Texas A&M Football: 2014 Will Be a Program-Defining Season for Kevin Sumlin

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMarch 19, 2014

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin
Texas A&M head coach Kevin SumlinScott Halleran/Getty Images

It's a big spring in College Station, as third-year head coach Kevin Sumlin is charged with solving several major issues, including fixing a mediocre defense and replacing superstar quarterback Johnny Manziel.

How big?

It's the first step in a path that will define the immediate future of the Texas A&M football program.

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin
Texas A&M head coach Kevin SumlinJohn David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

The landscape of the State of Texas shifted permanently when the Aggies jumped to the SEC and Texas put the program in reverse towards the end of the Mack Brown era. But in the SEC West, it's pretty much the status quo.

Alabama and Auburn each won SEC titles with A&M in the division, and even though the Aggies toppled the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa in 2012, Nick Saban's crew still went on to win the SEC and BCS championships.

Sumlin's first two seasons were more sizzle than steak. Can the Aggies make the next step and become legitimate, consistent contenders in the SEC West?

He's already proven that he is willing to adapt his offense to his quarterback, which means whoever wins the quarterback job—senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill or true freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen—the Aggies will score points and move the football.

Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder
Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark SnyderThomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

But the defense was mediocre-at-best and awful at its worst over the last two seasons, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where the Aggie offense—which led the conference in total offense in each of the last two seasons by an average of 59.85 yards per game over its nearest competitor—will sustain that level without the most dynamic player in college football.

Simply put, Sumlin has to have his defense take a major leap forward in 2013, and that's no easy task considering the place the unit is starting from.

Texas A&M LB Darian Claiborne
Texas A&M LB Darian ClaibornePeter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

But one area in which the Aggies aren't going to struggle is experience. 

Last year's unit was inept, but it was also young. Those players—which include four starters back in the defensive backfield, four returning starters up front and linebackers Donnie Baggs and Darian Claiborne. But Claiborne and defensive lineman Isaiah Golden—who played great in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Duke—were both suspended last month for separate arrests according to ESPN.com.

On top of that, 247Sports.com reported on Wednesday that Golden has withdrawn from school this semester, and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson—also a potential starter—is dealing with a serious injury that could prevent him from making an impact.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder needs all of those guys on the field, healthy and out of the dog house, because if the unit is going to take a major leap forward, they're likely to be a part of it.

Sep 14, 2013; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies defensive lineman Alonzo Williams (83) tackles Alabama Crimson Tide running back T.J. Yeldon (4) during the second half at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

What's Texas A&M going to be in the SEC West?

Is it going to be the program that routinely contends for the division title or one that is a flash in the pan?

Spring practice in College Station will go a long way in defining the program post-Manziel.

It already has established itself as, at worst, "1B" to Texas even if Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong gets his program back to an elite level. 

Earning that designation in the rough-and-tumble SEC West will prove to be much more challenging.


* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistical information is courtesy of 247Sports.