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January 6, 2011

Beating LSU could bode well for A&M's future

Football championships once came on a regular basis at Texas A&M.

From 1991-93, for instance, the Aggies won three consecutive titles in the old Southwest Conference and they finished unbeaten (though on probation) in 1994. In each of those seasons, a victory over LSU seemed an indicator that great things were to follow.

That could be the case again.

The surging Aggies (9-3) could get another indicator that a championship season may loom in the future when they face LSU (10-2) in Friday night's Cotton Bowl.

COTTON BOWL

Texas A&M (9-3) vs. LSU (10-2)
WHEN: Jan. 7, 8:15 p.m.
WHERE: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
TV: Fox (Kenny Albert will do play-by-play, with Daryl Johnston as the analyst).
THE LINE: LSU by 1
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: LSU 6-2, Texas A&M 5-3.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: LSU 7th, Texas A&M 2nd.
BCS RANKINGS: LSU 11th, Texas A&M 17th.
OFFICIATING CREW: From Conference USA.
COACHES: LSU - Les Miles (5-3 in bowls); Texas A&M - Mike Sherman (0-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This is a resumption of what once was an intense annual rivalry, and it also matches one of the nation's most consistent winners (LSU) against one of the hottest teams in the country. Texas A&M closed the regular season with six consecutive victories. Both teams could enter the 2011 season in the top 10.
KEY STATS: Although Texas A&M has an effective passing game, the Aggies often struggle in pass protection. The Aggies have allowed 35 sacks this season. Conversely, LSU has 32 sacks to rank 17th in the country. A&M starts two freshmen at offensive tackle, so pass protection could be a problem area for the Aggies. LSU is 27-1 under Miles in non-conference games, with the only loss coming to Penn State in last season's Capital One Bowl.
A nine-win season, a six-game winning streak that included victories over Oklahoma and Nebraska to close the Big 12 schedule, a tie atop the South Division standings, a rising star at quarterback, an improving defense and 17 returning starters may set up the Aggies to open the 2011 season in the top 10 and establish them as legitimate contenders for their first conference championship since 1998.

A victory over LSU in the Cotton Bowl would further prove that Texas A&M is indeed returning to national significance after enduring more than a decade of mediocrity and disappointment.

"This is a huge game for us," said junior quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose promotion to the starting lineup sparked A&M's second-half surge. "We've played some tough games against top-10 teams like Oklahoma and Nebraska and played well in those games. We see this game as another steppingstone.

"If we play well and take care of business, we'll be all right. But LSU is a very tough opponent. If we can get a win, it will definitely help our push to be a top-tier program."

On the other hand, a loss to LSU may raise some uneasy questions about just how good the Aggies truly are and if their surge was a mirage that could build up hope but lead to more disappointment next season.

But the Aggies aren't looking that far ahead.

"Right now, we're just focused on LSU," Tannehill said. "Any time you look ahead, nothing good happens. We're excited about next year, but right now we're focused on this year and the Cotton Bowl."

That's the approach they should take. The Aggies have been in similar positions in recent years, only to slip the next season.

Ever since Sirr Parker scored the winning touchdown in overtime to finish off a stunning upset of Kansas State in the 1998 Big 12 championship game, the Aggies have been struggling -- and failing -- to regain national prominence.

They haven't finished in the season-ending rankings since 1999, when they were 23rd. They went 8-4 under R.C. Slocum in 2001, but slumped to 6-6 the next season and Slocum was fired.

They finished 9-4 in 2006 under Dennis Franchione. But they dropped to 7-6 the next season and Franchione was fired.

Their charge this season has the Aggies on the verge of a 10-win season for the first time since '98, but late-season and bowl results has tarnished that streak to some degree. Although the Aggies deserve a lot of credit for upsetting Oklahoma 33-18, two of the other six victories were over Kansas and Texas, which finished with losing records. Another win was over Baylor, which finished 7-6 and beat just one FBS opponent with a winning record. Another victim was defensively challenged Texas Tech, which allowed 38 points to a Northwestern team without its starting quarterback in the TicketCity Bowl. The other win came 9-6 over Nebraska, which lost three of its final four games.

Still, somehow, this A&M team just feels different from the others that let down the long-suffering Aggies faithful.

Each of the Aggies' three losses came to an opponent that won at least 10 games -- Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Missouri -- and all came with turnover-prone Jerrod Johnson at quarterback.

Tannehill has passed for 1,434 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. The Aggies have beaten two 10-win teams -- Oklahoma and Nebraska -- with him leading the offense. But Tannehill cringes at the suggestion he's the reason for A&M's resurgence.

"It was a team effort the whole way," he said. "I was able to come in, but it wasn't me. It was the team around me. The offensive line got into a groove six games into the season. Cyrus Gray was running hard. Our receivers came together.

"When all those things are working together, it comes out good."

The Aggies are 21st in the nation in total offense, averaging 447.6 yards per game. Gray took over for an injured Christine Michael and rushed for 868 yards and 10 touchdowns during the six-game streak. Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope both have more than 60 receptions.

Perhaps more important, the defense has made significant gains under first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter. Last season, A&M ranked 105th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 33.5 points per game. Eight opponents scored at least 30 points. This season, the Aggies are 26th in scoring defense, allowing 20.3 points. In '09, they ranked 105th in total defense. This season, they're 51st.

"I feel good about the defense, but not great about it," junior free safety Trent Hunter said. "Until we're in the top one, two or three in the country, I won't be satisfied. We've got to set a new standard.

"Why not? We've got the talent and everything we need to be a great defense."

The defensive improvement has inspired some A&M faithful to fondly recall the dominant "Wrecking Crew" defenses of the '90s. That's a stretch, but at least there is reason to believe the defense will get better.

Hunter is among eight starters who should be back next season. But All-America linebacker Von Miller, one of the nation's premier pass rushers, isn't among them. He'll be missed in 2011, but Hunter said there talented younger players ready to step in. For example, freshman Demontre Moore posted 5.5 sacks as Miller's backup.

"We'll always have somebody to step up," Hunter said. "There is always somebody sitting back ready to make the most out of their chances."

That hasn't been the case for years, but there are many reasons for the Aggies to believe that will change in 2011.

A Cotton Bowl victory over LSU would only add to the list.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

LSU rush offense vs. Texas A&M rush defense: Powerful RB Stevan Ridley has rushed for 1,042 yards and 14 touchdowns to lead LSU's rushing attack, which is ranked 33rd in the nation. Ridley hasn't reached 100 yards in a game since facing Tennessee on Oct. 2, but QB Jordan Jefferson also is a rushing threat and backup RB Michael Ford provides a speedy change of pace. A&M has allowed an average of just 117.0 rushing yards to rank 14th nationally. The Aggies were strong against the run in the last month of the season and did a good job containing the ground games of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. But Baylor rushed for 291 yards against them. LB Michael Hodges posted 111 tackles and LB Garrick Williams had 97. Edge: LSU.

LSU pass offense vs. Texas A&M pass defense: Despite frequently shifting between Jefferson and backup Jarrett Lee -- or perhaps because of it -- LSU is ranked just 107th in the country in pass offense. Jefferson has passed for 1,253 yards, with four touchdowns and nine interceptions. In past seasons, interceptions were a major issue for Lee, though he's only thrown one this year. He's passed for 573 yards and two touchdowns. The mediocre quarterback play has compromised the receiving corps, which should be a strong point. WRs Rueben Randle, Terrence Toliver and Russell Shepard have between 31 and 36 receptions. With better quarterback play, Toliver could challenge for All-America recognition. A&M has made some strides in pass coverage under first-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, though its best weapon against the pass remains speed-rushing LB Von Miller, who fought off injuries that forced a slow start to post 9.5 sacks. The Aggies rank 94th in the country in pass defense, but they have grabbed 15 interceptions and did respectable jobs against Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Texas Tech's Taylor Potts. Edge: Texas A&M.

Texas A&M rush offense vs. LSU rush defense: RB Cyrus Gray is the key to A&M's rushing attack. He has rushed for 1,033 yards, and 838 came in the second half of the season. He exceeded 100 yards in each of the past six games and closed with 223 against Texas. LSU allows 135.8 rushing yards per game. Those numbers are somewhat skewed by the 440 posted by Auburn when Heisman-winning QB Cameron Newton rushed for 217. But LSU also allowed Arkansas' Knile Davis to run for 152 in the regular-season finale and gave up 236 rushing yards to Ole Miss. DT Drake Nevis causes serious problems up front and has 13 tackles for loss. LB Kelvin Sheppard has 108 tackles and is active against the run. Edge: Texas A&M.

Texas A&M pass offense vs. LSU pass defense: After QB Ryan Tannehill took over for Jerrod Johnson in the second half of the season, the Aggies became extremely efficient through the air. Tannehill threw for more than 1,400 yards in six starts, with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. WR Jeff Fuller is a big target who has 65 catches and 12 touchdowns. WR Ryan Swope often is overlooked, but he has been extremely productive as a complementary receiver with 67 catches and four touchdowns. LSU needs its perceived advantage in the pass rush because the Tigers have been inconsistent in coverage despite a No. 10 ranking in pass defense. In the last month of the season, Arkansas threw for 320 yards and three touchdowns against LSU. Alabama had 223 passing yards. Even Mississippi State, which is hardly a strong passing team, posted 189 yards. Still, the Tigers did grab 16 interceptions. CB Patrick Peterson is one of the best in the nation. Edge: LSU.

LSU special teams vs. Texas A&M special teams: A&M's special teams aren't the disaster they were a year ago, but they still need to improve. Punt returns are lackluster, though Gray and CB Coryell Judie are big-play threats on kickoff returns. K Randy Bullock has hit 15-of-19 field-goal tries, with a long of 50. He's also missed twice inside 40 yards. P Ryan Epperson averages just 37.6 yards and has had one blocked. The kicking game unquestionably is a strong point for LSU. Peterson is one of the country's best in punt returns, with a 16.1 average that includes two touchdowns. He's also among the best in kickoff returns with a 29.3 average. The Tigers are solid in kick coverage, too. K Josh Jasper has converted 26-of-31 field goals and has hit from 53; four of his misses were on attempts of at least 44 yards. P Derek Helton averages 45.4 yards. Edge: LSU.

LSU coaches vs. Texas A&M coaches: Les Miles is in his sixth season at LSU and has a 61-17 record, which includes a national championship in '07. The Tigers have posted four 10-win seasons for Miles. Second-year defensive coordinator John Chavis has an impressive resume and is considered among the best in the nation. But offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has been the target of criticism. A&M coach Mike Sherman was catching heat from fans until the Aggies broke through with a six-game winning streak to close the regular season. Sherman is 19-18 in three seasons in College Station. DeRuyter, who came to A&M from Air Force, has upgraded the defense. Edge: LSU.

X-factor: Miles is the X-factor in any game that includes LSU. Call him calculating or just plain lucky, he often makes daring calls that most coaches are too conservative to consider. Whether it's a faked field goal against Florida or a fourth-down reverse against Alabama, Miles often takes gambles that are pivotal in LSU victories.

Texas A&M will win if: Tannehill needs to have another strong passing performance, but Gray also has to be productive and force LSU to at least respect the Aggies' running game. A&M must also be sound in run defense and cannot give up big plays in the kicking game. The Aggies have lost 14 fumbles this season, and that bears watching.

LSU will win if: The Tigers had difficulty stopping the run in their losses, so containing Gray is a top priority. If they can force A&M into obvious passing situations, they can capitalize on what should be an advantage with their pass rush. Harassing Tannehill will enhance the opportunities for Peterson and the secondary to force turnovers. Offensively, LSU must be successful on the ground.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Texas A&M 21, LSU 20
Tom Dienhart: Texas A&M 28, LSU 27
David Fox: Texas A&M 24, LSU 17
Mike Huguenin: LSU 26, Texas A&M 21
Steve Megargee: Texas A&M 24, LSU 21

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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