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Archive for Saturday, November 6, 2004

Grueling stretch awaits Aggies

Texas A&M faces three-game gantlet of Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech

November 6, 2004

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Election Day is over for U.S. voters, who settled multiple issues at the polls Tuesday. But an extended version of Declaration Day is just beginning for Texas A&M's football team.

The Aggies, who are ranked 22nd in this week's The Associated Press poll, can steer a potential breakthrough season in any number of directions for second-year coach Dennis Franchione between now and the end of November.

A season-defining stretch begins at 2:30 p.m. today at Kyle Field against No. 2 Oklahoma, with the Aggies (6-2, 4-1 in Big 12) in control of their destiny but facing a three-game gauntlet of teams with a combined record of 20-4.

More important, the Aggies will be facing the three schools used as measuring sticks to determine if the A&M program has made progress from the previous season: Oklahoma (8-0, 5-0), No. 6 Texas (7-1, 4-1) and Texas Tech (5-3, 3-2).

"This three-game stretch," defensive coordinator Carl Torbush said, "will determine what we are and what we become for the rest of the season."

Offseason as well

Frankly, you can extend that to the offseason as well. Recruiting ramifications also are in play as the Aggies attempt to tackle a closing run against fellow members of the Big 12 South Division that -- with rare exception -- have had their way against A&M since Y2K. Over the past four seasons, A&M has a combined record of 2-10 against those schools.

That's a big reason why Franchione will be striding the sidelines today in College Station, rather than predecessor R.C. Slocum. Barring an epic meltdown, the Aggies will improve on their 2003 performances against their three primary tormentors, who swept A&M by a combined 182-43 last season. Average margin of victory: 61-14.

Clearly, those types of nightmarish scores should be behind A&M, which already has qualified for its first bowl game since 2001. Regardless of what happens in November, A&M has made progress this season and that won't change.

But after sprinting from the gate with a 6-1 record, expectations rose for these Aggies. From the coaches and players to the fans in the stands, no one who spent time celebrating the team's 29-26 overtime victory over Colorado on Oct. 23 would have expressed satisfaction with carrying a 6-5 record into the team's bowl game.

A&M at crossroads

Suddenly, that remains a distinct possibility in the wake of last week's confidence-killing, 35-34 loss to a Baylor team that has posted a 6-63 conference record as a Big 12 member. A&M's season has reached its crossroads, with at least one victory between now and the end of November a must to carry some positive momentum into the bowl game and recruiting season.

Opportunity No. 1 knocks today against Oklahoma, a program that is 1-5 all-time at Kyle Field. The upside, said Franchione and offensive tackle Geoff Hangartner, is that these Aggies have survived a crossroads moment once before: a 41-21 loss to Utah that preceded A&M's six-game winning streak.

Franchione said bouncing back from the Utah loss "was a far bigger hurdle" than A&M faces in rebounding from Baylor because there is more team unity in the locker room now. Hangartner agreed about the increased unity, but said a loss to Baylor "hurts your confidence a lot." So did quarterback Reggie McNeal.

Emotion answer

The only way to rebuild that confidence, said Hangartner, is by "practicing well before the next game."

But can the momentum the Aggies surrendered in Waco be recaptured quickly enough for a second turnaround in a season on the brink?

This time, there is no Wyoming waiting to be steamrolled in Kyle Field. This time, it's the same Sooners who buried A&M 77-0 last season. After that, it's battles with in-state rivals Tech and Texas that will determine if A&M is swept by its fellow Texas schools for the first time as a Big 12 member.

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