Leaves aren't all that have changed in College Station, Texas, this autumn. Not by a long shot.
The starting quarterback has changed, the starting running back has changed and the perception of coach Mike Sherman has changed. The general attitude among Aggies everywhere has, too.
A four-game winning streak will do that.
"I think our team has developed and acquired some maturity that we didn't have last year," Sherman said this week. "We played 18 freshmen last year and we've played nine this year. We've grown up a little bit and still have a ways to go as the season finishes up. We continue every week to try to get a little bit better. We're improving as a football team."
Just a month ago, the Aggies (7-3 overall, 4-2 in the Big 12) appeared mired in a third consecutive disappointing season. They were reeling after an embarrassing 30-9 home loss to Missouri, which evened their record at 3-3, put postseason hopes in jeopardy and increased the volume of criticism directed at Sherman.
In fact, Sherman's only job security may have been that it was too expensive to fire him. He's in the third year of a seven-year deal that pays $1.8 annually.
But after consecutive victories over Kansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Baylor, an aura of confidence seems to be hovering above Kyle Field. Images have been invoked of the famed "Wrecking Crew" defenses of old. The 19th-ranked Aggies have even made a November appearance in the AP top 20 for the first time since 1999.
"It's nice to have that ranking, but we don't put a lot of worth into that," said junior quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who generally is viewed as the player most responsible for A&M's resurgence. "That ranking doesn't mean a lot once you step out on that field on Saturday. You have to go out and play hard, and that ranking doesn't make you play harder or better. We work to get that ranking higher and higher every week, closer to Number One, but it doesn't affect you."
The Aggies still are clinging to slight hopes of reaching the Big 12 championship game. But even the most die-hard Aggies know that's unrealistic. A&M's chances are dependent on Oklahoma State losing to both Kansas and Oklahoma.
That's because A&M lost 38-35 on a last-play field goal to the Cowboys in a game when then-starting quarterback Jerrod Johnson threw four interceptions and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
By then, many Aggies were already calling for Tannehill, a junior, to replace Johnson, but Sherman stuck with his starter until the second quarter of a 45-10 victory over Kansas.
Since then, Tannehill has thrown for 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns, with three interceptions.
But Sherman hesitates to give Tannehill all the credit for the Aggies' surprising U-turn.
"I think Ryan is doing a great job, but I also think our entire team is," Sherman said. "When Jerrod was the quarterback, we had two young offensive tackles and were having to deal with that. We had some protection issues. I think our offensive line has developed in the last couple of weeks, and instead of being a liability [as it was] early in the season, it has become more a strength for us."
True freshmen Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are starting at offensive tackle and are playing well. When starting tailback Christine Michael broke his right tibia against Texas Tech, junior Cyrus Gray stepped up and now has rushed for 100 yards in four consecutive games. And the defense, which has been a problem for years, is making significant strides under first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter. Last season, the Aggies ranked 105th in the nation in scoring defense (33.5 points per game); this season, they're 41st (22.1 ppg).
They mounted three goal-line stands in a 33-18 victory over Oklahoma and shut out Baylor in the second half of a 42-30 victory.
Only five seniors are in the starting lineup, so the future looks good, too. That is, as long as the Aggies can get past Nebraska and Texas.
"You're only as good as your last game," Sherman said. "I'm proud of our guys because they're playing hard. That's probably the most satisfying thing. They're playing yard, have got a will to win and they've kind of bought into things."
Best matchup: Texas A&M wide receivers vs. Nebraska secondary. With Tannehill in charge, Texas A&M has risen to eighth in the nation in passing offense. Tannehill is averaging 318 passing yards and two touchdowns over the past three games and has effective receivers in Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope to Nebraska's pass defense. Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard may be the best set of cornerbacks in the country. The Huskers have held six opponents to 135 or fewer passing yards and lead the nation in pass efficiency defense.
Player on the spot: Iowa State QB Jerome Tiller. Not only does Tiller move into the starting lineup to replace Austen Arnaud, but he's in a must-win situation against a high-scoring opponent. The Cyclones (5-6) are in need of another victory to become bowl-eligible. They have to get it against Missouri, which averages more than 31 points per game. Tiller is 26-of-51 for 208 yards and one touchdown this season.
Numbers game: Baylor has allowed three kickoff returns for touchdowns in its past four games. Last week, Texas A&M's Coryell Judie scored on an 84-yard return. The previous week, Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert took one back 93 yards for a touchdown. On Oct. 23, Kansas State's William Powell scored on a 100-yard return. This week, the Bears face Oklahoma, which has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season.
What they're saying
"I don't know how you don't root for your son. It's part of the business of being a dad. Deep down inside, he wants to see A&M win and wants to see his son play well and help the Huskers." - Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, on A&M associate athletic Director Tim Cassidy. Cassidy's son, Austin, is a starting safety for Nebraska, the Aggies' opponent Saturday
"I hate the critics saying we don't play well on the road. At home, we're the best team in the nation by far. And on the road, we're average." - Oklahoma LB Travis Lewis
Etc.: QB Robert Griffin is the first player in Baylor history to pass for 3,000 yards in a season. ... Texas Tech can clinch bowl eligibility for the 18th consecutive season with a victory over Weber State. ... Nebraska can clinch a spot in the Big 12 championship game as the North Division representative with a win over Texas A&M or a Missouri loss to Iowa State. ... Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti has surfaced as a candidate to be Colorado's next coach. The Buffaloes are seeking a replacement for recently fired Dan Hawkins. ... With a victory over Kansas, Oklahoma State would clinch its first 10-win season since 1988. It would also mark the first time the Cowboys have notched 10 regular-season wins. ... Multiple concussions have caused Texas RB Tre' Newton to end his career. Cody Johnson now is listed as the Longhorns' starting running back. ... Texas A&M's four-game winning streak is its longest since 2006. A&M has not posted three victories in November since 1997. ... Kansas P Alonso Rojas has had a punt that covered more than 50 yards in nine of the Jayhawks' 10 games. ... Iowa State's Arnaud finishes his career as the Cyclones' career leader in completion percentage (59.7) and is second in passing yards (6,777), touchdowns (42), completions (616) and total offense (8,044). ... Colorado QB Cody Hawkins needs just 332 passing yards in his final two games to become the Buffaloes' leading career passer. ... Missouri has posted at least eight victories for a fifth consecutive season. The Tigers now have their sights on a third 10-win season in four years. ... Oklahoma State is seeking to tie a school record with its fifth road victory. Oklahoma State has won five road games in a season just three other times (1911, 1944 and 1945). ... Oklahoma DT Adrian Taylor tore an Achilles and will miss the rest of the season. ... Baylor RB Jay Finley has rushed for 11 touchdowns, which is the third-highest single-season total in school history. ... Colorado had eight sacks in last week's victory over Iowa State. ... Kansas DE Jake Laptad has been in on a sack in each of the past four games. He has 20 career sacks and needs one more to move into second place on Kansas' career list. ... Kansas State QB Collin Klein has posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances. ... Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has hinted that freshman QB James Franklin would be used more often, perhaps in running situations, but stressed that Blaine Gabbert's status as the starter would not be affected. ... Nebraska has rushed for at least 200 yards in nine of its 10 games. ... Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray, who was hurt in last week's win over Texas Tech, returned to practice and will start on Saturday. ... Texas WR Mike Davis has set a school single-season freshman record with 43 receptions. ... A&M's Gray is seeking his fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing performance, a feat that has not been accomplished by an Aggies runner since Darren Lewis in 1990.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.