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August 31, 2011

Aggies can compete in the SEC

57-54.

That's Texas A&M's record in football over the past nine years.

39-22.

That's the average margin of loss in A&M's last six games that it has played against SEC programs dating back to 2000.

On the surface, those kinds of statistics appear to be more than sufficient ammunition for those who suggest that Texas A&M can't compete in the Southeastern Conference in football (or any other sport for that matter). The problem with numbers is that while they nay indicate a trend, those trends don't go on forever and particularly in the case of A&M football the trend is definitely upward going into 2011.

For one thing, A&M is heading into what could be its last year in the Big 12 with the return of 16 starters and both kickers from a 9-4 team that won its last six regular season games. It's easily the best team that A&M will have fielded in more than a decade and is ranked in the top ten nationally for the 2011 pre season. The reason for that is two fold: coaching and recruiting and that combination isn't going away anytime soon.

My favorite name for the SEC is the NFL-Lite. Coaches in the league run their programs like mini-franchises, with professionalism and attention to detail at every level. They handle press conferences like they are on the NFL Network, use pro style offenses, pro style quarterbacks, big offensive lines, and physical running backs. The defenses are geared to stopping the run and feature monster cornerbacks who look like linebackers from some conferences. It's not a conference in which teams spread the field and throw the ball around all over the place and 200 pound linebackers abound because they're good at coverage. SEC teams run the ball and stop the run and A&M can do both -- Cyrus Gray ran for over 1,000 yards in the last seven games of 2010 and the Aggies led the Big 12 in rushing defense last season.

In turn, A&M head coach Mike Sherman was the head coach of the NFL's Green Bay Packers for several years. Sherman runs A&M just like he ran the Packers: he expects his players to be on time, to go to class, and to excel off the field as well as on it. He also expects his players to be honest with him, to be accountable, and to be businesslike, just like the NFL does. As he increased A&M's talent level since his arrival, the veterans have bought into his approach once they started seeing the results on the field and they have passed that on to the underclassmen and newcomers. Sherman understands the X's and O's but more importantly he understands people and that suggests that he is a long term solution, not a quick turnaround artist. Sherman's coaches teach rather than scream. His passing offense is at NFL level of sophistication and Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 defense is the rage among most of the NFL with the ability to attack from all areas of the field.

Sherman has also upgraded A&M's talent level and it's no accident that he has done so. If you look across the rosters of SEC teams, they are dotted with NFL-style talent…quarterbacks who can throw the sideline pass, tall lineman, linebackers, and receivers that can put on weight and retain the ability to run, big running backs that can carry the ball 20-25 times a game, and corners that can push receivers out of their routes and double as run stoppers.

Forget the guys that are leaving after the 2011 campaign and wouldn't impact A&M's play in the SEC. As a whole, the Aggies as a program have gotten bigger and taller and more physical themselves in comparison to the Dennis Franchione years. Young offensive tackles Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews, Cedric Ogbuehi, and Joseph Cheek are 6 foot 4 plus and outside receivers Nate Askew and Michael Evans are 6 foot 5. Recent additions at safety include Howard Matthews and Johntel Franklin, who are both 6 feet-plus, and freshman cornerback Floyd Raven, who is 6 foot 2.

The incoming 2012 class includes more of the same. Quarterback Matt Davis is up to 211 pounds and can throw the sideline pass like an NFL signal caller. Offensive linemen Adrian Bellard and Michael Wilson are 6 foot 5 plus. Defensive backs Otis Jacobs, Corey Thompson, and Kenneth Marshall are six foot- plus and corner Darion Monroe is 5 foot 11 but is a thick, physical prospect who matches up well with bigger receivers. In addition, all of Sherman's classes have been ranked in the top 25 nationally by Rivals.com.

Here's something else to think about too: A&M athletic director Bill Byrne has proven to be a top notch evaluator of coaching talent. Coaches T.J. Higgins (golf), Gary Blair (women's basketball), and Pat Henry (men and women's track) have won national titles in their sports in the past few years. Baseball coach Rob Childress took last year's team to the college world series. Now that Sherman has gotten better players and coaches on the A&M roster, he appears to be on similar road to success as well and going into the SEC will probably make it easier, not harder, to add even better talent going forward.

We'll explain why tomorrow.


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