Previewing the 2014 season for the Texas A&M Aggies:
2013 record: 9-4
Final grade for 2013 season: The Aggies finished fourth in the SEC West, and considering the lofty preseason expectations placed upon them with a returning Heisman Trophy winner and three eventual first-round NFL draft picks, it wasn't quite the season they hoped for. The nine wins are nice, and so was the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory, but they were 1-4 against Top 25 teams. We'll give them a B-minus.
Key losses: QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, WR Mike Evans, WR Travis Labhart, OT Jake Matthews, DT Isaiah Golden, DE Gavin Stansbury, LB Darian Claiborne, LB Steven Jenkins.
Key returnees: QB Kenny Hill, RB Tra Carson, RB Trey Williams, WR Malcome Kennedy, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, DE Julien Obioha, LB Jordan Mastrogiovanni, CB Deshazor Everett, CB De'Vante Harris.
Projected 2014 starters: QB Kenny Hill, RB Tra Carson, LT Cedric Ogbuehi, LG Garrett Gramling, C Mike Matthews, RG Joseph Cheek, RT Germain Ifedi, WR Speedy Noil, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, WR Malcome Kennedy, WR Joshua Reynolds, DE Daeshon Hall, DT Alonzo Williams, DT Hardreck Walker, DE Julien Obioha, OLB Donnie Baggs, MLB Jordan Mastrogiovanni, OLB A.J. Hilliard, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews, S Armani Watts, CB De'Vante Harris.
Breakout player: His collegiate debut as a true freshman gave us a glimpse of his ability but an injury robbed Ricky Seals-Jones of the rest of his season. Now he's healthy, big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), fast for his size and only continues to get better as a receiver. He'll be able to line up inside or outside, but expect him to spend most of his time as an inside receiver, looking for mismatches against linebackers and safeties. He is developing good chemistry with new starting quarterback Kenny Hill, so expect the 2013 ESPN 300 recruit to have a huge season.
Most important game: There are plenty of big ones, but our pick is South Carolina. Yes, it's the season opener and there are 11 games that follow, but for a young A&M team that has inexperienced players in many key positions, most notably quarterback, going to Columbia and generating some confidence -- win or lose -- will be important. The Gamecocks are a top-10 team and SEC road games are tough, but think of the way the Aggies got on a roll after their competitive SEC debut in 2012, a 20-17 loss to Florida. Like that season, the Aggies have a lot to prove and many tough SEC road games in their future, and a win or at least playing well on Aug. 28 can go a long way toward getting this group heading in the right direction.
Biggest question mark: Without question, it's the defense. It was atrocious last season and the Aggies lost four players this offseason who they expected to return, three of which would likely have been starters. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is encouraged by the increased athleticism and depth his group has, thanks in large part to the influx of talent from the 2014 recruiting class, but there are still many unproven talents who will log significant time in the front seven. Can they take a step forward this season?
Upset special: Keep an eye on the LSU game. Seems to be an unusual choice, since the Aggies didn't beat the Tigers the two years Manziel was on campus, but the last time LSU visited Kyle Field, Texas A&M took a 12-0 lead with its up-tempo offense before the Tigers came from behind to win 24-19 in Manziel's freshman season. Night games at Kyle Field usually provide for an electric atmosphere, so expect nothing less on Thanksgiving night. By Game 12, the Aggies' offense should be operating at peak efficiency and the young defense should be coming into its own. Don't be shocked if the Aggies finally upend the Tigers here.
Key stat: Texas A&M returns offensive linemen that combine for 78 career starts, though the most tenured starter of them all -- guard Jarvis Harrison (31 starts) -- might not start, an indication of the depth the Aggies developed across their offensive front.
They said it: "That was a very tough decision. Both of them are playing at a very high level. I just kind of went back to my gut feeling and the maturity of him and being around this system for one year. There were a lot of other factors, but that was the one that kind of stood out the most to me, because he sat here and watched Johnny for a year and he's going to be put in some situation that he has probably – hopefully – seen before, and he can get us out of those bad looks." -- Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, on why the Aggies chose Kenny Hill to start at quarterback over Kyle Allen.
ESPN Stats & Information: 8.3 wins
Bovada over/under: 7 wins
Our take: The schedule-makers did the Aggies no favors by giving them road games at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn. That's tough for a young squad. Fortunately for the Aggies, after the opener at Williams Brice Stadium, they have three manageable nonconference games and Arkansas, so the opportunity to string wins together is there early in the season. Even minus Manziel, Evans and Matthews, this offense should still be one of the best in the nation given Kevin Sumlin's and Jake Spavital's track record for coaching offensive football. Will the defense be better? It should be given the added talent and depth. How much better is the key question and will be the difference between a six- or seven-win season and an eight- or nine-win season. This is definitely a bowl team but probably not ready to finish in the top two of the SEC West yet; 2015 is the season this team could take a huge step forward. If the Aggies finish the 2014 regular season with eight wins, that should be considered a good year and something to build on for 2015.