Texas A&M starts another season with a win, but from a different angle

The first Saturday of the 2015 FBS college football season was a day of repetition in certain ways.

Earlier in the day, in Atlanta, an SEC West team in search of improved defensive identity under a new coordinator — playing in a neutral-site NFL stadium against a Power 5 non-conference opponent coached by someone who is extremely football-smart but has a less-than-rosy reputation — scored a victory even though its quarterback play was noticeably poor.

The team was Auburn. The coordinator was Will Muschamp. The stadium was the Georgia Dome. The opponent was Louisville. The opposing head coach was Bobby Petrino. The struggling Auburn quarterback was Jeremy Johnson.

Later on Saturday, the same basic scenario played out in a different setting. All the other details applied. You can call it eerie if you want, but it was — and is — real.

Saturday night, in Houston, an SEC West team in search of an improved defensive identity under a new coordinator — playing in a neutral-site NFL stadium against a P-5 non-con foe coached by a smart but widely disliked figure — won in spite of its quarterbacking, not because of it.

The team was Texas A&M. The coordinator was John Chavis. The ballpark was NRG (formerly Reliant) Stadium. The opponent was Arizona State. The opposing head coach was Todd Graham. The struggling A&M quarterbacks, plural, were Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, who showed a lot more as runners than as passers.

The final score was 38-17, so you might think A&M’s offense played a solid game, but it didn’t. Mind you, for a first game against a hard-hitting Arizona State defense which acquitted itself well, one shouldn’t have expected anything close to a masterclass, but the symmetry between this A&M game and Auburn’s win over Louisville was uncanny. Despite a lot of bad passes and passing-based decisions from young quarterbacks, the winning team from the SEC West walked away with a clear sense that it has a lot of options to use during the season… but shouldn’t automatically assume everything will come together. In fact, the messy nature of both A&M’s and Auburn’s wins on Saturday should be seen as an encouraging sign rather than a negative one… because it means neither team will be complacent in the coming days and weeks. That’s just how a coaching staff likes it.


It’s true that Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen — plucked from ASU’s backyard in suburban Phoenix — did lead a nine-play, 84-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to give the Aggies a 24-14 lead. That was a substantial contribution to A&M’s winning effort. Removed from that drive, however, the Aggies largely received their point production from two primary sources: their defense and Christian Kirk, also an Arizona boy.

First, A&M’s defense enabled the offense to start two drives in the Arizona State red zone, which were quickly turned into 10 of the Aggies’ points. Second, Kirk returned a punt for a touchdown and later took a short Allen pass a long way, outrunning the ASU defense to the end zone on a 66-yard play. Kirk created 14 points with his speed on a day when Allen threw multiple interceptions and the Aggies coughed the ball up three times. Arizona State stuffed A&M on a fourth and one deep in Sun Devil territory. In the first three quarters — before A&M broke through in the fourth — the Aggies’ offense put together only one sustained scoring drive.

This leads to the central theme of this particular piece: A&M won a season opener against a touted opponent for the second straight year, but this victory could not have been more different from the win the Aggies earned a year ago against South Carolina. This doesn’t mean A&M’s season will turn out differently compared to 2014, but it does show that the dynamics at work in AggieLand have changed, probably for the better.


A year ago, everything came easily for the Aggies’ offense in their lid-lifter against South Carolina. Kenny Hill was as close to perfect as a quarterback could reasonably be. Given that South Carolina had just come off a third straight season with at least 11 wins, the lopsided 52-28 throttling sent a charge through the SEC and the national college football community… even though A&M’s defense was sieve-like for most of the evening and was fortunate that the Gamecocks dropped a few long passes which could have led to more scores.

In that game, the story was the Aggies’ offense, powered by their passing game. What the team didn’t know then was that South Carolina’s defense was a shell of its former (Jadeveon Clowney- and Kelcy Quarles-led) self. As soon as A&M and Hill went up against better defenses — chiefly those from the Mississippi schools — they floundered. Their season fell short of the expectations created by the rise of Johnny Manziel.

This year, it’s true that A&M leaves a season opener needing to do a ton of work in the passing game. However, A&M’s team profile is so much more balanced and sturdy than it was after the 2014 debut. Kevin Sumlin will have to spend a lot of time in the film room with Allen and fellow quarterback Kyler Murray, but both men showed ample ability as scramblers who can evade a rush and then turn that elusiveness into something valuable. Coaches can work with that and tweak the offense in future weeks to better promote such an attribute.

It’s on defense, of course, where A&M should be particularly pleased. Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett will haunt Arizona State’s offensive linemen and quarterback Mike Bercovici throughout the week (and, the Sun Devils hope, jolt the ASU offense into becoming all it can be when Pac-12 play arrives). The two defensive dynamos combined for six sacks and three forced fumbles. They covered every last bit of real estate in Houston and showed that these are not the swiss-cheese Aggies of 2014.

It doesn’t need to be explained at great length: John Chavis had his team ready, and he also had his best defensive players in position to exploit Arizona State’s slow-to-react tackles. LSU fans were not able to watch their own team play on Saturday night — bad weather in Baton Rouge prevented the Tigers from playing — so there’s a good chance many Bayou Bengal backers watched Chavis, their former defensive coordinator, go to work against Arizona State. The one thing many (though not all) LSU fans must have cursed as they watched this game — beyond the simple fact that they no longer had Chavis in the fold — was that in this game, Chavis’s longstanding LSU bugaboo of allowing two-minute-drill touchdown drives did not appear.

That’s pretty scary: If a Chavis-coached defense isn’t even getting smoked in a two-minute hurry-up situation, that’s pretty good news for the team availing itself of the coordinator’s services.

Ultimately, Texas A&M won another season opener against a team taken seriously enough to be ranked in the preseason polls. However, the contours of this 2015 triumph could not be more different from the parameters of 2014’s first win for the Aggies.

Last year, a Kevin Sumlin offense won its first contest.

This past Saturday night, you would have sworn that A&M’s offense was more reminiscent of its last great coach, R.C. Slocum, than Sumlin’s turbo-charged attack.

Do Aggie fans care? No. Should they? HELL NO.

They’re probably in a better position than they were 12 months ago, but they definitely know this above all else: Their team needs to build on this performance, instead of making it the high point of a season. With 11 games left, this win — as satisfying as it probably is for A&M — needs to be the start of a continued ascent, not the beginning of a depressing downhill slide.


About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |