Coach: Dennis Franchione (3rd season, 11-13) 2004 record: 7-5 (Lost to Tennessee in Cotton Bowl) Big 12 finish: 5-3 (t-3rd South) 2004 I-A offensive rankings:Rushing: 44th (167.3 ypg) Passing: 23rd (261.2 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 55th (142.5 ypg) Passing: 93rd (244.3 ypg)
at Kansas State
at Texas Tech
Depth Chart: Offense
9 returning starters in red
Aldo De La Garza
Depth Chart: Defense
8 returning starters in red
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Texas A&M's weaknesses had been exposed and exploited. Physical mismatches were uncovered from the opening kickoff. And by halftime, the Aggies' collective ego had been bloodied, battered and bruised. But as Texas A&M safety Jaxson Appel points out, they don't call them growing pains for nothing.
"They are called growing pains because they hurt," Appel said. "It hurt to lose the way we did to Tennessee [38-7] in the Cotton Bowl. But if there is one thing we have proven recently it is that we know how to use painful memories as motivation. Sometimes, bad memories can be a blessing in disguise. We've grown because of them."
The 2004 Aggies experienced a significant growth spurt, as A&M ended a two-year bowl drought, erased many of the haunting recollections of Dennis Franchione's first season (4-8) in Aggieland and returned to the big stage of New Year's Day for the first time since 1999.
For all the '04 Aggies accomplished, however, the end of last year also provided more motivational fuel for this year's tank. A&M dropped three of its last four regular-season games and was manhandled by the Volunteers. In the end, A&M's 7-5 finish probably delivered enough breakthrough moments to restore the Aggies' confidence and provided just enough breakdowns to remove any arrogance.
"I could have never predicted what happened last year with the way the guys came together," Franchione said. "But I also wouldn't have predicted that we would have five turnovers and lose the way we did in the Cotton Bowl. When the dust settled, our players realized that we exceeded some expectations to get there. But if we're going to climb into the top 15, we have to get to the level of a Tennessee physically. This offseason has been characterized by a new commitment in the weight room to help us be more physical and compete on that level."
With 17 returning starters and an abundance of talented underclassmen, the Aggies appear to be capable of building on last year's success and taking another step. On the other hand, this is still a team that features enough areas of concern that more growing pains are not completely out of the question.
The Aggies are intent on becoming legitimate contenders in the Big 12 South -- and if they do so, senior quarterback Reggie McNeal may find himself in contention for the Heisman Trophy.
McNeal has always possessed remarkable athletic abilities, including a cannon-like arm and lightning-quick feet. Now, he also appears to be a heady, composed leader whose decision-making skills are as impressive as his play-making abilities. McNeal set single-season school records for passing yards (2,791) and rushing yards by a quarterback (718) last year, and he did not throw an interception until the eighth game of the season.
While the running game needs better consistency, A&M has never possessed the deep threats that McNeal has at his disposal. The trio of Earvin Taylor, L'Tydrick Riley and DeQawn Mobley is exceptional, and A&M welcomes perhaps its most talented tight end prospect ever in freshman Martellus Bennett.
The Aggies should also be more physical on the offensive line, where four starters return.
Running the ball against the Aggies could be as difficult for opponents as calling audibles over the deafening Kyle Field crowd. The defensive line returns three starters, led by potentially dominating sophomores Red Bryant and Jason Jack.
A&M is probably not yet ready to reclaim its "Linebacker U" status, but the situation is improving. And as long as the Aggies avoid injuries, the starting rotation of Archie McDaniel, Lee Foliaki and Justin Warren is extremely solid.
Aside from Appel at free safety, the Aggies are rather young in the secondary. But A&M's pass defense could be improved with the maturation of safety Japhus Brown and cornerbacks Erik Mayes, Danny Gorrer and Broderick Newton. Redshirt freshman Jordan Chambless, recruited as a quarterback, is a tremendous athlete and a big hitter at safety.
Placekicker Todd Pegram was outstanding last season, hitting 12-of-13 field goal attempts. The Aggies need for either redshirt freshman Richie Bean or true freshman Justin Brantly to provide punting consistency. A&M is also in desperate need of improved performances in the return game.
The Aggies may not have belonged in a New Year's Day bowl game last year, but that shouldn't be the case this season. A&M is maturing, stockpiling talented recruits and rising in the South again. But to compete for the South Division title, the Aggies must protect McNeal, avoid injuries at linebacker and prove they can win big road games, as there are no easy trips on the schedule.
The Aggies open with a key non-conference game at Clemson and play traditional Big 12 heavyweights Colorado, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma away from home. To win in hostile environments, A&M needs a more consistent rushing game. But even if the ground game controls the clock and the crowd, it may be difficult to emerge with a winning road record. Since the creation of the Big 12, A&M is 3-9 overall in road games at CU, K-State, Tech and OU.