Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, September 5, 2016 at 11:35 AM
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin spent the offseason with the pressure building on him. The program was losing talent to transfers and there had been no progress since a big 2012 run led by Johnny Manziel. The Aggies got a needed win, beating UCLA 31-24 in overtime and when you look at that game in the context of what happened elsewhere in the SEC West, the possibility of a big year for Texas A&M is clearly on the table.
The Aggies won the game by winning the battle in the trenches. They gashed UCLA for over 200 yards on the ground and did it with a balanced attack that saw Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford each sharing the load. Defensively, A&M got three interceptions against the hyped Bruin quarterback Josh Rosen and forced him into 26-for-46 passing. It was a welcome change for a defense that's resembled a sieve all too often in recent years.
While Texas A&M was getting a big win, their peers in the SEC West - save for the obvious exception of national behemoth Alabama - were struggling...
*LSU, seen as a legit challenger to Alabama, lost 16-14 to Wisconsin as a (-12) favorite. The Tigers looked like the same team they did a year ago - a good defense and terrific running back in Leonard Fournette to be sure, but debilitating problems at the quarterback position that suggest the loss might not have been a fluke.
*Auburn got an ATS cover against second-ranked Clemson, losing 19-13 as a (+8) underdog. While Auburn played good defense, the lack of a consistent running game against a rebuilding defense is a serious concern - particularly given that running the football is a staple of a good Gus Malzahn team.
*Arkansas avoided complete humiliation when a late touchdown pass pulled out a 21-20 win over Louisiana Tech. The Hogs did not avoid letting down their Vegas backers, who laid (-21) and the narrow escape raises concerns that Arkansas could be off to another slow start akin to 2015.
*Mississippi State was even worse. The Bulldogs were a (-28.5) favorite in what was supposed to be a simple tuneup game against South Alabama. They lost outright, 21-20 thanks to some terrible pass defense that ultimately blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter.
There's still one more significant test out there for the SEC West, when Ole Miss plays Florida State on Monday Night (8 PM ET, ABC). But these early returns give some hope that Texas A&M might be a good bet in the weeks ahead. The Aggies have a senior quarterback in Trevor Knight, who has something to prove. Knight led Oklahoma to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in his freshman year of 2013 before falling out of favor. He's now working with a coach in Sumlin who's been able to get the most out of his quarterbacks.
The schedule also works for Texas A&M. If Arkansas and Auburn indeed aren't ready, the Aggies get a crack at them early. They go to Auburn on September 17 and host Arkansas on September 24. Texas A&M is also fortunate to play LSU on November 24 - if LSU has a bad year they could be in turmoil and dealing with a coach on the way out if things don't turn around quickly.
Alabama's presence in the SEC West puts a natural ceiling on what A&M can accomplish. But there's still the chance for a major bowl appearance and more ATS covers in the weeks ahead.