Turning the thing around.
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"You look at A&M, and you wonder why they haven’t gotten to the top 5. Texas has since won a national championship. LSU, USC and Florida. There’s no reason A&M is not at that level."
– An opposing Big 12 assistant coach in Athlon.
"You're not as good as they are and you're probably never going to be."
– Nike rep, reportedly, when A&M asked for the same deal as Texas.
The Catalyst: R.C. Slocum’s teams in the early nineties set a high bar – undefeated regular seasons in ‘92 and ‘94 – which eventually ate his job and Dennis Franchione’s:
The ‘98 Big 12 Championship upset over Kansas State was a final, anomalous hurrah in a more or less consistent decline since 1995 – the last year of the SWC that A&M had come to dominate. The Big 12 has been a bear for A&M, throwing several challenges it never faced in the brief window the Aggies were finishing in the top ten on a regular basis:
a) Mack Brown and Bob Stoops. Between 1945 and 1985, the Longhorns and Sooners, playing in different conferences, were two of the four winningest teams in the country; A&M ranked 86th over that span, a couple dozen games below .500. The nineties were the worst decade for both UT and OU since World War II, opening the door for A&M to make its move (with, uh, a little assistance, Jackie Sherill style; the 10-0-1 season in 1994 was bowl-less because of booster shenanigans on Slocum’s watch). By 2000, Brown and Stoops had restored the historical order.
b) Mike Leach. A traditional ankle-biter, in relative terms, has made the South a much tougher division at the same time. Leach owns A&M: he was 4-1 against Franchione in ostensible toss-ups, three of the wins embarrassing, 20-plus-point blowouts. Given back-to-back wins over Texas in his last two tries, probably no single outside force acted more decisively for Franchione’s ouster than the Cap’n.
c) A glass-eating defense. See below.
Sorry to see you go, bro.
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I’m a little more forgiving toward the Franchione era than I perceive most people to be. A&M’s return to mediocrity was underway well before he stole away from probation-addled Alabama in the dark of night. Slocum never had a losing season, but with three seven-win seasons and a couple wins over Texas in his last four years, Franchione more or less held the line overall re: Slocum’s last four years. Not good enough – at least not when you’re engaged in hilarious mini-scandals for your own financial benefit at the same time. So the question for Mike Sherman is, how frequently does he have to break the Texas-Oklahoma hold on the division to avoid the same fate? Or does he just have to get back beating Texas Tech?
The New Guy: Sherman is kind of a blank slate retread from the college perspective, just another NFL guy slumming with the kids, which would put him firmly in the category of fellow straight-lipped, brow-furrowing, low pesonality pro refugees Al Groh, Chan Gailey, Greg Robinson and Dave Wannstedt. This isn’t so encouraging. But Robinson was a more successful NFL coach than any of them, despite his eventual demise in Green Bay, with three division championships in four years (albeit in the morgue of the NFC North), and he has "glory days" connections as OL coach in the better half of the Slocum era.
Sherman has already made two gestures remiscent of better days: first, he hired mushmouthed ex-Alabama coach and rumpled coordinator extraordinaire Joe Kines to fashion a promising youth movement (Michael Bennett, Cyril Obiozor, Von Miller and Derrick Stephens were all touted recruits in 2006-07) into something more like the old "Wrecking Crew" than Franchione’s defense ever managed with Carl Torbush and Gary Darnell’s 4-2-5 look:
The other change is an apparent middle finger to the shotgun-based zone read sets, the first offense I’m aware of to move away from the spread and toward a more conventional, power-oriented philosophy (although almost certainly not the last). This suits A&M’s backfield: Jorvorskie Lane is a natural fullback, not built to operate in space, and there is no discernible reason Stephen McGee should have more carries than Mike Goodson, as he has the last two years; what I’ve seen of Goodson indicates to me he can be really electric (I’m thinking of the afterburner run he put on Texas in Austin as a freshman), but he only has one 20-carry game in two years. The offense spent most of the final scrimmage running from the I-formation, and unless it plans to let seldom-used, pined-for bench superstar Jerrod Johnson run around out of the shotgun, manly iso runs seem like the natural recipe here.
Immediate Impact or Slow Burn? I’m optimistic about regime chages, generally, yet still have a lot of doubt about Sherman’s impact unless Goodson or Jerrod Johnson were really criminally ignored by the old staff, are better than the hype and bound to suddenly emerge as all-America-level difference makers. Defensive rejuvenation and a lot of low-scoring slugfests is much more likely. But I don’t see anyone without maroon-tinged scales on their eyes predicting a quick turnaround, and I’d like know on what basis anyone thinks the Aggies are positioned to compete with the division overlords in the long term.
Personal aloofness and illicit newsletters notwithstanding, I tend to think Franchione’s tenure is more or less the long-term norm for A&M, given the monolithic success of its most recent competitors over the vast majority of the last half century – since Bear Bryant, TAMU has only succeeded at a very high level when Texas and Oklahoma are relatively down, and has a long way to go to consistently recruit at the same clip (the ‘Horns and Sooners were 1-2 in Big 12 recruiting five of seven years since 2002 in the Rivals archives, and were 1-2 every year according to site’s ‘Average Star’ rating). At least to the extent that a breath of fresh air is not enough in itself to suddenly begin competing for division titles more than once every four or five years. But I don’t know how patient the partisans will be with just the occasional break from the usual string of Holiday and Alamo bowls. Even the ‘occasional break’ sounds like a best-case scenario, and just as likely to mean a ‘break’ from the December games in the same way it did with Fran.