Five weeks into the season, Texas A&M holds the same record it did at this same point in 2014: 5-0.
It’s well-documented how that ended, which isn’t well. The Aggies closed out the regular season by losing five of its final seven games, including a three-game losing streak that immediately followed the 5-0 start. Naturally, some operate with caution when discussing the 2015 Aggies, lest they tumble down a similar path.
Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin understands the apprehension but puts no stock into the comparison.
“I think this season is completely different,” he said a week ago. “I don't draw any similarities to it.”
With a slightly muted confidence, he gave a brief passing glimpse into how good he feels about this year's team.
“I think people are making a mistake trying to say 'Well this team, ‘Let's wait and see here,'” he said. “That's fine. Let's wait and see.”
Why will the remainder of this season play out differently than 2014? Here are four reasons why:
1. The defense is better.
Against their first three Power 5 conference opponents this year (Arizona State, Arkansas and Mississippi State), the Aggies allowed an average of 383.3 yards per game, 172 rushing yards per game and 211.3 passing yards per game. Those numbers are down significantly from the totals the Aggies posted against their first three Power 5 opponents in 2014 (South Carolina, Arkansas and Mississippi State).
Two key areas have vastly improved: red zone defense and the pass rush. At this time last season, the Aggies were allowing touchdowns to Power 5 opponents on 90 percent of red zone possessions and 48.3 percent of drives with at least one first down ended in touchdowns. This year they’re allowing 60 percent red zone touchdowns and 32 percent of drives with a first down are ending in touchdowns vs. Power 5 competition. The Aggies 13 sacks against their three Power 5 foes is more than double the total it was at this time last year (six).
New defensive coordinator John Chavis is afforded better depth on the defensive line and in the secondary, both of which have played more aggressively in his scheme.
The biggest question mark will be its most significant hurdle against the rest of the SEC is at linebacker. Health and depth are issues and Arkansas, with running back Alex Collins, showed what could be done when true freshmen are playing significant snaps at the position and the defensive ends are focused on rushing the passer.
There’s more leadership on the 2015 Aggies. With numerous freshmen and sophomores playing key roles on the 2014 squad, it was difficult to develop the type of maturity needed for the grind of an SEC season.
Having a quarterback with at least some SEC starting experience prior to the season, which Kyle Allen has, is a helpful luxury that A&M didn’t enjoy when Allen and Kenny Hill were battling for the starting job last year. His growth has been invaluable. Defensive end Myles Garrett, now a sophomore, is emerging as a leader. All the young players who were thrown into the fire a season ago took the lessons of last year's collapse and used it as a template for what not to do this season. The coaching staff has preached this also, and the 2015 Aggies are handling success better than the 2014 Aggies.
3. The presence of Christian Kirk
The Aggies already had a talented bunch of receivers before Kirk arrived, but the true freshman stepped in right away and started. Five games into his college career, he is now their best offensive weapon. Kirk is No. 1 in the SEC in receiving yards (519), yards after catch (324) and tied for second with four touchdown catches. He leads the nation in punt return average (27.14), and Texas A&M is trying to get him the ball however it can, evidenced by having him take snaps out of the wildcat formation Saturday vs. Mississippi State.
He gave Arizona State (224 all-purpose yards) and Arkansas (255) all it could handle. Mississippi State did its best to limit Kirk’s production and did a solid job, but he still ended up with 153 all-purpose yards, including 77 receiving on eight receptions.
How he fares in the Aggies’ upcoming games against Alabama and Ole Miss will be compelling, but he has already shown himself to be a game-changing player the likes of which they lacked last season. The Aggies can simply get him the ball and let him do wonders afterward, making him an important weapon for quarterbacks Allen and Kyler Murray.
4. Offensive balance via a commitment to the run game
The coaching staff spoke often this offseason about a commitment to running the ball more. Easier said than done in the Aggies' style of offense but so far, they've made good on the promise. On Monday, we broke down just how much the Aggies are running the football, and it helped the 2015 offense evolve.