By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The seventh-ranked Texas A&M Aggies are anxious to put the recent
controversy surrounding their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback behind them
and finally shift their focus to the field, as they open the 2013 season with
a matchup against the Rice Owls in a Lone Star State showdown at Kyle Field.
Although Rice began last season as an afterthought in Conference USA, opening
up at 2-6, it finished the year on a high note, ripping off four straight wins
to close out the regular season to gain bowl eligibility for the first time
since 2008. It saved one of its best performances for the Armed Forces Bowl,
where it made easy work of Air Force, 33-14, making head coach David Balliff
2-0 in bowl games since taking over the head coaching duties in 2007.
The 2012 season was Texas A&M's first as a member of the SEC, and its
inaugural campaign in the nation's most difficult conference managed to exceed
even the most ambitious expectations. Under first-year head coach Kevin
Sumlin, the squad went 10-2 in the regular season and won six conference
matchups, with the highlight coming in a Nov. 10 road win over eventual-
national champion Alabama, 29-24. Its regular season efforts allowed it to
earn a bid to the Cotton Bowl, where it dismantled former Big 12 rival and
12th-ranked Oklahoma, 41-13.
The Aggies' No. 7 placement in the preseason Top-25 is their highest since
1999, and Sumlin is excited for his team's prospects moving forward.
"It's a great time to be at Texas A&M," Sumlin said. "People ask me all the
time what about expectations. There's a lot of expectations on our program.
For us, that's a good thing. I think you want to be a part of a situation
where you have some relevancy in your own league. We work very, very hard at
that. The excitement level is really, really high."
With regard to the all-time series, Texas A&M holds a 50-27-3 advantage over
Rice. The Aggies have won 15 straight matchups, but the programs have not
faced each other since 1995.
Offensively, Rice was highly effective a season ago, ranking fourth in C-USA
both in terms of scoring (31.8 ppg) and yardage (421.1 ypg), and with the
return of nine starters on that side of the ball, a repeat performance is
While perhaps not as explosive as his counterpart on Saturday, senior signal-
caller Taylor McHargue is nonetheless one of the nation's top dual-threat
quarterbacks, fresh off a season where he threw for 2,209 yards, ran for 667
yards and accounted for 23 total touchdowns. He was also efficient with the
ball, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes while throwing just five
interceptions, but he missed time with injuries and is cognizant that he needs
to adjust his reckless style of play.
"I know I take unnecessary hits and I'm going to try and cut down on that this
season," McHargue said. "Running the ball is part of our position at Rice. I'm
going to try and change my style."
Running back Charles Ross is a strong complement to McHargue, gaining 800
yards a season ago on an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. Turner Peterson (607
rushing yards, 166 receiving yards, six TDs) will also be heavily involved.
Jordan Taylor (57 rec, 826 yards) is the top option in the passing game.
Despite his productive campaign, he was actually held out of the end zone all
season until his breakout game in the Armed Forces Bowl, logging nine
receptions for 153 yards and three scores.
The Owls ranked in the middle of the pack defensively in C-USA, allowing 31.3
ppg, and their total defense (444.0 ypg) placed them in the bottom-third. The
good news for the unit is that the return of 10 starters almost guarantees a
better showing in 2013.
The squad has the luxury of having the conference's Preseason Defensive Player
of the Year in shutdown corner Phillip Gaines, but he will sit out this
contest for having violated a team rule. The Owls will also be without
linebacker Cameron Nwosu, who suffered a knee injury in camp.
Even down a few playmakers, Rice still has some talent on the defensive side
of the ball, including Paul Porras (93 tackles, two INTs), Julius White (79
tackles, two INTs), Cody Bauer (12 TFL, 5.5 sacks), Hosam Shahin (9.5 TFL, 5.0
sacks) and Chris Covington (8.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks).
With Heisman-winner Johnny Manziel running the show, the Texas A&M offense
shined in 2012, scoring 44.5 ppg behind 558.5 ypg, both of which ranked the
team in the top-five nationally. The Aggies showed great balance between the
run (242.1 ypg) and pass (316.5 ypg).
Manziel's historic freshman campaign saw him break the SEC record for most
yards of total offense in a single season (5,116). He completed 68 percent of
his passes for 3,706 yards with 26 touchdowns against only nine interceptions.
He was dazzling on the ground as well, rushing for 1,410 yards (an FBS
Freshman QB record) and 21 touchdowns.
With the fame Manziel has gained has come a slew of bad press, including some
controversial tweets, high-profile partying and his alleged signing of
autographs for monetary gain. While the distractions are certainly a problem,
Sumlin is sure that with the football season in full swing, all of Manziel's
energy will be focused on the field.
"I think off the field, there's no question that he's made some mistakes,"
Sumlin said. "I think he has done some things that he's not very proud of, has
made some poor decisions. He's made some good decisions. Unfortunately, the
poor decisions are the ones that are really publicized."
Manziel established a strong rapport last year with fellow freshman Mike
Evans, who hauled in 82 balls for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. Derel
Walker and Sabian Holmes are slated to be the other starters at receiver, and
they combined for only 14 receptions in 2012.
Ben Malena returns as the team's top running back after racking up 808 yards
and eight touchdowns a year ago, and the departure of Christine Michael (417
yards, 12 TDs) could mean more goal line work for Malena.
Although the offense grabbed all the headlines in 2012, the defense quietly
played very well too, holding opponents under 22 points per game while
recording 31 sacks and 75 TFL.
Steven Jenkins (79 tackles, 5.5 TFL, one interception, FF) is the unit's most
experienced playmaker, and he is expected to take over a leadership role in
the absence of Damontre Moore and Jonathan Stewart.
The secondary remains largely intact with Howard Matthews (58 tackles),
Deshazor Everett (56 tackles, two picks) and Dustin Harris (49 tackles, one
pick) all putting together productive seasons a year ago.
Julien Obioha started 12 games at defensive end but recorded just one sack,
and he'll need to step up his production to help make up for the loss of Moore
(21.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks).
Rice could be a major player in C-USA this season, especially if its defense
can take positive strides, but the unit will have its hands full with the
high-powered A&M attack. Expect Manziel and the Aggies to score at will in
this one and easily get off to a 1-0 start.