No sooner had the Aggies cleared the stadium following Texas A&M's final home game Nov. 9 vs. Mississippi State, preparations began on the redevelopment of Kyle Field. An additional 20,000+ seats will bring the capacity to over 102,000, and much of the renovation is expected to be completed before the home opener this September.
By the time the Aggies reached Georgia for the Chick-fil-A Bowl roughly seven weeks later, it's safe to assume head coach Kevin Sumlin was already thinking about his own redevelopment for the post-Johnny Football era that begins Aug. 28 at South Carolina. If the college football futures odds are any indication, it's going to be easier getting Kyle Field ready for the 2014 season than it is for Sumlin to get Texas A&M into the playoffs for a National Championship.
Just reaching the conference championship will be difficult enough. The Aggies are 65/1 choices to win the new College Football Playoffs, and in a packed SEC West Division, that puts them behind Alabama (13/2), LSU (20/1), Auburn (25/1) and Ole Miss (30/1).
Aggies Also Trail Tide & Tigers In '14 Recruiting Class Rankings
Just to give you an idea how tough the SEC West is -- and figures to remain for a few years -- Texas A&M's 2014 recruits ranked No. 5/6 in the country according to various polls. A great class, obviously, but still behind the groups hauled in by Alabama and LSU, even with the additions of the top-rated high school players at three different positions.
The prize catch of Sumlin's recruiting work was Myles Garrett, ranked as the best defensive lineman in the land and very likely to be given a starting job from the start. Texas A&M had a bit of an advantage in landing the 6-5, 250-pounder out of Arlington, TX since his sister already wears maroon as part of the track team in College Station.
Sumlin and his staff also found able replacements for the two offensive stars who left A&M for the NFL, Heisman Trophy quarterback Johnny Manziel and wide receiver Mike Evans. Both Kyle Allen, the top-rated pocket passer from Scottsdale, AZ, and top-ranked WR Speedy Noil of New Orleans may spend most of their time on the sideline their freshman seasons, but the duo will no doubt become a potent tandem before long.
The bulk of the recruits were on defense after Texas A&M was notoriously bad in that facet of the game in '13. Joining Garrett with a chance to play along the line this fall are tackle DeShawn Washington and end Qualen Cunningham. Nick Harvey could start at one cornerback spot, and Armani Watts was another 4-star DB addition.
Texas A&M also landed a pair of 4-star linebackers, Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker, plus another 4-star WR in Frank Iheanacho, whose frame -- 6-7, 220 -- should give opposing corners as much trouble as Evans did the past couple of years.
So, Who Does Replace Manziel?
When Sumlin and 1st-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital needed someone to cover for Manziel's suspension in last season's opener, they turned to redshirt junior Matt Joeckel. That was a no-brainer then, and Joeckel did a good enough job backing up Manziel so it's easy to imagine he's the frontrunner to replace Johnny Football in 2014.
But that's not necessarily true. By season's end, Joeckel was already being pushed by true freshman Kenny Hill, the Texas' 5A Player of the Year in 2012. And now that Allen is on hand to make it a 3-horse race for the starting QB job, it's possible Joeckel might take a backseat to both as a 5th-year senior.
Joeckel certainly has the experience, the size and the arm to earn the job, but Hill offers far more mobility and shined when given the opportunity to play in mop-up relief on a few occasions last fall. The O-line could determine the final decision more than anything else, whether it performs better setting up pocket protection for Joeckel or Allen, or Hill can spread defenses more behind the group.
Opener At Gamecocks Kicks Off Tough Slate
Should the Aggies make it to their first SEC Championship, they will have earned it and then some with this schedule. They won't have the luxury of preparing for conference play with a couple of early warm-ups against softer teams, instead jumping right into SEC action with a Thursday night matchup at South Carolina (Aug. 28).
Texas A&M then returns home to face Lamar and Rice before leaving College Station for the next three weeks, two of those trips to the D-FW metroplex to meet SMU and Arkansas and the third a trek to Mississippi State. Then it's back home vs. Ole Miss before a journey to take on Alabama. All of those games come before the Aggies enjoy their first bye week.
They'll come out of the bye with a home game vs. Louisiana-Monroe before going to Auburn. Texas A&M closes with home games vs. Missouri and LSU, the latter following a second bye and scheduled for Thanksgiving evening.
Sumlin would disagree with anyone who suggests this is a rebuilding year for the Aggies, and he fully expects to compete for a shot at the conference crown, if not more. The road games at South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn would suggest that won't be the case, however, and my projections are a 9-win regular season is the best A&M can achieve.