Just one week ago, Texas A&M was viewed more like a pushover than a potential power.
The Aggies were in the midst of a three-game SEC losing streak, had just narrowly escaped a test from ULM at home and were about to head to then-No. 3 Auburn as three-touchdown underdogs.
Then Kyle Allen and Myles Garrett happened, and everything changed.
Allen, the true freshman quarterback who was making his first career road start, lit up the Tigers to the tune of 277 passing yards, four touchdowns and only one interception in the 41-38 win. The performance earned him SEC Offensive Player of the Week and Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week honors and gave the offense plenty of confidence heading into the home stretch that includes games against Missouri and LSU.
On the other side of the ball, the true freshman defensive end Garrett made four tackles and was busy lighting up Auburn tackle Shon Coleman, who had no choice but to hold the former 5-star prospect.
Could the Aggies be setting themselves up for an SEC West title run in 2015? Yep. Here's why:
Fixing the Major Issue
Is Texas A&M's defense a problem? Yes. It's been that way for the better part of Kevin Sumlin's three seasons as head coach.
The Aggies finished ninth in the SEC in total defense in 2012 (390.2 YPG), last in 2013 (475.8 YPG) and are 13th this season (431.3 YPG). But as this season has progressed, Garrett has become more and more of a force up front. The Arlington, Texas, native leads the SEC with 11 sacks and has already eclipsed former South Carolina standout Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record (eight).
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Garrett isn't a one-trick pony. As B/R's Lead College Football Video Analyst Michael Felder points out, Garrett is more a complete and polished force as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper as a freshman than Clowney was, which earned him more playing time early in his career.
A disruptive force like Garrett is a great foundation for a young Aggie defense, which is loaded with youth.
Fellow young defensive linemen Daeshon Hall and Qualen Cunningham have played well at times this year, and the Aggies have a solid incoming class that, as of now, includes 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack. Toss in sophomore linebacker Shaan Washington—who has 44 tackles in seven games, injured sophomore linebacker A.J. Hilliard—who has been out since the opener—and freshman defensive back Armani Watts, and there are plenty of pieces for the Aggie coaching staff to build around.
All of those young players have been inconsistent this season, but having a guy like Garrett taking up real estate in the opposition's backfield will help everybody out—especially the youngsters.
A Young, Evolving Offense
The Aggie offense went through a little bit of a lull during the month of October when it averaged 384.3 yards per game and 4.89 yards per play. Things didn't improve in Allen's first start of his career, when they gained just 243 yards and 3.52 yards per play.
Against Auburn, it clicked.
Allen led the Aggies to 453 total yards and 7.03 yards per play in the win. More importantly, the Aggies showed off a more run-based offense with 35 runs and only 29 passes. That's important, because as I wrote prior to the ULM game, the Aggies had become far too reliant on the passing game, running 110 more plays through the air than on the ground.
Against ULM and Auburn, that changed. The move to Allen ushered in a more balanced approach that saw the staff call 76 running plays and 56 passing plays. It was a big reason for their success on Saturday, as Felder notes:
On top of that, none of the Aggies' running backs are seniors so, unless some bolt early, Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and Tra Carson will be back with current freshman James White again next year.
That receiving corps? It's young, too. Five of the Aggies' top six receivers are underclassmen, including leading receiver Josh Reynolds (sophomore), home run hitter Speedy Noil (freshman) and matchup nightmare Ricky Seals-Jones (freshman).
That's a lot of youth, and those young players are evolving with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital right now. That bodes well for the future.
Questions Around the Conference
While the Aggies are young, 2015 will be another year of uncertainty around the SEC West.
Twelve of Mississippi State's starters are seniors, including receivers Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson, defensive lineman Preston Smith and linebacker Benardrick McKinney.
Alabama has to replace quarterback Blake Sims and could be without wide receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon, safety Landon Collins and several other stars who could jump to the NFL.
Auburn will replace quarterback Nick Marshall with Jeremy Johnson, be without running back Cameron Artis-Payne and replace several key pieces on that defensive line, including defensive tackle Gabe Wright.
LSU has major questions at quarterback, Ole Miss will be replacing Bo Wallace and still be in search of a running game and Arkansas is still in the building process.
The path to Atlanta isn't as rocky as it seems for the Aggies in 2015, and the experience young players gained this year will allow them to hit the ground running in Sumlin's fourth season in College Station.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.