With new teams being added to the SEC, it meant I had to go find sites related to those teams for the "Other Sideline" series. By far, the best I found for Texas A&M is TexAgs.com. Gabe Bock (@TexAgsRadio) is the host of TexAgs Radio on SportsRadio 1150 The Zone in College Station, TX, and is a reporter/publisher for TexAgs.com. Catch TexAgs Radio weekdays from 9-11 a.m. on 1150 AM at Zone1150.com, TexAgs.com, or the Radio Aggieland app.
1. What is the first thing Texas A&M fans think of when Auburn football is mentioned?
It depends on who you ask. I'm sure the first thing that many Aggie fans think of is Cameron Newton and that image of the Tigers hoisting the national championship two seasons ago after a thrilling victory over Oregon in the BCS title game. Others will think of the culture at Auburn and will often compare it favorably to that in Aggieland.
Many Aggies who have been to Auburn and have soaked in the atmosphere on campus and around town liken Auburn to Aggieland. And those same Aggies often compare Alabama to Texas in terms of culture and fan base. Needless to say, we hear a lot more "War Damn Eagle" shouts around here than "Roll Damn Tide" when talking to Ags about which side they're going to pick in that storied rivalry.
2. What are Aggie fans' thoughts about joining the SEC, specifically for the upcoming year?
There could not be more excitement for 2012 and year #1 of the SEC. Kyle Field is sold out for the upcoming season and the build-up and anticipation is at an all-time high in Aggieland. I have dubbed the past eight months as "the offseason of change" for Texas A&M. New conference. New head football coach. New quarterback and new scheme on both sides of the football. New athletic director. And yes … even new uniforms.
The summer has felt like it has lasted an eternity and the fans cannot wait to get the season underway. A&M's September 8 matchup against Florida at Kyle Field will be one of the most anticipated regular season games in school history when you consider all of the elements at play. And that game could go a long way toward determining the Aggies' fate in 2012. Win that contest and reaching a bowl becomes a real possibility (A&M needs seven wins for a bowl berth because it has two FCS opponents on the schedule and you can only count one of those toward bowl eligibility).
Drop the SEC opener and it could be a long season in College Station … having to maneuver through the gauntlet of the SEC West. In general, the Aggies are fired up for the move. Many Ags feel that A&M has always been an SEC school … it's just taken "us" a long time to finally get there.
3. Which aspect of the game do you think Texas A&M will excel in for the first few years?
Offensively, the Aggies should be able to move the rock and score points right away in the SEC. Clearly, defense reigns supreme in what I call the "league of extraordinary programs" and there are quite a few loaded defenses on Texas A&M's schedule in 2012. But Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury are a couple of brilliant offensive minds, and the personnel on the offensive side of the ball is experienced and very talented on the whole. Sure, there are questions at quarterback and it's not easy for a young QB to cut his teeth in this league.
But the Aggies' offensive line might be as talented as any o-line in the country (I know that Alabama would argue with me on that … as would LSU) and A&M boasts a stable of tailbacks that can do some major damage with the ball in their hands. That should take a lot of pressure off of whomever wins the quarterback battle during fall camp (likely Jameill Showers, but it remains open as August approaches).
Another guy that will provide a safety valve for the young QBs is Ryan Swope … a top three or four receiver in the SEC. His ability to catch-and-run out of the slot on short throws should allow the Aggie QBs to establish a rhythm early in games and build some confidence as the game unfolds.
4. Which aspect of the game will the Aggies need to work on to get up to SEC speed?
Undoubtedly, defensive line play. A&M has an entirely new defensive staff and is switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme under DC Mark Snyder. That's not an easy transition and there are still quite a few question marks along the d-line entering fall camp.
The good news is that former A&M defender and longtime former Auburn defensive line coach Terry Price is a no-nonsense instructor and he did a tremendous job throughout the spring of toughening up and getting the most out of the guys along the A&M front. If anyone on the A&M staff fully understands what it takes to perform at a high level defensively in the SEC, it's Price. And without much depth or many established playmakers to speak of in the front four, Price's presence gives A&M fans a glimmer of hope that the defensive line will be able to hold its own in the trenches.
Damontre Moore is a budding playmaker at defensive end and Spencer Nealy is an all-out effort guy that features a shocking resemblance to the late great Chris Farley. But the key to A&M's defensive line play is senior Jonathan Mathis, who received a medical redshirt after missing most of last season with a knee injury. If Mathis can stay healthy and man the one-technique DT spot, that would change everything defensively for A&M. It all starts at the epicenter … and for the Aggies, that man in the middle is Mathis.
5. Who are two unheralded Aggies that Auburn fans will want to keep an eye on?
Offensively, I've got to go with Kenric McNeal. The senior-to-be has battled injury throughout his A&M career, and because of that, he has not fully been able to show what he can do as a receiver. When healthy, McNeal is a guy that can spread the field, always finds a way to get open and catches nearly everything thrown his way. Ryan Swope is a truly great receiver and he gets all of the praise, but McNeal in the slot on the other side of the field is also a tremendous talent. The key for him is staying healthy, and that is easier said than done … especially for a 184-pounder who does most of his damage between the hash marks and over the middle now having to wade through the slew of headhunters in the SEC.
Defensively, I'm going with Steven Jenkins. One of our football analysts at TexAgs, former A&M running back and safety Brandon Leone, thought that Jenkins was A&M's best defensive player coming out of spring ball. He had a tremendous spring at WILL linebacker and is highly motivated to become a truly great "Wrecking Crew" caliber linebacker at Texas A&M. There is so much pre-season buzz surrounding A&M senior SAM linebacker Sean Porter, and rightfully so. But Jenkins actually picked up the new 4-3 scheme quicker than Porter during the spring and appeared primed and ready to turn some heads in 2012. I believe that Jenkins' effort will carry over and that he'll experience a very good fall in the SEC.
6. Name two Auburn football players, past and present, that scare you.
First on the list has to be Bo Jackson. For starters, even though the Aggies pulled off a tremendous win over Bo and the Tigers in the '86 Cotton Bowl, Jackson showed why he was more than worthy of the Heisman Trophy in '85. The combination of size, speed, burst, strength and fierce aggression has never been matched in the game of football since Bo's playing career ended way too early. He's the greatest athlete that I've ever seen, and maybe the greatest that I'll ever see in my lifetime.
Secondly, I have to go with Nick Fairley. The man was a one-man shop-wrecker in 2010 and had darn near as much to do with Auburn winning the national title as Cam Newton. Not quite … but you can at least say that Nick was the Cam Newton of the Tigers' defense that season. He was an absolute monster inside and the type of DT that is critical to any team that has hopes of competing for a national title.
7. Where do you see Texas A&M having an advantage/disadvantage over Auburn?
On paper, I like the Aggies' offensive line going up against the Tigers' defensive front. Last year, Auburn had issues stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback. Now, the flip side of it is that Auburn returns essentially the entire unit and Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford have a chance to be special, special playmakers as they continue to progress. So it will be a matter of seeing where each team is come late October, heading into that matchup on October 27 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
One of the areas where I feel that A&M will likely have a decided disadvantage is the kicking game. The Aggies are ushering in a freshman kicker in Taylor Bertolet, following the departure of Lou Groza Award winner Randy Bullock (now with the Houston Texans). Bertolet was highly touted coming out of Exeter Township High School in Reading, PA, but you never know how a young kicker will handle the pressure that is SEC football. And the punting situation has been extremely inconsistent throughout each of the past three seasons. Drew Kaser and Ryan Epperson are battling it out but A&M has got to get better in that department.
Meanwhile, I don't have to tell you guys how valuable Cody Parkey and Steven Clark were for Auburn last year and will continue to be in 2012. Field position is critical, as is putting up a three-spot when you can't punch it in. Auburn is among the best teams in the league in this department, while Texas A&M is still searching for answers.
8. What's your analysis/prediction for the game?
It's way too early to make a prediction for a game that won't be played until October 27. That's game number eight for the Aggies, and looking closely at the schedule, I could see A&M entering that game with a record of 5-2 if it can find a way to sneak past Florida at home in week two. The Florida game is the key for the Aggies, and if A&M can get past the Gators and build a little confidence, it certainly has a chance at pulling off a win on the road against the Tigers.
The problem for A&M, however, is that LSU precedes the trip to Auburn, followed by consecutive road games at Mississippi State and Alabama. It's an absolutely brutal stretch and the Ags could head into Jordan-Hare Stadium beaten up and licking their wounds after the LSU game. With a good Auburn team waiting in the wings, it will be interesting to see how the Aggies respond to almost certain adversity vs. the Bayou Bengals the week before.
9. Where will Texas A&M and Auburn end up this season?
Anything can happen, but I see A&M and Auburn finishing right around the same place in the SEC West standings. I think Arkansas has some problems on defense and John L. Smith is no Bobby Petrino. And neither is Paul Petrino when it comes to in-game adjustments and play calling. Bobby was a mastermind during games and that's a huge blow. So I'm not so sure that the Razorbacks finish in the top three in the division.
I believe that LSU is the best team in the league and I don't see how Alabama isn't right there in the second slot. After that, you have Auburn, Arkansas and Texas A&M fighting for positions three through five. MSU will finish in sixths and Ole Miss will assume its spot in the cellar this season. I like Hugh Freeze but the Rebels have a lot of work ahead of them to get back to competing in the best division in college football.
10. Lastly... I mean, we have male cheerleaders, too, but what's the deal?
Hey … it's Texas A&M. What can I say? We're really proud of our longstanding traditions and Yell Leaders are a huge, huge part of that. When you see the Yell Leaders in person, you'll begin to understand that it's an "apples-and-oranges" comparison between those guys and what you would call "male cheerleaders."
You'll begin to appreciate how much those guys work in-game to get the entire Aggie fan base on its feet and chanting a wide array of yells (not cheers) in unison. Getting 80,000-plus at Kyle Field to yell or chant anything together takes a lot of work and the Yell Leaders are a huge factor in making Kyle Field one of the very best gameday atmospheres in college football.