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College Football Preview 2023: 20. Texas A&M Aggies

Conner Weigman, Texas A&M

20. Texas A&M Aggies

The Bobby Petrino hire makes this the greatest wild card in the SEC, creating a true boom-or-bust scenario in College Station

2022 Review
Following a 2021 campaign where Jimbo Fisher finally overcame Nick Saban and brought in the highest-rated recruiting class in college football history, last fall was supposed to be the year Texas A&M asserted themselves as a long-term threat on the national stage. Instead, it was a season defined by dysfunction and ineptitude that has the pressure on Jimbo and the Aggies entering 2023. Things looked like they might go differently; after a shocking loss to Appalachian State at home, the Aggies seemed to get back on track by overcoming both Miami and Arkansas. What followed was a horrendous six-game losing streak, defined by close loss after close loss. Two wins during the back stretch of November helped Jimbo and company save face, but the 5-7 record was a massive disappointment in every way. Jimbo is still protected by a staggering $76 million buyout, but it's clear that he's feeling some heat, shuffling his coaching staff over the offseason. With the pressure on, it's show up or shut up time for both him and the program.

2023 Outlook
Offense: The most significant change over the offseason was Jimbo finally relinquishing playcalling duties and instead turning to a familiar face around SEC circles: Bobby Petrino. It's a necessary change after a season in which A&M finished 101st nationally in scoring, but doesn't come without risk. Petrino has a track record of explosive offenses but is incredibly controversial, and could be more of a distraction than positive asset. 

One of the few good things to take out of 2022 was the emergence of quarterback Conner Weigman, a former five-star prospect who played in five games as a true freshman. Weigman is arguably the most talented QB Fisher has had to work with since Jameis Winston, but there will be growing pains that accompany his growth. A Petrino offense should be a good thing, helping open things up vertically for the big-armed sophomore.

Finding productive tailbacks has not been an issue for Fisher since he arrived at A&M, and the Aggies are on the search for another after the graduation of Devon Achane. Junior Amari Daniels is a holdover who rushed for 200 yards last fall, but keep an eye on highly touted newcomer Rueben Owens II. The one-time Louisville commit is a home-run hitter who gives the team a dynamic playmaking presence that they've been missing.

Petrino's offense will look to open up this aerial attack vertically, which is great news for one of the most talented receiver rooms Fisher has had since arriving here. The return of do-it-all Ainias Smith has a chance to be a game-changer for the Aggies, as they desperately missed his playmaking a season ago. Smith, who will line up just about anywhere on the field, surpassed the 500-yard threshold in both 2020 and 2021 but missed most of last fall due to injury. It will be a fun watch to see how Petrino chooses to use his services in 2023.

While the return of Smith is huge news, the leader of the A&M receiver corps is sophomore Evan Stewart. The former high-profile recruit delivered immediately, notching 53 receptions and 649 yards, despite questionable quarterback play most of the year. If Stewart continues to progress, he has a chance to be one of the SEC's best. He'll be helped by some effective complementary pieces, namely Moose Muhammed and newcomer Micah Tease. Muhammed didn't finish far away from Stewart's numbers in 2022, with 610 yards and four touchdowns himself.

Fisher's system was known for utilizing tight ends, so it will be interesting to see whether that remains the case with Petrino running the offense. Sophomore Donovan Green showcased impressive upside after making four starts last fall and has the talent to be a difference-maker in the passing game. Veteran Max Wright and talented youngster Jake Johnson should also factor into the equation in some form. Wright is more of a blocker, but can get out and move the chains, while Johnson was a big-time recruit who hasn't able to quite show what he was capable of a year ago.

There were some understandable growing pains for the A&M offensive line last fall, as the unit dealt with injuries all year long. The good news is that every starter is now back for 2023 and there should now be more depth, thanks to younger pieces getting more opportunity. There are 91 starts total here, including sturdy veterans Layden Robinson and Reuben Fatheree. A healthy Bryce Foster should pay dividends, as the center has proven to be one of the league's top interior linemen when he's 100 percent.

It was clear that A&M needed to change things up offensively after last season and there's a lot of signs pointing up here. Petrino is an accomplished offensive mind, and young talent dots the skill positions. Whether it's able to grow up quickly will determine just how high this group's ceiling will be, but the likelihood for improvement seems high.

Defense: Despite switching coordinators after Mike Elko left for Duke, the Aggie defense remained stingy, allowing just over 21 points per game on the season. In fact, the defense was the only thing that kept them in most games, and there's reason to believe it will be an effective group once again.

This has a chance to be one of the top defensive lines not just in the SEC, but nationally. Fisher and his staff have done an excellent job recruiting SEC athletes up front and they continue to develop. Junior McKinnley Jackson and sophomore Walter Nolen are overpowering forces in the interior of the unit, while ends Shemar Stewart and Fadil Diggs create havoc off the edge. Nolen in particular feels like he's on the cusp of a big season; the nation's former No. 1 overall recruit made 29 tackles as a true freshman and didn't look intimidated by the physicality of SEC ball. 

It's not just the starting group that makes this A&M defensive line so dangerous, but the depth they boast. The Aggies can rotate in plenty of fresh defenders that will make their presence felt, including names like Shemar Turner, Enai White, and L.T. Overton. This is going to be an incredibly tough unit to run on and if the ends continue to grow, it will be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

There's not as much star power in the linebacker corps, but enough proven experience to expect this to be a quality unit. Senior middle linebacker Chris Russell is the type of intelligent, instinctive defender that every defense needs at his position. Unlike others on this defense, he was a lightly recruited prospect who has continued to grow each and every year. Junior Edgerrin Cooper returns alongside him after recording eight tackles for loss last fall, while Jackson State transfer Jurriente Davis is also going to factor into the rotation.

The only significant losses this defense suffers is on the back-end, with Antonio Johnson and Jaylon Jones off to the NFL and youngster Denver Harris transferring out. Fortunately, senior Demani Richardson is back to lead the secondary, the staff brought in some help through the transfer portal.

Richardson led the team with 73 tackles a season ago and is a ferocious downhill hitter. He'll man the strong safety spot, while junior Jardin Gilbert is over at free safety. The rangy Gilbert led the team in interceptions last fall, with two, but creating more turnovers is of chief priority for this group in 2023.

At cornerback, A&M arguably upgraded by bringing in Tony Grimes to replace the departed Jaylon Jones. Grimes reclassified and enrolled early at North Carolina and was playing against Power Five competition in what was essentially his senior season of high school in 2020. He put together two more productive seasons, but I still feel like there's another level he could reach in what is likely to be his final collegiate season. Steady Tyreek Chappell is to handle the other cornerback spot, but there is further reinforcements from the ACC in the form of Boston College transfer Josh DeBerry and Florida State's Sam McCall.

For as frustrating as the Texas A&M offense has been throughout the Fisher tenure, this program has been churning out elite defenses. That's should be the case in 2023, with proven pieces at every single level and quality depth throughout. In fact, if the defensive line continues to grow and the secondary gels fast, this should be a Top 10 unit nationally in my mind.

Special Teams: Both kicker Randy Bond and punter Nik Constantinou return, likely ensuring another strong special teams year for the Aggies in 2023. Bond was 13-17 on field goals a season ago, while Constantinou is hoping for a resurgent campaign after a down year. If he returns to 2021 levels, he's a legit Ray Guy Award candidate.

Bottom Line
Texas A&M has consistently fielded some of the most purely talented teams in the country the last few years, but the on-field results have been... underwhelming. The Aggies have been solid, but the program is still looking for their true breakthrough on the national stage. Going 9-1 during the COVID-shortened 2020 season looked like it may have been it, but that year was so strange and going 13-11 since has certainly devalued it. This year's team has the chance to be the one to make the breakthrough, but it will take a lot of things coming together at the right time. That includes Petrino coming in and overhauling the offense, the young pieces growing up quick, and the Aggies managing to wade through another brutal schedule. There's certainly a chance, but it feels like this fall should be more about righting the ship and making the necessary fixes for what is likely to be a huge 2024. That may be frustrating to hear for A&M fans as they enter Year Six of the Jimbo Fisher era, but is a reality of just how hard it is to build a consistent winner in college football's top conference.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Jimbo Fisher is one of just a handful of current college football head coaches who have won a National Title, bringing back the trophy to Tallahassee in 2013. After an eight-year run with Florida State, Fisher made the jump to Texas A&M, where he's gone 39-21 and 23-18 in the SEC. The new offensive coordinator is a familiar name to SEC fans, as Bobby Petrino returns to the league for the first time since his infamous ending at Arkansas over a decade ago. Since, Petrino has been head coach at three different schools; Western Kentucky, Louisville, and Missouri State, but this will be his first coordinator gig in two decades, going back to his post with Auburn in 2002. Defensively, D.J. Durkin is also a controversial name among the college football coaching ranks, going back to his tenure at Maryland. Since his firing in College Park, Durkin spent a year as a consultant with the Atlanta Falcons, before returning to college football as DC under Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. This will be his second year running the Texas A&M defense.

Recruiting Breakdown
How did A&M follow the highest-rated recruiting class in college football history? There was certainly going to be a step-back for the Class of 2023, but coming in at 15th nationally feels a bit disappointing. However, there's still loads of talent arriving in College Station, punctuated by five-stars D.J. Hicks and Rueben Owens. Hicks is the latest in a long line of big-name defensive line recruits for the Aggies, and the 6'4", 290 pounder has a chance to see snaps right away as a true freshman. Owens was an excellent late get for this staff, as he was committed to Louisville for most of the cycle before Scott Satterfield's decision to leave for Cincinnati. There's plenty of help along the O-Line and in the secondary throughout this class, including an intriguing piece in Micah Tease. Rated as the No. 8 athlete in the Class of 2023, Tease can play either wide receiver or defensive back at the next level and should offer plenty of scheme versatility. Wide receiver appears the more likely route at this point, but the Aggies will find some way to get him on the field in short order.

2023 Schedule Analysis
After a tune-up game at Kyle Field against New Mexico, we will get a good indication of what type of season it will be for A&M when they travel to Coral Gables to square off with Miami. With all the staff changes going on with the 'Canes, it wouldn't be shocking to see A&M favored, even on the road. If they can't get out with a win, the rest of the stretch before their mid-October bye looks miserable, with the lone exception being a home game with Louisiana-Monroe. The annual matchup with Arkansas will once again be at "Jerry World" before a rough two-game back-to-back that includes Alabama and a road game against Tennessee, with the Vols coming off a bye. The back-half of the schedule isn't quite as rough, but road games against Ole Miss and LSU still offer plenty of obstacles.

2023 X-Factor: Conner Weigman, QB
The play of Conner Weigman down the stretch in 2022 was one of the few bright spots A&M fans were able to take away from a miserable year. Now, they're hoping Weigman can continue to progress and develop into a legitimate difference-maker at the position. The former five-star prospect is certainly talented; he's got a fluid throwing motion, an excellent deep ball, and the ability to create with his legs. He has the chance to be the best Aggie quarterback since Johnny Manziel, but growing up in the SEC is no easy task. The rest of the conference is going to throw everything they can at the young quarterback and it will be fascinating to see how he responds. There's no shortage of talent around Weigman and he appeared to have the poise and confidence to handle the pressure last fall. But, doing so over the course of an entire fall against a brutal schedule will be a whole different animal for the sophomore. 

Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
Offensive MVP: WR Evan Stewart
Defensive MVP: S Demani Richardson
Impact Freshman: RB Rueben Owens
Impact Transfer: CB Tony Grimes
Breakout Player of the Year: DL Walter Nolen

Five-Year Trend

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