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Original Issue

21 Texas A&M The Aggies have a revitalized quarterback, but real redemption--a Big 12 title (or more)--looks out of reach


Let the record show that Nov. 1, 1997, was the day the real
Branndon Stewart made his college debut. Lofty expectations had
followed Stewart from Stephenville (Texas) High to Tennessee,
where as a freshman in 1994 he was beaten out for the starting
quarterback job by a kid named Peyton Manning. The expectations
trailed him to Texas A&M, where he struggled in '96 and
temporarily lost the starter's role last year. But with one
game, everything changed.

After sharing the quarterbacking duties with Randy McCown over
the first seven games of last season, Stewart reminded everyone
why he had been more highly touted coming out of high school
than even Manning: Trailing Oklahoma State 22-7 in the fourth
quarter, Stewart led the Aggies on two touchdown drives, the
second capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds left
in regulation. The two-point conversion sent the game into
overtime, and when A&M won 28-25, Stewart felt a huge weight
lift from his shoulders.

"Everything just came together in that game," says Stewart, now a
senior. "I wasn't thinking about making mistakes. It was a great
moment for me and the team, especially after everything we've
been through."

Stewart's transfer to A&M after the 1994 season met with
resentment from some Aggies fans, who had labeled him a traitor
for leaving his home state in the first place. Things got worse
in 1996 when Stewart, a first-year starter on an inexperienced
team, was blamed for everything from his own erratic play to the
inconsistency of the defense.

The Oklahoma State game turned his career around. In the first
seven games of '97, Stewart passed for 528 yards; in the last
five he had 901. He also threw just four interceptions in '97,
two of which came against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game.

"Branndon came in with a lot of fanfare and really took it upon
himself to make things happen," says coach R.C. Slocum. "He had
to play with a lot of inexperienced players, and it showed. But
he took it on the chin. He realizes we don't have to be the
Branndon Stewart show. Plus, now he has a pretty good supporting

That cast includes two backs who specialize in the big play:
junior Dante Hall, an effective runner in the open field who
rushed for 973 yards and amassed 1,434 all-purpose yards last
season; and senior Sirr Parker, who had 800 yards rushing and
1,139 total yards. Complementing that pair is senior fullback
D'Andre Hardeman, a workhorse blocker with a nose for the end
zone (26 career touchdowns, including 17 in 1996).

The renowned Wrecking Crew defense scored more touchdowns (four)
than it allowed through the air (three) last season. Senior Dat
Nguyen, though undersized for a linebacker (6'1", 213 pounds),
had 130 tackles in '97, bringing his career total to 370. The
secondary--safeties Brandon Jennings and Rich Coady, and
cornerbacks Jason Webster and Sedrick Curry--returns intact from
a unit that held opponents to 150.3 yards passing.

Texas A&M will need to draw on those strengths, with an early
schedule that includes Florida State, plus dangerous Louisiana
Tech and Southern Mississippi, and a conference schedule that
offers up both Nebraska and Missouri. "We're giving ourselves
chances by playing the best," says Slocum. "We've averaged nine
wins a year in the '90s, but I'm still waiting for that
Cinderella season when everything comes together." --B.J.S.

COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT BRANND-ED Stewart is finally living up to the blue-chip tag hung on him in high school. [Branndon Stewart in game]

Fact Sheet

1997 record: 9-4 (6-2, 1st in Big 12 South)
Final ranking: No. 20 AP, No. 21 coaches' poll


Scoring 35.2 17.3
Rushing Yards 205.4 164.8
Passing Yards 169.3 150.3
Total Yards 374.8 315.1

Pivotal Players

Quarterback Branndon Stewart had a stretch of 131 pass attempts
without an interception.... Over his career, kick
returner-running back Dante Hall has averaged 9.4 yards per
touch.... Inside linebacker Dat Nguyen had a team-leading 20
stops on third down.... Junior punter Shane Lechler was third in
the nation, with a 41.5-yard average.

Key Games

Schedule strength: 19th of 112

Aug. 31 vs. Florida State On paper it looks like a mismatch, but
the Kickoff Classic would be a great place to make a statement.

Oct. 10 vs. Nebraska The Huskers demolished Texas A&M 54-15 in
last year's Big 12 title game. Revenge is unlikely.

The Bottom Line

The Aggies are good enough to repeat as champions of the Big 12
South, but they lack the firepower to win a major bowl.