Another epic in store for A&M, OU?
Two years ago, the Oklahoma Sooners rode into College Station and handed Texas A&M one of its worst home losses ever, setting a record for an opponent with 66 points -- and that total was reached with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The '08 result was the exception when it comes to A&M-OU games played in Aggieland. Since Bob Stoops' second season -- the Sooners' 2000 national championship run -- all but the teams' last meeting has been decided in the game's final minute, with OU winning four of the five contests.
In all likelihood, this year's Big 12 South showdown should revert to form, with the Aggies and No. 11 Sooners waging another epic Kyle Field battle.
No one would have predicted that the Sooners would be three-point favorites in this year's matchup two weeks ago, when the Aggies were riding a three-game losing streak and Oklahoma sat atop the BCS rankings. Since that time, the Sooners have lost at Missouri, while A&M has outscored Kansas and Texas Tech by a combined 90-37.
Once again, Stoops' program is positioned for another BCS bowl run, but the Sooners have been anything but dominant against the lesser teams on their schedule, winning close games against Utah State, Cincinnati, Air Force and struggling Texas.
Several opponents have successfully moved the ball versus an Oklahoma defense that ranks uncharacteristically low in most of the major categories. Brent Venables' defense hasn't done a great job of shutting down the run or the pass, while the Sooners secondary has been susceptible.
Offensively, the Sooners rank fifth nationally in passing and 18th in total offense. More importantly, Landry Jones, DeMarco Murray and Ryan Broyles appear to be hitting their stride at the right time. True freshman tailback Roy Finch has given the OU ground game a boost, too.
While on the subject of improving offensive attacks, A&M has finally turned things around, thanks in large part to the play of junior quarterback Ryan Tannehill. In last week's 45-27 win over Texas Tech, he threw for 449 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start, providing the spark that Mike Sherman had hoped to see when he made the tough decision to replace preseason Big 12 player of the year Jerrod Johnson.
All season long, those close to the A&M program have felt the Aggies would have a chance to win the Big 12 South if they could find a cure for A&M's surprising offensive ills. Between Tannehill's stellar play, a renewed commitment to running the football and receiver Jeff Fuller's emergence, the Aggies suddenly look like the team that everyone expected to see when they picked Sherman's squad as a possible contender -- only with a better defense.
With confidence, momentum and what's expected to be a sold-out Kyle Field crowd on their side, the "new-look" Aggies will get their first real chance to prove they are finally ready to contend.
Saturday's date with Oklahoma represents Sherman and the Ags' fourth chance to grab a statement win this fall. The Aggies dropped their first two -- versus Oklahoma State and Arkansas -- in demoralizing fashion. After that, A&M fell flat to Missouri at home in a humbling 30-9 defeat, which directly led to several personnel and philosophical changes that appear to have made the Aggies a much better football team than the one that muddled through a disappointing first half of the season.
If the Ags can finally break through against the Sooners, Texas A&M will emerge as a legitimate threat to shake up the Big 12 South race. Beating Oklahoma would definitely qualify as a major upset, but Sherman and Co. have done everything necessary to give themselves a puncher's chance on Saturday night. Because of that, an old-fashioned, 15-round heavyweight slugfest would come as no surprise.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: TEXAS A&M
QB Ryan Tannehill: After throwing for 449 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start, the once part-time receiver is prepared to face a much stiffer test versus OU. The Sooners' defense isn't nearly as stout as previous years, but it features plenty of across-the-board speed and NFL talent. Tannehill will undoubtedly face more pressure than versus Texas Tech, but he has a lightning-quick release and makes good decisions. Against Tech, he did a great job of feeling the pass rush, identifying the blitz and quickly getting rid of the ball. Don't be surprised to see the 6-4, 215-pounder use his legs more against Oklahoma -- as a scrambler and when running the zone read.
RB Cyrus Gray: In the last two games, he's rushed for 219 yards on 29 carries. It's a good thing that the junior from DeSoto, Texas, responded so well to the increased workload, because he's now the man in the A&M backfield. Leading rusher Christine Michael was lost for the season during the Ags' 45-27 win over Tech, leaving Cyrus as the only proven tailback. It's not in Sherman's makeup to abandon the run, so Gray (4.9 career yards per carry) is expected to be the new workhorse. How he responds will go a long way toward determining whether A&M can win a couple of big games down the stretch.
WR Jeff Fuller: He's caught 29 passes for 509 yards and six TDs in the last four games while continuing his assault on the school record books. Since last year's Thanksgiving shootout versus Texas, Fuller has been at his best in big games, topping the 100-yard mark against the Longhorns, Georgia, Arkansas and Texas Tech. While he probably won't see near as much man-to-man coverage Saturday as he did versus the Razorbacks and Red Raiders, he'll be facing an OU secondary that ranks 83rd nationally and allows 232 yards per game. When the Aggies have the ball, the former McKinney Boyd (McKinney, Texas) star will be the best player on the field. It's been a long time since that could be said when the Aggies' offense and Sooners defense squared off.
DE Tony Jerod-Eddie: The junior's numbers don't jump off the page, but he's been the Ags' best and most consistent defensive lineman this season in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme. Jerod-Eddie is an extremely physical defender who simply won't give up the edge and is rarely pushed off the ball. The DeSoto product has been an integral part of an A&M defense that is the best in the Big 12 versus the run. The success of Jerod-Eddie and right end Lucas Patterson will go a long way toward determining whether the Ags can slow down Murray, emerging freshman Finch and the OU ground game.
CB Terrence Frederick: The third-year starter broke up three passes versus Tech last week, and he's quietly putting together an All-Big 12 caliber season. He has emerged as the lynchpin of the A&M secondary. On Saturday night, he and fellow corners Coryell Judie and Dustin Harris will be tasked with slowing down perhaps the best receiver in Oklahoma history, Broyles. In addition, T-Fred must continue to excel in run support, as OU's Murray is absolutely lethal when he's allowed to get the corner. So far this season, Frederick has 26 solo tackles, a team-leading 6.5 tackles for loss, an interception, a forced fumble and four pass breakups. Don't be surprised to see the junior put some pressure on Jones, as he's been effective this season coming on the corner blitz.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: OKLAHOMA
QB Landry Jones: After an up-and-down freshman season, Jones has emerged as one of the Big 12's elite signal-callers. Through eight games, he's thrown for 2,547 yards on 227-of-338 accuracy and has already tossed 24 TDs. Jones' bugaboo as a freshman was his propensity for turning the ball over. This season, he's thrown five interceptions. The sophomore enters this game having connected on multiple TD passes in eight of nine contests. He threw for a career-high 453 yards last week versus Colorado.
RB DeMarco Murray: Where to begin? Despite battling injuries, Murray holds the OU career record for TDs (60) and needs 32 all-purpose yards to pass Joe Washington for that record. He's seventh on Oklahoma's all-time rushing chart with 3,223 yards. This season, Murray has rushed for 752 yards on 173 carries, scoring 12 times. He's also caught 40 passes and three TDs. The Las Vegas native has torched A&M in each of the past two seasons. Last fall, he had a career-high 143 receiving yards versus the Aggies. In '08, he ran for 123 yards on seven carries at Kyle Field.
WR Ryan Broyles: Simply put, the record-setting junior has already established himself as the best receiver in OU history. This season, he's already caught 78 passes for 1,018 yards and eight TDs. With at least 17 games remaining in his Sooners career, Broyles is nine receptions away from breaking Mark Clayton's career record of 221. Slowed by an ankle injury in recent weeks, Broyles appears to be back to full speed, as evidenced by last week's record showing (9 catches for 208 yards, 3 TDs) against Colorado. Two weeks earlier against Iowa State, Broyles broke his own mark with 15 receptions.
LB Travis Lewis: The anchor of the defense is on track to lead Oklahoma in tackles for the third straight season, which would make him the sixth player to accomplish that feat. With 327 career tackles, Lewis needs eight stops to tie Lee Roy Selmon for 10th on OU's career tackles list. Equally effective against the pass, Lewis recorded his sixth career interception versus Florida State in September. Long story short, Lewis is probably the best stand-up 'backer that the A&M offense will see this season.
A&M Safeties vs. Oklahoma QB Landry Jones:: The Ags are playing much better defense in 2010 and rank third in the Big 12 in Total D. However, A&M's pass defense ranks No. 101 versus the pass and is allowing 250 yards per game. Meanwhile, Jones and the Sooners rank fifth nationally in passing yardage. If Jones has time to throw, he has the ability to pick apart the Aggies' secondary by working the intermediate to deep-middle of the field, much like Missouri's Blaine Gabbert did three weeks ago. The A&M corners have been solid in coverage throughout the season, but teams have been able to find and exploit holes in the Ags' zone coverage by dropping the ball over A&M's inside linebackers and in front of the safeties. A concern for DeRuyter has to be Broyles racing up the seam and catching the ball between the linebacker and safety in stride. Keep an eye on Aggies sophomore Steven Campbell. He's a future star and the team's hardest hitter, but he's making just his fourth career start.
A&M RB Cyrus Gray vs. Oklahoma LB Tom Wort: Wort is one of OU's emerging young stars and mans the middle for the Sooners. Gray is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games and is the Ags' go-to guy now that Michael is sidelined. Oklahoma annually ranks as one of the nation's best when it comes to stopping the run but not in 2010. OU ranks 50th nationally and seventh in the Big 12 against the run, allowing over 140 yards per game on the ground. Expect A&M to test Wort and the Sooners' front seven.
A&M OLB Von Miller vs. Oklahoma RT Eric Mensik: Last season, Miller led the nation with 17 sacks, but the senior from DeSoto has three this season, largely because he's almost always double- and triple-teamed. He will be lining up across from Mensik, a former tight end who made the move to the offensive line prior to the season. For the Aggies to pull off the upset Saturday, they're probably going to have to create a couple of game-changing takeaways. The Ags' key to winning the turnover battle is for Miller and fellow OLBs Sean Porter and Damontre Moore to put intense pressure on Jones. If OU decides to focus most of their blocking attention on Miller, consider it "Advantage A&M" in this important matchup.
A&M ILB Garrick Williams vs. Oklahoma TE James Hanna: The Ags have played tremendous red zone defense this year, ranking second in the Big 12. Hanna may only have seven receptions this year, but five were for touchdowns. In most of A&M's big games this season, the Aggies' inside linebackers have struggled in zone coverage, often losing track of tight ends over the middle and up the seams. Williams and senior Michael Hodges will have to pay close attention, because keeping Hanna out of the end zone will go a long way toward forcing OU to settle for a couple of short field goals.