Will the 2020 season be the year Texas A&M finally breaks through and becomes a contender on a national scale? Texas A&M is a program with a lot of tradition, a lengthy history, an amazing gameday atmosphere and one of the most passionate fanbases in the country. It's also a program that doesn't have nearly as much success as you might expect.
Yes, the Aggies have claimed three national titles in their history, but the last was earned in 1939. It's a program that has won 18 conference titles but only one of them has come since 1993 -- that was in 1998 when the Aggies won the Big 12. It's the lone conference title since the Southwest Conference disbanded and the Aggies helped form the Big 12. A&M joined the SEC in 2012 and made one hell of an entrance, going 11-2 overall, 6-2 in the conference, defeating No. 1 Alabama and boasting quarterback Johnny Manziel as the first freshman to win the Heisman. Life hasn't been as fun since. In the past seven seasons, A&M has gone 57-33 overall and 28-28 in conference play.
There are reasons to believe that the Aggies can break through in 2020, however. A lot of things are in their favor right now, and if they can take advantage, this is a team that could find itself competing for an SEC title and a possible College Football Playoff berth.
That's why the Aggies are one of the teams included in my 2020 Dark Horse Series this spring. Last year, I wrote about another school in Texas I felt was. The Bears went from 7-6 in 2018 to playing for a conference title and finishing the season 11-3 in 2019, proving once and for all that I'm a genius. Or, at least, that I can pick up on teams with a chance to take a step forward.
Allow me now to break down why I believe A&M fits the bill to rise up as a contender in the 2020 season.
1. The SEC West has a lot of question marks: Look at the SEC West entering the 2020 season. As has been the case so often in recent decades, it's the home of the reigning national champion after LSU put together one of the greatest seasons in college football history last year. Well, nearly every key piece associated with that team is gone, and I don't just mean Joe Burrow and fellow star players. I mean the Tigers have also lost both defensive coordinator Joe Aranda as well as passing-game coordinator Joe Brady, who received so much of the credit for reinventing the LSU offense last season. While LSU could win the division again, it's more likely the Tigers will take at least a slight step backward in 2020.
The favorite in the division is Alabama, but even the Tide enter 2020 with concerns. Tua Tagovailoa, arguably the most talented QB in program history, is gone, as are all of his favorite targets and other key players on both offense and defense. According to returning production ratings of ESPN.com's Bill Connelly, Alabama ranks 88th nationally. Of course, there's no program better equipped to reload both on the field and the sidelines than Alabama, as it's done so seemingly every season. Still, Nick Saban has never had to replace a Tua Tagovailoa before.
Elsewhere, you have three programs with new head coaches in Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas. Three programs with new head coaches who lost a lot of practice time this spring due to the coronavirus. While it's impossible to predict what the impact of COVID-19 will be on college football heading into the season, it's common sense to believe that programs with new coaching staffs will be affected by this shutdown a little more severely than others. Then there's Auburn, which has Bo Nix coming back at QB as well as most of its coaching staff but also loses 13 starters off last season's team.
The Aggies, meanwhile, bring back their senior QB with 36 career games under his belt, leading rusher in Isaiah Spiller and leading receiver Jhamon Ausbon. The defense sees eight starters returning, though the loss of Justin Madubuike, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss, can't be overlooked, nor can Charles Oliver's departure (15 passes defended in 2019). Still, the team's four-leading tacklers all return.
Simply put, the Aggies enter the 2020 season as the team with the least amount of question marks and the most experience at critical spots. This doesn't hurt their chances at overtaking the SEC West.
2. A kinder schedule: Last offseason, I projected schedule strength for every FBS program in the country. That passionate A&M fanbase I mentioned at the top of the story didn't take kindly to my projections because Georgia from the East as well as a road game against Clemson. They were playing three of the four playoff teams from the 2018 season. What they didn't understand, however, was that my projections didn't just include the toughest games but also nonconference games against doormats like Texas State, UTSA and Lamar. That dragged things down (For what it's worth, the Aggies SOS finished 28th nationally and 5th in the SEC in my internal ratings last year, proving again that I'm a genius).. As Aggies fans pointed out, they had to play not only the required SEC West schedule but also drew
That schedule resulted in A&M going 0-5 against the teams it played that finished the year ranked in the top 15 and 8-0 against everybody else. This year, the Aggies schedule looks to contain three top-15 programs, at most, in Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Alabama and Auburn are on the road, and the regular season finishes with the Tide and LSU in consecutive weeks. That won't be easy, but no SEC West schedule ever is. Taking the glass-half-full approach, the rest of the schedule is much more manageable. It's hard to see a loss in nonconference with four home dates against Abilene Christian, Colorado, Fresno State and North Texas, and Georgia has been swapped out for Vanderbilt. That's like dropping AP Calculus for Beginner's Algebra.
So if the Aggies lose five games again in 2020, they won't be able to point to the schedule as the reason.
3. A talent infusion: When it comes to recruiting and the level of talent on a team, context is often overlooked, particularly in the SEC. When you break down how talented an SEC roster is, you can't just say, "they've had three straight top-20 classes, so they should be a top-20 team." It's not that simple.
To prove that point, you don't have to look further than the Kevin Sumlin era. In Sumlin's six seasons as coach, A&M never had a recruiting class ranked lower than 18th nationally in 247Sports' Composite Rankings. That's a great thing on the surface, and you see those rankings and realize A&M underachieved under Sumlin based on the talent level. The problem is that while A&M's classes under Sumlin featured two top-10 groups and an average overall ranking of No. 12 nationally, it's average ranking within the SEC was the No. 5.8 class. Even in 2013 and 2014, when the Aggies were riding the momentum of that 2012 season and finished No. 9 and No. 5 nationally, their classes were the fifth and third-best in the SEC those seasons.
This has changed slightly under Fisher. A&M's three classes under this regime have had an average finish of No. 9 nationally and No. 3.25 within the SEC. In other words, while it's still behind Alabama, Georgia and LSU in the recruiting world, it's passed everybody else up. Plus, A&M's 2018 class finished at No. 17 nationally. In the last two years, the Aggies have finished No. 4 and No. 6. Combine the returning production from last year's team with the talent infusion from the last couple of seasons for depth, and you have the ingredients needed for a team to take a step forward.
This is Fisher's third season in College Station, and that's typically when you start to see the progress made.
4. Senior experience at quarterback: Of course, while everything I've written about is good for A&M, the truth is none of it will matter much if Kellen Mond doesn't play well. He's the wild card in this situation. Mond enters the 2020 season as the unquestioned starter, but while he's improved under Fisher, he's been maddeningly inconsistent. As you'd expect, he's struggled against the better teams. Last season against non-ranked opponents (A&M's eight wins), Mond completed over 67 percent of his passes for 7.9 yards per attempt with 1.75 touchdowns and 0.63 INT per game. Against ranked teams (all five losses), Mond completed only 55.6 percent of his passes for 5.9 yards per attempt with 1.2 TD and 0.8 INT per game.
Those numbers can be a little misleading, however. Mond spent a lot of the time under pressure when dropping back to pass last season. Some of this was on Mond and his inability to find the receiver and make a decision, but still, the offensive line played its part as well. A&M's OL doesn't stand out in any particular area of Football Outsiders' line metrics, and it ranked 90th overall in sack rate including 102nd in sack rate on passing downs. Mond was let down by his receivers at times, too. There were 56 FBS QBs who threw at least 350 passes last season, and Mond's completion rate of 61.6 percent ranked 35th amongst them. His on-target rate of 74.5 percent, however, ranked 23rd. Still not elite, but it indicates Mond was more accurate than the traditional numbers suggest.
You always hope to see your senior QB improve in his final season, particularly when they have as much experience as Mond. In his third and final season under Fisher, Mond doesn't have to prove to be an elite player or the best QB in the SEC, but if he continues to improve like he has the last couple of years, it would help the chances of Texas A&M taking a big step forward considerably.