After being swept in consecutive weeks by upstart teams from Mississippi, Texas A&M is back where it began the season: at No. 21 in The Associated Press’ poll.
The Aggies also are headed back to Alabama, site of their most historic triumph in three seasons as an SEC member. A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC) used a 2012 trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., as a springboard to a top-5 finish in the polls and a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Johnny Manziel by knocking off the top-ranked Crimson Tide, 29-24.
Without another upset in Saturday’s meeting, you can expect the Aggies to be unranked Sunday. Three-game losing streaks do that to teams, even ones from the rugged SEC West.
That means the Aggies will be battling to retain national relevance in Alabama, the same place where they achieved it as an SEC newcomer in 2012. A&M plans to do so with receiver Malcolme Kennedy, the team’s vocal leader, back in the lineup after missing the past two games with a shoulder injury.
Kennedy, a fifth-year senior, understands the significance of this game after watching doubts creep into the heads of teammates following double-digit dustings at the hands of No. 1 Mississippi State (48-31) and No. 3 Ole Miss (35-20) the past two weeks.
“It’s very important,” said Kennedy, who addressed the team before Monday’s practice. “It’s important for players to gain that 100 percent confidence again. I told the younger guys, ‘Just stay positive. We’ve got to face the problems that we have. … Remember you’re playing SEC football. The games are going to be tough games.’ ”
Among the Aggies’ issues: a potential personnel shuffle in the offensive line, based on coach Kevin Sumlin’s displeasure with recent struggles in the running game, and a lack of passion from players.
Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni, one of 12 players on Sumlin’s accountability council, cited concerns about on-field emotions after watching videotapes of the two losses. He said council members raised the topic with the entire team.
“We need to be more passionate,” Mastrogiovanni said Tuesday. “The last couple of weeks, there hasn’t been that fire that we had the first few weeks. We need to do a better job of creating our own energy. That’s something we talked about that we need to do.”
Asked why emotions would be lacking against Ole Miss, when A&M set a stadium attendance record of 110,633 at Kyle Field, Mastrogiovanni shrugged.
“If I knew, I’d definitely tell you. It just seemed like we were flat,” Mastrogiovanni said. “I can’t put my finger on why. We were just flat and we’re going to try to bring that passion back.”
That would be the passion that carried A&M to its season-opening victory over then-No. 9 South Carolina, 52-28. The passion begat confidence among members of a freshmen-laden roster, triggering a 5-0 start and a top-10 perch in the college football polls.
Then came two weeks of Mississippi Mayhem, with the Aggies behind by at least 28 points in the fourth quarters of both games before mounting garbage-time rallies to close the final deficits. Among some younger players, Kennedy said confidence has been shaken. But Sumlin does not consider it a team-wide epidemic.
“Confidence is something you don’t gather overnight,” Sumlin said. “And I don’t think you lose it overnight. I don’t see that as an issue.”
What concerns Sumlin is a stagnant ground game that averaged only 1.5 yards per carry against Ole Miss. That has triggered talk of a personnel shake-up in the offensive trenches, with Sumlin acknowledging the starters listed on Tuesday’s depth chart (LT Cedric Obuehi, LG Jarvis Harrison, C Mike Matthews, RG Joseph Cheek, RT Germain Ifedi) may not be the first five to take the field in Tuscaloosa.
“Up front against Ole Miss, we got whipped. That usually doesn’t happen to our offensive line,” Sumlin said. “We’ve challenged them this week in practice. They know it. There is no doubt, based on the last two weeks, that we’ve got to coach better and we’ve got to play better. That’s our expectation.”
Ideally, Sumlin seeks the type of inspired road effort against Alabama that his players delivered Aug. 28 at South Carolina. The mindset, said receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, should be comparable. After being lauded during a 5-0 start, players have begun hearing doubts from fans when circulating in College Station. Seals-Jones considers it motivation.
“Going in against South Carolina, everyone doubted us. And everyone doubts us now,” Seals-Jones said. “We just plan to use it to get better.”
If the Aggies cannot sway the doubters with another high-profile road victory, do not look for A&M to remain a Top 25 team after being part of 35 consecutive polls, dating to Oct. 7, 2012.