SEC: Brandon Williams

Now the real fun begins.

Mid-October is a time when teams start to separate themselves. Heading into Week 7 last season, Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida were all in the top 20 of the AP poll. Then Georgia and Florida lost, starting a downward trend that neither could reverse. Meanwhile, Auburn improved to 5-1 and didn’t lose another game until the BCS National Championship.

What will happen on Oct. 11 of this year? Where should fans go to see the season-defining games?

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting our top destinations for each week of the season. So far, we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, Starkville, Tuscaloosa, Houston, Nashville and Norman, Okla. We’ve got six weeks down and eight to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 7:

Oct. 11
Alabama at Arkansas
Auburn at Mississippi State
LSU at Florida
Georgia at Missouri
Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky
Ole Miss at Texas A&M
Chattanooga at Tennessee
Charleston Southern at Vanderbilt

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Ole Miss at Texas A&M

This week’s pick comes with purely selfish reasons. I missed out on experiencing the old Kyle Field, so I figure I need to visit the new one. Hopefully the press box will still sway along with the Aggie War Hymn. Whatever happens during the actual game is a bonus, pure and simple.

And what a bonus it should be. This game should be an offensive connoisseur’s dream. The officials can shut off the play clock. No defense required here.

Even with Johnny Manziel gone, I expect Texas A&M’s offense to be quite potent. People forget that Kevin Sumlin was a highly regarded offensive mind before Johnny Football. Nick Saban tried to hire him at LSU. Plus, Sumlin has plenty to work with this season, starting with the young wide receiver tandem of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. With Josh Reynolds and Kyrion Parker also in the mix, the Aggies have quite the formidable group of pass catchers. Throw in a running back group that goes three deep with Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams, and whoever starts under center should be in a good position to move the chains.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, has the same potential on offense, with a seasoned quarterback to lean on. Bo Wallace is the most experienced passer in the SEC today, and with Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram to throw to, he is primed for a big senior season. An offensive line minus three starters from a season ago is cause for concern, but by Week 7, there should be some chemistry there.

Therefore, even though I like Ole Miss’ defense with the Nkemdiche brothers, Cody Prewitt and Serderius Bryant, I’m looking for an offensive shootout come Oct. 11. If I’m going to the Lone Star State, I expect no less.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: LSU at Florida

Alex, you can have your shootout. I’d rather see a knock-down, drag-out fight in which the final score is 9-6. Call me old school. I love defense, and this year’s LSU-Florida game features two of the better defenses in the conference and a handful of potential first-round draft picks, including Dante Fowler Jr., Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Mills.

The two permanent cross-division rivals have not scored more than 23 points combined in their last two meetings, and this one should be no different.

The Gators will be battle-tested after back-to-back road games at Alabama and at Tennessee, but if they can get out of that with a split and start the season 4-1, you'd better believe that Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will be rocking. And why have it any other way in our first trip to the Swamp?

Can you imagine if Brandon Harris wins the job at LSU? That means the Tigers could have a true freshman quarterback and a true freshman running back, Leonard Fournette, starting in their backfield. Those two alone could be worth the price of admission, especially to see how they react to the raucous atmosphere. I guess that’s why you sign up to play in the SEC.

And if she’s not in Fayetteville, Ark., we might even see April Justin at the game. She’s the mother of Alabama star Landon Collins and Florida freshman Gerald Willis III, but deep down, she’s a die-hard LSU fan. Remember how happy she was when Willis picked the Gators on national TV? Exactly.

But let’s get back to the game. I expect both offenses to struggle. I expect there to be plenty of turnovers, and I expect it to come down to a last-minute field goal or a fake field goal, depending on how Les Miles is feeling that day. What more could you ask for?
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Running back is one of positions on Texas A&M's roster with few, if any, real question marks or concerns heading into 2014.

There is talent and depth. Most of the returning players have experience. The main question might be which player emerges as the most reliable and productive.

The candidates are plenty, though, and that's pleasing to head coach Kevin Sumlin.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson has had a good spring, but still faces plenty of competition to be Texas A&M's first-string running back.
"We feel real good with our depth at running back," Sumlin said.

Junior running back Tra Carson has been the most consistent of the group this spring. Sumlin has praised his work several times in recent weeks, and the 6-foot, 230-pound Carson seems to be positioning himself well for the fall.

"I think Tra Carson has been very, very solid," Sumlin said. "I think James White has progressed and is probably a little bit further ahead than I thought he would be. Brandon Williams is doing well. Trey Williams -- they're all good backs. It depends on what you want to do."

Both Trey Williams and Brandon Williams had to miss brief portions of spring practice with minor injuries, but they have returned. Sumlin noted earlier this spring, particularly when Trey Williams was out, that every day he missed was "not helping his cause." Since returning, both have been able to shoulder more of the workload in practice.

"Trey's healthy and has been involved in the return game, obviously," Sumlin said. "Brandon has come back. We worked Tra Carson pretty hard early. Those guys missed a little bit, so Tra Carson's getting a little bit of a rest right now and they're catching up. But we know what we've got in those three guys."

Trey Williams is the returning yardage leader of the group, with 407 yards and six touchdowns on 58 carries last season. Carson is the returning leader in touchdowns (7) and logged 329 yards on 62 carries in 2013. Brandon Williams contributed but didn't play as much as Carson or Tra Williams, logging 44 carries for 269 yards and a score.

But with Malena (115 carries last season) gone, there are carries available. It's reasonable to expect the returning trio will get more carries, but don't count out White, a redshirt freshman, being a factor as well based on his spring performance.

"I think the surprise has been James White," Sumlin said. "He has really come on to be pretty solid. He's a guy that's going to play special teams for us this year, and then we'll see where he fits in this group. James does everything pretty good. He's big enough at 215, 220 [pounds]. He has soft hands, is a good runner, a good blocker, so he's another guy that gives us a mix."

Sumlin expects all of them to push each other as the Aggies wrap up spring practice and continue preparing for the 2014 season.

"That competition will continue and they know that," he said. "It's good for all of us to have to compete for playing time, and that's what happens in a real program."

Video: Texas A&M offseason spotlight

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
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Chris Low discusses players to watch this offseason at Texas A&M, including the quarterback battle with Johnny Manziel gone to the NFL.

Running back depth key for A&M

November, 7, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into this season, there was much discussion from Texas A&M coaches about its options in its offensive backfield.

[+] EnlargeTrey Williams
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithTexas A&M's Trey Williams is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
The stable of running backs the Aggies was both deep and talented this summer. Ben Malena was the returning starter of the group, the senior who found his way into the starting lineup a year ago, and Trey Williams, who contributed as a freshman, was back for what he hoped would be a super sophomore season.

A pair of sophomores, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams, joined the group. Both had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, as Carson transferred from Oregon and Williams from Oklahoma.

How carries would be divided was a frequent question from fans. All four were talented and highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and there was no question each had the ability to earn playing time.

But because of injuries, the Aggies haven't always had all four backs healthy and available for the entire season. Because of that, the depth they have built has become valuable as players shuffle in and out of the lineup.

On Saturday, in the Aggies' 57-7 victory over UTEP, Carson gave the Kyle Field crowd a scare after being carried away on a stretcher. Fortunately for the Aggies, Carson only had a sprained neck, but it underscores how critical it has been to the Aggies to have so many options.

"It's really helpful to have more than one guy," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "If you've got one guy and he goes down, you're scrambling for the next guy. Our situation, it's unfortunate that Tra had the injury that he went down with, but the next guy up is just as good, if not better. That's a really good position to be in as a running backs coach."

Early in the season, it was Trey Williams and Brandon Williams who battled through ailments. Brandon Williams had offseason foot surgery and missed the season opener against Rice. Trey Williams battled an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Aggies' games against Sam Houston State and Alabama. Carson has appeared in every game this year, though his status for Saturday's game against Mississippi State is uncertain.

The only player who hasn't missed game time because of an injury is Malena, who has 456 yards and eight touchdowns, best among the Aggies' running backs.

As Trey Williams (297 yards, five touchdowns) has become more and more healthy, his per-carry production has improved. He is averaging a team-high 7.6 yards per carry and has shown the explosiveness that the Aggies hoped to see when they recruited him at out of Spring (Texas) Dekaney High School.

Carson (269 yards, five touchdowns) has served as a hammer, a back who can get it done between the tackles. The contributions of Brandon Williams (206 yards, one touchdown) wasn't as significant at midseason, and he did not get any touches at Ole Miss or against Auburn. But he has carried the ball 16 times in the last two weeks, and he scored a touchdown against Vanderbilt.

Not surprisingly, quarterback Johnny Manziel is again the team's leading rusher (564 yards, eight touchdowns) but having a host of guys to hand off to has been valuable to A&M's offensive success and running game, which ranks 25th in the country (210.78 yards per game) and fourth in the SEC.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.

But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M turned Darian Claiborne and its pass rush loose, which resulted in seven sacks against Vanderbilt.
Sure, Vanderbilt was playing with a backup quarterback (freshman Patton Robinette made his first start in place of injured Austyn Carta-Samuels), but honestly, that mattered little. This is an A&M defense that struggles to stop virtually everybody. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice. They allowed 240 to FCS opponent Sam Houston State.

After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.

"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."

There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.

"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."

Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.

The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.

If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.

Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.

Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.

Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.

"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."

He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.

Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.

It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.

"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."

Quartet powers Aggies' running game

October, 2, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Nobody is going to confuse Texas A&M's offense with an old-school, power running attack.

The Aggies are a team that likes to operate at a fast pace, spread things out and get the ball to their playmakers in space.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTailback Tra Carson rushed for 64 yards on nine carries in the Aggies' win over Arkansas.
But that doesn't mean they can't run the ball right at an opponent, which is what they did in their most recent win over Arkansas.

The second half of the Aggies' 45-33 win consisted of them running the ball 29 times and throwing just seven passes. For the first time since the AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma in January, the Aggies finished the game with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). And that second half stretch included two drives, one of nine plays and one of seven, that were all running plays that ended in touchdowns.

"That's probably the first series we've had ever since we've been here [as a coaching staff] that we didn't attempt one pass and scored in a seven-, eight- or nine-play drive," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "That says a lot about your team, your versatility and about where our confidence factor lies with our offensive line and our running game."

What it also says is that the Aggies are deep at the running back position. All four of the Aggies' scholarship running backs -- Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams -- touched the football on Saturday and combined for 203 rushing yards.

It was just the second time this season that all four have been available for a game, and was perhaps the best performance for the group this season.

"It's a luxury," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "It was really good to see all four of those guys out there. They were not only being competitive within the game, but they were competing with each other. That's how they do it every day."

Malena is the starter and elder statesman of the group. He emerged as the starter last season, claiming the top spot over then-senior Christine Michael, who's now with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. Malena's combination of running, receiving and blocking ability makes him a versatile option that fits the A&M offense well. He is the leader among the team's four running backs with 303 yards and seven touchdowns. Coaches have praised his reliability and leadership all season.

But Saturday was a true showcase for Carson and Trey Williams, who provided a formidable one-two punch themselves. Carson, who has impressed since his Aggie debut on Aug. 31 against Rice, is a big, physical, north-south type of running back who also has good speed for someone carrying 230 pounds.

Averaging 5.6 yards per carry, he's second among the team's running backs this season with 229 yards and four touchdowns.

"You see Tra Carson out there running hard," Malena said. "It takes more than one guy to tackle him."

Trey Williams had a 100-yard game last season in a blowout against Auburn, but he hasn't always been healthy in his A&M career. He's still not 100 percent healthy but showed that he's getting close to that on Saturday, leading the team with 83 rushing yards and a touchdown while averaging 9.2 yards per carry.

"He's really, really good with the ball in his hands," McKinney said. "And he showed a little bit of that on Saturday and hopefully that'll kick start him for the rest of the year."

Brandon Williams missed the season opener while recovering from offseason foot surgery but has gradually been working his way back into the lineup. He showed his burst with a 20-yard carry against Arkansas and also has a touchdown reception to his name this season.

"He's the guy that probably has the most wire-to-wire potential," Sumlin said. "He's a home-run threat from anywhere."

The fascinating part about the Aggies' playcalling on Saturday, which led to 44 rushes and 30 pass attempts, is that there were no designed runs called for quarterback Johnny Manziel. McKinney noted that Manziel is going to run whether or not a run play is called for him but they wanted to limit how many hits he took.

Manziel wound up carrying the ball nine times for 59 yards with the four running backs accounting for the other 35 carries. He is still the team's overall leading rusher with 314 yards on the season.

But as the Aggies get deeper into their SEC schedule, they can do so knowing that they have a multitude of running back options to go to and so far, all of them have proven capable of delivering.

"We've got a variety of guys," Sumlin said. "Our staff has done a good job with those guys and making sure they're sharing the wealth and that the more you can share it, the healthier you're going to be throughout the year. We're not even halfway [through the season] and we've got some bruised up guys.

"They know that and they help each other and I'm pleased with the direction that whole position has gone."

Assessing the Aggies after five games

September, 30, 2013
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Texas A&M is 4-1 after its first five games of the season. The Aggies split their first two SEC games and get a brief break with an open date this weekend. With the bulk of their league schedule coming up after the off week, let's analyze where the Aggies are and what's ahead:

The good

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Mike Evans might be the best receiver in the nation and a Heisman candidate.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans: These two had high expectations coming into the season based on their 2012 performances, and you could argue that they have exceeded them thus far in 2013, especially Evans. The sophomore receiver is making his case to be considered among the best receivers in the country, if not the best. Only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has more receiving yards than Evans' 691, but Evans's schedule includes Alabama, which he torched for a school-record 279 yards. Manziel ranks in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including total offense, passing efficiency, QBR, touchdowns responsible for and passing yards. He has made a concerted effort to become a better pocket passer, showing more patience when dropping back, but it hasn't taken away from his signature scrambling ability that makes him such an offensive force. If the Aggies continue to win and these two continue to play as they have, one could make the argument that both deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.

Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.

Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.

The bad

The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.

What's ahead

Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.

With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.

Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- To the casual fan, it would be easy to surmise that Texas A&M is a one-man team.

With much of the national conversation surrounding the Aggies' quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, someone who hasn't paid close attention might jump to the conclusion that Manziel is the man who makes everything happen for Texas A&M.

It can seem like that at times. Manziel's performance certainly has a major role in the fate of the Aggies, but they proved Saturday that they are much more than just Johnny Football -- even with the game on the line.

With Arkansas breathing down their necks and the crowd of 72,613 at Razorback Stadium raising the decibel level as the host squad threatened an upset of No. 10 Texas A&M, the Aggies handed over the game not to their quarterback but to their running game. It helped them put away the Razorbacks 45-33 on Saturday night.

When the Razorbacks narrowed an 11-point lead to just four midway through the third quarter, A&M put the game in the hands of its offensive line and sophomore running backs Tra Carson and Trey Williams. Nine plays and 68 yards later, Williams hit pay dirt with a 17-yard touchdown run to extend the Aggies' lead to 38-27.

Arkansas cut the lead back to five, and early in the fourth quarter the Aggies went back to Carson and Williams, who ate up 56 yards before starting running back Ben Malena put the finishing touch on another touchdown drive, punching it in from a yard out for the final margin of victory with 10:08 to go.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson was part of an RB quartet that posted more than 200 rushing yards against Arkansas.
Only once in those two scoring drives did Manziel run the ball, and he didn't throw it on either of those two series. He was responsible for two touchdowns, his lowest single-game total since the Aggies beat Alabama last November. And the Aggies still put up more than 40 points for the eighth straight game (best in the FBS) and at least 400 yards for 17th consecutive game.

"I think it just shows another dimension of our offense," Malena said. "People look at our offense being so spread out, being the 'Air Raid' offense, but I think we had two or three drives where we didn't throw the ball but maybe one or two times. I think it just shows how good our offensive line is and how talented our running backs are."

For the first time since their win over Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl in January, the Aggies finished with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). That helped the Aggies' struggling defense immensely, particularly in the second half when they were able to chew up the yardage. The drives weren't long in terms of time (each of the two aforementioned scoring drives lasted 3:06 or less), but they did give the defense time to catch its breath.

And the Aggies were able to possess the ball for 9:45 of the final 15:00.

Saturday was the second consecutive week that the Aggies had all four of their scholarship running backs — Carson, Malena, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams — available and it was the first time this season Trey Williams looked like the explosive back the Aggies signed in the 2012 recruiting class and got to see flashes of last season. Each of the four contributed, and they combined for 203 rushing yards.

Coming into the season the coaching staff discussed the benefits of having four backs as talented as these. Saturday was a manifestation of what the coaches hoped could be when utilizing each of them.

"All of our backs have their own value," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They all have their own pluses and we utilize them all and I think we're able to keep them all fresh that way."

And though Manziel didn't have to put the game on his shoulders in the second half, he played flawlessly when he had the ball. He was efficient as usual (23-of-30, 261 yards, no interceptions) and gave Arkansas headaches with his scrambling ability (59 rushing yards). Perhaps the most telling sign of the respect he has earned came late in the second quarter when Chris Smith and Deatrich Wise Jr. pulled Manziel down for a sack. The crowd erupted perhaps as loud as it did the entire night, and Wise proceeded to egg the crowd on with a celebratory sack dance.

But that was the only time the Razorbacks sacked Manziel.

"We ask him to make plays and he makes plays," Sumlin said. "He took care of the ball."

The defense, which didn't play well for large stretches on Saturday, even found its footing in the second half. Each of the three times that the Razorbacks were within five points or fewer in the second half, the Aggies responded with a stop.

Junior defensive back Deshazor Everett came up with the Aggies' biggest defensive play, a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown, on Arkansas' opening drive of the second half.

"Coach [Mark] Snyder told us on the sideline that he was going to change the call and he wants me to stay inside of [Julian Horton] and wait for the slant route," Everett said. "He dialed it up and called it and it was perfect. They ran the slant and I jumped it, just like he told me to."

After the next two times the Razorbacks narrowed the gap, the Aggies' D responded with three-and-outs each time. For a unit that was gashed for 483 yards, 201 rushing, 6.7 yards a carry and 7.3 yards per play — and lost starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis and middle linebacker Darian Claiborne to injuries in the process — it was a significant turn of events in an SEC road game.

The Aggies get next weekend off before traveling to Oxford, Miss., to take on Ole Miss. The open date comes at an appropriate time, with Claiborne, Ennis and receiver Mike Evans all suffering injuries on Saturday, though Evans returned to play the remainder of the game after a brief first-half exit. There are still several areas in which the Aggies must get better, but Saturday they showed a side of themselves that some might not have seen.

SEC Friday mailbag: Week 3

September, 13, 2013
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From Matt Freeman (@Onearmbird): How slow will Tennessee look this [Saturday] at Oregon?

I'm afraid the Vols will look a little sluggish in Eugene, and not just because of the jet lag from the cross-country trip. Oregon runs a play every 17 seconds or so. I get lightheaded just watching it. While I applaud the job Butch Jones has done in Knoxville thus far, injecting life into what was a downtrodden program, I just don't see him having the bodies on defense to keep up with Oregon's attack. Keeping the Ducks under 50 could be seen as a victory. In this case, Tennessee's 2-0 start may be misleading. Austin Peay was a pushover, and Western Kentucky all but gave last week's game away with five turnovers in a span of six plays. The Vols defense gave up almost 400 yards that game, and I don't see Marcus Mariota and Co. giving the ball away and failing to capitalize like that.




From Jeremy Garcia (@theFAKEJeremyG): How would you rank Texas A&M's depth at RB, compared to the rest of the conference?

It's among the best in the conference with Ben Malena, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams. Oh yeah, and Tra Carson is no slouch either. All four backs have the skill to start at other programs, and playing alongside Johnny Manziel, they're made even more lethal. I came across an interesting stat on Malena while researching Saturday's game against Alabama: Malena is 10th nationally (minimum 20 carries) with 61.9 percent of his carries going for 5 or more yards. Compare that to All-ACC tailback Duke Johnson, who came in at 47.5 percent.




From Matt Siggelow (@CFBPOexpert): How is it possible that [Alabama] never travels outside of their region or the U.S. to play BCS programs in their stadiums?

Simply put, they don't have to. The sudden rise in popularity of neutral-site games have allowed Alabama to stay away from nonconference games in road environments. Traveling to Texas last year was big, but it was a mostly 50-50 crowd against Michigan. And against Virginia Tech this year, the crowd wasn't too far in Alabama's favor even though Atlanta is much closer to Tuscaloosa than it is Blacksburg. I think it's hard to blame Alabama for the lack of road nonconference games, though. I don't see schools wanting to schedule more than a one-off neutral-site game much these days, whether that's against Alabama or another school. That said, there is a home-and-home scheduled between Alabama and Michigan State in 2016 and 2017 to look forward to.




From Ryan W. Tyler (@ryanwtyler): One-loss [Georgia] that beat undefeated Alabama in SEC champ over either undefeated Oregon or OSU?

Based on Georgia's schedule, it would be hard to keep them out of the championship game. Beating ranked opponents South Carolina, LSU and Florida is more than enough on a one-loss résumé, especially when that one loss came on the road in a close game against a ranked opponent in Clemson. That said, I can see conference fatigue setting in, and the two teams you brought up might be the only ones who could come in ahead of a one-loss SEC team like Georgia. While their schedules aren't spectacular, Ohio State and Oregon will have high profile games to showcase themselves to national voters: the Buckeyes play Michigan, and the Ducks face Stanford.




From Levi Weeks (@Weemsy_1): How do you think Alabama's defense will contain the multi-threat QB Johnny Manziel this Saturday?

Playing gap assignment football will be the key for Alabama's defense. That means the the defensive line must avoid going after the sack and instead maintain its lanes in order to not give Manziel too much room to run when the pocket does break down. C.J. Mosley is a good spy to keep on Manziel at Mike linebacker, but he'll need help up front. Alabama doesn't have a dominant pass-rusher, but in this game it doesn't need one. Pressure is important, but it's even more important that the defense not get out of position and allow the big play. As we all have seen over the past year or so, Manziel is his best when the play breaks down and he can improvise in space.




From Jeremy Davis (@JT_Dav): Which Arkansas team will show up for SEC play? Week 1 or Week 2?

I may be skirting the question a little here, but I think the Razorbacks team that show up for SEC play will be the once that plays Southern Miss this weekend. Back-to-back wins were a nice way to kick off a new era in Arkansas football -- however uninspiring last week's win against Samford might have been -- but we'll see what kind of team Bret Beilema has assembled this weekend against a program that mimics a lot of the size and speed of the SEC. Southern Miss averages right around 300 yards through the air per game, which could be a problem for an Arkansas defense that's had trouble in pass coverage. Having a good game defensively and continuing to establish the running game with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams would be a good way to work toward the start of SEC play in a few weeks.




From Brandon Truett (@do_it_truett89): Do you think the latest allegations are true about Alabama? Also who wins #BAMAvsTAMU?

It's not my place to comment on another story, but I will give my game prediction since this is the last question of the post. Alabama wins by two scores -- I'm thinking 34-21 -- if the offensive line plays better than it did Week 1 against Virginia Tech and limits the pressure in the backfield. Getting the running game going early will be huge for Nick Saban and the coaching staff. Moving the sticks with T.J. Yeldon and Co. will help control the tempo of the game and allow AJ McCarron to do what he does best -- work off play-action. With an entire offseason to prepare, I think Alabama's defense builds off last year's game, in which it held the Aggies to nine points over the final three quarters, and keeps Manziel in check, for the most part.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The word hasn't been used very often around Aggieland since Texas A&M joined the SEC but when the Aggies met with the media on Tuesday, it was spoken a few times.

Atlanta.

It's the home of the Georgia Dome, site of the SEC championship game. It has frequently been the defacto play-in game to the BCS National Championship throughout the last decade. If you win in Atlanta, chances are you're playing for the crystal football.

While players stuck to their talking points of this week being "just another game" or this week being "like any other week," the fact that the Aggies discussed their initial season goal indicates that they understand what's at stake Saturday.

Win and get an edge in the SEC West race.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin, Johnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel want to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, they can take a big step forward with a win over No. 1 Alabama.
If the sixth-ranked Aggies truly are to be considered a national title contender, then their chance to prove it is at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Kyle Field against No. 1 Alabama. Last season, the Aggies went 11-2 without much expectation from outsiders. This year, with a preseason top-10 ranking, a Heisman Trophy winner in tow and a level of coverage not seen, perhaps ever, of its program, there is an expectation for success externally.

Internally, there always has been since head coach Kevin Sumlin arrived. Despite what others said, he made it clear to his players last season that they had the talent to win every game on their schedule. The win over Alabama verified that, but the Aggies had slipups against Florida and LSU earlier in the year.

Before training camp began, senior running back Ben Malena approached Sumlin about taking an expanded leadership role in order to help the team get to a "championship level." So how's the progress on that front so far?

"I think we're doing a very good job of taking strides to getting to Atlanta," Malena said. "Correcting some mistakes that we made from Week 1 to Week 2 was very good and we're going to need to correct some more stuff, especially going into this game, because they [the Crimson Tide] will be ready coming into Kyle Field."

Quarterback Johnny Manziel is key for sure, but if the team expects to get to Atlanta, it must be more than just Manziel carrying the load. Offensively, that doesn't appear to be an issue thus far. With four capable running backs (Malena, Tra Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams), a veteran offensive line that excelled in the first two games and perhaps one of the nation's best receivers in Mike Evans, there are plenty of weapons for the Aggies to go to.

Defense is where the question marks are now, though the Aggies have a chance to answer some of those question marks on Saturday. They haven't yet had their full complement of defensive players because of injuries and suspensions, but will have virtually their entire first-team unit intact on Saturday. Though Alabama struggled offensively, and particularly on its offensive line, in its season-opening win against Virginia Tech, the Aggies are still expecting a strong effort from the Crimson Tide running game and offense.

"Coach [Nick] Saban is going to do what Coach Saban does," A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "They've won a lot of games doing it. Why change? There's not a dramatic dropoff between last year's team and this year's team. Their left tackle is still really good, their right guard is still really good. They got their feet wet for the first game and now they've had two weeks to kind of prepare and get those things fixed and we're expecting to get their best."

Some have said the Aggies entered the season with a target on their backs, whether it's because of their upstart inaugural season in the SEC or the exploits of Manziel, which have drawn plenty of headlines. In a way, the Aggies almost feel like underdogs though, because of how many around the nation feel that Saban and Co. will successfully redeem themselves with a win on Saturday.

"From last year, us beating them, people didn't expect that," Aggies receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "People probably don't expect it this year. But as I said, we just go week-to-week on a weekly basis and we just try to be 1-0 at the end of the week and that's how we're approaching this game."

No matter what happens, it's important to note that there's a lot of season left after this game. The Aggies have nine more contests, including road trips to Ole Miss and LSU, while Alabama has 10 more games. Despite the buildup, the SEC won't be won or lost on Saturday, though the result could play a critical role in deciding who gets the West division title at the end of the season.

In trying to get the team to a championship level, Sumlin has tried to keep his team focused on the game and not the noise around it while keeping their routine the same. Much like Saban's "The Process" axiom, Sumlin tries to keep his team consistent and avoid allowing them to "ride the wave."

"I'd probably be lying to you if I told you no, [that things haven't changed since last year]," Sumlin said. "In this room, it probably hasn't changed very much just because of our approach day-to-day with the players and our coaches.

“When we leave here, I take out my phone and all you guys are talking about what we're supposed to be and how big this game is and everything else, that's when the problems come,” Sumlin said with a smile.

"I think we're pretty visible right now and because of that, that's what you want as a coach. You come into situations and as things start to progress, you want to be in meaningful games,” he said. “You want your team to have a chance to play in meaningful games -- not just now, but in November."

Or December, in Atlanta.

RB Malena provides leadership and more

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — On the first day of Texas A&M's preseason training camp, senior running back Ben Malena journeyed to the third floor of the Bright Football Complex, where the coaches' offices are located.

His destination was the big office, coach Kevin Sumlin's. Malena wanted to discuss with Sumlin his role on the team. But Malena's purpose wasn't to discuss carries or touches in the Aggies' high-powered, fast-paced offense. It was about leadership, and, more specifically, how he could help provide more of it.

[+] EnlargeBen Malena
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesBen Malena gets some tough yardage against Sam Houston State.
"For a guy to come in and sit down in front of you at your desk and say, 'Coach, can I talk to you for a second? I want to talk to you about my role -- not as a player -- but my role as a leader on this team. What do you think about this? What if I do this?' That shows you the type of maturity that the young man has," Sumlin said. "It shows you the level that he cares."

In Sumlin's first season in Aggieland, Malena showed just how much he cared by his willingness to contribute wherever needed. Although he began the season behind then-senior Christine Michael on the depth chart, Malena eventually seized the starting running back role. But his contributions went far beyond that.

He became a regular on special teams, helping on kick returns, a role he has again this season. He even spent time on the punt coverage team, running downfield to cover punts. He finished as the team's second-leading rusher and rushing leader among running backs last season (808 yards, 8 touchdowns) and was a weapon in the passing game, as well (18 catches, 111 yards, 1 touchdown). He also was lauded by the coaching staff for his work as a pass protector, helping to pick up blitzes from his position.

His start to this season has been strong. He's the team's leading rusher (173 yards, 2 touchdowns) and already has a receiving touchdown. He's averaging an impressive 7.9 yards per carry. More than 63 percent of his carries go for 5 yards or more, and he ranks fourth in the nation among running backs with at least 20 carries in that category.

He is part of what makes the Aggies' backfield a valuable asset.

"This offseason, I tried to improve on every single aspect that you can improve on as a player, whether it's getting stronger and faster, getting smarter mentally for the game, I just tried to improve on every single [aspect]," Malena said. "Also, I tried to improve my leadership skills."

Malena is one of four scholarship running backs, all of whom have carried the ball this season and are expected to be factors in the Aggies' offense. Sophomore Tra Carson, who transferred from Oregon and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, has also had a productive start to the year with 23 carries for 127 yards and a team-high four rushing touchdowns. Sophomore Trey Williams is the team's primary kick returner and gets carries, but he missed Saturday's win over Sam Houston State with an ankle injury [Sumlin said he'll return this Saturday against Alabama]. And sophomore Brandon Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma, made his Aggies debut against Sam Houston State and scored a touchdown on a 10-yard reception from Johnny Manziel.

"One thing we have in common is work ethic," Malena said. "All of us go out there every day competing because it is, at the same time, a competition. Brandon Williams, like I said, he brings an element to this game that is hard to coach against, and that's speed. Tra Carson is a bigger back, about 230 pounds, and in this league you need a back that can really get the short yardage. And Trey Williams, he's a very electrifying player. He's really special in the return game and also running the ball. With this group, it all starts with me. As a unit, we work well together."

Although the Aggies' style offense is sometimes considered pass-happy because of the frequency of four-wide receiver sets and shotgun formations, Texas A&M has been one of the nation's best rushing teams. Including the ground exploits of quarterback Manziel, who was the SEC's leading rusher last season, the Aggies were 11th nationally in rushing yards per game (242.08) and first downs per rush (29.2 percent) and second in touchdowns per rush (nine percent) in 2012.

The Aggies are in the top 10 in the latter two categories so far this season and are 38th in rushing yards per game (219.5), with Manziel accounting for only for 55 yards thus far.

But it's Malena who sets the tone. A product of Cedar Hill (Texas) High School, he played a limited role as a freshman and saw an increase in time as a sophomore before emerging as the No. 1 back last season. Offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said Malena has come a long way since the current coaching staff arrived.

"I think the biggest improvement with Ben is his body," McKinney said. "He's really worked hard in the weight room to get his body prepared for all the different things he's doing for us, both special teams and offense and things of that nature."

His intelligence has also been an asset, McKinney said.

"From the day we got here and we started installing his offense, Ben Malena displayed that he's a smart football player and has a high IQ," McKinney said. "He's the one guy who in my room has never written anything down when we're going over new ideas and new plays, but he never messes up when he goes out to practice. He's a smart football player."

But Malena's desire to lead might turn out to be his most meaningful contribution to the Aggies this fall. With a battle against No. 1 Alabama looming and the Aggies constantly in the national spotlight for various reasons, some positive and some not, Malena feels as if it's something he can and should do.

"I feel as though, in this conference, with the level of competition throughout the SEC West and the East, I feel as though, in order for teams to take the step to get to championship level, you need to have player leadership also," Malena said. "So I just went up there in Coach Sumlin's office to discuss with him things and ask him for advice for different things that I can do to further help this team get to a championship level."
A year ago, three newcomers earned either first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the coaches.

Leading the way was Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who as a redshirt freshman burst onto the scene with an SEC-record 5,116 yards of total offense and captured the Heisman Trophy. Manziel was the first-team quarterback along with junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, who was the first-team all-purpose player in his only season at Tennessee. Georgia true freshman Todd Gurley earned second-team honors at running back.

Who are the new faces this season most likely to earn All-SEC honors?

SportsNation

Which newcomer is most likely to earn first- or second-team All-SEC honors this season?

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    18%
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    21%
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    23%
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    20%
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    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,105)

We'll let you tell us by voting in our SportsNation poll.

It's always an educated guess at this point. After all, Manziel didn't even win the Aggies' starting quarterback job until last preseason when he beat out Jameill Showers.

We've come up with five choices (And, yes, there are others who could have easily been on the list), but we're counting on you to tell us which newcomer will make the most profound impact this season.

Four of the five will be true freshmen. Of the true freshmen, Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Georgia safety Tray Matthews enrolled early and both went through spring practice, although Henry is coming off a broken fibula in the spring. The reports this preseason, though, are that the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry is still as tough as ever to get on the ground. Matthews was one of the stars of the spring on Georgia's defense and is a big-time hitter.

Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 high school prospect in the country last year, and Arkansas running back Alex Collins both arrived on their respective campuses this summer. They both had a lot of hype coming in and haven't disappointed during preseason practices.

Texas A&M running back Brandon Williams is a transfer. He sat out last season after playing as a freshman at Oklahoma. The 6-foot, 192-pound Williams has some serious acceleration and is an absolute blur when he gets into the open field. The Aggies are hoping for more than a few big plays from Williams.

Get your votes in and we'll review the results next week.
A year ago, things were much different for Johnny Manziel and college football as a whole. The country hadn't yet figured out who he was. And neither had he. Johnny Football hadn't yet been born.

The breathtaking plays, the otherworldly athleticism, the Sharpie-saturated scandal -- none of it had begun to devour College Station midway through fall camp in 2012. We were still wondering how Texas A&M would adjust to the SEC, not the other way around.

It felt like the league had finally caught its breath from Cam Newton's unexpected romp through the conference when Manziel came along, first winning the Aggies' starting quarterback job and then the Heisman Trophy. His ascension was as swift as it was unpredictable. He didn't look the part of a superstar, but he could sure play it. At 6-foot in stilettos, Manziel was a ballroom dancer on the football field, only no one else could figure out the steps.

Can anyone catch on to his act this year? No one knows.

Can anyone duplicate his success? Maybe.

With that in mind, here's a look at some sleeper candidates to pull off a Manziel-like rise from a no-name commodity to a player on the tip of everyone's tongue:

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Curtis Wilson/USA TODAY SportsAfter averaging 5.3 yards a carry in spot duty last season, and with a huge line in front of him, Gamecocks running back Mike Davis is poised for a big year.
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Steve Spurrier put it best when he went on the ESPN airwaves and told the "First Take" desk, "You don't know much about Mike Davis, but watch him play this year." The 5-foot-9, 215-pound sophomore filled in admirably for Marcus Lattimore when he went down, rushing for 5.3 yards per carry. With a mammoth offensive line -- the smallest of the projected starters coming in at 314 pounds -- South Carolina has to feel good about Davis' potential.

Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia: Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree got all the attention, but Jenkins was a quiet force on the Georgia defense as a freshman last season. At 6-3 and 246 pounds and with the speed of a safety, Jenkins aims to improve on his five sacks and set his sights on the school's single-season sack record of 14.5 that Jones set a year ago. If he reaches that goal and Georgia is in the SEC championship game again, Bulldogs fans will know who to thank.

Brandon Williams, RB, Texas A&M: Watch the Aggies long enough this season and your attention will inevitably be turned in two directions: to Manziel and his speedy tailback. Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma, hasn't won the starting job just yet, but give him time. With his burst, he'll be a threat to score every time he touches the football.

Tre'Davious White, DB, LSU: He's just a true freshman, but White is the type of cornerback LSU has become known for. Big, athletic and physical, he has the upside of former Tigers great Morris Claiborne. And like Claiborne, White came out of Shreveport, La., and knows a thing or two about playing with an edge.

Denzel Devall, LB, Alabama: Alabama has been something like Linebacker U in recent years, with Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw starring at the position. And though C.J. Mosley certainly fits the bill of an All-American talent, he's not as physically imposing as his predecessors. Devall is. At a solid 6-2 and 250 pounds, Devall has the size and the talent to be a force at linebacker for the Tide this season.

Nick Marshall or Jeremy Johnson, QBs, Auburn: It's down to either Marshall or Johnson, and whomever Auburn ends up with will have the talent to make plays in Gus Malzahn's offense. Johnson has an NFL arm, according to the new coach. Marshall brings more of a running flair to his game, a former Georgia cornerback who went the junior college route to end up on The Plains. Both are raw, but with some polishing they could be playmakers in the SEC.

Matt Jones, RB, Florida: If Will Muschamp's revitalization of power football really is complete in Gainesville, then Jones will be looked on as the final piece to the puzzle. A bowling ball of a runner, Jones brings a north-south style of play to a Gators backfield that has too long gone sideline to sideline. Up to 226 pounds after backing up Mike Gillislee last year, Jones has the size to shoulder the load and a coaching staff willing to let him do it.

Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennesee: He may be a year off, but Dobbs is the type of quarterback who could revitalize the Tennessee fan base with his ability to make big plays with his arm and his feet. Though a true freshman, he has a leg up on his competition in that he's not a typical pro-style passer recruited by coaches from bygone eras. First-year coach Butch Jones is looking for a fresh start at Tennessee, and he could be tempted to dive in head-first with Dobbs, who has the size and athleticism that's perfect for his up-tempo scheme.

Texas A&M season preview

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
3:40
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Today, we're looking at Texas A&M as the Aggies try to expand on their success in their first season in the SEC.

Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)

2012 record: 11-2

Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope

Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi

Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams

[+] Enlargejm
Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun/LandovThe Aggies' season will hinge on quarterback Johnny Manziel's eligibility.
Biggest games in 2013: vs. Alabama (Sept. 14), at Ole Miss (Oct. 12), vs. Vanderbilt (Oct. 26), at LSU (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Looming over the Aggies is the NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback.

Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC championship and perhaps BCS National Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14, and perhaps the game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to last season.

Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven, and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) are still to be determined after offseason arrests.

Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.

If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely limited if he is forced to miss more than two games.

Video: Texas A&M's X factor

July, 17, 2013
7/17/13
1:30
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Running back Brandon Williams is Texas A&M's X factor for the 2013 season.

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