Who is the best in the West?

October, 25, 2014
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Greg and Booger break down the SEC West on SEC Now

How the SEC West became so dominant

October, 24, 2014
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The SEC West has been the center of power in the conference for several years now, but never has the gap been greater than now. By placing a historic four teams in the top five of the AP poll, the West is stronger than ever. That's due in large part to the rise of Mississippi State and Ole Miss, while the likes of Alabama and Auburn remain strong. How has it gotten to this point? Here are five key decisions -- coaching hires, recruiting classes and more -- that made the SEC West what it is today.

Gus Malzahn's return to Auburn
Auburn fans might blame Gene Chizik for the program’s collapse in 2012, but give him credit for what he accomplished. And more importantly, give him credit for hiring Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator in 2009. If not for that hire, Malzahn would likely not be the Tigers' coach today. In turn, the Tigers wouldn’t have executed one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history last season, nearly winning a national championship, and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be top five in the polls this fall. People questioned athletic director Jay Jacobs when he brought Malzahn back to Auburn, but the former high school coach has always been a winner. He’s proving that now. -- Greg Ostendorf

Mullen builds up Mississippi State
He wasn't kind or understanding about the low expectations and the low sense of worth he felt around Mississippi State. Mullen, the former offensive coordinator at Florida, took over as the head coach in Starkville, Mississippi, determined to break down that imaginary wall separating State from becoming a contender.

It started with simply reaching bowl games, but after six seasons, it's turned into championship aspirations. Mullen and his staff have developed overlooked talents into NFL prospects. If you don't think so, just look at QB Dak Prescott or linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Neither was highly sought after in high school, but now they're among the best in the country. -- Alex Scarborough

Hugh Freeze and his 2013 recruiting class
The hire of Hugh Freeze didn’t exactly set off fireworks in Oxford, Mississippi, but he made waves throughout the conference when he took an Ole Miss team that had lost 16 consecutive SEC games to two consecutive bowl wins. But what really had people buzzing was that historic 2013 recruiting class. Freeze signed the No. 1 player in the country, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, and the No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil) and receiver (Laquon Treadwell).

That class put the Rebels on the map in early February of 2013, and its on-field contribution has been tremendous, with those three becoming stars in the SEC and tight end Evan Engram transforming into one of the league’s best at his position. As a result, Ole Miss is 7-0 and looking for a playoff berth. -- Edward Aschoff

Dominance on the recruiting trail
Alabama’s run over the past four years has been nothing short of amazing. The Crimson Tide are on pace for their fourth consecutive recruiting title and currently have 21 2015 commitments, including 17 ranked in the ESPN 300. The reputation of the SEC West alone is a compelling recruiting pitch to the top prospects in the country, and Alabama is at the forefront of the dominant division. LSU and Auburn have also done very well, and Mississippi and Mississippi State have made huge strides under Freeze and Mullen, respectively. -- Derek Tyson

Texas A&M joins as Manziel, Sumlin enter
Many felt Texas A&M would take it on the chin upon entering the conference in 2012. The Aggies didn't exactly light it up in their final Big 12 season (7-6), and there were a ton of question marks. Enter Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin. Manziel went on to become the first freshman to win a Heisman Trophy, Sumlin leveraged the team's success to consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, and the Aggies went 20-6 in their first two SEC seasons, including an 11-2 debut in 2012 that included a win over eventual champion Alabama. Some of the struggles expected in Year 1 seem to be surfacing now, though, as the Aggies endure a three-game losing streak. -- Sam Khan Jr.

SEC morning links

October, 24, 2014
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1. Who is the best one-loss team in the country? That is the most intriguing debate in college football right now. With four teams in the top 5, it has to be somebody from the SEC, right? Well, the rest of the nation might disagree and claim SEC bias. On Thursday, ESPN Insider Brad Edwards used a metric called Game Score to rank the losses of each playoff contender. The best loss, with a score of 72, was Alabama's loss at Ole Miss. The worst (27) was Ohio State losing at home to Virginia Tech. That seems fair. What I don't agree with is putting Auburn's loss to Mississippi State among the worst losses with a score of 46. Sure, the Tigers lost by double digits, but it was on the road against the No. 1 team in the country. And they overcame a 21-0 deficit to make it a one-score game in the second half.

1a. On the same scale, Notre Dame's recent loss to Florida State was among the best losses, but it still might have cost the Fighting Irish a shot at the playoff according to Gregg Doyel. The new Indianapolis Star columnist writes that while it was a good loss, the Irish are lacking any good wins. I tend to agree. I figured SEC fans would, too. Read the full piece here.

2. So I was going to call out Texas A&M for backing out of its home-and-home series with Oregon in 2018 and 2019, but then the Aggies went and scheduled a home-and-home with Clemson those same years. Now personally, I would have loved to have seen the Aggies and the Ducks and all the points that would have ensued. But who knows where those two programs will be in four years? All I know is that there are some enticing non-conference matchups on the slate for 2019. Check these games out:
  • Texas A&M at Clemson
  • Notre Dame at Georgia
  • LSU at Texas
  • Kansas State at Mississippi State
  • Michigan at Arkansas

Even that last game could be intriguing assuming Michigan has hired a new coach and that Bret Bielema has the Razorbacks among the SEC contenders by then. And they haven't yet, but you can go ahead and count on both Alabama and Auburn scheduling a quality non-conference that year.

3. I've done a couple stories this season on SEC players showing support for cancer patients, so naturally it caught my attention when I saw a similar piece on Patrick Towles. The Kentucky quarterback has lent support to high school freshman Brady Walz, the nephew of Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz, and even invited him to attend the Wildcats' win over Vanderbilt last month. No, it's not the Iron Bowl, but the Kentucky-Louisville can get pretty heated in the Bluegrass State. This seems to be a growing trend in college football, and there are probably more stories like this that never get told. Kudos to you Mr. Towles. Kentucky hosts No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday.

Tweet of the day

 

Texas A&M has replaced Oregon with Clemson as a high-profile home-and-home opponent for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the schools announced Thursday night.

The Aggies will host the Tigers on Sept. 8, 2018, before traveling to Death Valley on Sept. 7, 2019.

"We are excited to play the Clemson Tigers, who have been on Texas A&M's non-conference schedule previously," Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman said in a statement. "As a fellow land-grant institution, Clemson is very similar to Texas A&M with a great football tradition and passionate fans. This will be a great non-conference series for both schools."

The Aggies hold the all-time series lead 3-1, with the Tigers winning the most recent meeting 25-24 in 2005.

"We are looking forward to playing Texas A&M as the two schools share a rich military heritage and of course passionate fan bases," Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said in a statement. "We know our fans make Clemson a great game day experience and the Aggie fans make Kyle Field also one of the great venues in all of college football."

Clemson had already announced earlier this year that it would face Auburn in 2016 and 2017. Clemson also faces in-state rival South Carolina annually, and the ACC announced this week that the Tigers would face Notre Dame in 2020, 2022 and 2023. (The two already had been scheduled to meet in 2015 as well.)

Fox Sports reported earlier Thursday that Texas A&M had opted out of a home-and-home with Oregon that was scheduled for 2018 and 2019, with Hyman exercising a clause from the series' 2009 contract that said the Aggies could get out of the deal if they changed conferences. Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012.


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video

Texas A&M commit Kyler Murray, the nation's top dual-threat quarterback, recently visited Oklahoma. National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton discusses Murray's status with the Aggies and which programs have the best chance to flip him.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M has had a rough stretch in October, going from No. 6 in the country to unranked after its most recent loss, a 59-0 whipping from Alabama.

There are countless issues to address for the Aggies (5-3, 2-3 SEC). What are some potential ways to address the issues and turn things around? Here are some suggestions and thoughts from the Aggies’ coaches.

Making a quarterback change

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWill the Aggies look for a spark from true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen in their next game on Nov. 1 against Louisiana-Monroe?
It doesn’t take an expert to see that sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill's play hasn’t been as good in the last three games as it was in the first five. The first-year starter saw his name discussed in the Heisman Trophy race after the Aggies’ 5-0 start, but in the last three weeks, Hill has thrown six interceptions and also lost a fumble. He isn’t the only one struggling – there has been poor play from the offensive line and receivers – but it’s a wonder if simply having a fresh face behind center might provide a spark. The Aggies have a highly-touted freshman as Hill’s backup: Kyle Allen, the nation’s No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class.

Could a change happen? The coaching staff didn’t rule it out this week.

“I'm going to open every position this week,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. “I want to find the 11 guys who want to fight and be physical and go out there and play. When it comes down to it, it's a physical sport and you've got to out there and fight. We're going to have a lot of discussions this week and see who the best 11 players are that want to go out and compete for it.”

Reshuffling the offensive line

The running game has been unable to get started in recent weeks (the Aggies had a horrid 1.5 yards-per-carry average on Oct. 11 vs. Ole Miss) and Hill hasn’t had much time to throw (he was sacked five times vs. Alabama). The lack of time in the pocket for Hill has also affected the downfield passing game. Changes could be on the horizon for the offensive line, once considered the strength of Texas A&M’s program but now simply another question mark.

"When you go into the season and that's the strength of your team and you see them getting beat, that’s obviously tough and makes it tough on your other players,” Spavital said. “They’ve got to know the truth and see it. The film is not going to lie. I think some of them see how their performance is out there. They've got to fix it or they’re going to be replaced.”

Improving tackling

Tackling has been an issue for the Aggies and it was painfully apparent against Alabama. For evidence, just see how quarterback Blake Sims evaded defender after defender en route to a 43-yard touchdown run or how easily T.J. Yeldon sliced through the middle of the Aggies’ defense.

It is the No. 1 issue on defensive coordinator Mark Snyder’s fix-it list.

“Mistakes are tackling. There's your mistakes, it's tackling people,” Snyder said. “You go out and tackle people. We've got a bye week this week, and we're going to tackle this week.”

Injecting more fresh faces on defense

The results on defense the last four weeks have been poor. The Aggies have allowed 42.5 points per game, 495.8 yards per game, 255.7 rushing yards per game, 8.89 yards per pass attempt and are tied for worst nationally in red-zone efficiency in that stretch (86.7 percent). We might see some players on the field who haven’t played as much as others, perhaps true freshmen such as linebacker Otaro Alaka, cornerback Nick Harvey or defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, couldn’t hurt the results at this point.

“You can get beat 59-0 with anybody on the field,” Sumlin said. “So the guys who are going to play to the standard we've set, I think we got away from that and it's our job to get back to that.”

Coaching staff changes

This is something that some fans have called for in the wake of the recent losing streak and the embarrassment on Saturday. Sumlin made it clear that making a change to the coaching staff, whether it is Snyder, Spavital or anyone else, is not something he’s considering at this moment.

“There's nobody who's working harder at coaching technique, game-planning, all that kind of stuff than our guys in this building,” Sumlin said. “We've got to get the right pieces of the puzzle on the field and do a better job. Don't get it confused; that starts with me. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed. It's not one player, it's not one coach, it's not one thing, when you have a situation like what happened Saturday.”

In his seven-year head coaching career, Sumlin has never made a midseason coaching change, so don’t expect that to happen now. If he is to consider changes, the timing would more likely be after the regular season is complete.

SEC Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
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There's not much disagreement among our reporters this week. OK, there's not any disagreement among our reporters. But they don't necessarily agree on how competitive those games will be. And as everyone knows, the weeks that look boring are always anything but. Let's get on with the picks:



Why Mississippi State wins big: Kentucky’s defense has already surrendered 282 rushing yards to South Carolina and 303 to LSU last week. That doesn’t bode well for Saturday’s game, when Mississippi State will bring the SEC’s top offense (and No. 2 rushing offense at 264.3 yards per game) to Lexington. The Wildcats are improving, but they don’t have the firepower to hang around in this one. Mississippi State 42, Kentucky 17 -- David Ching

Why Kentucky keeps it close: Mississippi State should be rested after having last week off, while Kentucky is still smarting from its 41-3 loss at LSU. The Bulldogs should roll, but it won't be easy. The Wildcats have been a different team at home and have the firepower at defensive end to keep Dak Prescott on his toes. Mark Stoops has instilled the right kind of pride in his team, which means the Wildcats will bounce back and make this a second-half game. Mississippi State 31, Kentucky 27 -- Chris Low



Why Ole Miss wins big: Anthony Jennings has struggled enough throwing the football for LSU, and he'll find it even more difficult against Ole Miss' vaunted secondary. If Jennings turns the ball over and makes Cam Cameron's game plan too one-dimensional, the Rebels will feast. Ole Miss 31, LSU 17 -- Alex Scarborough

Why LSU keeps it close: Ever since getting blown out by Auburn, the Tigers have steadily improved. From barely surviving a trip to Florida to handling upstart Kentucky, LSU's offense and defense have gotten better. Ole Miss' defense presents a supreme challenge, but with senior Terrence Magee and true freshman Leonard Fournette, LSU has the backs to establish a running game and battle the Rebels to the end. Ole Miss 23, LSU 20 -- Jeff Barlis



Why Alabama wins big: This game screams blowout. Alabama’s defense is on fire and the offense just exploded, hanging nearly 60 on Texas A&M. Tennessee hasn’t hit 400 yards since the end of September. Hey, Lane Kiffin is back in Knoxville, so I can only imagine what he has cooked up for Tennessee’s defense -- and those Vols fans. I bet there are more anti-Kiffin signs than Tennessee points in Knoxville on Saturday. Alabama 41, Tennessee 10 -- Edward Aschoff

Why Tennessee keeps it close: Lane Kiffin would love nothing more than to put up a big number on his former team, but this Alabama offense has struggled on the road this season. In their two road games, the Tide have failed to break 20 points. They might reach that number Saturday, but it won’t be easy against a Vols defense that looked inspired in the first half last week. Alabama 24, Tennessee 14 -- Greg Ostendorf

More unanimous picks:

Auburn over South Carolina: Auburn is 12-0 at home under Gus Malzahn and won those by an average of more than 23 points per game. Interesting side note: South Carolina hasn't beaten Auburn since 1933 (though the teams didn't play each other again until 1996); Auburn is 7-0 since then. Auburn 42, South Carolina 21 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Arkansas over UAB: UAB can move the ball (had 548 yards against Mississippi State and kept it close at the half), but slowing down the Razorbacks' elite rushing attack is a tall task. Arkansas 45, UAB 20 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Missouri over Vanderbilt: Mizzou has actually been better on the road than at home, but Vanderbilt has yet to win away from home or an SEC game, period. The Tigers' defense and special teams are coming off great performances at Florida. The offense will join in on the fun Saturday. Missouri 41, Vanderbilt 10 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Standings:
Edward Aschoff: 59-10
Greg Ostendorf: 59-10
Jeff Barlis: 58-11
Chris Low: 58-11
David Ching: 57-12
Alex Scarborough: 56-13
Sam Khan Jr.: 52-17
video Dwayne Haskins is the second-ranked QB in the 2016 class, but he's not letting the pressure of recruiting get to him. Don't sleep on Arizona State with ESPN 300 linebacker Osa Masina.

ESPN 300: Five things to know in the SEC 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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The SEC has an impressive 89 committed prospects in the updated ESPN 300 rankings. While the SEC West has been dominant on the field, 13 of the 14 SEC schools are ranked in the top 40 of the RecruitingNation class rankings. Here’s a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.


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SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 8

October, 22, 2014
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Although Georgia’s Nick Chubb is the headliner for a second straight week after another ridiculous performance, this week’s SEC freshman tracker is heavy on defense -- including a couple of defensive linemen who have already emerged as breakout performers.

Here are five SEC true freshmen who stood out last Saturday (and five more worth mentioning):

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

What he did:
Chubb continued to give Todd Gurley the Wally Pipp treatment by carrying 30 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 45-32 win at Arkansas. He also caught a pass for an 8-yard gain. In the last two games, Chubb has run 68 times for 345 yards, and the Bulldogs have blasted Missouri and Arkansas on the road.

What it means: If and when Gurley returns to the lineup, he will obviously resume carrying the Bulldogs’ running game. But with the one-time Heisman Trophy frontrunner suspended and Sony Michel and Keith Marshall out with injuries, Georgia desperately needed Chubb to produce, and he has exceeded every reasonable expectation.

DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee

What he did:
Barnett logged his first game with double-digit tackles, recording 10 in a loss to Ole Miss, and also notched four tackles for loss and two sacks. The game wasn’t particularly competitive -- Ole Miss won 34-3 -- but Barnett clearly ranked among the Volunteers’ top defensive performers.

What it means: He hasn’t been getting the same kind of attention as Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett, but Barnett might catch up soon. All of a sudden he’s second in the SEC with 9.5 tackles for loss, along with 38 tackles and three sacks.

DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss

What he did:
In the Rebels’ win against Tennessee, Haynes finished with five tackles, 2.5 sacks and his first career fumble recovery. That continued a dominant recent run in which he has totaled 4.5 sacks in the last two games.

What it means: Haynes leads arguably the SEC’s top defense with 7.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also leads the SEC with three forced fumbles. The Rebels already have a star-studded defense, and Haynes is quickly adding another name to the list of players to watch.

S Jamal Adams, LSU

What he did:
The Tigers’ highest-rated defensive signee in a well-regarded 2014 recruiting class, Adams had his best game yet in a win against Kentucky. He finished with a career-high eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack, plus he delivered the key block that sprung Tre'Davious White for a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown.

What it means: Simply put, the energetic Adams is showing why those around the LSU program believe he is the next Eric Reid at safety. He is the Tigers’ leading tackler on special teams and is already a leader on their nickel and dime defensive groupings.

S Dominick Sanders, Georgia

What he did:
Sanders started at safety for the seventh straight game and scored for the first time in his college career when he picked up a Brandon Allen fumble and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown. Sanders’ touchdown just before halftime gave Georgia a 38-6 halftime lead.

What it means: Sanders, who also made four tackles against Arkansas, has been one of the more reliable performers in Georgia’s depth-deprived secondary. The Bulldogs still have plenty to clean up on pass defense, but the overall defense continues to make progress under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Other notables:

WR Kendrick Edwards, Arkansas: Caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter as the Razorbacks attempted a late rally against Georgia.

QB Treon Harris, Florida: Rotated at quarterback with Jeff Driskel and finished 8-for-12 for 98 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and also rushed eight times for 26 yards.

RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Ran 13 times for 40 yards and caught two passes for 19 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.

WR Josh Malone, Tennessee: Caught five passes for 75 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Caught four passes for 32 yards and returned six kickoffs for 106 yards in a loss to Alabama.

SEC morning links

October, 22, 2014
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1. On Tuesday, my colleague Greg Ostendorf wrote about how Auburn freshman Roc Thomas is primed for a big second half to the season. Watching Thomas from afar, I'd have to agree. While he's not as fast as Corey Grant or as powerful as Cameron Artis-Payne, he's probably Gus Malzahn's most explosive running back when it comes to consistently picking up large chunks of yards. But Ostendorf's piece got me thinking: Who are some other potential second-half stars in the SEC? Here are four that come to mind:
  • Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama: A big body at linebacker who is just now beginning to scratch the surface of his ability. He'll be an integral part of stopping the run against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: Too obvious? The longer Todd Gurley is sidelined, the faster the freshman back's star rises.
  • AJ Derby, TE, Arkansas: Bret Bielema told me this spring that the former QB had NFL talent as a tight end. We're starting to see more and more of that lately.
  • Brandon Holloway, RB, Mississippi State: A shifty running back with blinding speed that can catch the ball out of the backfield, Holloway is the perfect change of pace to the bruising style of Josh Robinson.

2. The Head Ball Coach took the Florida question in stride. Steve Spurrier says he's not leaving South Carolina for The Swamp to replace Will Muschamp. "No," Spurrier told reporters on Tuesday. "I tell everybody my next move is going to be to Crescent Beach, Fla." It was fun to imagine Spurrier roaming the Florida sideline again, but at 69 years old you knew it wasn't likely, if not altogether impossible. He's comfortable at South Carolina. Things might not be perfect there right now, but the work pales in comparison to what must be done at Florida. The Gators, should they choose to part ways with Muschamp, need a long-term solution, not a splashy stop-gap they'd have to replace sooner than later.

3. Texas A&M is going back to the drawing board. Even the QB position is up for grabs, said coordinator Jake Spavital. But that's not what caught my attention on Tuesday. What piqued my interest was coach Kevin Sumlin's comments about how Saturday's loss at Alabama was an "eye-opener." He said, "This program was founded on three things -- play hard, play smart, be physical." Texas A&M has done none of those things recently. It started with Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but it ended with Alabama breaking its will. There was no aggressiveness from the Aggies' sideline, no fire to show in the second half they're better than the score indicated. They gave up. They wanted to go home. And if you're a coach, that's the worst possible thing you can see. What we're seeing from A&M is that you can't survive in this league on talent alone. You have to have those three things Sumlin discussed, but you have to have them in more than name only.

Tweet of the day

Life at the bottom of the standings

October, 21, 2014
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The Bottom 10 inspirational thought of the week:

I know how it feels when you have to start again

Now there's no one to save me

I know how it feels when the world is gonna end

But they'll see

I'm gonna make a comeback

I'm gonna dig six feet up tonight

I'm gonna get it all back

I'm gonna make a comeback this time

-- "Comeback," Redlight King, from "The Avengers"

The Bottom 10 is coming back. Big time. Sick of being ripped, clipped and emotionally stripped, the Bottom 10 bunch spent Week 8 -- gulp -- winning.

Idaho ... winner.

Appy State ... winner.

Kent State ... winner.

Vandy ... winner. Last week. Against a Football Championship Subdivision team. But still, a winner.

For the second straight week, our No. 1 team was victorious. For the second straight week, our most tenured No. 1 team, UMass, won. And for the third straight week, we here at Bottom 10 HQ, located behind a closet door blocked shut by David Pollack's free weights, were forced to take a long, hard look at the metrics used to determine who sits atop, er, abottom our rankings. Smelling the smoke coming from our collective earholes, Brad Edwards walked in, pointed at the "L" column in the standings and said, "That should work."

Oh yeah ...

With apologies to Steve Harvey, Bill James and LL Cool J, here's this week's Bottom 10.

1. SMU (0-6)


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Texas A&M’s 59-0 loss to Alabama on Saturday raised a lot of questions about the Aggies. The team was inferior to the Crimson Tide in all three phases of the game -- offense, defense and special teams -- and the loss brings into question the direction the Aggies are headed.

One of the many areas of concern is a theme that hasn’t drastically changed since last season: the struggles on defense.

Texas A&M’s 2013 defense was poor by any measure. This season began with some promise, but many of the reasons for optimism have gone by the wayside with recent performances. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, in discussing his team’s loss Saturday, noted the Aggies had to evaluate where they are in all three phases of the game and that changes could be in store.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonThe Texas A&M defense has been behind the curve far too often in the past four games.
Defensively, the question is whether the changes need to be in personnel, coaching staff or both. The reasons for the struggles have been varied, but let’s take a look at each season and where the defense is under coordinator Mark Snyder, who is in his third season at the defensive helm.

The 2012 season was by far the Aggies’ best under Snyder. Though depth wasn’t ideal, the combination of experience and leadership in key areas in Texas A&M’s first-team defense is something the group hasn’t had since. Players like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy (not to mention the pure pass-rushing production of defensive end Damontre Moore) are what the Aggies have been missing the last two seasons.

That season, the Aggies ranked in the top half or, in some cases, the top third nationally in several categories. They were 26th in scoring defense (21.8 points per game), 37th in yards per play (5.22), 31st in yards per rush (3.72), 43rd in yards per pass attempt (6.72) and 16th in third-down conversions (32.4 percent).

In other areas they weren’t as strong but still respectable, like yards per game (390.2, 57th nationally), rushing yards per game (139.5, 35th), red-zone efficiency (58.1 percent, 51st) and goal-to-go efficiency (71.4 percent, 46th).

The 2013 season, on the other hand, was easily the worst so far. With those aforementioned veterans moving on as graduated seniors (or in Moore’s case, early entry into the NFL draft), the Aggies plugged in a ton of youth and were a porous unit for virtually the entire season.

Last year’s defense ranked worse than 100th nationally in yards per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), rushing yards per game (222.31), yards per carry (5.38) and red-zone efficiency (71.4 percent).

Their rankings in several other areas weren’t much better. Those included scoring defense (32.2 points per game, 95th), passing yards per game (253.46, 95th), yards per pass attempt (7.56, 91st), sacks (21, 84th) and third-down conversions (41 percent, 78th).

That brings us to 2014, where the Aggies have shown statistical improvement in every one of the above-mentioned statistical categories. A solid start in the first four weeks of the season against South Carolina and three non-Power 5 teams in nonconference play gave the illusion of marked improvement.

In addition, increased depth, particularly along the defensive line thanks to the 2014 recruiting class, has helped. A pass-rushing presence that was sorely missed last season has been found in a player like true freshman Myles Garrett, a four-star recruit who is closing in on Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record.

Depth is still thin at linebacker, however, where the Aggies dismissed a starter this offseason (Darian Claiborne) and lost another to injury in the season opener (A.J. Hilliard). In the secondary, there’s a mix of veterans and youth, seemingly plenty of depth but much inconsistency in terms of performance.

While the start to this season was good, the past four games, which have all been against SEC opponents (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama) have established an alarming trend. The Aggies’ defense is trending statistically worse in that four-game stretch.

In just the last four games, the Aggies have allowed 42.5 points per game, which ranks 119th nationally. Yardage numbers have been poor, too: yards per game (495.8, 110th), yards per play (6.96, 117th), rushing yards per game (255.75, 117th), yards per carry (5.78, 117th) and yards per pass attempt (8.89, 115th).

In key conversion areas, Texas A&M has also struggled. The Aggies' third-down conversion defense in the last four games (41.2 percent, 75th nationally) is about where it was a season ago. Similar traits apply for red-zone efficiency (68.2 percent, 103rd) and goal-to-go efficiency (76.5 percent, 72nd).

And while the numbers tell enough of a story, so do a layman’s eyes. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the Aggies are struggling defensively. Just look at Saturday’s game against Alabama and watch Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims evade about six Texas A&M defenders en route to a 43-yard touchdown run. Or Amari Cooper catch eight passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Or T.J. Yeldon run for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. The Aggies allowed 602 total yards -- poor any way you slice it.

Senior linebacker Justin Bass put it plainly after Saturday’s game.

“You can’t play defense if you can’t tackle,” Bass said. “It’s as simple as that. ... If you don’t tackle, you aren’t going to win games.”
video

Danny Kanell and Adam Rittenberg look back on Texas A&M and South Carolina from week 1. Did the first big game of the season point us in the wrong direction?
It wasn’t that long ago that Texas A&M departed Tuscaloosa, Alabama, feeling on top of the college football world.

The Aggies had an eventual Heisman Trophy winner, an up-and-coming coach and made a loud statement after upsetting the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide, 29-24, on Nov. 10, 2012.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsThe woes of quarterback Kenny Hill and Texas A&M are only growing after a blowout loss at Alabama.
That seminal moment in Texas A&M history was less than two years ago, but it might as well be 1939, because that’s about how long ago it feels after the Aggies returned home from the site of their past triumph, bruised and battered after taking a 59-0 whipping from Alabama this past Saturday.

Suddenly, after their worst defeat since a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma in 2003, the Aggies are at a crossroads in their third SEC season.

Serious questions must be asked. It’s one thing to lose to a top-10 team like Alabama. It’s quite another to be utterly destroyed.

“However you cut it, that performance was unacceptable and embarrassing,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.

Never in his seven-year head coaching career had Sumlin led a team that got shut out, and how it’s addressed will say a lot about the coach. Last Saturday’s loss was Texas A&M’s third straight and they’ve come by an average margin of 30.3 points. This is uncharted territory for him. Never have Sumlin's teams been dominated like how the Aggies have recently.

“I think we need to evaluate where we are and whenever something like this happens, you can't stick your hand in the sand and say, 'Hey, we're going to keep doing the same stuff,'” Sumlin said. “We've got to make some changes. What those are, I couldn't tell you right now. But the bye week comes at a good time for us.”

Offensively, the Aggies are the worst they’ve been since they entered the SEC. After ranking in the top five nationally each of the past two seasons in scoring offense, yards per game, yards per play and QBR, the Aggies have fallen out of the top 10 in each of those categories. In third-down conversions, an area they were No. 1 in 2012, they’re now 48th. They’re struggling to run the football, ranking 80th in rushing yards per game after ranking 11th nationally in 2012 and 45th last season. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital’s unit doesn’t share any resemblance to the group that dominated South Carolina on Aug. 28.

Defensively, the Aggies couldn’t be worse than they were a year ago, when they were last in the SEC in most major statistical categories, including scoring, yards per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game and red zone efficiency.

After a better start to this season, Texas A&M is beginning to trend in the 2013 direction again. The Aggies are last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game, 13th in yards allowed per game, 12th in scoring and 12th in yards per play. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is staring down a second consecutive season of poor defensive results.

On the field, quarterback Kenny Hill has struggled. So has the Texas A&M offensive line, once considered the strength of this program. The receivers, who looked spry and fierce early in the season, have wilted lately. The running game appears nonexistent.

Defensively, the Aggies have yielded an average of 255.7 rushing yards per game in their past four games. If extrapolated over the whole season, that would rank Texas A&M 121st nationally in the category. That means the job isn’t getting done in the front seven. The Aggies have had their inconsistencies in the secondary as well. Just check out what Alabama’s Amari Cooper did: eight catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns.

It wasn’t even two full months ago when a confident Sumlin sat before reporters in the moments after Texas A&M's 52-28 domination of then-No. 9 South Carolina, presumably sending a message about the future, post-Johnny Manziel.

“I think what we did tonight kind of showed that we’re not a one-trick pony,” Sumlin said that night. “We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”

The jury may still be out on that one. Those words resonated that night and -- given the perception of what South Carolina, a program coming off three consecutive 11-win seasons, was supposed to be -- it gave initial validation to the words. The Gamecocks turned out to be fool’s gold and the Aggies, once ranked as high as No. 6 in the country but now out of the top 25, look that way, too.

The Aggies, who went 20-6 in their first two SEC seasons, reaped plenty of benefits from their early SEC success. It accelerated the fundraising for a $450 million redevelopment of Kyle Field. Millions were spent to renovate the football complex.

Sumlin received two raises and is getting paid $5 million per season, which is in the tax bracket of head coaches who have rings. The assistant coaches got raises, too. On social media the Aggies say they run this state (#WRTS). It’s hard to justify that claim when they have yet to beat a top-25 team in their home stadium since joining the SEC.

All those resources were spent with building a championship-caliber program in mind. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but this past Saturday’s events and what has transpired the past three weeks is cause for some soul searching.

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