February 07, 2011
As impressive as Texas A&M was over the second half of 2010, the six-game winning streak to close the regular season was accompanied by a distinct whiff of missed opportunity: If the surprise stars of their late run, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Cyrus Gray, were good enough to lift the Aggies into the final polls for the first time in a decade, where might A&M have landed if they'd been fixtures in the lineup from the beginning of the season?
We can't go back in time to answer that re: 2010, but with a Big 12-best 18 returning starters en tow, the question is essentially the same for forecasting the Aggies' prospects in 2011. For all intents and purposes, it's the same team: Along with Tannehill and Gray, the offensive gets back everyone who touched the ball last year, including All-Big 12 receiver Jeff Fuller and the burgeoning star Gray replaced in the backfield, Christine Michael, behind four returning starters on the offensive line. The defense will have eight starters back from a group that dramatically improved in its first year under coordinator Tim DeRuyter. If A&M was playing like a top-10 team when it upset Oklahoma and Nebraska down the stretch, then virtually all of "way too early" polls that littered the landscape last month agree that it should start out as a top-10 team this fall, boasting one of the most veteran lineups in the country.
That's a long from the hot seat on which coach Mike Sherman allegedly resided last year, on the heels of back-to-back losing records in his first two seasons. If the Aggies open 2011 ranked in the top 10, as the early polls suggest they will, it will be for the first time since 1999. If they finish there, it will be for the first time since 1994, as kingpins of the old Southwest Conference. If they land a BCS bid, it will be their first since the Series' first year of existence, back in 1998. If the pre-preseason punditry is right, in other words, this shapes up as the best edition of Texas A&M since the SWC folded 15 years ago, and the first edition in that span that even figures to threaten to emerge in the national consciousness.
In part, that's the result of a series of solid recruiting efforts coming together in a kind of perfect storm. But historically, the Aggies may also be due for at least a brief ascension at the expense of its most daunting regional rivals: Generally speaking, when Oklahoma and Texas are good, Texas A&M is not. Between 1945 and 1985, the Longhorns and Sooners, playing in different conferences, were two of the four winningest teams in the country; A&M ranked 86th over that span, a couple dozen games below .500. The late eighties and nineties, on the other hand, was the most mediocre stretch for both Texas and Oklahoma since World War II, opening the door for the Aggies to make their move – first under Jackie Sherrill, who claimed three straight SWC championships from 1985-87, then under R.C. Slocum, who led A&M to at least eight wins and a top-20 finish in seven consecutive seasons between 1988 and 1995, the last year of the SWC's existence.
Slocum kept that momentum rolling in the early days of the Big 12, taking the South Division title in 1997 and the conference title a year later. By 2000, though, Mack Brown and Bob Stoops had restored the historical order, and A&M reverted to a decade of mediocrity.
Oklahoma most certainly is not expecting a down year in 2011; quite the opposite. But Texas is facing another transition year with an entirely revamped coaching staff and lingering questions marks on offense, particularly at quarterback. Nebraska is out of the conference altogether, bound for the Big Ten. Oklahoma State is losing the architect of the conference's most prolific offense, Dana Holgorsen, bound for West Virginia. And A&M has already reversed its sagging fortunes against perpetual thorn-in-the-side Texas Tech, trouncing the Red Raiders two years in a row.
With an almost entirely intact lineup and coaching staff from its most promising season in ages, the Aggies are better positioned for a run at Oklahoma's crown than any other team in the Big 12, and may be as well positioned as they're going to be for another ten years. That's an awful lot of goodwill to waste if they can't deliver on the opportunity.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.