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The Aggies' season is going to boil down to one simple question: Does Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel get to play?
With accusations of NCAA rules violations flying around Manziel, his eligibility is a major concern. Manziel's attorney seems to think his client will take the field Aug. 31 when Texas A&M welcomes Rice to College Station, but if there's one thing which can be gleaned from NCAA rulings over the years, it's that nothing is certain.
Three brokers told ESPN that Manziel signed a total of 4,400 items in three cities in less than one month. One broker claimed Manziel was paid -- an NCAA violation -- more than $7,000. It has been a public relations dream of an offseason for the Heisman Trophy winner, who was on video being kicked out of a party in Austin, left the Manning Passing Academy early amidst rumors he was hungover -- he denied that, saying he overslept -- and posted a Twitter message saying he couldn't wait to get out of College Station.
In an ESPN The Magazine article, Manziel's father said Texas A&M hadn't done enough to support his son, who has a fulltime manager.
If the NCAA's hand is heavy instead of light, the Aggies could be in tro.uble. The dropoff from Manziel to whoever takes his place might be steep. Coupled with some key graduation losses, this team needs Manziel to play if it is to succeed.
"As a team, we have to hit the reset button," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We signed 31 new players. Many of them are going to have to help us be successful as true freshmen. That's quite a large number when you have 85 guys on scholarship."
The big loss was left tackle Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick in the National Football League draft back in April. But three receivers who combined to start 89 games, including Ryan Swope, also exhausted their eligibility.
An underrated defense waved goodbye to six starters, including Damontre Moore and his 12.5 sacks. Moore could be missed as much as Joeckel, perhaps more. The rest of the Aggies combined for just 18.5 sacks last year.
But no player would be missed as much as Manziel. His fate lies in the NCAA's hands, whether it's decided before the Rice game or at some other point. A&M's season probably revolves around it.
"Is our system perfect? No. Is he perfect? No. I think he has done some things that he is not proud of," Sumlin said of Manziel. "He's made some good decisions. Unfortunately, the poor decisions are the ones that are really publicized."
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Following the season opener with Rice, Texas A&M has a walkover the next week with FCS foe Sam Houston State before the big showdown Sept. 14 with Alabama. That might be the most publicized SEC game in September since the days when Steve Spurrier's Florida and Tennessee met in the season's third week for Eastern Division superiority. After hosting SMU on the 21st, the Aggies finish the month with their first road game against Arkansas on the 28th.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Hope that Manziel gets good news from the NCAA at some point, because it's hard to imagine this offense being anywhere as dynamic without his presence. Should he maintain his eligibility, A&M will contend for the SEC West Division and national titles. Evans and TB Ben Malena (808 yards, eight TDs) give the offense a couple of good options and the line returns three starters, including NFL-ready Jake Matthews, who's moving from right tackle to left tackle. The defense was underrated, allowing less than four yards per carry and giving up 21.8 ppg despite being on the field for nearly 32 minutes per game because of the offense's quick scores.
AREAS OF CONCERN: If Manziel gets tossed in the NCAA jail, say a prayer for the offense. Matt Joeckel's 11 pass attempts represent the only sliver of experience under center besides Manziel. He's competing with redshirt freshman Matt Davis in fall camp. Jameill Showers, Manziel's backup last season, transferred to UTEP. There are 17 freshmen on the two-deep chart, which would be a huge number for a bad team, let alone a top 10 squad like the Aggies. Who is going to replace Damontre Moore's 12.5 sacks on defense? And A&M won't have the element of surprise on its side this fall. The SEC knows how good it was last year and has had an offseason to figure out how to contain Manziel.