College Station, TX (Sports Network) - The seventh-ranked Texas A&M Aggies are anxious to put the recent controversy surrounding their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback behind them and finally shift their focus to the field, as they open the 2013 season with a matchup against the Rice Owls in a Lone Star State showdown at Kyle Field.
Although Rice began last season as an afterthought in Conference USA, opening up at 2-6, it finished the year on a high note, ripping off four straight wins to close out the regular season to gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2008. It saved one of its best performances for the Armed Forces Bowl, where it made easy work of Air Force, 33-14, making head coach David Balliff 2-0 in bowl games since taking over the head coaching duties in 2007.
The 2012 season was Texas A&M's first as a member of the SEC, and its inaugural campaign in the nation's most difficult conference managed to exceed even the most ambitious expectations. Under first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, the squad went 10-2 in the regular season and won six conference matchups, with the highlight coming in a Nov. 10 road win over eventual- national champion Alabama, 29-24. Its regular season efforts allowed it to earn a bid to the Cotton Bowl, where it dismantled former Big 12 rival and 12th-ranked Oklahoma, 41-13.
The Aggies' No. 7 placement in the preseason Top-25 is their highest since 1999, and Sumlin is excited for his team's prospects moving forward.
"It's a great time to be at Texas A&M," Sumlin said. "People ask me all the time what about expectations. There's a lot of expectations on our program. For us, that's a good thing. I think you want to be a part of a situation where you have some relevancy in your own league. We work very, very hard at that. The excitement level is really, really high."
With regard to the all-time series, Texas A&M holds a 50-27-3 advantage over Rice. The Aggies have won 15 straight matchups, but the programs have not faced each other since 1995.
Offensively, Rice was highly effective a season ago, ranking fourth in C-USA both in terms of scoring (31.8 ppg) and yardage (421.1 ypg), and with the return of nine starters on that side of the ball, a repeat performance is expected.
While perhaps not as explosive as his counterpart on Saturday, senior signal- caller Taylor McHargue is nonetheless one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks, fresh off a season where he threw for 2,209 yards, ran for 667 yards and accounted for 23 total touchdowns. He was also efficient with the ball, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes while throwing just five interceptions, but he missed time with injuries and is cognizant that he needs to adjust his reckless style of play.
"I know I take unnecessary hits and I'm going to try and cut down on that this season," McHargue said. "Running the ball is part of our position at Rice. I'm going to try and change my style."
Running back Charles Ross is a strong complement to McHargue, gaining 800 yards a season ago on an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. Turner Peterson (607 rushing yards, 166 receiving yards, six TDs) will also be heavily involved.
Jordan Taylor (57 rec, 826 yards) is the top option in the passing game. Despite his productive campaign, he was actually held out of the end zone all season until his breakout game in the Armed Forces Bowl, logging nine receptions for 153 yards and three scores.
The Owls ranked in the middle of the pack defensively in C-USA, allowing 31.3 ppg, and their total defense (444.0 ypg) placed them in the bottom-third. The good news for the unit is that the return of 10 starters almost guarantees a better showing in 2013.
The squad has the luxury of having the conference's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in shutdown corner Phillip Gaines, but he will sit out this contest for having violated a team rule. The Owls will also be without linebacker Cameron Nwosu, who suffered a knee injury in camp.
Even down a few playmakers, Rice still has some talent on the defensive side of the ball, including Paul Porras (93 tackles, two INTs), Julius White (79 tackles, two INTs), Cody Bauer (12 TFL, 5.5 sacks), Hosam Shahin (9.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks) and Chris Covington (8.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks).
With Heisman-winner Johnny Manziel running the show, the Texas A&M offense shined in 2012, scoring 44.5 ppg behind 558.5 ypg, both of which ranked the team in the top-five nationally. The Aggies showed great balance between the run (242.1 ypg) and pass (316.5 ypg).
Manziel's historic freshman campaign saw him break the SEC record for most yards of total offense in a single season (5,116). He completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,706 yards with 26 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. He was dazzling on the ground as well, rushing for 1,410 yards (an FBS Freshman QB record) and 21 touchdowns.
With the fame Manziel has gained has come a slew of bad press, including some controversial tweets, high-profile partying and his alleged signing of autographs for monetary gain. While the distractions are certainly a problem, Sumlin is sure that with the football season in full swing, all of Manziel's energy will be focused on the field.
"I think off the field, there's no question that he's made some mistakes," Sumlin said. "I think he has done some things that he's not very proud of, has made some poor decisions. He's made some good decisions. Unfortunately, the poor decisions are the ones that are really publicized."
Manziel established a strong rapport last year with fellow freshman Mike Evans, who hauled in 82 balls for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. Derel Walker and Sabian Holmes are slated to be the other starters at receiver, and they combined for only 14 receptions in 2012.
Ben Malena returns as the team's top running back after racking up 808 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago, and the departure of Christine Michael (417 yards, 12 TDs) could mean more goal line work for Malena.
Although the offense grabbed all the headlines in 2012, the defense quietly played very well too, holding opponents under 22 points per game while recording 31 sacks and 75 TFL.
Steven Jenkins (79 tackles, 5.5 TFL, one interception, FF) is the unit's most experienced playmaker, and he is expected to take over a leadership role in the absence of Damontre Moore and Jonathan Stewart.
The secondary remains largely intact with Howard Matthews (58 tackles), Deshazor Everett (56 tackles, two picks) and Dustin Harris (49 tackles, one pick) all putting together productive seasons a year ago.
Julien Obioha started 12 games at defensive end but recorded just one sack, and he'll need to step up his production to help make up for the loss of Moore (21.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks).