ryan Swope, the top receiver, statistically, in school history.
But the defense could be problematic, with three projected starters arrested during the offseason. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder already had to deal with losing Damontre Moore, the team’s best pass rusher, and workhorse linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter.
Sumlin told reporters at SEC media days that he has yet to determine specific punishment for defensive lineman Kirby Ennis and defensive backs Floyd Raven and Deshazor Everett. All three were indefinitely suspended after their arrests. Ennis was charged with disorderly conduct and displaying a firearm; Everett and Raven were charged with assault.
There are guaranteed to be many new faces on both sides of the ball. But the team won’t be a surprise to anyone.