It seems like we've been getting ahead of Texas A&M for several years now. Sure, when they first entered the league in 2012, they were underdogs. That season's preseason consensus pegged them at fifth in the SEC West, but that was before we knew precisely how good Johnny Manziel was going to be, and long before anyone figured the Aggies could pick off Alabama in one of the conference's all-time classic games. By the next year, boosted by the Manziel factor and Kevin Sumlin's recruiting success, the consensus pegged the Aggies as the second-best team in the division (where I also had them), only to watch them ranked fourth in the West by the time it was over.
With Manziel gone to start the 2014 season, the consensus returned to its earlier place. Texas A&M was predicted to come in fifth in the SEC West. But then the Aggies demolished an overhyped South Carolina squad in the first game of the season -- before we knew that South Carolina was a highly variable and not very good team having a particularly bad night -- and the Aggies shot into the Top 10. But after going 2-0 in the SEC before October, A&M would win just one conference game the rest of the way. Another batch of early expectations unceremoniously dashed.
This year, it's back to caution. Texas A&M is projected by the early returns to finish sixth, and we're hardly alone at putting them in seventh. Part of this, as David noted, is that someone has to finish last in the hyper-competitive SEC West. And without giving too much away, here's how razor thin the margin is: If Texas A&M were to beat Ole Miss and every other game goes the way our writers project, the Aggies would finish third in the division. Everyone in the West is going to be playing on a knife's edge this season.
Because of that, every team in the mix for the bottom six spots in the division in particular is going to present a case of "on the one hand, on the other hand." The same is true of Texas A&M.
For example, a lot of the offense comes back, including the the top receiver by yardage and scores (Josh Reynolds: 52 catches, 842 yards, 13 touchdowns) and six of the next seven players on the yardage list; the leading rusher (Tra Carson: 124 carries, 581 yards); and a talented quarterback in Kyle Allen. But the 2014 offensive wasn't as explosive as the team's reputation probably leads you to remember; A&M ranked fifth in the SEC in yards per play and points per game. That's not terrible, but it also wasn't enough to outrun the holes that the defense was busy building, and it's fair to ask whether things will be that much different this year. (Also: A&M scored 20 or fewer points three times in SEC play in 2014, with all of those games turning into losses.)
As for the problems that will face that defense: True, the Aggies lose their three leading tacklers from 2014, but they get back the next 10. That includes Myles Garrett and Armani Watts, who led the team last year with three interceptions. Throw in John Chavis working on the defense, and it's not daft to think that there will be some improvement -- though no one is likely to confuse Texas A&M's defense with Alabama's.
Balance it out, and there's nothing empirical to say that the Aggies are necessarily more flawed than the other teams in the rest of the West. Rightly or wrongly, though, Texas A&M has burned through its chances to get the benefit of the doubt. The recruiting numbers are encouraging, and pairing Kevin Sumlin's offense with John Chavis' defense is more likely than not to start bring championships to College Station. But when you take into consideration the track record that A&M has, it's not that unreasonable to ask them to show improvement before starting to bank on it.
The perfect season: The offense reaches its potential, with Reynolds and Speed Noil lead the receiving corps and Allen continuing his growth in the quarterback role. Tra Carson breaks out in his senior season. Meanwhile, Chavis proves to be a miracle working with the defense, or at least better than expected, and that unit proves to be good enough to keep the team in games and let the offense do the rest. The Aggies start off 5-0, ambush Alabama in College Station (or do the same to Auburn three weeks later), and end up with six or seven conference wins, a guaranteed spot in the New Year's Six and maybe, just maybe, some playoff buzz.
The nightmare: The offense once again struggles to go from good to great, and even loses a step or two compared to 2014. Teams figure out early on how to neutralize Garrett, and the rest of Chavis' defense can't do enough to compensate for it. Aside from Ball State and Nevada, the Aggies go into late October without a win, and finish with two or possibly even just one SEC victory. Texas A&M misses a bowl for the first time since 2008, and Sumlin finds himself facing a make-or-break season in 2016.
What actually happens: The offense is probably going to be just fine, given all the players that are coming back and the fact that Sumlin remains one of the top minds in the game. It might not reach Manziel-esque heights in 2015, but if that's the measuring stick for Texas A&M offenses, they're going to disappoint more often than not. The Aggies should easily score enough points to at least get to break-even, and maybe even a little bit better than that, even without any help from the defense. And there are still real questions there. If Chavis can get this team from 13th on a per-play basis to, say, eighth (a difference of a little more than half a yard), then eight or nine wins suddenly looks completely doable. But give Chavis a year, and figure that this team will instead go about as far as the offense can get on its own.