Five Minute Guide to '99
8 Texas A&M
No longer intimidated by high-ranked opponents, the Aggies and their fierce defense should strike fear in others
That realization hit most of the Aggies during last year's Kickoff Classic, in which they led then second-ranked Florida State 14-10 at the half before losing 23-14. The A&M players walked away feeling they had given the Seminoles too much respect. "Before, when we played a big-name team, it took awhile before we realized we belonged on the same field," says senior quarterback Randy McCown. "Now we've learned to play our game from the get-go."
Following the Florida State loss, the Aggies won 11 of their next 12 games, beating Nebraska for the first time since 1955 and coming from behind to defeat then No. 2 and unbeaten Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game. Although the Aggies lost to a superior Ohio State team, 24-14, in the Sugar Bowl, they did not concede an inch to the Buckeyes. "We've learned to overcome the awe factor," says Slocum. "We took on the mind-set that we've played the best, so what are you going to throw at us now? Last year we went from proving that we could play to proving that we could win."
Texas A&M should win a lot of games this season with its defense, which has eight starters back from the unit that ranked 10th nationally in total defense. Although All-America linebacker Dat Nguyen is gone, finishing his career with a school-record 517 tackles, A&M expects junior Roylin Bradley to take up some of the slack.
Offensively, Texas A&M will rely heavily on a running game that features speed and bulk. Lightning quick senior Danté Hall (1,024 yards, eight touchdowns) was the Aggies' leading rusher last season, while bruising 6-foot, 260-pound sophomore fullback Ja'Mar Toombs (422 yards) cleared holes and steamrolled would-be tacklers. At quarterback McCown will begin the season as the clear-cut starter for the first time. He saw limited action in '96, split time with Branndon Stewart in '97 and didn't earn the job outright until last October. He then went 6-1 before a broken collarbone against Texas ended his season. His numbers (1,025 yards, six touchdowns) weren't spectacular, but he gives A&M another dimension with his scrambling ability. "We have one of the elite defenses in the country, and we realize that for us to keep this going, the offense has to help the defense," says McCown. "I know it all starts with me."
Though the Aggies have not yet become a perennial national championship contender, they at least have shed their reputation for disappearing in big games. Entering last season they were 0-13 alltime against teams ranked in the Top 3; last year they were 2-2.
"As I look at our team, I have every reason to expect us to be as good as we were last year," says Slocum. "We may not be mentioned in the same sentence with the Florida States and Nebraskas yet, but we're just a hair away."
-- B.J. Schecter
1998 record: 11-3 (7-1, 1st in Big 12 South)
Oct. 2 at Texas Tech
Nov. 6 at Nebraska
The Aggies are capable of winning the Big 12 championship game and going to a major bowl.
Five Minute Guide to '99
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