The three-man battle at quarterback taking place among senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman Kellen Mond will draw the headlines, but it's not the most important piece of the Texas A&M puzzle in 2017. Defense is.
Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis makes $1,558,000 -- the highest salary among all FBS assistant coaches according to
the USA Today assistant coaching salary database. That investment didn't go as planned in 2016 as the Aggies gave up 441.8 yards per game and, during the November swoon, a whopping 6.06 yards per play.
Part of that had to do with the nagging ankle injury suffered by star defensive end and eventual top overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett, but Texas A&M is far too talented to be that reliant on one player.
Coach Kevin Sumlin is entrenched on the hot seat, and the success of his team and his future employment hinges directly on the defense's ability to take a tremendous step forward without its best piece.
However, there's a reason to be excited.
While the star power is lacking, this group of Aggies is more versatile than any defense during Sumlin's six-year tenure in College Station. The depth, versatility and athleticism of big inside linemen like Daylon Mack (320 pounds), Kingsley Keke (305) and Zaycoven Henderson (305) will allow Chavis to rotate and play more situational football with bigger defensive lineups in obvious running situations.
That's the key to fixing on pressing problem -- run defense.
The last two times we saw Texas A&M in action, it gave up 298 rushing yards to LSU and 218 to Kansas State.
But strength up the middle will also allow Chavis to open up the playbook quite a bit. According to a source close to the program, the Aggies will employ a wide variety of looks up front including three down linemen, and bring exotic blitzes from everywhere in an attempt to keep offensive coordinators guessing and opposing quarterbacks on their toes.
How creative will Sumlin and Co. be? Well, Justin Dunning, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound former safety, could play more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role in this year's version of the Aggie defense.
Without Garrett in the lineup, that's the best option. Keep coordinators and quarterbacks guessing on where the pressure is coming from, rather than consistently bringing it from one side.
Aside from strength up the middle, the back end of the Aggie defense is a big reason why more consistent pressure is less of a risk. Senior safety Armani Watts and senior nickelback Donovan Wilson are two of the best in the business, and Priest Willis returns after a solid 2016 season. At 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, Wilson's versatility to seamlessly move between linebacker and safety roles depending on situation will allow Chavis to be prepared for anything the offense throws at him.
Expect the new-look, more aggressive Aggies to put on a show in the Rose Bowl on Sunday, Sept. 3 against UCLA.
If it works, it will drastically change what is asked of the A&M offense -- specifically, the new quarterback.
Sumlin hinted at making things much easier for the eventual winner of the quarterback derby at SEC media days.
"With all of the starters up front and [wide receiver] Christian Kirk, this offense will be quarterback friendly," he said. "And the guy who understands that he doesn't have to do everything because of the players that are around him, like [running backs] Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams, Kirk and a number of other talented players, that understands he doesn't have to do all that and takes care of the ball and can make some plays for us, that will be the guy that will play for us."
It's an old cliché, but it's one that Texas A&M will try to live by in 2017: to win, you run the ball and play defense.
The latter part of the equation is what has plagued Sumlin in College Station, and a more aggressive scheme in Chavis' third year as coordinator will be what makes or breaks the season and Sumlin's career with the program.