Texas A&M’s loss at Ole Miss on Saturday virtually put to bed any hopes of making a run at an SEC West championship.
With two conference losses, the Aggies are now in a three-way tie for fourth in the division, one game in the loss column behind two teams they lost to (Alabama and Ole Miss) and two games behind the division leader, LSU, who they’ve yet to play.
With five games left, what to make of Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC)?
Texas A&M was picked to finish sixth in the SEC West at SEC media days and while some were more optimistic than others -- there were a handful of folks wondering aloud if the Aggies could make a run at the SEC West championship -- many understood this team is probably one more year away from being considered that type of team. By losing by double digits to the two best teams it has faced so far, Texas A&M has validated that point so far.
Most preseason questions centered around how much defensive improvement would occur under new defensive coordinator John Chavis after two subpar years that preceded his arrival. During those seasons, the Aggies finished last in the SEC in yards allowed per game and rushing defense. Seven games into the season, Chavis turned this unit into a legitimate, quality SEC defense. It’s the offense -- which most expected to be just fine -- that seems to be broken.
The most recent two losses -- a 41-23 home defeat to Alabama and a 23-3 road setback at Ole Miss – raise many questions. The state of the program doesn’t seem quite as dire as it did after last season’s 59-0 loss at Alabama where it seems like the Aggies simply quit, but it is indicative of a concerning trend.
Since the beginning of the 2013 season, Texas A&M is 3-9 against teams ranked in the AP poll. The magical 2012 SEC debut for Kevin Sumlin, which featured a Heisman Trophy-winning season by Johnny Manziel, saw the Aggies finish as the No. 5 team in the nation. Now, that seems like a distant memory.
While the Aggies have won a handful of quality games since that 11-2 campaign, they have, for the most part, come up short in their biggest matchups: conference games against ranked teams. Bowl wins or victories over ranked nonconference teams are nice, but the money games are against the Alabamas and LSUs of the world, two teams they’ve gone winless against since the calendar turned to 2013.
More alarming in these past two seasons is the fashion in which the Aggies lost those games. Since Manziel left Aggieland, Texas A&M’s losses to SEC-ranked opponents have come by an average of a whopping 25.8 points per game. While the 2014 debacle at Alabama (59-0) heavily influences that number with a small sample size, removing it still leaves the margin at 17.5 points per game – meaning the Aggies' losses to the teams they need to defeat to climb the SEC West ladder are coming by an average of three scores per game.
With more than $500 million invested in facilities (a renovated Kyle Field, a weight room, a nutrition center, fancy locker rooms and training facilities), plus $8 million spent on the coaching staff, better results should be expected. Yes, those things are necessary to compete in an ever-evolving SEC arms race, but they have to be supplemented by results.
In a month’s time, many of these concerns could be an afterthought. The Aggies’ schedule is favorable in the next four weeks -- they host South Carolina, Auburn and Western Carolina and then travel to Vanderbilt -- so they could well enter their regular-season finale at LSU with a 9-2 record, hardly something to dismiss.
What occurs in Death Valley on Nov. 28 will be a true test to whether the Aggies have properly addressed the issues plaguing them the past two weeks. How closely that game is contested is worth watching.
Even with a loss, a 9-3 regular season with a chance at 10 wins in a bowl game provides a solid springboard for 2016, Sumlin’s fifth as a head coach and one that will be pivotal for him and the program. The schedule is more challenging next season. After having nine games in the state of Texas this year and only three true road games, they must travel to Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and South Carolina. The Aggies will also host LSU, Ole Miss and UCLA (and it’s worth noting they’ve only beaten one ranked team at home in seven tries under Sumlin).
However, the addition of another solid recruiting class to add depth and another year of seasoning for its young stars point toward Texas A&M having a chance to be a real contender in the division and in the league. Or at least it should be that way, shouldn’t it?