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Next season will be key for Aggies, Kevin Sumlin

More than two years ago, when Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin stepped to the dais to begin his first official appearance at SEC media days, he was asked for his assessment of the SEC West, considering the division the Aggies entered produced the previous three BCS champions.

Sumlin’s provided a memorable answer.

“What's my assessment?” Sumlin replied as a smile began to emerge. “It's a pretty damn hard league.”

The quote elicited laughs from around the room and everyone understood the truth embedded in Sumlin’s retort. Life in the SEC isn’t easy. Texas A&M learned that during the last two seasons in particular, which weren’t nearly as successful as the first one in 2012.

As the Aggies await news of their bowl destination to write the final chapter on their 2014 season, much that can be gathered from their third season in the SEC. Life after "Johnny Football" isn’t easy and it takes time to build a consistent winner. That much is clear.

With the regular season wrapped up and only a bowl remaining, the stage is being set for a critical 2015 season that will go a long way in defining A&M’s time in the SEC and Sumlin’s career in Aggieland.

The Aggies first season post-Johnny Manziel wound up close to what many predicted, with Texas A&M going 7-5 and finishing sixth in the SEC West. (The Aggies were picked sixth in the preseason conference media poll.) How they got there was unexpected. They looked dominant to start the season, racing to 5-0 before losing five of their last seven games, which included a brutal midseason three-game losing streak.

There have been ups and downs: Texas A&M is 27-13 since joining the SEC and 13-11 in conference play. The ups included Manziel’s Heisman Trophy season in the Aggies’ first year in the league in 2012. That team produced three first-round NFL draft picks and was the focus of the college football world often during Manziel’s time there.

Downs included a season that fell below expectations in 2013 and two years of last-in-the-SEC defense that hastened Mark Snyder’s demise as defensive coordinator. Sumlin is searching for a replacement, recruiting is in full swing and the stage is being set for what will be the most important season to date for the Aggies in their SEC tenure and for Sumlin himself.

Going into Year 4, the Aggies are going to be expected to make significant steps forward, given the investment in the program. Nearly $500 million is being spent on football facility renovations. Kyle Field, is undergoing a $450 million renovation to be completed before the 2015 season. Locker rooms and training facilities have been renovated and a football-only weight room was added in 2012. The Bright Football Complex also underwent renovations to its lobby and a nutrition center was added last year. The coaches' offices will be renovated this offseason. The team also invested plenty in Sumlin, rewarding him with raises after each of the last two seasons, bringing his salary to $5 million a year.

Those investments are made with championships in mind, and the expectation is that the Aggies must begin taking steps toward one soon.

When Texas A&M left Tuscaloosa bruised, battered and beaten down on Oct. 18 after an embarrassing 59-0 loss to Alabama, the Aggies appeared to be at a crossroads. It was the program’s worst loss in more than a decade. It was certainly the worst of Kevin Sumlin’s head coaching career, and there were valid questions about whether the Aggies could recover from such a jarring defeat.

Though the regular season didn’t end the way the Aggies hoped, with consecutive losses to Missouri and LSU, the Aggies’ response to the debacle at Alabama quelled a lot of fears that spawned from Oct. 18. The Aggies won two in a row, including a stunning upset at then-No. 3 Auburn, knocking the Tigers out of the College Football Playoff top four. Sumlin appeared to right the ship.

And though they lost their final two, they remained in each game until the final minute. The same couldn’t be said vs. Alabama, Mississippi State or Ole Miss. Their final stretch suggests a willingness to fight, important for a young team as it moves forward.

The coming months are critical for establishing the foundation for a run in 2015. Texas A&M needs to add critical pieces to its recruiting class, which is ranked fifth in the nation. If that holds, it would be the Aggies’ third consecutive top-10 class.

Sumlin must get the right guy, whoever it may be, at defensive coordinator. History suggests the offense will be fine under Sumlin but the defense has been the Achilles’ heel and must improve if the Aggies are to become contenders.

Improved quarterback play is a must. Kyle Allen took the reins after the three-game losing streak and the freshman went 2-2. He’ll have to continue to progress if he is the starter of the future.

The schedule sets up well for the Aggies in 2015. They don’t leave the state of Texas until their seventh game, when they visit Ole Miss. With seven home games (including Alabama and Auburn) and nine total in Texas, the stage is set for the Aggies to take a big next step. If they’re to be true, long-term contenders in the SEC West, 2015 is the season to take tangible steps in that direction.