In nearly every year, the most interesting battle in a division is at the top. In a division like the SEC West, which lately has had multiple top ten teams more often than not, how could it not be at the top? A division crown has turned into a conference crown every year since 2009, and that conference crown has meant a place in the postseason structure that determines the national champion every year since 2006.
But this year, I'd argue the more interesting battle is at the bottom of the West. As best as I can tell, there's not a bad team in the bunch. All seven of them could legitimately be one of the top 25 teams in the country. But thanks to the way that standings work, someone has to finish seventh. Someone has to deal with the label of "last place" despite potentially being good enough to hypothetically contend for other division titles like the ACC Coastal, Big Ten West, or maybe even the SEC East.
The first candidate we're spotlighting in the shortest giant competition this year is Texas A&M. The Aggies have greatly raised their profile in the Kevin Sumlin era, but the trend line isn't pointing in the correct direction. Each year in the conference so far, they've won fewer SEC games than the previous.
Fittingly for a Sumlin outfit, the offense looks like it should be good this year. The team is in solid hands with Kyle Allen at quarterback. Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Speedy Noil make for a pretty great combination of pass catchers. A quality offensive line, Tra Carson, and Brandon Williams should be fine with the ground game. What's not to like?
Well, what makes that any different than the Aggie outfit that finished sixth in the West last year? Allen and Noil will no longer be freshmen, so that should be a boost. But really, the offense isn't the question with this team.
It's the defense that needs help, and it got some in the form of new defensive coordinator John Chavis. He has his work cut out for him. A&M allowed the third most points in SEC play last year, and one of its East opponents was the offensively challenged Missouri. It was one of two conference outfits to allow over five yards per carry and over six yards per play against FBS competition. The pass defense snared just five—five!—interceptions on the year, with only Vandy also being in the single digits at six. The Commodores faced 85 fewer passes, though, so in interception percentage terms, A&M's 1.2% was the worst in the league by half a percentage point.
Chavis has a reputation for being one of the best in the business for a reason, but he's not a miracle worker. Like any DC out there, he's not going to put together a top defense if he doesn't have the players. His 2007 Tennessee defense, for instance, was one of the worst in the conference that season because it was one of those years where the unit was a bit down on experience and quality. It grew up into one of the best defenses the next year because Chavis is that good, but he's not immune to down seasons.
Everyone knows he has one of the country's best pass rushers in Myles Garrett. I would then challenge non-Aggie fans to name another player on the defense, and don't say "Deshazor Everett"—he graduated. Safety Armani Watts, who grabbed three of the team's five interceptions, might come to mind. Lineman Daeshon Hall might as well. The Aggies are thin and inexperienced at corner, though, which is one of the most critical positions in a Chavis defense. He prefers man coverage, and if no one steps up at that position, the basic workings of the defense may not, you know, work.
I said last year that A&M would be going through a transitional year, and that was basically the case. Nearly every program has a down year in its third or fourth under a head coach because of the way cycles with recruiting work. Sumlin has been trying to upgrade the roster in his time in College Station, and it's still working its way up. Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans covered up a lot of things those first two years, and it wasn't always pretty without them a year ago.
All of which is to say, this could be another transitional year for A&M. The team will get better with the way Sumlin has been recruiting and the addition of Chavis to the staff. It may not be better enough to compete for the division title this year. And, in 2015, those who aren't competing for the West title are competing to stay out of the cellar. Plus if any of the key players like Allen or Garrett go down to injury, the team doesn't have the depth yet to just plug in a comparable player.
In absolute terms, I would be surprised if the Aggies aren't better this year than they were last year. In relative terms, that might not make any difference in the division standings.