There are down years, and then there are nosedives from which a quick recovery seems all but impossible. For Texas A&M, last year's 4--8 performance, which included an embarrassing 77--0 defeat to Oklahoma, was the latter. "It was as tough a year as I've had in this profession," says coach Dennis Franchione, who spent 11 seasons at New Mexico, TCU and Alabama before coming to College Station in December 2002.
But Franchione has developed a reputation as a rebuilder of programs, and in a stunning about-face his Aggies have turned that nightmarish season into a distant memory. Texas A&M lost its season opener to No. 9 Utah but has won five straight with last Saturday's 36--20 victory over previously undefeated Oklahoma State. The win kept the Aggies (5--1, 3--0) in a first-place tie in the Big 12 South with Oklahoma. "Right now, we are a team with some chemistry, positive feelings and self-esteem," says Franchione. "We are doing things that a team on a roll should."
What has changed? Key Aggies have matured, for one thing. Last season junior quarterback Reggie McNeal's athleticism was offset by his tendency to force throws, but this fall he has made better decisions (296.5 total yards per game, seventh in the nation) and been more efficient (his 148.6 rating is 15th). McNeal and running back Keith Joseph combined to rush for 139 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma State last Saturday. Meanwhile the A&M defense is playing more aggressively. The Aggies limited Oklahoma State's rushing attack to its lowest total of the season, holding the nation's leading rusher, Vernand Morency, to 111 yards.
Texas A&M needs just one win in its final five games to become eligible for a bowl game. That in itself would be a remarkable feat, but a strong performance against Oklahoma, which comes to College Station on Nov. 6, would make the turnaround complete. In his postgame speech on Saturday, Franchione told his players that their best football has yet to be played. "Sometimes you look at your team at this point in the season and know that it's not going to change much," said Franchione after watching game film on Sunday. "But I look at this group and feel confident that we can get better."