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Measuring up the Big 12's 'hot team'

Every conference has at least one. Each year, fans and media crown a team outside the current powers with a chance to upset the order.

Last season, Oklahoma State earned the tag, entering the season with a remarkably talented trio in running back Kendall Hunter, quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant.

Injuries and eligibility afflicted all three, but the Cowboys still managed a second-place finish in the South.

This year, a similarly talented set of triplets will be on display for the Big 12's 2010 "hot team" in College Station: Texas A&M.

By now, non-Aggies fans are at least a little tired of hearing all the reasons a team that's won 10 games in two seasons and never finished higher than fifth in its six-team division is going to challenge for a South title in 2010. Call Texas A&M a dark horse, but the shade of the Aggies' coat has lightened with an avalanche of coverage and expectations from the media over the offseason.

Seventeen starters return, including linebacker Von Miller and quarterback Jerrod Johnson, two of the Big 12's best talents. Joining them are a highlight-making corps of receivers and two of the conference's best running backs in Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael. They'll get a chance to build some early steam with a back-loaded schedule that saves the Aggies' toughest tests for November. Before then, they'll face very winnable games against Arkansas in Arlington, Texas, and against Oklahoma State in Stillwater before hosting Missouri and Texas Tech.

But Texas A&M has clear weaknesses that must be overcome if it wants to play in its first Big 12 title game since 1998. Chief among those is a defense that gave up a Big 12-worst 33.5 points per game in 2009, twice giving up 60 points and 40 points on three more occasions.

Additionally, the Aggies must plug three holes in the offensive line if they want to maintain their status as the Big 12's second-best offensive team at over 465 yards per game.

In the offseason, they made moves to fix both problems. We won't know how well either fix works until the Aggies are tested. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter comes to College Station via Air Force, where he coordinated the nation's 10th-best defense. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews were among the best tackle prospects in the 2010 class. Both signed with coach Mike Sherman and could start when the opener against Stephen F. Austin arrives on Sept. 4.

The Big 12 championship game is exactly five months later. If Texas A&M keeps the heat on, it might be there, ending Texas' and Oklahoma's 11-year streak of representing the South on Championship Saturday.