I'm sure Texas A&M remains thrilled being in the SEC instead of the Big 12, but it appears the competition is starting to figure the Aggies out. We examine their 5Dimes odds inside.
Can Kevin Sumlin and Co. contend in the tough West Division in 2015?
Program Moving Backward
Remember when Sumlin was the hottest name in coaching? That came after the Aggies' first season in the SEC, 2012. They were supposed to struggle at the new level of competition but instead finished 11-2 -- including a program-changing upset of No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa -- thanks to a certain redshirt freshman quarterback named Johnny Manziel. All of a sudden, Sumlin was the hottest name in coaching and not just in college but with NFL teams poking around. To ensure keeping Sumlin, who also turned around the University of Houston before leaving for A&M, the school gave him a raise from $3.1 million annually to $5 million. And if Sumlin were to get poached before the end of the 2016 season, he would have to pay $5 million to get out of the deal.
Well, I'm not saying Sumlin is in any danger of being fired as he has continued to recruit stellar classes, but there's no question the program has regressed a bit since then. In 2013, the Aggies slipped to 9-4 and needed a huge Manziel comeback to beat Duke in the Chick-fil-A-Bowl. Last year, it was an 8-5 record that included an embarrassing 59-0 loss at Alabama.
I don't know how well you remember the start of last season, but the early darling of the college football world was Texas A&M sophomore QB Kenny Hill, who had beaten out freshman Kyle Allen to replace Manziel as the starter. In a season-opening rout of South Carolina, which proved incredibly overrated, Hill completed 44 of 60 passes for a school record 511 yards to go with three touchdowns. Sumlin's system worked! The next Manziel! Hill was good the next two games, blowouts of Lamar and Rice. But once SEC play started, Hill started to struggle. He threw for just 138 yards in that Alabama loss and would never take another snap. Hill was suspended for two games and Allen played well in his place. The writing was on the Wall so Hill transferred this offseason.
Allen completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,322 yards, 16 scores and seven picks. Yet he's not even guaranteed the starting job. Sumlin brought in the nation's top QB recruit in Kyler Murray and he wants the competition in camp. Most think Allen prevails with his head start in the system, plus he was MVP of last season's Liberty Bowl win, but Sumlin has hinted he might use rotate the quarterbacks at times, something he hasn't done previously. Interestingly, 5Dimes lists Murray at +8000 to win the Heisman and Allen at +9000. The QBs have two very good receivers in Josh Reynolds (52 catches, 842 yards, 13 TDs) and Speedy Noil (46 catches, 583 yards, five TDs).
The offense was still pretty good in 2014, ranking 12th nationally in passing and 28th in scoring (35.2 ppg), but the defense was atrocious again, ranked 103rd overall. So Sumlin was able to lure LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, one of the best in the business, to College Station. In Sumlin's seven years as a head coach, three of his six lowest-scoring games came against Chavis. His LSU defenses were always among the best in the country. The talent is certainly there at A&M. For example, end Myles Garrett is a future NFL Top-10 pick. He broke the SEC freshman sack record with 11 last year.
Breaking Down Schedule
The opener will be a major challenge as A&M faces a very good Arizona State team in Houston. The Aggies are 3-point favorites. I'd give Texas A&M the slight edge simply because the matchup is in the Lone Star State and thus will be a de facto home game. The rest of the non-conference slate won't be a problem, all at renovated Kyle Field: Sept. 12 vs. Ball State, Sept. 19 vs. Nevada and Nov. 14 vs. Western Carolina.
The SEC schedule opens against an improved Arkansas team in Arlington. The Razorbacks are 3-point favorites. Those two played a classic in Arlington last season, with A&M rallying for a 35-28 overtime win in Hill's last big moment. The Hogs led 28-14 early in the fourth quarter. A&M hosts Mississippi State on Oct. 3 and there's no line yet. The Aggies get a week off before hosting Alabama on Oct. 17. I don't think it will be 59-0 again. The Tide are -5.5.
Texas A&M's first true road game is Oct. 24 at Ole Miss, which is loaded this season. The Rebels are -6.5 and won 35-20 last season in College Station. It's South Carolina from the East Division visiting on Halloween. A&M is a 10-point favorite. Then Auburn come to Kyle Field on Nov. 7 and the Tigers are -2.5. The Aggies upset then-No. 3 Auburn on The Plains 41-38 last season behind four Allen TD passes.
Western Carolina then visits for a bit of a break and the home finale before A&M finishes at Vanderbilt and at LSU (Tigers are -7.5). I suppose the good thing about this schedule is no Georgia, Tennessee or Florida from the East.
NCAAF Free Picks: The Aggies are +6500 at 5Dimes to win the national title, +2300 to win the SEC title, +1400 to win the SEC West and have a wins total of 8, with 'under' a -125 favorite. This team will not win the SEC West -- it maybe could take the East. I say the club finishes the regular season 7-5 so go 'under.'