Back in October, when Texas A&M was sitting pretty at 5-0 and preparing for the toughest part of its schedule, comparisons were naturally drawn to 2014.
The reason was obvious: the 2015 record through five games was the same as the 2014 Aggies, who wound up imploding the following three weeks. The 2014 team lost three in a row, and by November barely resembled the bunch that some considered a possible playoff contender in September.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, with a quiet confidence that contained a hint of defiance, was adamant this September -- when the Aggies were 4-0 and coming off an overtime win against Arkansas -- that this team was nothing like 2014, even as observers looked at this season's start with some caution.
"I think people are making a mistake trying to say 'Well this team, let's wait and see here,'" Sumlin said on Sept. 29. "That's fine. Let's wait and see."
Waiting and seeing revealed an A&M team that, once again, wasn’t equipped to contend for the SEC West title.
Are the Aggies ready to take that step in 2016?
Next season will be Texas A&M’s fifth in the SEC and Sumlin’s fifth running the program. Since arriving, he signed four recruiting classes ranked in the top 15 nationally, and the 2016 class is currently ranked 13th in the ESPN RecruitingNation Class Rankings. The 2014 class, which was ranked fourth and included numerous impact players, including defensive end Myles Garrett, quarterback Kyle Allen and safeties Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson, will be in its third year on campus.
If not next year, when?
In addition to the compilation of talent, significant investments have been made in the program. The school completed a $485 million renovation of Kyle Field this summer. The Bright Football Complex, where the football program is headquartered, was virtually remade from top to bottom with new locker rooms and training facilities, new coaches offices, a new lobby and a nutrition center. The Aggies’ football-only weight room is only three years old. All those facilities cost a combined $41 million. The coaching staff carries more than a $9 million annual tab ($5 million for Sumlin, more than $4 million for the assistants).
The payoff for that investment this season was an 8-4 finish with a 4-4 SEC record, tying them for fifth in the SEC West.
Some concerning trends developed in recent years following A&M’s breakout 11-2 campaign in 2012. In the past three seasons, the Aggies are 5-9 against Associated Press top 25-ranked teams (the .357 winning percentage puts them seventh in the SEC in that span). Since joining the SEC, they are 1-6 against ranked teams at Kyle Field, a place that now holds more than 102,000 and is regularly lauded for its game-day atmosphere. Only Kentucky (1-9 against ranked teams at home) is worse since 2012 (it's worth noting that the Aggies are the second-best team in the league since 2012 in road or neutral-site games against ranked teams, going 8-5, behind only Alabama's 11-4 mark).
Over the past three seasons, the Aggies are 11-13 against SEC competition (ninth in the league in that time) including 7-11 against the SEC West and 0-6 against Alabama and LSU. In that span, LSU is 14-10 against the SEC and its coach, Les Miles, was feeling the heat last week until the Tigers beat the Aggies on Saturday -- and Miles has a national championship (2007) and a second title-game appearance (2011) under his belt.
Though the Aggies' defense took a significant step forward after Sumlin brought in former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, the offense -- what this program was known for in recent seasons -- is trending down. The Aggies finished fourth in yards per play and fifth in scoring in 2013, 26th in both categories in 2014 and 64th and 68th, respectively, in those areas this season. That needs to be fixed.
It’s not all bad. The combination of SEC membership, Sumlin’s arrival and Johnny Manziel's two years on the field created a perfect storm that made the Aggies more visible nationally than they were in their final years in the Big 12. And the program is faring better in its new league than many pundits expected when Texas A&M first made the move. The recruiting success and perceived program image are things Sumlin deserves his share of credit for. The ability to make a game-changing hire like Chavis, who improved a defense that was run ragged the previous two seasons, means something.
Soon -- as in next season -- all those things need to be supplemented by the Aggies finding themselves at least in the championship conversation in late November, whether it’s the SEC West, the SEC as a whole or beyond. If not, it’s fair to ask whether Sumlin should be experiencing the type of pressure his counterpart did last week in Baton Rouge.