I'm on board with the coach's season theme. This season is all about proving last season wasn't a fluke and the Ags are truly on the right path.
If that was the objective then this season can only be classifed as an EPIC FAILURE.
Autopsy of a Lost Season
Like most, my expectation has always been that 2011 would be better than 2010. This season, @norman is the only game I would currently pencil in as a likely loss (that's a probability, not a concession of defeat. Nor is it a prediction of an one-loss regular season.) Here are the pillars I think the Ags will build on this season.
The Running Game - Good things happen when you can run the ball. While its foolhardy to predict anything beyond the immediate season, it seems to me that the pieces are in place to have a strong running game for the next several years.
. . . Offensive Line - Nobody could have reasonably hoped that the offensive line would come together any better than it actually did in 2010. The two fish tackles acquitted themselves admirably and should form the foundation of a defining team strength for years to come. The Ags ran the ball well as the season progressed and were at times able to impose their will as the game wound down. I am more encouraged about this development than any other.
. . . Backs - Cyrus was just outstanding in 2010, his talent only surpassed by his class. And as far as physical tools, you can't ask for a much better specimen than C-Mike. Hopefully he will be able to come back from the broken leg at very close to his previous level.
Continued Improvement on Defense - I said I wouldn't be surprised if the Ags finished around 60th in total defense in 2010 with or without DeRuyter and they finished at 55. But that pedestrian ranking doesn't give the full picture of some scenes that hopefully foreshadow future greatness. Holding Mallet and the pigs to 3 second half points. Shutting RG3 and the cubbies out in the second half to enable the comeback. Keeping the corn out of the endzone for the entire game. And my personal favorite, defensively shutting the sooners out for 3 quarters and playing some of the most intense, inspired, impactful goal-line defense we've seen from the Ags in a long time.
. . . Another year in the system - DeRuyter back on the sidelines for another year is huge. While the defensive installation went possibly faster than I anticipated (probably due to the excellent "quarterbacking" of Hodges), I still believe there is year 2 upside as the new scheme fully takes holds and the players play a little faster with that higher comfort level. Though it was a weak point in the Cotton Bowl where the Ags allowed 9-out-of-15 conversions, one of the huge improvements the Ags made in 2010 was on defending 3rd downs where they cracked the Top 25 in that statistical category.
Experience at quarterback - When looking ahead a year ago, the biggest anticipated issue facing the 2011 Ags was breaking in a new quarterback. Due to the unfortunate development of a compromised JJ this year, RT was forced to step in and answered the call in respectable manner. I believe (hope) he will finally break the seeming hex on our senior year quarterbacks and turn in a strong season in 2011. The return of Jeff Fuller probably deserves its own bullet but will definitely be a boon to Ryan and the passing game.
Overall experience - The flip side of being forced to play all the youngsters we have the last two years is that you end up with some battle-tested warriors. We will have upperclassmen next year that are just as physically mature as their counterparts on the other sideline next year but with much more game experience.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of 2011 pillars just some of the biggest. Feel free to add your own. Of course, as there always will be, this season comes with its own set of challenges.
Impact of losing NFL-level talent - I believe 2002 was the last time the Ags had a player drafted in the first round. You just don't lose a freakish talent like Von Miller and not feel it.
Ball security - The Ags were 80th in turnover margin last season. The problem was not takeaways where we had 25 for the season vs an NCAA average of ~22.5 but in giveaways where we turned the ball over 30 times vs the average of (as the engineers already knew...) ~22.5. While I won't be surprised if the defense ups the takeaway number this year, the thing the Ags absolutely must improve on is protecting the football. This is one of the things that killed us in the Cotton Bowl. BTW, the top 10 teams in turnover margin in 2010 averaged a season record of 10.4 W's vs 2.8 L's.
Depth - Our 2nd-tier position in the recruiting world recently especially compromises us when injuries raise their ugly head. Hodges injury in the Cotton Bowl is an example of the big dropoff that exists at some positions. The poor accept rate during early Feb-2011 recruiting offers was a red flag but if Sherman can get the current class delivered in Feb-2012, he will go a long way to answering the questions about his ability to recruit at the highest level.
Team chemistry and character - I don't mention this because I anticipate an issue but because you can't just assume that the outstanding chemistry and character on display in 2010 will reformulate this Fall. I think the type coach/person Sherman is contributes strongly to a good team dynamic but I don't underestimate what impact the loss of a "glue" component like Hodges can have on a team.
The Running Game, Backs and OL
This was the one pillar that stood up this season. The OL was a team strength and Cyrus and C-Mike were good until injuries sidelined them late in the season. Even Malena turned in an admirable performance against the sips. Even this pillar was not perfect with uneven performance in short-yardage situations. But the main drawback here was the coach's propensity to shelve the team strength at inopportune times.
Continued Improvement on Defense with another year in the system vs. The Loss of Von and Hodges.
No contest here. It turns out Von and Hodges were running their own informal Big Brother campaign last year and it masked what were a host of other "at-risk" youngsters. Without that backbone, the defense slipped back to a deficiency.
Experience at quarterback
While we've certainly had less talented QBs than Tannehill, I'm not sure I recall one who was worse in clutch-time. I don't doubt the kid's character and my guess is this was a case of "trying too hard", but that doesn't change the end result.
I also mentioned the return of Fuller under this bullet point as well and what a disappointment his senior season turned out to be. I wish him well in the pros and in hindsight he might as well have gone last year given his impact on the team this year. Just goes to show that "sure things", at least of a positive nature, don't exist in the world of Aggie Football.
Despite the overwhelming number of returning starters, the team regressed this year. Player development came to a standstill as senior after senior disappointed in their final campaign.
Turnovers were once again an Aggie nemesis as the Aggies currently rank #97 in turnover margin. The problem was on both sides of the ball as the defense struggled to capture turnovers and Tannehill consistently gave teams new life in the second half with un-conscionable interceptions with the pick-6 to the sips putting a punctuation mark on the issue.
Once again proved paper-thin as the season outcome deteriorated even more as back-ups were pressed into service.
Team chemistry and character
This was probably the biggest step back from 2010. A team that "found itself" in the home stretch last season became a bunch of mentally weak basket cases this year. This was a team with ZERO killer instinct that couldn't stand prosperity. They always seemed to be looking over their shoulder for the disaster lurking and it so often overtook them. The signature weakness for the season was a half-time hangover where the team consistently re-took the field with a lethargy that reflected on their head coach.
I have lost any hope I had for this regime. However it will save me time in making future season predictions. While it may be a little optimistic for next year, just put me down for a perennial 6-and-6 with a bowl loss as long as Sherman is at the helm.