Entering the 2013-14 season, the Texas A&M Aggies are one of the most highly-touted college football programs in the country. They're No. 6 in the preseason USA TODAY Coaches Poll, earned one first place vote and have a cast of stars at skill positions.
The question is, which players must step up for the Aggies to cash in and win the national title?
It'd be easy to start with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who is the key to how far Texas A&M goes. With that being said, Manziel is under investigation from the NCAA on allegations of accepting money for autograph signings.
That means the rest of the Aggies' roster is under an even greater amount of pressure than previously believed.
Certain players must step up to account for losses sustained by Texas A&M's defensive front. Others must provide the playmaking that departed Aggies provided on offense.
Regardless of why they're needed, the following players must step up in a major way to help Texas A&M realize their championship aspirations.
Position: Defensive Lineman
2012 Season Statistics
24 tackles, 7 solo, 1.0 sack
There is reason to believe that Texas A&M enters the 2013-14 college football season with a more athletic defense than in previous seasons. With that being said, the Aggies also lose some of their best defensive players, including Damontre Moore, Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart and Steven Terrell.
Speed may be important, but replacing four of your top five defensive players is no easy task.
The most concerning area for the Aggies will be on the defensive line, where senior Kirby Ennis will be tasked with leading a young group of players. With inexperience found at every turn, Ennis will need to be the guiding voice for promising freshmen such as Justin Manning and Isaiah Golden.
Being suspended for the season-opener isn't a good place to start.
If Ennis is able to clog running lanes and get after the quarterback in 2013-14, the Aggies' defense may just have enough to complement their explosive offense. If he's unable to lead the young guns, however, Texas A&M will put quite the heavy burden on Manziel's shoulders.
It's far from ideal for one player to carry this load, but Ennis controls the Aggies' defensive success in 2013-14.
Position: Wide Receiver
Class: Redshirt Junior
2012 Season Statistics
26 REC, 285 YDS, 2 TD
I feel comfortable arguing that Mike Evans is the most underrated wide receiver in all of college football. Johnny Manziel gets the praise he deserves, but Evans is a 6'5" wideout who caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman.
If the Aggies are to survive the departure of Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Thomas Johnson and Kenric McNeal, however, Evans will need some support.
Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue will draw attention, but the player who must step up is Malcome Kennedy. Seals-Jones and LaRue have world class upside, but Kennedy has experience and is the ideal receiver to fill Swope's massive void.
26 receptions for 285 yards and two touchdowns may not seem like a lot, but Kennedy closed the 2012-13 season strong and has become a vocal leader in College Station.
Kennedy caught three passes for 34 yards and a touchdown during Texas A&M's upset of Alabama and followed up with seven catches for 110 yards against Missouri. More importantly, he can both work the slot or line up outside, helping to alleviate the pressure that Evans will inevitably face.
Seals-Jones and LaRue have upside, but without Kennedy's production, Texas A&M's receiving corps will be too inexperienced for their own good.
Position: Running Back
2012 Season Statistics
138 ATT, 808 YDS, 8 TD; 18 REC, 111 YDS, 1 TD
Ben Malena will be trusted with a significant workload after the departure of Christine Michael. Michael was far from an every-down back for Texas A&M last season, but he was lightning in a bottle, contributing at least one touchdown in nine separate games.
Just don't think Malena is incapable of doing the same.
Even if Manziel were to play the entire season, the Aggies cannot depend solely on their quarterback to carry their run game. Fortunately, Malena ran for 808 yards and eight touchdowns on an average of 5.9 yards per carry during the 2012-13 season.
He also topped 100 yards in the only two games in which he saw at least 15 carries.
Trey Williams is a player to watch, but Malena is the more experienced back who will carry a heavier load in 2013. He can catch the football out of the backfield and has bulked up enough to potentially run between the tackles.
A 1,000-yard rushing season must be on the horizon for this senior running back if A&M hopes to contend for the national championship.