Nearly halfway through the 2017 season, Texas A&M is pretty much where we thought they'd be.
Most predictions had the Aggies either 4-1 or 5-0 coming into this weekend's game with No. 1 Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC) and that's where they are: 4-1, 2-0 SEC. But that's pretty familiar territory for the Aggies, who have started off on a roll the past several years.
And, after playing Alabama, they've gone off a cliff.
In 2014, the Aggies came into Tuscaloosa 5-2 and the Crimson Tide destroyed any lingering hopes of a major bowl berth, putting A&M through a 59-0 Blitzkrieg. The next year, the Aggies got a chance at redemption at home coming in 5-0 and lost 41-23, with Kyle Allen throwing three interceptions for Alabama scores. A&M would lose 4 of their last 6 and both quarterbacks in the process.
2016? The Aggies came in 6-0 and held the lead in the 3rd quarter in a vicious game before crumbling in a 33-14 loss. They would follow that up by losing, again, 4 of their last 6.
It would suffice to say A&M has seen a lot of red after seeing Crimson and White.
"Player development, recruiting, you name it," head coach Kevin Sumlin said when asked what sets Alabama apart. "I think Nick (Saban) does a great job of player education and having guys who really understand what the third and fourth year is about."
With the exception of the first two times when the Aggies played Alabama and Johnny Manziel went into attack mode, A&M has appeared to be intimidated at times by the Crimson Tide, their fans in Tuscaloosa or both. Defensive end Jarrett Johnson, who has played in three matchups against the Crimson Tide, tried to play down the idea that Alabama's physical nature not only beats you up when you play them, but for weeks after as well.
"Anybody can give you trouble," Johnson said. "Anybody can be physical."
Junior Koda Martin acknowledged the fact that A&M has struggled after playing Alabama in past years, but said it takes more than one team to cause a tailspin. With different mindset, he said, the Aggies believe 2017 can be different.
"The gantlet that you have to go through as an SEC team is a challenge for anyone," he said. "We're looking to overcome that this year."
So what reasons are there to think A&M can continue to put wins up after a fight with Alabama, regardless of the outcome? What's different this year than past years?
A few things.
First, the Aggies have not only talked about a desire to stick with the run, they've actually done it. They're averaging 256 yards a game on the ground, second in the SEC (of course, to Alabama's 316). A&M has three players -- Trayveon Williams, Keith Ford and Kellen Mond -- in the top 16 in the conference in rushing.
The Aggie defense has also proven to be much better against the run than in past years, giving up less than 96 yards a game so far. That's 40 YPG better than where they were last year at this time and 85 better than where they ended up last season. They haven't faced a running game like Alabama's yet, of course, so their firmest test awaits. With 20 sacks and a +8 turnover margin, A&M has shown some good things when they attack defensively and stick with it. Jalen Hurts hasn't really been turned loose yet this season, having thrown for only 157 yards a game -- but he has 6 TD, 0 INT and leads the team with 461 rushing yards. The pass defense will have to step it up to a level A&M hasn't seen yet this year to slow Alabama down.
The Aggies and their struggles with dual-threat quarterbacks is well established, but the last true one A&M had gave Alabama fits as well. Kellen Mond isn't Manziel, but the true freshman still has caught Nick Saban's attention.
"Even though he's a young player, has played better each game that he's played, and he can make plays with his feet and he's hurt people doing that with quarterback runs as well as scrambles," Saban said Wednesday.
Beating Alabama is never easy, and stopping the Tide when they're on a hot streak is even tougher. But the Aggies know that the story of their 2017 season doesn't just have to do with what happens against Alabama, but what happens after they play the team that has played the role of annual soul-crusher.
"If we get better every week, good things happen for us," Sumlin said. "This team has continued to get better every week. If that's good enough, that's good enough. We'll see what happens Saturday."