Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.

What's Changed. More than anything, status. You know the "program ratings" on the NCAA video games? A&M dropped from a four/borderline five-star outfit in a lot of eyes last year to a shaky three-star, which still seems a little generous after the Aggies were outscored by a combined 98 points in a three-game losing streak to end the year -- a slide that included a 20-point loss at Baylor, for heaven's sake, that wasn't even as close at that. Any lingering flecks of suspicion of A&M as a competitor in the Big 12 South were obliterated in the opening day loss to Arkansas State and only made more ridiculous by the rest of the season, all in all probably the worst in College Station since the early seventies.

A huge portion of that blame falls on the defense, which couldn't use talent as an excuse, and certainly couldn't claim youthful lump-taking: Nine Aggie regulars were seniors and four others were juniors with significant playing time coming into the year. Even the defensive coordinator, Joe Kines, is a grizzled, mushmouthed vet. Yet everyone involved looked utterly clueless on a weekly basis, and generally as far as possible from the old "Wrecking Crew" Ds that defined TAMU's success for more than a decade: A&M finished last or next to last in the Big 12 -- in the Big 12! -- and in the bottom-20 nationally in every major defensive category, including sacks and turnover margin, and gave up 40-plus points seven times. In five losses to winning teams, it allowed 41, 56, 43, 66 and 49 points. Five of the last six opponents went over 500 yards total offense, most of them well over 500 yards. Etc.: It was a disaster.

Aside from the law of averages (things can't get worse), a couple factors bode well for some modest improvement: Many of the chronically underachieving offenders are gone, while three of the returning starters, tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie, linebacker Garrick Williams and safety Trent Hunter, were thrown into the fray as true freshman and should come out stronger for the lashing; Hunter even stood out enough to earn an honorable mention all-conference nod from league coaches, who ignored the rest of the defense altogether.

But the new wave doesn't represent any improvement, athletically (if anything, the opposite is true), and is still a long shot to qualify even as "mediocre" off such a wretched effort as '08 unless returnees like Jordan Pugh and Von Miller finally outgrow the "potential" phase.

What's the Same. I don't have the numbers to confirm this beyond a doubt, but based on the last decade, and everything I know about Texas A&M football prior to the last decade, last year's team may have been the first pass-oriented outfit in Aggie history -- though not necessarily out of design. For a school with a solid running back reputation, TAMU's running game was uniquely inept, bottoming out at 88.5 yards per game and just 2.9 per carry, both Big 12 worsts, as once-promising backs Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane quickly wore out their usefulness behind a hapless, banged-up line. The offense also found itself in such impenetrable deficits on a regular basis that going pass-wacky was the only option.

But the shift to a more pass-happy attack was also in large part to take advantage of the young talent in the passing game, namely quarterback Jarrod Johnson, who finally supplanted sturdy but unspectacular senior Stephen McGee as the season spun out of control. Johnson had a big October -- he was exceptional in the loss to Kansas State and the win over Iowa State -- and identified a pair of freshmen, Ryan Tannehill and Jeff Fuller, as his top receivers. They combined for over 100 catches, over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, not spectacular by Big 12 standards, but bright note amid the general misery. Johnson's other favorite receivers, brothers Terrence and Jamie McCoy, are also back.

It was especially discouraging, then, that Johnson collapsed so spectacularly down the stretch, completing just 11 of 31 against Oklahoma, throwing four interceptions at Baylor and -- after yielding to McGee for most of the game -- completing just 4 of 11 in the finale at Texas. That stretch cast the verdict on Johnson's long-anticipated debut in enough doubt that he's not entirely assured of hanging onto the job into the fall: Tannehill, of all people, has been given every opportunity to move into Johnson's role this spring.

Ah, geez, Christine. If there's anything at all to be excited about re: Texas A&M in 2009, it's the unfortunately named Christine Michael, Rivals third-ranked incoming running back and the one hope of injecting some big play pop to the offense. Michael's arrival coincides with Goodson's early, contentious departure, meaning he'll not only have the opportunity to play right away, but will be expected to -- and expected to play well.

Sherman came in last spring promising to tale full advantage of Goodson's criminally underused talents in a balanced, pro-style scheme, but the speedster stayed in Sherman's doghouse and never had more than 12 carries in any game after the opening day upset. The once-dynamic freshman went out with a whimper, with 30 yards on 19 carries in the entire month of November, and declared for the draft soon after. Michael is the next Goodson in terms of talent and expectations, but the offense won't go anywhere if he's not immediately more productive.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. The buzz of the spring is inevitably Tannehill's unlikely bid to unseat Johnson at quarterback despite the lack of depth at receiver and a torn labrum that limits Tannehill as a passer. But at least as big a deal to coaches is the fact that Von Miller, a standout, four-star recruit in 2007 whose hardly made a dent in the lineup his first two years, is picking up after himself:

Sherman said Miller has matured so much in a year in all aspects of his life.

"I mean, his locker is clean, which was a major thing last year," Sherman said. "His mother said she want to his apartment and that was clean. She was shocked, and called us. He's going to class, he's taking care of his business."
"I'm proud of him," Sherman said. "He still has a ways to go, but at this point, he's light years ahead in every aspect of his life as a player and student than he was last year."

A visibly shocked mother = a breakout season at the hybrid "Jack" end position. It has to.

Best-Case. The partisans weren't clamoring for two years for Jarrod Johnson for nothing: He has all the tools to be a star in an offense that can keep pace in the inevitable shootouts. Add Michael's potential to the equation, and TAMU could be fairly dangerous on offense for the first time in years.

There's no excuse for A&M not to be 3-0 after an opening stretch against New Mexico, Utah State and UAB, all at home, good for some much-needed momentum when the Aggies clash with Arkansas in the Cowboys' new intergalactic palace in early October. An upset there, combined with a win in the toss-up at Kansas State, could have them sitting at 5-1 at midseason. Missing Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas from the Northern half of the conference is a boon: Even with Teas Tech, Oklahoma and Texas guaranteed to deliver some pain down the stretch, plausible wins over Iowa State, Colorado and Baylor could push the final record to 8-4, for which Sherman should be up for coach of the year.

Worst-Case. The jury remains very much out on Johnson; Michael's not even on campus yet. A loss in any of the first three games, a la Arkansas State last year, could be disastrous to eventual bowl hopes, because it would probably force a sweep against plausible Big 12 victims Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado and Baylor just to claw back to .500. If A&M splits those games again, as it did last year, it's right back to 4-8, and Sherman is feeling significant heat.

Non-Binding Forecast. All the principles here are young, including Johnson, who should be hitting a considerable stride as a fourth-year junior. With seven very attainable wins and another plausible opportunity against Arkansas, .500 both overall and in the conference is a realistic goal -- a 3-0 start and a winning record in the remaining five toss-ups should be good for a terrible bowl game, and talent alone relative to the non-conference patsies and the Iowa States and Baylors of the Big 12 should ensure that. Northing heroic, but that's progress.

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Previous Premature Assessments: Fresno State, Clemson, Kansas State, Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Hawaii.

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