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2016 season preview: Texas A&M Aggies

A pivotal season will soon begin in College Station, Texas as Texas A&M enters its fifth season in the SEC. After two impressive seasons in 2012 and 2013, where they went a combined 20-6, the team took a step back in 2014 and 2015, going 16-10. What should be expected this year? Here’s a glance at the Aggies:

Key question heading into Week 1: What should be expected of quarterback Trevor Knight? The answer will play a large role in how good the Aggies are this season. Knight’s arrival as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma has been lauded by coaches and teammates for the inroads he made in the locker room and leadership qualities he has exhibited in his eight months on campus. But when the whistle blows, will Knight look more like the player who beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl as a redshirt freshman for the Sooners or will he trend toward the player who threw three pick-sixes as a starter in 2014? Ball security is a must if the Aggies are going to be successful in the SEC, so Knight must take care of the football. If he can’t, it’ll be a rough ride, if he can, he could have a career year and revive an offense that fell all the way to 71st nationally in scoring offense last season.

Make-or-break stretch: The Aggies have a stretch of five SEC games in six weeks with four of them coming in consecutive weeks: at Auburn (Sept. 17), vs. Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (Sept. 24), at South Carolina (Oct. 1) and vs. Tennessee (Oct. 8). Following the clash with the Vols, the Aggies get an open date then must go to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama on Oct. 22. How the Aggies fare in those five games will go a long way in determining whether they’re part of the SEC West championship race or in the middle or back of the pack.

Instant-impact freshman: Texas A&M has had some good ones in recent years, namely Myles Garrett in 2014 and Christian Kirk in 2015. The prime candidate this year won’t be on too many highlight reels because he plays on the offensive line: true freshman guard Colton Prater. After enrolling in January and turning in a solid spring, Prater arrived in August training camp ready to push for a starting job and is at the top of the depth chart at left guard ahead of the Aggies’ season opener against UCLA. Coach Kevin Sumlin said Prater’s going to play “and play a lot,” this season and the coaching staff has been impressed with the three-star prospect from Louisiana.

Hot seat watch: Plenty of attention will be paid to Sumlin this season after consecutive 8-5 seasons, pedestrian SEC records and an offseason that produced multiple negative headlines (two quarterbacks transferring, the replacement of athletic director Eric Hyman one day after giving Sumlin a strong public vote of confidence and the Chalk Talk incident among them). Texas A&M and its supporters made a sizable investment in recent years into the redeveloped Kyle Field and other football facilities to the tune of nearly $530 million and a coaching staff that’s paid around $9 million. Those investments need to be met with higher finishes in the SEC West standings; if they aren’t, there’s reason to consider making a change.

Best-case scenario: If the defense is as good as advertised (top-25 caliber), Knight puts it all together and turns in a career year and the offensive line starts playing more like it did three or four years ago, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for this team to reach nine or 10 wins. From a talent standpoint, the only teams on the Aggies’ schedule with more overall roster talent than them are Alabama and LSU. Everyone else, the Aggies are as talented or more so.

Worst-case scenario: If Knight runs into ball security issues and the offensive line is inconsistent like it has been the last two years, making a change at offensive coordinator -- like they did by hiring Noel Mazzone -- won’t make a ton of difference. The Aggies also need to figure out the issue they have beating quality teams at home: they’re 1-6 in the last four years against teams that come in ranked in the AP top 25. When you consider that four preseason top 25 teams are traveling to Kyle Field (No. 16 UCLA, No. 9 Tennessee, No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 5 LSU), that’s a trend the team needs to find a way to reverse quickly. A six-win season is completely possible if the offense isn’t fixed and the run defense doesn’t get better than it was against quality SEC run teams last year.