COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Texas A&M's defense took its lumps early in the season, battling through ever-shifting personnel from suspensions, injuries or necessary lineup changes, the hope was that as the season wore on the unit would get better.
And up until their most recent game against Auburn, the Aggies showed some signs here and there that gave supporters a reason for optimism. Whether it was a strong second half against Arkansas, a good first half against Ole Miss or getting a stop when they absolutely needed it to secure a win, there was evidence that A&M was improving from the unit that had given up 306 rushing yards to Rice or was ravaged by Alabama for 568 total yards.
But in its 45-41 home loss to the Tigers on Saturday, Texas A&M took a step back in a few areas. The rushing yardage the Aggies allowed (379) was a season high. Auburn converted 50 percent of its third downs (7-of-14), and Alabama was the only other team to reach that rate (3-of-6). And the total yards A&M allowed was a season high (615).
Through seven games, this is the reality of the Texas A&M defense. While there are flashes of good, there is a lot of bad. Anyone waiting to see if this becomes a "good" defense might be left waiting for the remainder of the season. For every step forward, like the fact the defense forced four consecutive punts on Saturday, there seems to be a step or two back, like allowing 21 points in each of the past two fourth quarters.
In most major statistical categories, the Aggies rank near the bottom nationally. They are in the bottom 20 in total yards allowed per game (118th), rushing yards allowed per game (112th), passing yards allowed per game (103rd), first downs per game (113th), yards per carry (118th) and yards per play (115th).
It has had trouble generating a pass rush (Texas A&M's seven sacks this season are tied for 114th nationally) and has allowed 39 plays of 20 yards or more, which puts it at 105th. Other statistics, like points-per-drive (2.56, 110th), average yards allowed per drive (38.1, 114th) and the percentage of drives teams score touchdowns against the Aggies (33.3 percent, 109th) are also near the bottom.
The question of whether 41 points -- the defense's total on Saturday -- should be enough to win a football game has been raised recently in Aggieland. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder makes no bones about it.
"You should win a game if you score 40 points, period," Snyder said. "I understand the game's changed. It's hard to be a DC nowadays. It's extremely tough. I get that. But that's what the challenge is about."
Head coach Kevin Sumlin had a different retort.
"One more point than the opponent should be enough to win the game, regardless of the situation," Sumlin said. "We know where we are now as a team. So our offense understands that, our team understands that, and our job is to win or lose as a football team. So if you're deficient in one area, you understand that as a coach. You try to get that area better, but your goal is to win the game no matter what. Just like if we were deficient on offense, then it would be our defense's job to [surrender] one point less than whatever we could score."
Twice this season the Aggies have scored more than 40 points and lost -- Saturday and on Sept. 14 when they scored 42 and fell to Alabama. In fact, they've scored more than 40 points in every single game this season so that's not asking too much for this high-powered offense, which is averaging 46.9 per game.
But it appears that if Texas A&M wants to continue to win moving forward, it might have to be closer to its average or the 50-point mark (which it had surpassed twice earlier this season).
The Aggies have spent the bulk of the season with 11 freshmen in their two-deep depth chart, including two who are now starting. Having the same 11 guys on the field for back-to-back games has been a challenge.
The unit is also missing leadership. Last season, Texas A&M had the good fortune of seniors like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy, as well as junior Damontre Moore. With all of those guys gone, there's something missing that comes with the experience those players had. For instance, Snyder alluded to the fact that someone like Porter or Stewart could come off the field after a defensive series and tell the coaching staff what tendencies they were seeing from the offense or suggest playcalls. That's not happening this season with a young group of players, many of whom are simply just trying to do their job.
"It's more of us talking than it is them," Snyder said.
Snyder still sounds optimistic. He said the number of missed assignments they have has come down from the start of the season to now. As a unit, they're focusing on being opportunistic, meaning having a good third-down percentage and creating turnovers. Interestingly, those are two areas where the Aggies aren't in the bottom 20 or 25 nationally.
Their 41.1 percent rate of allowing third down conversions isn't ideal (80th) and not as good as last season (32.4 percent), but it could be worse. And the Aggies are doing well on turnover margin, tied for 39th with a plus-three in that department (12 takeaways to nine giveaways). Perhaps the biggest change for the Aggies is on third-and-5 or fewer, where they've allow 62.5 percent conversions (vs. 44.6 percent last year).
The players, for their part, are trying to stay positive mentally and focus on their next opponent.
"We're positive," sophomore cornerback De'Vante Harris said. "We're going to keep working, keep grinding....I have all types of faith in my team, my defensive squad, my coaches, everybody. We're just going to stay positive and stay hungry."