A non-conference battle of two exciting ranked Texas A&M Aggies welcome the dangerous SMU Mustangs to College Station.
June Jones led SMU to the Conference USA championship game and a bowl berth in 2010, but losses in both of those big showdowns left a sour taste in the mouth of the coach and his players. With 10 offensive starters back, as well as eight on the defensive side of the ball, the Mustangs are poised for a stellar season.
I'm excited for SMU," said Jones. "I'm hopeful that we can continue to win. We were 7-7 last year, and I thought we were better than our 8-5 year the season before. I think we will be better this year. But you have to prove it on Saturday afternoons and Saturday nights."
The Aggie faithful finally saw a return in their investment in Mike Sherman, as the third-year coach returned A&M to relevance in the Big 12 in 2010. The Aggies posted their first winning campaign under Sherman, finishing 9-4 overall and a stellar 6-2 mark in conference. With a myriad of key returnees in place, the Aggies won't sneak up on anyone in 2011.
"Expectations, you know, I don't notice a change in my expectations," said Sherman. "I always expect to win, put a good product out there. But this year, what we have coming back, the kids, I feel like we've been in this system now from just a football program system for three years, they understand the culture and structure and they understand how I want things done."
Texas A&M owns a 41-29-7 series advantage over SMU, which includes a 66-8 romp over the Mustangs in the most recent meeting back in 2005.
SMU put up 25.7 ppg and 414.6 total ypg in 2010, and there is reason to believe those figures will increase in 2011. It all starts with quarterback Kyle Padron, who flourished as a sophomore to the tune of 3,828 passing yards and 31 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. As a runner, the multi-talented signal caller added four more scores.
Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson are back to haul in Padron's passes. Beasley caught 87 balls for 1,060 yards last season, while Johnson reeled in 78 for 845 yards.
Jones will have the most experienced line since he took over the program, with the entire starting rotation and backups returning to the fold. That means 158 starts will be up front for Padron and company to go to work. A clear beneficiary of the strength up front will be tailback Zach Line, who rushed for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, finishing as the only player in Conference USA to rush for 1,000 yards or more.
Just like the offensive line, the entire two deep is back for the Mustangs' defensive front, including a pair of menacing ends in Marcus Hunt and Taylor Thompson. Thompson is capable of racking up significantly more than the 4.5 sacks he mustered a year ago.
"We have alot of veterans on defense," said Jones. "Our front seven is going to be pretty good."
Ja'Gared Davis was a First Team All-Conference USA pick after his 2010 campaign, which included 90 tackles (16 for loss) and is back for his junior season. Three other juniors should be in the mix to start beside Davis, including middle linebacker Taylor Reed, who had 145 tackles last year.
The SMU secondary gets three starters back, and will be especially strong at corner. Former junior college transfer Richard Crawford was a First Team All- C-USA pick in 2010, and senior strong safety Chris Banjo is a returning Second Team selection after logging 92 tackles.
Switching focus to Texas A&M, there is plenty to be excited about on the offensive side of the ball with the return of 10 starters. Last year, the unit was extremely balanced, averaging over 440 yards of offense per game. Ryan Tannehill emerged as the starter at quarterback midway through the campaign and made the most of his six starts, finishing the season with 1,638 yards passing.
"What he brings to the table besides confidence I think is a tremendous intellect," says Sherman of Tannehill. "His athletic ability. I think he gets rid of the ball quick, makes quick decisions."
Tannehill also benefits from nearly everyone returning to the receiving corps, highlighted by WRs Jeff Fuller (72 receptions, 1,066 yards, 12 TDs), who earned First Team All-Big 12 honors a year ago, and Ryan Swope (72 receptions, 825 yards, four TDs).
Plenty of talent returns along the offensive line as well, with four starters back, including sophomore tackle Luke Joeckel (6-6, 305), who was a Freshman All-American in 2010.
The defensive unit for the Aggies returns eight starters. Sophomore end Damontre Moore was tabbed a Freshman All-American in 2010, recording 40 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Senior linebacker Garrick Williams generated a whopping 112 tackles a year ago and his veteran presence in the linebacking corps will help a lot.
Senior CBs Coryell Judie (57 tackles, four INTs) and Terrence Frederick (57 tackles, one INT) should solidify the play in the secondary. Judie was an All- Big 12 Honorable Mention in 2010.