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8 Texas A&M No longer intimidated by high-ranked opponents, the Aggies and their fierce defense should strike fear in others

In the last two years, Texas A&M has played against a Who's Who
of college football: Nebraska, Florida State, Ohio State, UCLA,
Colorado and Texas. Though the Aggies won only three of eight
against that group, last season they finally understood what
R.C. Slocum has been preaching since he took over as coach in
December 1988: A&M can play with these guys.

That realization hit most of the Aggies during last year's
Kickoff Classic, in which they led then second-ranked Florida
State 14-10 at the half before losing 23-14. The A&M players
walked away feeling they had given the Seminoles too much
respect. "Before, when we played a big-name team, it took awhile
before we realized we belonged on the same field," says senior
quarterback Randy McCown. "Now we've learned to play our game
from the get-go."

Following the Florida State loss, the Aggies won 11 of their
next 12 games, beating Nebraska for the first time since 1955
and coming from behind to defeat then No. 2 and unbeaten Kansas
State in the Big 12 championship game. Although the Aggies lost
to a superior Ohio State team, 24-14, in the Sugar Bowl, they
did not concede an inch to the Buckeyes. "We've learned to
overcome the awe factor," says Slocum. "We took on the mind-set
that we've played the best, so what are you going to throw at us
now? Last year we went from proving that we could play to
proving that we could win."

Texas A&M should win a lot of games this season with its
defense, which has eight starters back from the unit that ranked
10th nationally in total defense. Although All-America
linebacker Dat Nguyen is gone, finishing his career with a
school-record 517 tackles, A&M expects junior Roylin Bradley to
take up some of the slack.

Offensively, Texas A&M will rely heavily on a running game that
features speed and bulk. Lightning quick senior Dante Hall
(1,024 yards, eight touchdowns) was the Aggies' leading rusher
last season, while bruising 6-foot, 260-pound sophomore fullback
Ja'Mar Toombs (422 yards) cleared holes and steamrolled would-be
tacklers. At quarterback McCown will begin the season as the
clear-cut starter for the first time. He saw limited action in
'96, split time with Branndon Stewart in '97 and didn't earn the
job outright until last October. He then went 6-1 before a
broken collarbone against Texas ended his season. His numbers
(1,025 yards, six touchdowns) weren't spectacular, but he gives
A&M another dimension with his scrambling ability. "We have one
of the elite defenses in the country, and we realize that for us
to keep this going, the offense has to help the defense," says
McCown. "I know it all starts with me."

Though the Aggies have not yet become a perennial national
championship contender, they at least have shed their reputation
for disappearing in big games. Entering last season they were
0-13 alltime against teams ranked in the Top 3; last year they
were 2-2.

"As I look at our team, I have every reason to expect us to be
as good as we were last year," says Slocum. "We may not be
mentioned in the same sentence with the Florida States and
Nebraskas yet, but we're just a hair away."


COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT Feisty Indomitable quarterback McCown vows that his offense will carry its share of the load.

Fast Facts

1998 record: 11-3 (7-1, 1st in Big 12 South)
Final ranking: No. 11 AP, No. 13 coaches' poll

1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Yards Passing Yards Total Yards

OFFENSE 24.7 152.7 159.3 312.0
DEFENSE 14.6 121.7 167.6 289.3

Key Games
Schedule strength: 50th of 114

Oct. 2 at Texas Tech
The last five meetings have been decided by seven points or
less. This one should be no different.

Nov. 6 at Nebraska
A&M could be 8-0 entering this game, but it will have a tough
time getting out of Lincoln unscathed.

The Bottom Line

The Aggies are capable of winning the Big 12 championship game
and going to a major bowl.