USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Texas A&M will stop thinking about Texas when the Longhorns do the same, meaning these two hot-and-hotter rivals will continue to measure themselves against the other until a conference-realignment reunion, the end of college football or the demise of our life-giving sun, whichever comes first.
Yet it's an uneven relationship – with Texas the jilted and Texas A&M the jilter, with the former heading south just as the other headed to the Southeastern Conference.
A&M is 20-6 during the past two seasons; Texas is 17-9. The Aggies have spent at least one week among the top six of the Amway Coaches Poll in each of the past two seasons. A&M had a Heisman Trophy winner and a Heisman finalist – the same guy, by the way, and he was pretty good.
This spring's NFL draft had more Aggies go among the top seven – two – as Longhorns go altogether. Actually, the draft had more A&M prospects go among the top six – one – as Longhorns go altogether.
The Aggies' first full recruiting class under Kevin Sumlin, in 2013, ranked 11th nationally, per Rivals.com; the Longhorns' group ranked 24th. A&M most recent class came in sixth; Charlie Strong's first class ranked 20th.
It's striking how much can change in 24 months. Two years ago, A&M viewed a continuation of the UT rivalry as essential to its quest to remain viable within the state's recruiting borders – but Texas was cool on the idea. Two years later, Charlie Strong tells ESPN.com the rivalry "needs to happen."
"We need to play them," he said.
Now Sumlin's playing it cool: "Eventually, I think it will happen," he said in May.
What has become evident is that Texas needs A&M more than A&M needs Texas. The relationship has shifted: Little brother is all grown up, mustachioed, full of muscles, oozing with confidence and too busy to play his older sibling's games.
Perhaps the great indicator of this fact comes on Thanksgiving. Texas hosts TCU. Texas A&M hosts LSU. Which one are you going to watch?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
My take: A&M's offense wins at least 10 games during the regular season; A&M's defense loses one or two. But I'd be foolish to not acknowledge A&M's ability to run the table and play for the national championship.
In a nutshell: Nothing if not the most entertaining, exciting, allergic-to-defense, fireworks-on-offense team in all of college football – NASCAR in pads and on two feet, essentially, with the brakes removed from the equation for good measure. Only LSU made A&M look silly; LSU does this to A&M. Elsewhere, the Aggies engaged in an epic heavyweight bout with Nick Saban and Alabama, decided to go blow-for-blow with Auburn and then ran out of steam against LSU and Missouri, crippled by injuries on offense and one of the worst defenses in program history. I hate to point fingers, but A&M has no one to blame but itself: The SEC was all defense-driven ground and pound until the Aggies' conference-changing arrival, when the rest of the league caught glimpse of just what an offense can do and thought, Hey, this can be fun.
High point: Duke, I'd imagine, which was pure magic. But let's not forget a memorable moment even in defeat: Manziel to Evans from 95 yards out.
Low point: Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Missouri. A four-way tie.
Tidbit: It hasn't taken A&M long to make its mark on the SEC record book. Through two years in the conference, the Aggies hold single-season records for total offense (7,261 yards in 2012), yards per game (558.54 in 2012), passing yards (4,593 in 2013) and first downs (357 in 2012).
Tidbit (road edition): The Aggies are 10-2 in true road games under Sumlin. The only SEC team with fewer road losses during the past two seasons is Alabama, which has just one such loss, to Auburn in last year's Iron Bowl.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
1994 MLB draft picks, post-34th round
1. Tim Hudson
2. Morgan Ensberg
3. Kyle Farnsworth
4. Julio Lugo
5. Eric Byrnes
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Schematically, the biggest change in existence post-Johnny Manziel will be the recreation of a more back-driven running game – rather than rolling through the quarterback, though that could still be a significant part of the Aggies' attack, look for the backfield to do most of the heavy lifting on the ground. One name leads the charge: Tra Carson (329 yards) is A&M's most dependable back across the board, whether as a runner or protector, and has earned the nod as the Aggies' top carrier. But the offense will continue with a by-committee approach, essentially splitting carries between Carson and juniors Brandon Williams (269 yards) and Trey Williams (407 yards), three relatively interchangeable parts with one common asset: they'll make you miss. Sacrilege, I know, but A&M could use the balance granted by a more traditional running game.
Rumors of any projected decline from the offensive line are greatly exaggerated: A&M brings back four starters, has another first-round left tackle set to explode and will land a boost from the JUCO ranks, meaning this group will remain among the SEC's best. The big change comes on the blind side, where senior Cedric Ogbuehi makes the transition from right tackle; he's going to be positively superb. Elsewhere, A&M will shift sophomore Germain Ifedi – another star on the rise – from right guard to tackle, replacing Ogbuehi, while senior Jarvis Harrison and junior Mike Matthews return at left guard and center, respectively. Do not be surprised if all four linemen earn all-conference recognition. While junior Joseph Cheek seems like the logical pick to take over at right guard, I imagine JUCO transfer Jermaine Eluemunor could make things interesting with a strong fall camp. The Aggies' new starting quarterback will be covered.
The receiver corps is as athletically blessed as any in college football. It's also young, unfortunately, though that's not a substantial concern: Speedy Noil seems ready to roll as a true freshman and Ricky Seals-Jones prepared to same after taking a redshirt, and A&M can temper this youth with senior Malcome Kennedy (60 receptions for 658 yards) – he's going to have a huge year – junior Sabian Holmes (17 for 210) and sophomores LaQuvionte Gonzalez (21 for 240), Edward Pope and Josh Reynolds, the latter a JUCO transfer. But the real story here might be Noil, the sort of athlete that has the Aggies' staff simply salivating at the possibilities. Seals-Jones is a little different; he's a bigger guy, one that needs to learn how to use his body to full effect, so Noil strikes me as the far more likely of the pair to make a distinct impact as a rookie. Another thing that should change this fall: A&M and coordinator Jake Spavital are going to vastly increase the role of the tight end, meaning senior Cameron Clear could begin his season off the SEC's radar but enter December with all-league honors.
Defense: Myles Garrett without pads looks like Batman in full regalia, so let's keep track of the freshman. He'll be in the mix at end by the close of fall camp, perhaps sharing co-starter status with sophomore Daeshon Hall by the end of drills. Gavin Stansbury's move to Houston opens up the opposite side in its entirety to Julien Obioha (38 tackles), who I think will fare better in a more prototypical end role – not being asked to fill a spot as the Aggies' rusher but as a three-down, equal-run defender. This is where Garrett comes in: A&M should view the youngster as a havoc-causing edge contributor right from the start, given his build, and what the exterior of this line needs more than anything is a consistent presence on third down.
The interior of the line will be nearly as reliant on youth. Junior Alonzo Williams returns, as does senior Ivan Robinson, but we may have passed the expiration date on each player matching his potential. So what the Aggies need – and simply must have – is ready-for-prime-time performances from true freshman Zaycoven Henderson, who already looks the part, and redshirt freshman Justin Manning, who has worked hard to transform his body to handle the rigors of SEC play. A wildcard is Jay Arnold, who is probably best fit as a bigger end against the run but could be a quick-twitch weapon along the interior. As things are currently situated, the line – and let's remember it's without two would-be starters in Stansbury and Isaiah Golden – will call on three freshmen in vital roles: Garrett as the rusher, Henderson and Manning in the middle. There's a bright future here but more growing pains on the horizon.
The Aggies are going to miss Darian Claiborne terribly – today, of course, but also tomorrow. His spot in the middle will go to sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni (26 tackles), a big and physical tackler who must adapt to and embrace the leadership mantle inherent to the position. On the strong side, I see Donnie Baggs' experience in last year's games against Alabama and LSU coming in handy as he moves into the full-time starting role; he made six starts a season ago. He'll have the chance to lock down the starting role with a strong camp and solid start, but A&M won't hesitate to throw the reins to sophomore Shaan Washington or true freshman Otaro Alaka, if the latter grasps the mental side of Mark Snyder's scheme. There's an interesting battle underway on the weak side: A.J. Hilliard, a former TCU transfer, should get the starting nod, but A&M is also high on a second true freshman in Josh Walker. When it comes to the outside spots, the Aggies need Hilliard and the freshmen to contribute in the pass rush.
That the secondary is the strongest link in the chain doesn't inspire confidence. The good news: A&M returns all four primary starters and most of the second tier, so simple experience could mean an uptick in consistency. Deshazor Everett (73 tackles) enters his senior season expected to be a stopper, the Aggies' glue-like substance on the outside, and seems ready to take on the pressure of running on an island. But I don't think A&M can afford to hand De'Vante Harris the full-time job on the other side, given his issues hanging with the SEC's bigger receivers; he'll be useful, but look for Harris to share time with redshirt freshman Victor Davis and sophomore Tavares Garner. A healthier back end should mean fewer downfield breakdowns, hopefully. Seniors Howard Matthews (90 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Floyd Raven (38 tackles) will serve at strong and free safety, respectively, with Raven likely set for a nice level of improvement in his second full season at the position. There is a hole a nickel back: Toney Hurd fit the bill last fall, so junior Devonta Burns and sophomore Noel Ellis will be under the microscope this month.
Special teams: Sumlin brought junior punter Drew Kaser to SEC Media Days, which says all you need to know about the potential All-American. The kicking game as a whole has been solidified by Josh Lambo's work on field goals, though he'll need to prove himself again during the regular season. Between Lambo's growing reliability, Kaser's excellence and Taylor Bertolet's terrific work on kickoffs, the Aggies are in good shape. Likewise in the return game and in coverage, where the team's athleticism comes in handy. In total, this might be the SEC's best special teams.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Here's the funniest thing about Texas A&M quarterback competition: The Aggies can't miss. The Aggies can't miss because Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen can't fail, not in this system, not with this leadership along the sidelines, not with this offensive line and not with this array of skill players – the new guy can't mess this up, even if neither Hill nor Allen is going to quite match what Manziel brought to the table, to little surprise. Earlier fall reports say Hill is a bit more polished, a bit more at ease in the leadership role, and that's fitting: Hill has at least been in the fire before, having made 22 garbage-time attempts a season ago, and does have the added benefit of that one full season with the program. Allen, meanwhile, will need more time to increase his comfort level with the first-team offense – and it's silly to assume he'd start August with both guns blazing, just as it's silly to give Hill anything more than the slightest early August advantage. In reality, the Aggies' decision may come down to the general preference of skills from the position: Hill's clearly cut from the Manziel cloth, sacrilege be damned, while Allen has been painted as more of a stand-and-deliver passer. That presents a potential scenario where A&M uses both, with Allen of heavier use but Hill very valuable as a situational replacement. Say two things: one, the best play at A&M regardless of age or experience, and two, A&M can't miss.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Mississippi: It's a season-making game: A&M needs to hold serve at home to finish in the top three of the SEC West and top 20 nationally, so the Aggies simply cannot afford to drop one in the friendly confines to Hugh Freeze and the Rebels. When looking at this slate, consider that A&M gets only three true home games during SEC play; a matchup with Arkansas on Sept. 27 comes at a neutral site.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Any team with these issues on defense and road games against three of the nation's best –South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn – is going to hit a bump or two on the road through the regular season. But it'll be interesting: Texas A&M has as much pure talent as any team in the conference but not the requisite experience, both on offense and defense, so every two steps forward might be accompanied by a matching step back. Against most of the schedule, talent alone – and some terrific coaching – will be enough for A&M; against some teams, however, the Aggies seem to lack balance. To me, this paints 2014 as a season in the middle, stuck between the hopes of fighting for the top spot in the West Division and the realities of bringing a gifted roster up to speed.
There's going to come a time – and it's coming fairly soon – when A&M will have talent and experience, the two qualities needed to fend off the cream of the SEC's crop and earn a spot among the five best teams in college football. The bones are certainly set: Sumlin and his staff are building a monster, in my mind, and teams in this conference should be anxious about the program's potential once the younger core catches up with the curve. For now, this team is dangerously raw at five positions: quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle and linebacker. At the same time, the lion's share of depth comes in younger bodies, particularly on defense. At some point, this same core group is going to bash heads; for now, they're going to have to tread water.
A&M's going to lose four games during the regular season. One is South Carolina, a terrible team to face in the opener. The other pair are Alabama and Auburn, both on the road, and a fourth – and perhaps a fifth – comes from the group of Mississippi State, Mississippi, Missouri and LSU. It's well within the realm of possibility that this team goes 7-5 in the regular season. I'm just banking on talent overcoming the issues, with speed, aggressiveness and potential eventually keeping A&M right next to Mississippi as the fourth-best team in the West Division. If the Aggies can go 8-4 during the regular season it'll mean this program is ready to explode in 2015.
Dream season: A&M finishes 10-2, losing only to South Carolina and Alabama.
Nightmare season: The Aggies barely squeeze into the postseason at 6-6.
Who's No. 32? This team went 2-2 last fall when its leading rusher earned more than 15 carries.