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Stopping the Starkville slide

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Aggies look to reverse trend of seasons that go south beginning with a trip to Mississippi State

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no one reason that Texas A&M Aggies teams have cratered late in recent seasons. If it were easy to pinpoint, Kevin Sumlin would have rectified it long before he was shown the door following the 2017 season. But no matter the reason, avoiding late-season collapses is one of the primary metrics by which many will judge Jimbo Fisher’s first season in Aggieland.

The Aggies victory over a top 15 Kentucky team at Kyle Field was a step in the right direction, but as is often the case in football, the most important game is the next one. The Aggies travel to Starkville this Saturday, trying to get their first SEC West road win of the season against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs. Every conference is important, but based on recent history, this game carries added weight.

As I touched on last week, the Aggies last two trips to cowbell country have been losses. But more than that, they were catastrophic performances that precipitated the fall of a promising season into the abyss of mediocrity that A&M fans have been trying to get out of for almost two decades.

Avoiding a re-creation of these performances will be an indicator to many that Jimbo has his team headed in the right direction.

Oct. 4, 2014

Mississippi State 48, Texas A&M 31

Four years ago, A&M starting 5-0 wasn’t a running joke. It was a reason for unbridled optimism. Still riding high from an unbelievable blowout win over Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks to open the season, the Aggies were undefeated, ranked #6 in the country, and quarterback Kenny (Trill) Hill was a Heisman contender. That all ended when they faced #12 Mississippi State. Hill threw three picks, the defense gave up 559 yards of offense, and A&M lost 48-31. Sadly this game was even worse than the score indicates, as the Aggies were down 48-17 before scoring twice in the final minutes. This game also featured maybe the worst alternate uniforms A&M has ever worn.

Texas A&M v Mississippi State Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Aggies would follow this up by losing 35-20 to Ole Miss the next week, and then the infamous 59-0 drubbing by Alabama the next. Kenny Hill was then benched in favor of true freshman Kyle Allen, LSU was offsides, and the Aggies finished the regular season 7-5.

Nov. 5, 2016

Mississippi State 35, Texas A&M 28

Two years later, but an eerily similar story. A&M got up to 6-0 this time, including a double overtime victory over fellow undefeated Tennessee. They’d suffer a 19-point loss at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide, but despite that setback, the Aggies came into this game at 7-1, ranked #7 in the country, and fourth in the first College Footall Playoff rankings. With an upcoming schedule that included 3-5 Mississippi State, 3-5 Ole Miss, and UTSA, all signs pointed to a showdown with LSU at Kyle Field that could determine whether A&M would play for a national title.

Welp.

Texas A&M v Mississippi State Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

Quarterback Trevor Knight went down with an injury early, meanwhile Bulldog QB Nick Fitzgerald passed for 209 yards and two touchdowns while running for 182 yards and two more scores. A&M did attempt a late-game comeback, but any loss to what proved to be the worst Mississippi State team of the Dan Mullen era was simply unacceptable. They followed this up with an equally disappointing home loss to Mississippi State and yet another loss to LSU. After a bowl loss to Kansas State and a historic collapse against UCLA to start the 2017 season, A&M lost six games in a row to Power 5 opponents. This beyond a shadow of a doubt sealed Kevin Sumlin’s fate, and it all started with a sub-par performance in Starkville.

Will this year be different?

God I hope so

There are certainly reasons to believe that this will be the year A&M finally gets back on the winning side in Starkville. From the Aggies marked improvement on defense (#3 rushing defense in the country!), to Mississippi State’s 1-3 SEC record and a passing attack that is the worst in the conference, there is plenty of reasons to think Jimbo can lead this team to a W and become bowl-eligible.

Then again, the A&M secondary is a weakness, the offensive line struggles against good defensive fronts (which MSU appears to be), and A&M has played with fire by losing the turnover battle in four of their five Power 5 games this season.

We’ll find out Saturday whether any of these deficiencies were rectified in the bye week, and more importantly, whether or not we finally see an Aggie team that looks better in late October and November than it did in September. Lose, and everyone will chalk it up to the same A&M team we’ve seen before. Win, and the arrow points up for a program who is finally doing what it takes to compete in the SEC.

Ya know, at least until next week.