BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s Day 6 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which will end Saturday as the two teams at the top of the league entering the fall are unveiled. Until then, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.
With 10 teams down, there are only four to go. How will the rankings shake out from here?
Let’s continue answering that question now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …
4. TEXAS A&M
An argument can be made that no team was playing better at the end of last season than Texas A&M. The Aggies ended the year on a six-game win streak, with one of those over eventual national champion Alabama. And that 29-24 win came on the road in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Texas A&M also romped over former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Eleven wins in its initial season in the nation’s toughest conference — and in the first year of Kevin Sumlin’s tenure in College Station — is nothing to scoff at.
Oh, and did you hear the Aggies’ quarterback won the Heisman Trophy? His name is escaping me at the moment. Don’t worry, it will come to mind soon enough.
In all seriousness, the best thing Texas A&M has going for it is its redshirt sophomore signal-caller, Johnny Manziel. He returns after an incredible 2012 season which saw him throw for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns and run for another 1,410 yards and 21 scores. His 5,116 yards of total offense set a single-season SEC record, bettering fellow Heisman winner Cam Newton’s tally of 4,327 in 2010.
But “Johnny Football” had quite an interesting offseason. For the sake of length, I’ll refrain from referencing any specifics, since those stories have been repeated ad nauseam. What really matters is what he does on the field for an encore performance.
The Aggies have to replace a pair of starters on the offensive line (Luke Joeckel and Patrick Lewis) as well as their second-leading receiver in Ryan Swope. Defensively, the Aggies lost their top two tacklers from 2012 in Damontre Moore and Jonathan Stewart.
As long as it has Manziel, though, Texas A&M has a chance. It’s just a matter of how far he and the offense will be able to take the team if the defense doesn’t improve on its middle-of-pack rankings in total defense (390.23 yards per game; 9th in SEC) and scoring defense (21.77 points per game; 7th in SEC).
- Best-case scenario: Texas A&M was great in 2012. But it is even better in 2013. The Aggies, led by none other than Manziel, run through the season undefeated, capturing the school’s second national championship, the first since 1939. The Aggies are tested by Alabama in Game 3, but pull out a 27-24 victory within the confines of Kyle Field. LSU presents yet another challenge when Texas A&M travels to Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 23, but the Aggies once again leave victorious, winning 37-27. But the most memorable contest of the season comes in the SEC Championship Game against South Carolina. Arguably the two best players in the country square off against each other in Manziel and Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. They both take their best shots at each other — with Clowney notching three sacks and Manziel countering with three touchdowns himself — but the Aggies come out on top. On the game’s final drive, Manziel eludes Clowney on a third-and-goal from the 7-yard-line, scrambling away and finding Mike Evans in the back of the end zone, putting Texas A&M’s go-ahead and game-winning touchdown on the board in a 31-27 victory. In the BCS title game, Ohio State hangs with A&M for a half before Manziel outduels the Buckeyes’ Braxton Miller in the final 30 minutes, as the Aggies pull away for a 38-24 win. After the season, Manziel holds a press conference to announce his future intentions. In a shocking decision, he decides to come back to College Station for another go-round. Because when you’re the biggest celebrity college football has ever seen, why not? College bars across the nation rejoice. And a split-second after Manziel utters, “I’m back,” both Twitter and ESPN implode upon themselves.
- Worst-case scenario: The Aggies are good. Just not great. With a year of film on Manziel, defensive coordinators in the SEC are able to devise schemes to knock the Aggies’ quarterback, and in turn, the entire offense, down a few pegs. Texas A&M eases past Rice and Sam Houston State in the first two weeks, but those warm-up games are far from what it needs to properly prepare for Alabama. The Crimson Tide return the favor from the year before, beating the Aggies in front of their home crowd 30-17. Texas A&M rights itself by beating overmatched Southern Methodist and Arkansas squads. But the Aggies drop their second game of the season as they go on the road in front of a record crowd in Oxford, Miss., and fall to the Rebels 34-31. Texas A&M puts together a four-game win streak (Auburn, Vanderbilt, UTEP and Mississippi State) before its next defeat, traveling to Tiger Stadium and losing to LSU 27-14. The Aggies whip the Missouri Tigers in their regular season finale 55-14, but even with nine wins, the year has fallen short of expectations. Texas A&M heads to Atlanta — it’s just for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, not the SEC Championship Game. Awaiting them is a motivated Florida State team coming off a listless showing in the ACC title game. The Seminoles outplay the Aggies for the win, taking a 34-28 victory in the final game of the 2013 calendar year. Fed up with college life, Manziel declares for the NFL Draft. Though the Aggies still sign a solid recruiting class on National Signing Day, it’s trumped by their sworn enemy, the Texas Longhorns, who snag 2014′s top class on the heels of their victory in the BCS Championship Game.
For all the things Georgia accomplished last season — setting numerous school records on offense, winning a division title for the second straight year and capturing 12 wins for only the third time in school history — it couldn’t help but feel it left so much more on the table. With five more yards in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, the Bulldogs could have had a shot at entering this fall as defending national champions. It was not to be, however.
The Bulldogs are expected to be back in the national title hunt this season after bringing back 10 starters from its record-setting offense, headlined by senior quarterback Aaron Murray and the sophomore running back duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
But there are question marks defensively after losing seven starters to the pros, consisting of linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, defensive linemen Abry Jones and John Jenkins and defensive backs Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams and Sanders Commings. Two other players who made numerous stars during their career — defensive lineman Kwame Geathers and cornerback Branden Smith — also departed.
If the Bulldogs are to finally end their national championship drought that dates back to 1980, an experienced offense will have to continue setting a torrid pace while a young defense works to steady itself.
- Best-case scenario: The Bulldogs finally “finish the drill,” to borrow a team motto from year’s past, winning it all in Mark Richt’s 13th season in Athens. Georgia beats Clemson on the road in a Week 1 shootout, leaving Death Valley with a 48-42 victory. The South Carolina Gamecocks and arch-nemesis Steve Spurrier have Georgia’s number for the fourth consecutive season, nipping the Bulldogs 21-17 in Sanford Stadium. Georgia finishes the regular season with a flourish, however, winning its next 10 games in dominant fashion, with every victory in that span being by double-digits. The one that brings the biggest smile to the face of the Bulldog faithful is a 48-14 pasting of the Florida Gators in Jacksonville, Fla. It marks Georgia’s third straight victory in the series (the first time that’s been done since a similar three-year run from 1987-89) and the biggest margin of victory versus Florida since a 44-0 shutout in 1982. In the SEC Championship Game, Georgia gets a rematch against Alabama. This time, it is the Bulldogs, not the Crimson Tide, who move on to the national title contest. Consequently, the Bulldogs’ 34-24 win ends the Crimson Tide’s quest for three consecutive national championships. In the BCS title game, Richt faces former foe Urban Meyer, now leading Ohio State. But as Meyer quickly finds out, his old conference has this “winning national championships”-thing down pat. The Bulldogs and Buckeyes exchange the lead four times in the first half, but it’s a different story after halftime. Georgia’s balanced offensive attack keeps Ohio State caught off-guard on nearly every play, and the Bulldogs roll to a 41-21 victory. While Murray has finally used up his eligibility, it just means more carries for Gurley and Marshall in 2014. Speaking of 2014, the national title helps the Bulldogs ink the top-ranked class in the country on National Signing Day. Georgia fans are equally pleased to see both of their arch-rivals, Florida and Georgia Tech, fail to break .500 after entering their respective bowl games at 6-6 and losing.
- Worst-case scenario: The offense can’t do everything. Though the Bulldogs are in contention to win against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first four games of the season, the youthful defense makes mistakes at key moments late in all three contests, which costs Georgia dearly. After four games, the Bulldogs’ record stands at 1-3. Georgia rebounds to win seven of its last eight games in the regular season, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out who the lone loss was suffered to — Florida. Yes, the Bulldogs’ two-year win streak over the Gators is snapped in the final minute of the game. With Georgia driving toward a game-winning score, Murray is blindsided by defensive lineman Dominique Easley, fumbling the ball away to Florida. A furious Richt even musters a “Dadgummit!” on the sidelines as he watches the clock run out in the Gators’ 21-17 victory. Georgia doesn’t lose again until it heads back to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs are far from thrilled to make a return trip to EverBank Field, and it shows in their play. Murray’s career ends on a sour note, losing to the Michigan State Spartans in a bowl for the second time in his career. The Spartans force the senior into throwing three interceptions as they beat the Bulldogs 28-17. An 8-5 record is a massive disappointment for Georgia considering the expectations it had entering the fall. Recruits in the Peach State take note, as Georgia whiffs on many of the state’s top 2014 prospects. It doesn’t help that Georgia Tech ends the season with one more win (nine to eight) than Georgia, but there is one thing even harder to stomach: Florida wins the national championship behind the worst offense in the history of modern college football. Of course, Gators fans couldn’t care less, as they tout winning their third national championship in the BCS era (and fourth since 1996) over the Bulldogs’ heads.