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College Football '98

Top 25 | The Master List | Conference Rankings | Lower Divisions

21 Texas A&M

The Aggies have a revitalized quarterback, but real redemption—a Big 12 title (or more)—looks out of reach

  Branndon Stewart Stewart is finally living up to the blue-chip tag hung on him in high school.    (Stephen Dunn/Allsport)
Let the record show that Nov. 1, 1997, was the day the real Branndon Stewart made his college debut. Lofty expectations had followed Stewart from Stephenville (Texas) High to Tennessee, where as a freshman in 1994 he was beaten out for the starting quarterback job by a kid named Peyton Manning. The expectations trailed him to Texas A&M, where he struggled in '96 and temporarily lost the starter's role last year. But with one game, everything changed.

After sharing the quarterbacking duties with Randy McCown over the first seven games of last season, Stewart reminded everyone why he had been more highly touted coming out of high school than even Manning: Trailing Oklahoma State 22-7 in the fourth quarter, Stewart led the Aggies on two touchdown drives, the second capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds left in regulation. The two-point conversion sent the game into overtime, and when A&M won 28-25, Stewart felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders.

"Everything just came together in that game," says Stewart, now a senior. "I wasn't thinking about making mistakes. It was a great moment for me and the team, especially after everything we've been through."

Stewart's transfer to A&M after the 1994 season met with resentment from some Aggies fans, who had labeled him a traitor for leaving his home state in the first place. Things got worse in 1996 when Stewart, a first-year starter on an inexperienced team, was blamed for everything from his own erratic play to the inconsistency of the defense.

The Oklahoma State game turned his career around. In the first seven games of '97, Stewart passed for 528 yards; in the last five he had 901. He also threw just four interceptions in '97, two of which came against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game.

"Branndon came in with a lot of fanfare and really took it upon himself to make things happen," says coach R.C. Slocum. "He had to play with a lot of inexperienced players, and it showed. But he took it on the chin. He realizes we don't have to be the Branndon Stewart show. Plus, now he has a pretty good supporting cast."

That cast includes two backs who specialize in the big play: junior Dante Hall, an effective runner in the open field who rushed for 973 yards and amassed 1,434 all-purpose yards last season; and senior Sirr Parker, who had 800 yards rushing and 1,139 total yards. Complementing that pair is senior fullback D'Andre Hardeman, a workhorse blocker with a nose for the end zone (26 career touchdowns, including 17 in 1996).

The renowned Wrecking Crew defense scored more touchdowns (four) than it allowed through the air (three) last season. Senior Dat Nguyen, though undersized for a linebacker (6' 1", 213 pounds), had 130 tackles in '97, bringing his career total to 370. The secondary—safeties Brandon Jennings and Rich Coady, and cornerbacks Jason Webster and Sedrick Curry—returns intact from a unit that held opponents to 150.3 yards passing.

Texas A&M will need to draw on those strengths, with an early schedule that includes Florida State, plus dangerous Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi, and a conference schedule that offers up both Nebraska and Missouri. "We're giving ourselves chances by playing the best," says Slocum. "We've averaged nine wins a year in the '90s, but I'm still waiting for that Cinderella season when everything comes together."

—B.J. Schecter

Fast Facts

1997 record: 9-4 (6-2, 1st in Big 12 South)
Final ranking: No. 20 AP, No. 21 coaches' poll

1997 Averages Offense Defense
Scoring 35.2 17.3
Rushing Yards 205.4 164.8
Passing Yards 169.3 150.3
Total Yards 374.8 315.1

Pivotal Players

Quarterback Branndon Stewart had a stretch of 131 pass attempts without an interception.... Over his career, kick returner-running back Dante Hall has averaged 9.4 yards per touch.... Inside linebacker Dat Nguyen had a team-leading 20 stops on third down.... Junior punter Shane Lechler was third in the nation, with a 41.5-yard average.

Key Games

Schedule strength: 19th of 112

Aug. 31 vs. Florida State
On paper it looks like a mismatch, but the Kickoff Classic would be a great place to make a statement.

Oct. 10 vs. Nebraska
The Huskers demolished Texas A&M 54-15 in last year's Big 12 title game. Revenge is unlikely.

Bottom Line

The Aggies are good enough to repeat as champions of the Big 12 South, but they lack the firepower to win a major bowl.

Top 25 | The Master List | Conference Rankings | Lower Divisions

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