Photo courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Texas A&M's final season as a member of the Big 12 Conference was filled with both highs and lows, with the end result being a rather mediocre campaign.
The Aggies started the year off well, going 5-2 out of the gates with signature wins on the road at Texas Tech (45-40) and Iowa State (33-17), and at home against Baylor (55-28). The early-season success resulted in a ranking as high as No. 16.
A&M then began to slide, losing four of their next five games, including two in overtime. Following a 27-25 setback to rival Texas on Nov. 24, head coach Mike Sherman was fired and was replaced on an interim basis by Tim DeRuyter, who led the team to a 33-22 win over Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
The team finished a modest 7-6 and 4-5 in the Big 12, and DeRuyter left to become the head coach at Fresno State. Kevin Sumlin, who spent the last four seasons at Houston, was hired to usher the Aggies into this next chapter in their history as they begin play in the ultra-competitive SEC.
OFFENSE: The Aggies had a potent offensive attack last season, ranking 11th in FBS in scoring (39.6 ppg) and seventh in total offense (497 ypg). Both numbers would have topped the SEC last season, but now the unit has to transition from playing the traditionally-soft Big 12 defenses to the stout and hard-nosed units that reside in the SEC.
Filling the large shoes left by record-setting quarterback Ryan Tannehill (3,744 yards, 29 TDs) won't be easy, but expected to vie for the job are sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel, as well as freshman Johnny Manziel. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his field general, Sumlin is optimistic about the team's future.
"I feel real good about our athletic ability and our talent level at quarterback," Sumlin said. "So those guys will compete in two-a-days and we'll figure out who that is and name a starter in a couple weeks, at the latest, just before the Louisiana Tech game."
Fortunately, whoever wins the job will have two high-impact playmakers to throw to, as Ryan Swope had one of the greatest receiving seasons in school history with 89 catches, 1,207 yards, and 11 touchdowns -- earning Second Team All-Big 12 honors. Opposite Swope is fellow senior Uzoma Nwachukwu, who started all 13 games in 2011 and compiled 50 catches for 639 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Aggies run plenty of three- and four-receiver sets, so Kenric McNeal (8 catches, 101 yards) and freshman Mike Evans also figure to get plenty of playing time.
The loss of Cyrus Gray (1,105 yards, 12 TDs) means that Christine Michael takes over as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart. Michael had a fantastic season in 2011 while splitting carries with Gray, gaining 920 yards (6.0 ypc) and scoring 8 touchdowns. With an increased workload behind a veteran offensive line, Michael should eclipse those numbers this fall.
DEFENSE: Like many Big 12 teams, with A&M's potent offensive attack came a defensive unit that performed below average. It's scoring yield (28.7 ppg) and total defensive effort (386.5 ypg) would be considered poor by any conference's standards, but in the SEC, those numbers rank well towards the bottom.
The pass rush was A&M's biggest strength last season, and defensive end Damontre Moore is hoping to improve upon a fantastic sophomore season in which he recorded 72 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. Outside linebacker Sean Porter is also used to disrupting things in the backfield, tallying 79 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and a team-high 9.5 sacks.
Linebacker Jonathan Stewart returns to the fold after leading the team with 98 tackles in 2011. Safety Steven Terrell (24 tackles, 2 interceptions) is the lone returning starter in the secondary, and he will be joined by three sophomores in corners Floyd Raven and Deshazor Everett, and safety Howard Matthews.
SPECIAL TEAMS: After Randy Bullock converted 29-of-33 field goal attempts in his senior season, the Aggies will turn to freshman Taylor Bertolet to handle the job. Ryan Epperson returns as the punter after logging 41.2 yard average a season ago.
Dustin Harris will once again be the primary kick and punt returner after combining for more than 700 return yards a season ago, which included a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown against Kansas.
OUTLOOK: Texas A&M had been a perennial power in the Big 12 for a number of years, and while there is a ton of talent on the current roster, where the Aggies fall in terms of the SEC's pecking order is uncertain.
"For us, it's a special year," Sumlin said. "(We're) as excited as everybody else is in the country to get football season started, I think I can speak for Texas A&M and our coaching staff, in our place we're as excited as anybody to be a part of the SEC, but also for football season to start."
Landing in the SEC West is a tough draw for A&M, and it will be tested early and often during league play with bouts against Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State, Alabama and fellow conference newcomer Missouri. Though non-league games against Louisiana Tech, SMU and Sam Houston State should be no problem, the Aggies figure to struggle in their first year in the daunting SEC. A record of .500 or greater would be a surprise.