Texas A&M Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

Michael Taglienti@@miketag98Featured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

Texas A&M Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    The Texas A&M football team will face one of the toughest schedules in the nation in 2014. The Aggies will play the type of schedule required to find a place among the top four teams in the College Football Playoff. 

    The 2014 schedule contains eight teams that went to bowls in 2013 and three teams that ended the year ranked in the top five. This schedule will present a great challenge for a team that lost one of the best college football players in recent memory, Johnny Manziel

    The Southeastern Conference is always going to be tough, and A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has been adding depth and talent to the roster during the past two years in an attempt to prepare for the conference grind. Sumlin and his staff have reeled in consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. 

    The Aggies will again be a young team in 2014, but for the first time under Sumlin, they should have legitimate depth on the defensive side of the ball to make it through an SEC season. This is a look at the toughest teams the Aggies will face in 2014. 

5. Mississippi State

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Mississippi State Bulldogs went 7-6 in 2013 with a young team. The Bulldogs return 18 starters from their 2013 squad and will field one of the most veteran units in the SEC in 2014. 

    The Aggies have to travel to Starkville to play MSU. The Bulldogs feature dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott, who passed and ran for 303 total yards and two touchdowns against A&M in 2013. 

    The Bulldogs return 10 of 11 starters on defense. Middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney returns in 2014 after leading the Bulldogs with 71 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2013.

    Prescott makes the offense dangerous because he has improved as a passer during his past two seasons on campus. If the defense can make some timely stops, then the Bulldogs will be an eight- or nine-win team in 2014.  

4. LSU

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Aggies have not defeated LSU in SEC play. The Tigers lose their leading passer, rusher and two leading receivers off of the 2013 squad, but until the Aggies beat them, they will remain one of the toughest teams on the A&M schedule. 

    Quarterback Anthony Jennings struggled in his first career start in the Outback Bowl, completing seven of 19 passes for 82 yards. LSU head coach Les Miles wants to win games by grinding a team down with the running game. 

    He will use the running game to protect Jennings. The Tigers lost their two starting defensive tackles in Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson to early entry into the NFL draft. 

    The Tigers had 11 underclassmen declare early for the 2013 draft. Few programs can suffer that kind of turnover without it affecting the product on the field. 

    Even if LSU is down talent-wise in 2014, they have beaten A&M the last three times the schools have met on the field. Until proven otherwise, they will remain one of the toughest opponents on the Aggies' schedule. 

3. Alabama

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Alabama lost the triggerman of their offense with the graduation of quarterback AJ McCarron. The Crimson Tide ended the 2013 season with back-to-back losses to Auburn and Oklahoma. 

    The 2014 version of the Tide will rely more on their running game as they break in a new starter at quarterback. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will carry the Alabama offense while head coach Nick Saban eases the new quarterback into the passing game. 

    When the new Tide quarterback learns the offense, he will have as good of a collection of skill position talent to work with as any team in the country. In addition to the talent at running back, Alabama returns DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell and Amari Cooper at wide receiver along with O.J. Howard at tight end. 

    The defense will always be a strength as long as Nick Saban is the head coach in Tuscaloosa. The 2014 unit will be led by defensive end A'Shawn Robinson. The rising sophomore led Alabama in sacks as a true freshman with 5.5.

    He will team up with junior linebacker Denzel Devall and junior safety Landon Collins to give the Tide All-SEC candidates at all three levels of the defense.

2. South Carolina

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    South Carolina is not as talented overall as Alabama or LSU, but the Aggies face them on the road and in the opening game of the season with a brand new quarterback under center. That alone makes them one of the toughest opponents on the A&M schedule. 

    The Gamecocks and the Aggies share a lot in common. Both teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks when they meet to open the 2014 season in a nationally televised Thursday night contest that will be featured on the SEC Network

    Both teams lost the faces of their 2013 teams to early entry into the NFL draft in Johnny Manziel for A&M and Jadeveon Clowney for South Carolina. The Aggies also lost wide receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

    The Gamecocks will have to find replacements for their impact quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles. South Carolina will try to ride their star junior running back Mike Davis to victory in Columbia. 

    The Aggies defense was one of the worst in the country in 2013. They will have the chance to prove they are a different group in 2014 against Davis and the South Carolina running game. 

1. Auburn

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    The Auburn Tigers played for the national title in 2013, and they could be even better in 2014. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall progressed as a passer as the season went on in 2013, to the point where he was a legitimate dual-threat quarterback by the end of the year. 

    As long as Gus Malzahn is calling plays for the Tigers, they will be a dangerous team on offense. Defensively, the Tigers lose Dee Ford at defensive end, but they featured one of the deepest defensive lines in the country in 2013. 

    They should be just as solid up front in 2014 as they were in 2013. With Marshall as a legitimate passing threat and all three starters returning at wide receiver, Auburn will be a very formidable team on offense and defense in 2014. 

    The Aggies have to travel to Auburn on November 8 to face a team that will likely be ranked in the top five in the country. The Tigers will present a tremendous test to everyone they play in 2014.