by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Texas A&M figures to be one of the more fascinating teams in 2012. And, with the opportunities presented by their schedule, the Aggies could play a major role in determining at least one slot in the BCS title game. With the Big XII having shrunk to ten teams, the conference title game is a thing of the past. But, with the new round-robin schedule in the league, the potent (31 ppg), defensively-improving (114th to 105th to 55th in defense in the last three years) Ags get to face fellow top-ten contenders Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, plus Arkansas of the SEC. No picnics, to be sure, but opportunities at the sort of high-profile wins that could catapult A&M to the upper reaches of the polls.

The Aggies won their last six regular-season games last year. And, with 17 returning starters, A&M has been labeled as “one of the country’s most experienced teams.” But HC Mike Sherman, former coach of the NFL Packers, will point out that such a branding is not quite accurate. Sr. Ryan Tannehill has only six career starts as a QB. Sherman’s OL returns 4 of 5 starters, but two of the five (LT Luke Joeckel & RT Jake Matthews) were true frosh who were force fed into the No. 1 unit last year due to necessity. A&M ended up yielding 37 sacks (104th worst in the nation) and committing 30 turnovers (111th). No doubt the Aggies are experienced; but not as much as it would appear at first glance.

Still, A&M retains more experience than most college teams. And Sherman’s inroads on the recruiting trail promise a continuing ascension from the 4-8, 6-7, 9-4 straight-up marks in his first three years in College Station. Also, an expectation of improvement for this season seems quite reasonable for a number of reasons. First, the intelligence of sr. QB Tannehill (65%, 13 TDs, 6 ints. LY), whose move from part-time WR to full-time QB in the middle of 2010 seemed to ignite the entire Aggie team, as it had become clear that returning sr. QB Jerrod Johnson could not seem to shake his shoulder woes, costly turnovers, and ensuing loss of confidence. Moreover, RB Christine Michael, who had earned the starting job, was lost due to a fractured tibia in the eighth game LY. The speedier Cyrus Gray (seven straight 100-yard games to end last season) blossomed into a game-breaker when shouldering more carries. And now jr. Michael (844 YR as a true frosh in 2009) is back, although Sherman concedes RB depth after Michael is a big concern.

Sherman, a frequent OL coach during his years as an assistant, is certain that his “big uglies” up front will improve after LY’s 37 sacks. Plus, he says massive 6-4, 330 frosh Jarvis Harrison developed so much while being redshirted LY that the big G will also contribute.

The receiving corps is a team strength, largely due to the decision of NFL-sized 6-4 Jeff Fuller (72 recs., 1066 yards, 12 TDC) to return for his senior season. 6-0 Ryan Swope (72 catches) and 6-0 Uzoma Nwachukwa (36) are also proven targets. And Sherman says flashy true frosh QB recruit Johnny Manziel might very well get some Tannehill-type time at WR, not only due to Manziel’s natural ability, but also because of how Tannehill benefited later from his receiver experience.

Offense the Aggies have, exemplified further by the team’s 106-37 count in the fourth quarter. It’s defense that is likely to determine whether A&M continues its ascension. And that task is in the obviously-capable hands of second-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who previously turned undersized Air Force into a voracious takeaway machine and who last season helped the Aggies improve in just about every key area, including to 24th in third-down percentage.

DeRuyter will be missing the key “joker” in his “Joker 3-4" defense, as Von Miller has moved on to become the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft with Denver following 27½ sacks in the last two seasons. However, Sherman and DeRuyter seem to be assuring the Aggie Nation there will be improvement over 2010's No. 55 overall defensive ranking, not a decline.

6-4 soph “joker” LB/DE Damontre Moore collected 5½ sacks as a freshman LY and got plenty of experience subbing for the explosive Miller, who nursed a sprained ankle much of the campaign. Sherman also has high hopes for 6-6, 240 true frosh Brandon Alexander as a rusher. And even walk-on Caleb Russell showed signs in spring of over-achieving further into another pest for opposing QBs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the defense seems well-set for DeRuyter to work his magic. The former Air Force LB and current rising d.c. will have his biggest-ever forward wall and most-experienced-ever DB group to work with. The starting front is a big, all-senior threesome that includes 6-5, 300 DE Tony Jerod-Eddie (caught on tape last season squeezing the privates of Nebraska’s Ben Cotton in a fumble pile-up). That group will be supported by 6-4, 365 JC All-American LaMarc Strahan. The LB corps will be led by sr. ILB Garrick Williams (112 Ts LY) and jr. OLB Sean Porter (74 Ts), likely enhanced by speedy blue-chip frosh OLB Donnie Braggs, who impressed in spring. DeRuyter returns his entire starting DB two-deep from LY, including CBs Coryell Judie (4 ints.; 2 KR TDs LY) and Dustin Harris (4 ints.; 1 PR TD). Juco signee Johntel Franklin had five ints. LY in the JC ranks and enrolled early to go through spring practice. Sr. PK Randy Bullock hit 16 of 21 FGs LY.

Summary...Many pundits have pointed to A&M’s game at Oklahoma Nov. 5 as perhaps the Sooners’ key game in the Big XII this season. That might end up being true. But the last time the Aggies visited Norman in 2009, A&M lost 65-10. Perhaps OU’s last game at Oklahoma State Dec. 3 might be more treacherous for the Sooners. Moreover, A&M has plenty of its own challenges before the Oklahoma game. For example, the Aggies’ own opener vs. seasoned SMU. A&M’s three-week stretch vs. Oklahoma State, Arkansas at Cowboys’ Stadium, and at A&M nemesis Texas Tech. The Aggies haven’t beaten an SEC team since 1995 and were whupped 41-24 by LSU in last season’s Cotton Bowl. Games against Missouri and arch-rival Texas are also major potential bumps in the road.

Even though the Aggies were 8-5 vs. the spread last season, A&M is frequently a popular team that gets few breaks from the oddsmaker. However, if DeRuyter improves his Aggie defense another notch, A&M might very well be ready to box toe to toe with the Sooners in Norman come November.

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