When Texas A&M surfaced last season as a contender for the College Football Playoff, the Aggies were not lacking for detractors.
After making a tremendous Southeastern Conference splash in 2012, when quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy and guided the program to memorable wins over Alabama and Oklahoma, the Aggies had become annual letdowns. Summer optimism would typically give way to 8-5 seasons, but last year's defense wouldn't allow for more of the same.
Yielding an average of just 10.8 points per game in its final four regular-season contests, Texas A&M posted an 8-1 record and a No. 5 playoff ranking that just missed the four-team field. The Aggies instead went to the Orange Bowl and rallied past North Carolina, and the return of nine defenders has Texas A&M fans believing their team has emerged - and not Auburn or LSU - as Alabama's chief challenger in the SEC West.
"This team - we're ready," Aggies junior defensive end DeMarvin Leal said at SEC Media Days. "We know what our standard is, and we know we've all made the commitment to each other just to be the best that we are and to do that every single day. As far as the playoff, we're definitely going to be able to work our tails off to get there.
"We're looking forward to setting our standard and showing our standard and just showing how the culture has changed."
Texas A&M will host Alabama on Oct. 9, with CBS having already announced that will be the Saturday of its 3:30 and 8 p.m. doubleheader. The Aggies have never been selected for the CBS prime-time telecast, not even when they hosted Alabama in 2013 during Manziel's final season.
The surplus of returning defensive starters for the Aggies coupled with Alabama returning only three offensive starters has this matchup receiving its share of summertime publicity.
"We have to be playing well at week six," Aggies fourth-year coach Jimbo Fisher said. "Each team has its own identity and its own personality. Each team has a one-year life expectancy. You've got to understand that. As soon as you change one person on a team, the whole personality of a team changes. We have to identify those things that allowed us to be successful last year, continue with the culture of our players and reinforce that right now.
"We feel very good about our team, but whoever Alabama puts out there will be great players. They're going to be coached very well, and they've got a heck of a team."
Last year: 9-1 (8-1 SEC)Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. Kent State in College Station (8 p.m. on ESPNU)Fun fact: Texas A&M has yet to compete in the Cotton Bowl under Jimbo Fisher but played there under his five predecessors — Kevin Sumlin, Mike Sherman, Dennis Franchione, R.C. Slocum and Jackie Sherrill.Up next: Vanderbilt
Much of Texas A&M's mediocrity in recent seasons before last year's surge was due to defensive deficiencies - remember the 45-44 loss at UCLA and the 55-52 loss to Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl serving as unsightly bookends to the 2017 season? - but the Aggies have finally trended in the right direction on that side of the ball.
Leal has played a role in that, returning an interception 43 yards during the lone loss last season at Alabama, recovering a fumble caused by linebacker Buddy Johnson that saved the 41-38 surviving of Florida and collecting five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in the 34-13 whipping at Tennessee that closed the regular season.
The two starters the Aggies lost from last season, Johnson and nose tackle Bobby Brown, were fourth-round NFL draft picks of the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively, but Leal envisions even better days ahead.
"The limit for this defense is the sky and beyond the sky, honestly," Leal said. "We're not going to miss a beat with those guys gone. They helped us out a lot, and with the most respect to those guys, we had guys who stepped up this spring and continued to step up this summer.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what they do throughout the season."
Fisher's first three seasons in College Station were with Kellen Mond at quarterback, but this season's quarterback is expected to be either sophomore Zach Calzada or freshman Haynes King, with each described by Fisher as "an NFL talent."
When Fisher earned his first head coaching opportunity at Florida State, he guided the program to the 2013 national championship in his fourth season at the helm. His third Seminoles team had gone 12-2 and won the Orange Bowl, showing an upward trajectory from his first two seasons. Last season's Aggies won the Orange Bowl and displayed a sharp rise as well.
Could the fourth season in College Station equal his fourth year in Tallahassee?
"I'm all for it if that's what happens," Fisher said. "I promise you that."
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