Saturday, December 26

Holiday in Cambodia: The Texas A&M preview.

Hometown: College Station, Texas.

Last season: Head coach Mike Sherman's very first game with the Aggies was an 18-14 home loss to Arkansas State, the Red Wolves' first-ever win over a Big XII team, and it just got worse from there, with the Ags squeaking by New Mexico and Army and getting drilled by Miami before entering the gauntlet of their conference slate. A&M won only two Big XII games all year, not coincidentally the only two conference games in which they allowed fewer than 40 points, and finished the season 4-8 and unranked.

This season: No losses to Sun Belt teams, thank God, and things actually looked pretty good for the Aggies as they rolled to a 3-0 start, but that got blown up in a 47-19 loss to Arkansas at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium. A&M's conference slate ran the gamut from a horrendous 62-14 loss to a bad Kansas State team to a 52-30 upset over Texas Tech; they finished the regular season 6-6 but only 3-5 in Big XII play.

Hate index, 1 being Ron Franklin, 10 being Thom Brennaman: Seven and a half. I have a long-standing policy whereby any school that sent me a "yes" letter when I applied to them back in high school earns secondary-rooting-interest status; that means I am a de facto Texas fan, so guess what, Aggies, that means you're dead to me. Sorry; it's just business. Though I have to admit that even if I had no feelings for the Longhorns one way or the other, y'all would still be a difficult team to root for. The "Yell leaders," the whole military-cadet thing -- that's just weird, not to mention redolent with cryptofascistic overtones. You do have a really pretty dog, though.

Associated hottie: If you've gone hunting for pictures of the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Tiger Woods over the past few weeks, chances are you've stumbled upon some extremely spicy photographs of A&M alumna Kim Hiott, a Playboy Cyber Girl in the summer of 2002 and one of their "Girls of the Big 12" later that fall. Somehow she got confused with Elin Nordegren after that, which is sort of ironic, as Hiott appears to be one of exactly twenty-three women in all of North America whom Tiger hasn't had sex with. Well, his loss.

What excites me: How to put this politely? Texas A&M's defense kind of, well, sucks. They finished the season ranked 87th against the run (168.6 yards allowed per game), 111th against the pass (262.8), and 107th overall. In nine games against teams from BCS conferences, they've allowed fewer than 30 points only twice -- 10 points to Iowa State and three to Robert Griffin-less Baylor, both of which ranked in the bottom 20 nationally in scoring offense. And those two games are surely balanced out by the two times they allowed 60-plus points (to Kansas State, currently ranked 82d nationally in scoring and staying home for bowl season, and Sam Bradford-less Oklahoma). It doesn't matter whether the opponent is good, bad, or just so-so, the Aggies are in danger of getting scored on. A lot.

And for the most part, our greatest vulnerabilities on offense are not ones which their defense has proven any particularly great ability to exploit. Sure, Joe Cox has thrown a bunch of interceptions this season, but against Georgia Tech -- whose run defense is actually better than A&M's statistically -- we proved we can still put up big offensive numbers even when we're only passing the ball sparingly. And even if we do go to the air, the Aggies have only picked off 11 passes all season, and we'll have A.J. Green back as a further hedge against ill-advised passes. The one thing A&M's defense is demonstrably good at is QB pressure -- they rank eighth in the nation with 35 sacks on the year -- but Georgia has protected the QB better than all but 11 teams in DI-A. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of A&M's takedowns came against New Mexico, Utah State, UAB, Colorado, and Baylor, not coincidentally the only teams on the Aggies' '09 schedule with losing records.

Great job getting revenge against Baylor, though! (Yes, I said "revenge.")

On special teams, the Ags average 22.6 yards per kickoff return but a mere six and a quarter on punt returns, which against the nation's best punter means we should be dealing TAMU some rough field position in the event we don't score. In the highly likely event that we do score, of course, our rotten kickoff coverage means the Aggies will probably make out just fine, but maybe having fired the coach primarily responsible for our special teams means we've got a fighting chance there. Who knows.

What worries me: Yeah, about those coach-firings. As you've no doubt heard by now, Willie Martinez, DE/special-teams coach Jon Fabris, and linebackers coach John Jancek all declined the option to stay with the team and coach through the bowl game, which is a pretty big wild-card, all things considered. Sure, I've heard all the jokes about how our defense was so bad this year that we won't even notice that any coordinators are missing; and this being a bowl game, where crazy things are known to happen, I guess it's possible that our defensive players will take an "us against the world" attitude, play way over their heads, and have a "Rudy"-like performance stopping the Aggies cold in Shreveport. Logic, however, tells me that all other things being equal, a defensive coordinator is kind of a good thing to have, and is probably preferable to an interim-tagged DTs coach (however good he may be) and a hastily assembled group of graduate assistants.

I have nightmare visions of this scene playing itself out at Butts-Mehre a couple weeks ago.

Particularly when we're going up against the fifth-ranked offense in the entire country, which is motoring right along at 465 yards and change per game. The Aggies aren't necessarily the most consistent bunch in the world -- I don't know how you go from scoring only 10 points on Oklahoma to unloading 39 on a Texas defense that's just as good, if not better -- but their offense is every bit as poised for a big breakout performance as their defense is for a collapse.

Against our defense, which finished in the bottom half of the SEC in pretty much every category except the run, I am very, very worried about what A&M is capable of doing. They've got an excellent quarterback in Jerrod Johnson, who's sixth nationwide in total offense and maintaining a QB rating of 140.7; he hammered the formidable Texas defense for 342 yards, four TDs, and one pick on 26-of-33 passing. They're also extremely well-balanced, with running backs Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray combining for an average of 132 yards per game. A&M fortunately doesn't use the kind of spread offense that's given our defense so many fits over the past few years, but their system is very similar in a lot of ways to what Arkansas used to ring us up for 485 yards and 41 points early in the season. They're also likely to bring a lot of the uptempo, misdirection-based stuff that Tennessee embarrassed us with a month later. I know Mark Richt kept Rodney Garner around for a reason, and the coaches and players alike have been saying all the right things about staying focused and prepared, but between A&M's offensive prowess and our chaotic coaching situation, there's a good chance we end up in a shootout on Monday.

Player who needs to step up: SS Bacarri Rambo. When number 18 gets to Shreveport, he'll be taking the field for the first time since sacrificing himself to save the game against Auburn on November 14. And he will find, if he hasn't already, that the hopes and dreams of the fan base have begun to rest on him as the guy to inject some passion and leadership into a pass defense that languished badly for the better part of this season. Hopefully his return will energize his teammates and give them an emotional boost as they face one of the most difficult situations of their Georgia careers.

What does it all mean? As much as I hate to see Georgia fans not show up for a game, be it a home game, away game, bowl game or whatever, I don't blame anyone for not electing to make the trip to Shreveport this year. It's a long way to go to a city few of us would have any inclination to visit otherwise, and it makes that much more of a disruption in personal schedules that are frequently stretched to the breaking point to begin with this time of year.

But with bowl games more so than any other type of game, I always have to wonder how much fan apathy rubs off on the players. Like I said, the Bulldogs have been saying all the right things about staying motivated and being anxious to show the world their determination to rise above the recent turmoil, and I don't doubt that a lot of them are telling the truth. But let's be real here: Just as none of our fans started off the season hoping for a trip to Shreveport at the end of it, I can't imagine any of our players did, either. And between player frustrations and the general lack of Georgia interest, the news stories of which I gotta believe at least a few of our guys have read, there's a danger of them simply calling this one a wash and looking forward to the offseason. In the past I've termed this kind of attitude "Kansas State Syndrome," but it's happened to plenty of other teams in the past. This is only A&M's fourth bowl trip in the past eight seasons, and the first of Mike Sherman's tenure; I don't think it's an unfounded assumption to say that this game means more to the Aggies than it does to us, and in December and January, sometimes discrepancies like that make the difference between wins and losses.

And I don't need to remind anybody about this one, do I?

Now, do I think we're the better team? All of this season's disappointments aside, yes, I do. We've played a much tougher schedule and done better against it. I think we've got more talent overall. The question is whether they're motivated enough to overcome a skeleton coaching staff on defense and the memories of a frustrating season.

Will they? I don't know enough about our players' psyches to dare make a prediction, so I don't mean it as a comment on their motivation, or potential lack of same, when I predict that we're likely to get caught in a shootout against the Aggies. They did it to Oklahoma State, they did it to Texas, they can do it to us. And for that reason -- even taking into account what I said earlier about Bacarri Rambo in the step-up category -- I think this game rests in large part upon what Joe Cox is able to do in his final game in a Georgia uniform. A&M has let seven different QBs throw for more than 250 yards this season (four of them for more than 300), putting up a 19:6 TD:INT ratio in the process. So it stands to reason that the Ginger Ninja could put up some big numbers in Shreveport. Yes, he has had some awful games this season, but -- and this should get a nomination for Backhanded Compliment of the Decade -- against the lesser pass defenses he's played this season, he's been remarkably efficient (a combined 36-52-1 for 591 yards and 8 TDs against Arkansas, Tennessee Tech, and Georgia Tech, the three teams on our '09 slate with pass-efficiency defenses worse than A&M's). If our play-calling against GT is any indication, he still may not be asked to do too much, but with A.J. Green back and Joe facing his final opportunity to leave a good impression in the minds of Bulldog Nation, I think he'll end his Georgia career with a fine performance.

The Ginger Ninja after tying a school record with five TDs against Arkansas. Really wouldn't mind it a bit if you did that again, Joe.

Fine enough to win a shootout, though? He did in Fayetteville, where it should be added he didn't get much help from our turnover margin (-2 in that game) or, for that matter, our running game (which averaged only 2.1 yards per carry if you took away Richard Samuel's 80-yard TD run in the second quarter). There's no reason for Georgia not to go over 30 points in this game, which we would've done in five of our last six games but for one extraordinarily ill-timed red-zone turnover against Kentucky.

I'll be honest with you: I've gone back and forth many, many times on this game, with my first (and third, and fourth, and I think also sixth) inclination being to brace myself for an A&M upset. Between the danger of a letdown in a second-tier bowl and the upheaval on the coaching staff, I could easily see the Aggies -- who have managed to get up for a few big games this season, even if their final record doesn't seem to reflect it -- taking advantage and carpet-bombing us to a sixth loss. I still think this one's going to be a shootout, and you're crazy if you don't think likewise; both teams have been so inconsistent for most of this season that you could practically flip a coin here. Indeed, if we succumb to the same turnover affliction that hamstrung us in so many early games this season, as well as the later game against Kentucky, this will not be a fun game to watch. But if we stay even or on the plus side in turnover margin, as we've done in three of our last four victories (the one exception being Tennessee Tech, with the one turnover coming way past the point at which the game had already been decided), then we should be able to fire away at them with A.J., Washaun, and Caleb, while our better-than-it's-been-given-credit-for run defense renders A&M one-dimensional (OK, one-and-a-half-dimensional) in a way that they really won't be able to do back to us.

I think both teams will break 30 points on the scoreboard. Really, I wouldn't be surprised to see both teams break 40. But I think we'll pull ahead in the second half, make the critical big stop toward the end of the game to seal the win, and cap off a difficult season with an eighth victory. No, it's not New Orleans, it's certainly not Pasadena, and it's not even Atlanta, but it'd be a win. And I think it's one we'd all be happy to take.

And then it's RIVERBOAT GAMBLIN' 'til the clock strikes 2010!

If you're trash-talking: Georgia and Texas A&M do not exactly have a lengthy tradition of intense rivalry on the gridiron; I think you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we've faced each other. But the last time that happened, the Bulldogs destroyed the Aggies 42-0. That Georgia team, incidentally, went on to win the 1980 national championship; A&M, for all their tradition and alleged football heritage, hasn't won a consensus national title since 1939, and their non-consensus or "retroactive" titles go back even further into the bowels of history.

And let's talk about those traditions for a second. Now granted, most of what I know about A&M traditions I've learned from Longhorn fans, who are not exactly unbiased observers here, but even from a purely objective standpoint, some of this "Aggie tradition" is just surreal. The whole "corps of cadets" thing? I've been dubious about that one for a while, because frankly, it looks like a lot of those guys are just playing dress-up, but apparently A&M does send a lot of graduates on to become military officers so I'll give those guys a pass. The "Yell Leaders"? Hey, anyone can shout gibberish for three and a half hours, that doesn't make them a cheerleader. For example, when I lived in Atlanta there was a guy on my regular subway ride to work who did that, and I don't remember anyone's spirits being raised by it; mainly it just sort of made everyone uncomfortable.

And then there's this.

Yes, this is what has come to be known as "The Squeeze," which the Aggie cadets supposedly do at critical junctures in games so that they can "take the pain" for their football team. I would like to point out to these young men that pain is not a zero-sum game, and their arbitrarily inflicting damage upon their genitalia does not actually do anything to lessen the suffering of their football players. But even if it did, it's a wonder A&M still exists -- that video was recorded toward the end of the A&M-Texas Tech game in 2006, and the Ags are 22-24 since then, so that's a whole lot of pain to be taking, fellas. If things don't get much better in College Station, this "tradition" is going to result in the eradication of entire future generations of potential Aggies.

I will run up and down the street in front of my house wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia scores more than 50 points (in a victory, obviously). We may need every one of those points to outlast the A&M offense, but whether we actually end up needing them or not, we might as well end this season with a bang, fellas. Go Dawgs!

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