Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin (C) celebrates his win while wishing "Happy New Year" to Aggies fans as the clock strikes midnight following the Chick-fil-A Bowl football game at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2013. File photo by David Tulis/UPI | License Photo
By the end of August, most folks in Texas long for the latter part of fall, when the fever breaks and a cool breeze can be felt even in a crowded football stadium.
However, given the trend of Texas A&M's recent seasons, Aggie fans likely wish the sweltering summer heat would hang around until mid-January.
Since 2014, Texas A&M has developed a habit of racing out of the blocks, destroying everyone in its path and climbing the national rankings. The Aggies reached No. 6 in the Associated Press poll in 2014, No. 9 in 2015 and No. 6 in 2016, posting perfect records through the early stages of all three campaigns.
But each time things began to fall apart beginning in October. All three seasons culminated in 8-5 records, which were respectable but ultimately disappointing, given the early-season promises.
To be fair, a huge percentage of teams would struggle through a portion of the season that featured a barrage of SEC West opponents. Even so, the feast-or-famine routine has seen the Aggies go 8-15 after the October tipping point. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin responded to the habitual downturn by hiring new strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke from Florida State, specifically to bolster the team's endurance through October and November.
The Aggies will find out quickly if the change makes a difference, because the 2017 schedule sets up similarly to recent years.
Texas A&M opens the season at the UCLA Bruins, whom the Aggies edged in overtime in 2016, then continues with home dates vs. Nicholls State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Texas A&M travels to Dallas for its traditional neutral-site contest against Arkansas, then is back home to host South Carolina.
Although the first month of the season presents its challenges, the schedule once again ramps up beginning in October. The Aggies face Alabama and Florida on the first two Saturdays in October and continue with Mississippi State, Mississippi, Auburn and LSU all in the second half of the campaign.
However, before Sumlin has to answer the same old questions starting in October, he'll grapple with the more pressing issues of who to lineup where.
The Aggies most important position battle, as per usual, is at quarterback.
Senior Jake Hubenak has starting experience, while redshirt freshman Nick Starkel posted an impressive spring. True freshman Kellen Mond makes it a three-headed battle to start at quarterback. Sumlin indicated in early August that he might not make a decision until the final scrimmage a couple of weeks before the season-opener.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Christian Kirk -- Kirk is by far the most dynamic and consistent offensive weapon returning for the Aggies. He caught a team-leading 83 passes in 2016, converting those catches into 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Furthermore, he's the only returning Texas A&M player to have caught more than 20 passes last season. Whoever emerges as the Aggies' starting quarterback will lean heavily on Kirk, who will need to adjust to the role as he won't have fellow star Josh Reynolds to dilute the opposing defense's attention.
BREAKOUT STAR: RB Keith Ford -- Although Ford was second on the team in rushing yards last season, well behind fellow returner Trayveon Williams -- Williams rushed for 1,057 yards to Ford's 669 -- Ford averaged 5.3 per carry and finished the season stronger. The Aggies are likely to deploy Ford and Williams with a healthy amount of carries as a new starting quarterback finds his legs. They will also be running behind an improved offensive line. Bigger holes could allow Ford to get going downhill and accentuate his bruising running style.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Michael Clemons -- Clemons enrolled in Cisco Junior College as a relative unknown a year ago. Since then, the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder ascended to become one of the nation's top 20 junior college prospects and an intriguing new member of an Aggie defensive line that needs him. He took some time to fulfill his junior college academic requirements and joined the Aggies during the second summer school session. He was behind in conditioning when practice started, but quickly caught up. Texas A&M coaches are closely monitoring his progress, likely because they know they're going to need production from the raw talent.
WR Jhamon Ausbon will be counted on during his freshman season as the Aggies attempt to refill their receiving corps. Ausbon was a top 100 national prospect, much like new teammate Christian Kirk was out of high school. Texas A&M is hoping Ausbon takes to college football as quickly as Kirk did two seasons ago.
LT Koda Martin married former Texas A&M volleyball player Jazzmin Babers, the daughter of Syracuse coach Dino Babers, in late July. Along with entering married life, Martin will be counted on to anchor the Aggies' offensive line as one of three returning starters.