A&M traveled to Baton Rouge Saturday with their sights set on a 9th regular season win and a statement against LSU, the one SEC West opponent that A&M has yet to defeat. And when the Aggies led 7-6 at halftime despite playing pretty poorly, it was looking like they might just get it done.
Instead, the second half was all too familiar to Aggie fans this year. The offense struggled to move the ball and the defense, while playing well overall, couldn't hold up with no support from the offense. In the end, it was a 19-7 loss to the Tigers and another November full of what-ifs for the Aggies.
The Aggie offense is completely discombobulated.
There's really just nothing much you can say about it right now. As several people pointed out after the game, the Aggies scored either zero or one offensive touchdown in five of their last six SEC games this year. That is completely unacceptable.
Watching the game Saturday, it was a bad sign when the Aggies went three and out on their first possession, throwing three straight incomplete passes and punting. The Aggie receivers never could get open all night and weren't physical enough to win many battles with the LSU secondary.
Meanwhile, the A&M offensive line got destroyed by LSU's defensive front in both the running and the passing games. There was a stretch in which A&M found a little success running the ball out of two-back sets, but it was short lived and didn't lead to any points.
All in all, in a year that was frustrating offensively, the final few weeks provided no answers, even as A&M switched quarterbacks and even as James White finally got healthy and even as Speedy Noil finally got healthy. The offensive line, which stayed pretty healthy all year, regressed as the year went on.
There are so many issues that need fixing, so many areas that underperformed, there just isn't much positive to say. It was a sad ending to a sad year on the offensive side of the ball.
The Aggie defense did what we all hoped: it improved.
How can you look at the season for the A&M defense and be anything other than full of hope for the future? New defensive coordinator John Chavis took a unit that had struggled mightily for two years running, converted a running back into a starting cornerback, and with a linebacker group full of youth and inexperience, cobbled together a defense that finished 44th in yards per play, 29th in scoring, top 20 in defensive FEI, and never gave up 500 yards in a game this year.
The most A&M allowed was 471 yards. The 2014 Aggies allowed that many yards eight times. The 2015 Aggies only allowed 30+ points one time (and that was the Alabama game, in which the Tide scored three touchdowns on defense). The 2014 Aggies allowed 30+ six times.
The Aggies were 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense, 4th nationally in touchdown passes allowed, and 5th in total pass defense. I could only see stats back through 2008, but this was the first year since at least then that the Aggies have intercepted more passes than they have given up touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, A&M was 18th in sacks, 4th in tackles for loss, and 36th in third down defense.
The improvement was widespread and dramatic. And really fun to watch. Considering the youth and the current makeup of the roster, it's very feasible to picture A&M with one of the top 10 defenses in the country next year.
One more note: LSU fed their star running back Leonard Fournette the ball against A&M. He carried the ball 32 times (a season high), yet A&M limited him to under five yards per carry, which only four teams all year accomplished. He came into the game averaging one 30+ yard run every 29 carries, yet A&M held him to a long of 23 on his 32 carries. Considering what Alabama running back Derrick Henry did to A&M (32 carries, 236 yards), holding Fournette to just 159 yards was a good day.
Buckle up, the Wrecking Crew is coming back in a big way.
Where does A&M go from here?
It seems clear that on defense, A&M just needs to stay the course. So that leaves the offense. Speculation has been running rampant about offensive coordinator Jake Spavital for weeks. At this point, it certainly seems like A&M will have a new play caller next year.
But what about the other coaches? Offensive line coach Dave Christensen was brought into change up some schemes up front and bring a more physical attitude to the blocking unit. For whatever reason, the line really struggled. Is his job safe? I don't know.
The wide receiver unit also really seemed to struggle this year, especially later in the year. It's hard to know how much was Spavital's fault (scheme-related) and how much blame, if any, to put on new wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead (coaching the technical aspects of the position). Is his job safe? I don't know.
Then there's Clarence McKinney. McKinney has a long history with Sumlin, taking over as offensive coordinator in 2013 before being relieved of those duties but staying on as a position coach. On the one hand, running back Tra Carson has been a pleasant surprise this year, and if crediting him, you must reasonably give McKinney some credit for his play. On the other hand, many fans question how valuable McKinney has been, especially on the recruiting trail.
These decisions probably all hinge on who the offensive coordinator ends up being. When Kevin Sumlin hired John Chavis to run the defense, Chavis (somewhat surprisingly) kept all of A&M's current defensive assistants on board and didn't bring any of his LSU assistants. Sometimes new coordinators clean house though. There's really no way of knowing what will happen until it happens. (This is the kind of stellar writing they pay me for.)