Preseason Top 25: No. 14 Texas A&M gets best chance of breaking through to win SEC West

Entering the 2020 season, there are three distinct classes in the SEC West. Alabama, LSU and Auburn have each made national title game appearances under their coaches, who are the longest-tenured coaches in the division, while Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are all rebooting with first-year coaches after falling on hard times.

Then, there is Texas A&M. The Aggies have been stuck in mid-gear since Johnny Manziel’s departure, possessing the talent and tradition to regularly compete in a division that is arguably the best in the sport, but often falling short against the division’s elite.

So as the Aggies enter their ninth season in the SEC, they have yet to appear in the conference title game and are still searching for the breakthrough befitting of coach Jimbo Fisher’s $7.5 million annual salary.

Could 2020 finally be the year Texas A&M returns to the upward trajectory it seemed to be charting when Manziel was captivating the nation in 2012 and 2013? Or will this be the eighth season in a row in which the Aggies finish with between seven and nine wins?

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 24 in the CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: Won Texas Bowl 24-21 vs. Oklahoma State

The Aggies fell from nine wins to eight in Fisher’s second season as they replaced seven NFL Draft picks and played three games against teams ranked No. 1 in the country at the time. Their seven regular-season wins came against unranked foes, while their five losses all came against teams in the top 10, including Alabama, Clemson and LSU. It was all that could be expected from a young team playing a brutal schedule, and the Aggies topped it off with a nice bowl win over an Oklahoma State team that was ranked No. 25.

Key departures

DL Justin Madubuike: The Aggies’ 2019 defensive MVP departs after a redshirt junior season where he led the team with 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. He was taken by the Ravens in the third round of the NFL Draft.

P Braden Mann: Mann wasn’t just a punter. He was also a team captain and one of the best in the nation at his craft. A sixth-round pick of the Jets, Mann set the NCAA record for most 60-plus yard punts in a season in 2018 and followed up by dropping 26 punts inside the 20-yard line as a senior.

WR Quartney Davis: A steady threat in the passing game over the past two seasons, Davis departs after catching 53 passes for 616 yards and four touchdowns as a junior. He landed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent.

Who’s back?

TE Jalen Wydermyer:  He was ranked as the No. 15 tight end in the 2019 class but outplayed that billing as a freshman while leading the Aggies with six receiving touchdowns. Wydermyer made the SEC All-Freshman Team and was voted second-team All-SEC. He figures to be a focal point of the Aggies’ passing attack this season.

WR Jhamon Ausbon: After regaining the form he showed as a freshman and leading the team with 66 receptions for 872 yards in a solid junior season, Ausbon opted to return for his senior year. He will be the clear No. 1 receiver with both Quartney Davis and Kendrick Davis both leaving early for the NFL.

RB Isaiah Spiller: The former four-star prospect stepped into the lead running back role as a freshman after Jashaun Corbin’s season-ending injury. He thrived in the spotlight, finishing with a team-high 946 yards rushing while hauling in 29 passes for another 203 yards. 

LB Buddy Johnson: The former three-star prospect has upped his contributions each season and now enters his senior year after leading the Aggies in tackles a year ago. He’ll be a crucial piece in the middle of a defense looking to go from good to great.

LB Anthony Hines III: The 2017 SEC All-Freshman honoree missed all but one game in 2018 with an injury but returned to form as the team’s second-leading tackler in his redshirt sophomore season. Now, he’ll join Johnson as an anchor of the defense during his fourth season in the program.

Fresh faces

TE Baylor Cupp: The No. 53 overall player in the 2019 class and No. 1 ranked tight end suffered a broken leg in preseason practice last year, but should be ready to contribute after taking a redshirt season. The Aggies have an established tight end in Wydermyer but could have the top young tight end duo in the nation with Cupp’s addition.

DB Jaylon Jones: The lone five-star prospect in Texas A&M’s 2020 class, Jones could be a factor immediately after the Aggies lost a couple of starters in the secondary. It’s premature to suggest where exactly he might fit, but as the No. 21 overall player in his class, he has the potential to contribute as a true freshman.

WR Dylan Wright: The four-star prospect redshirted last season but should have plenty of opportunity to earn a starting role this year after Davis and Rogers left following their junior seasons. At 6-foot-4, Wright could combine with the 6-foot-2 Ausbon and a pair of promising young tight ends to give the Aggies a physically imposing group of pass-catchers.

Critical games

Week 7 at Auburn — Oct. 17: After a slow start to the schedule, the Aggies get their first big test when they travel to Auburn, The Aggies have lost three straight in the series, and a win here would go along way toward changing the division’s pecking order. It might also be a sign that the Aggies are ready to compete with Alabama and LSU for the division title.

Week 8 at South Carolina — Oct. 24: Texas A&M has won six in a row against South Carolina since the Gamecocks became their permanent cross-division rival, and the Aggies can’t afford a slip-up on the road this season if they are going to be a 10-win team.

Week 12 at Alabama — Nov. 21: The Crimson Tide have won seven straight against Texas A&M since Manziel danced his way around the Crimson Tide on his way to the 2012 Heisman Trophy. It may have felt then like the Aggies would be a perennial challenger to the Alabama dynasty. But that hasn’t been the case. This team is better-positioned than its most-recent predecessors to pull an upset.

Week 13 vs. LSU — Nov. 28: Texas A&M’s schedule certainly saves the best for last. With Alabama and Auburn playing the same day, there’s a good chance this game could have division title implications. The Aggies have beaten LSU only once since joining the SEC but could make a huge statement entering the postseason by avenging last season’s 50-7 thrashing. 

2020 outlook

Alabama is replacing its starting quarterback and six defensive starters, while LSU is replacing basically everyone. Auburn also lost more than half of its starters, and the other three teams in the division are under first-year coaches.

All that creates the best window for a breakthrough Texas A&M has had in recent memory, and the Aggies have the roster and schedule to make it happen. With quarterback Kellen Mond back for his senior season along with four returning starters on the offensive line, the offense is poised to be significantly better.

If the defense can take another step, this Aggies team could sleepwalk to nine regular-season wins and have a real chance to knock off any combination of Auburn, LSU and Alabama in the season’s second half. Getting some big plays from the defense will be key, though. The Aggies ranked 29th nationally in total defense last season, but the unit was tied for 118th in fumbles recovered (four), tied for 61st in interceptions (10) and 58th in sacks (29).

With a little more electricity from that side of the ball, Texas A&M’s best SEC West finish since a tie for second in 2012 is within reach. The Aggies won 11 games that year, and it’s hard to believe that stands as the program’s only season with double-digit victories since 1998. Manziel was the foundation of that success, and A&M failed to build on it.

Now, they are positioned with the right coach at the right time to build a lasting foundation.

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