First & 20: October decides if Texas A&M is for real

Anthony Gimino

September 25, 2016 at 12:00 pm.

Sep 24, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies running back Trayveon Williams (5)  runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Arkansas Razorbacks defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. (48)  at AT&T Stadium. Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 24, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies running back Trayveon Williams (5) runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Arkansas Razorbacks defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. (48) at AT&T Stadium. Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing quite as intoxicating as Texas A&M in September.

The air crackles with big victories, scented with Heisman candidates, and you can see all the way over the horizon to the College Football Playoff.

Oh, the Aggies are at it again.

They were 5-0 in 2014. They finished 8-5.

They were 5-0 in 2015. They finished 8-5.

They end this September with a 4-0 mark, with an opening victory over UCLA and Saturday’s manly 45-24 victory against Arkansas in Arlington, Texas, where Texas A&M pounded the Hogs for 366 rushing yards.

“Just like all the years we’ve been undefeated at this time, we can’t get relaxed on it,” said junior free safety Armani Watts. “We’ve got to keep improving.”

It would be natural to remain skeptical of the Aggies as the calendar flips to October. But maybe these guys are different.

Unlike the past two seasons, coach Kevin Sumlin has an experienced quarterback at the helm — Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight. He had touchdown runs of 42 and 48 yards against Arkansas, and he hit receiver Josh Reynolds for a 92-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to break a 17-17 tie.

That came after the Aggies’ defense came up with a goal-line stand, which brings us to the other thing that might be different about this outfit.

The Texas A&M defense is coalescing in its second season under defensive coordinator John Chavis, and it helps to have potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett at defensive end. And, oh yeah, Daeshon Hall is at the other end.

“Our two ends are a great tandem, as good as there is in college football,” Sumlin said.

“But I don’t think our safeties get enough credit. And I said it before the season and kind of put it up on the wall — our coaches’ preseason All-SEC team didn’t have (defensive backs) Donovan Wilson, Armani Watts or Justin Evans on it. And I think it bugs them.

“So I keep pointing that out to them every week. And I think they’re trying to make a point every week, because those three guys fly around back there.”

Texas A&M has emerged as No. 1 Alabama’s biggest challenge in the SEC West. The Tide already has taken care of Ole Miss, LSU is directionless at quarterback, and Auburn’s offense drove into a ditch.

The Aggies, with no shortage of elite athletes, should push to 5-0 this week against South Carolina. Then, it gets real in a hurry again — home for Tennessee and then at Alabama after a bye week.

After that, A&M could be in position for a November to remember.

5 things to watch

1. Les Miles’ clock management — Another chapter was added to the Mad Hatter’s history of late-game clock blunders as LSU tick-tocked its way into an 18-13 loss at Auburn, unable to get off the final snap in time. Now, a different kind of clock is ticking. That pitchfork-carrying crowd that wanted Miles’ job late last season is almost certain to get it after this latest gaffe, more substandard quarterback play, a boring offense and a 2-2 start.

2. The Pac-12 South — USC is 1-3. UCLA is 2-2. Arizona State can’t play defense. Arizona scared Washington on Saturday but isn’t built for the long haul. Utah, tough as nails, has limited explosiveness on offense. Colorado? The Buffaloes were 2-25 in the conference in coach Mike MacIntyre’s first three seasons, but they won at Oregon on Saturday and look like cellar-dwellers no more. Who wins this thing? Who knows.

3. Auburn’s play-calling — Citing the need to “be the head coach,” Gus Malzahn gave offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee the green light to call plays, which has been Malzahn’s baby. The results were mixed — no touchdowns — but the Tigers got in position to kick six field goals and beat LSU 18-13.

4. Targeting — Anyone know what this is? Or isn’t?

5. A rivalry renewed — Tennessee rallied to swamp Florida, beating the Gators for the first time since 2004. Pump the brakes on this being the Vols’ get-over-the-hump moment — this injury-plagued team still has more flaws than originally thought — but it will be nice to get more smack talk about ducks pulling trucks in a hot-again rivalry.

5 Heisman candidates

1. QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville: It’s not even close. Jackson has accounted for 25 touchdowns in four games, which means he has more points than 88 teams. And he’s only played in 11 quarters of football because he hasn’t been needed late in three blowout victories. That’s fantastic. But nobody is handing out a stiff-armed trophy for being college football’s player of the month for September.

2. RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: UCLA bottled him up, relatively speaking, on Saturday night. McCaffrey rushed for 138 yards, none longer than 13 yards, and did not find the end zone. That’s yawn-inducing by his standards, but the Bruins’ defense is pretty good and Stanford pulled out a late victory, so McCaffrey stays near the front of the Heisman parade.

3. LB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan: The athletic freak is tied for second nationally with 2.4 tackles for loss per game and is third in punt returns with 22.7 yards per attempt. Best player, pound-for-pound, in America?

4. QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: He has 10 touchdown passes, just one interception, and is fifth nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 184.4. He’s the steadying — and sometimes spectacular — influence on a young Buckeyes team poised again for the biggest prizes.

5. QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson: He hasn’t yet played like one of the top five players in the country, but everyone knows he can, and it doesn’t seem right to ignore him with the showdown against Louisville on tap for Saturday.

5 coaches on the hot seat

Les Miles is duly noted above. Moving on to the rest …

1. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame: The Irish are 1-3 and have lost their past five games against Power 5 conference teams, giving up 38, 44, 50, 36 and 38 points in those defeats. “You better have some damn fire and energy in you,” Kelly said after Saturday’s 38-35 home loss to Duke, which was a three-touchdown underdog. “We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”

2. Mark Helfrich, Oregon: When you’re losing at home to Colorado, wearing uniforms that splendidly resemble actual ducks is no longer cool, it’s a punch-line. Oregon is 2-2, the injuries are piling up, and a previously must-see program is becoming the worst thing of all — kinda boring.

3. Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State: The Bulldogs were up 31-0 in the second quarter to Tulsa and still found a way to lose 48-41 in double overtime. That’s the latest indignity for fifth-year coach DeRuyter, who was rolling in 2013 with a 10-win season but has just four victories in his past 18 games.

4. James Franklin, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have challenges in their post-scandal era, but the school can only tolerate the sin of non-competitiveness for so long. Franklin dropped to 0-7 against the Big Ten East’s Big Three — Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan — with a 49-10 loss to the Wolverines on Saturday. Penn State lost by an average of 26.3 points to those teams last season.

5. Clay Helton, USC: Good thing the Trojans would never fire a coach at midseason. Oh, wait …

5 games to watch in Week 5

1. Louisville at Clemson (8 p.m. ET) — Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson. What else is there?

2. Stanford at Washington (Friday, 9 p.m. ET) — The Huskies have lost nine of their past 11 to Stanford, but they are now big enough and physical enough, to handle the Cardinal challenge in a spotlight game. One more thing: While the nation raved over UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Washington’s fellow true sophomore Jake Browning quietly became better.

3. Wisconsin at Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET) — The Badgers punished Michigan State on the road Saturday, winning 30-6 in quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s first start. Encore in the Big House.

4. Tennessee at Georgia (3:30 p.m. ET) — The Vols took the first leg of their win-the-SEC-East strategy, finally knocking off Florida. The Bulldogs will be trying to put the wheels back on after suffering a 45-14 loss at Ole Miss.

5. Oklahoma at TCU (5 p.m. ET) — Could these still be the best two teams in the Big 12? We think so Film Room Review

Analyst Rob Rang’s prospect takeaways for this week. Players listed including position, school, year (Height, weight and current overall rating and by position).

–WR Bryce Bobo, Colorado, 6-1, 195, rJr. (#48 WR in Class of 2018): Bobo came up with one of the catches of the young season with a twirling one-handed reception in the corner of the end zone that proved to be the game-winner. On the play, he sold the slant before accelerating upfield on a classic “sluggo” route, fooling Oregon defensive back Ugo Amadi.

–DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford, 6-2, 275, rSo. (No. 4 DE in Class of 2019): He’s only a redshirt sophomore, but Thomas springs out of his stance with powerful hands and is likely the best player on Stanford’s defense. (Dane Brugler)

–LT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin, 6-5, 314, rJr. (#21 OT in Class of 2018): The well-traveled former Division III star is an emerging name on the radar of NFL scouts. He supplied several of the key blocks on the Badgers’ 41 carries against Michigan State, showing terrific initial quickness when asked to block at the second level as well as good power and pad level to knock defenders off the ball.

–QB DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame, 6-4, 230, rSo. (#5 overall, #2 QB): Despite the Irish’s stunning loss to Duke, Kizer continued to show why he’s the top prospect on the board for many NFL scouts with impressive downfield accuracy. (Dane Brugler)

–CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado, 5-11, 205, Sr. (#168, #19 CB): Awuzie shadowed Oregon star Darren Carrington II and provided his typical lockdown coverage, with Carrington’s two touchdowns coming against other defenders. Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop largely avoided Awuzie, other than a 48-yard reception by Charles Nelson. Even on that well-executed play, Awuzie showed terrific awareness and closing speed.