Texas A&M preview: War with Aggies could be a repeat of LSU week

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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Nov. 7, 2012

 

As the din of celebration faded early Sunday morning following Alabama’s rather incredible 21-17 win over LSU, those with a penchant to worry over their football were already casting an uneasy eye toward Nov. 10, and Alabama’s game against the Texas A&M Aggies.

 

When Texas A&M joined the SEC, the Aggies were coming off several seasons of middling results, and had just lost QB Ryan Tannehill to the Miami Dolphins. New head coach Kevin Sumlin was committed to taking the Aggies even more into the realm of the spread offense than former coach Mike Sherman had dared, and the Aggie defense, particularly its secondary, didn’t appear able to stop a good high school team.

 

And now, three months later, what looked in September to be sort of a ho-hum matchup sandwiched between the LSU and Auburn games has turned into a potential title-wrecker, thanks to a good job by Sumlin, an overachieving defense and a little thing called “Johnny Football.” The resultant storm is set to blow into Tuscaloosa Saturday and face a tired, beaten-up Alabama team that will be trying to overcome an almost inevitable emotional letdown after the Baton Rouge experience.

 

The definition of “trap game” could not be more thoroughly appropriate than it is now.

 

OFFENSE

 

Texas A&M is a spread team in every way. There is no fullback in the offense, receivers run wild all over the place and the Aggies use misdirection and matchup control to exploit opposing run defenses. For all the deserved talk about the Aggies’ veteran wideout corps and stout pass blockers along the offensive line, they don’t lead the SEC in passing offense – but they do in rushing offense. Total offense ranks 5th nationally at approximately 560 yards per game, rushing is 10th overall, passing 19th and scoring 4th. Alabama counters with its pro-style, multiple attack that isn’t nearly as flashy as the A&M offense, but isn’t that far off in rushing (24th) or scoring (17th). Texas A&M will seek to hurry the game and pack as many possessions in as possible, while Alabama will probably be working the opposite strategy.

 

QUARTERBACKS

Texas A&M was projected to start sophomore Jameill Showers in the preseason. He had experience, albeit not much, and an impressive prep pedigree. And then Johnny Manziel showed up. Manziel ranks 2nd in the country in total offense thanks to his dual-threat capabilities, particularly running the ball. Manziel actually ranks higher in the country in rushing (27th, at 102.4 yards per game) than he does passing efficiency (29th), a screwball statistic if there ever was one, especially considering Texas A&M ranks a subpar 63rd in sacks allowed, which affects his rushing totals. The most impressive thing about his play, though, isn’t the physical – it’s the mental. Manziel seems to harbor no concern over whether the team he’s facing has a tough defense or not, big players or complicated schemes. No team outside of perhaps LSU has intimidated him. His ability to extend plays is maddening, and there is almost no need for a pocket when he plays. Style-of-play-wise, he is somewhere between current Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and Boston College great Doug Flutie, with the physical skills of the former and the flair for the dramatic of the latter, as Ole Miss can certainly attest. Showers is still available as a sub should Manziel go down, which means an injury to Manziel might not be the death knell opponents assume. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who is still nursing a back/shoulder injury and a knee injury, although he was able to overcome both when it counted against LSU. McCarron is a more efficient passer than Manziel statistically (3rd nationally) but the offensive styles are so different, it’s hard to say who is more effective as a thrower only. Backups Blake Sims and Phillip Ely combined have about the same amount of experience as Showers, but Showers can run Texas A&M’s full offensive package, whereas Sims’ ability to do that for Alabama is unclear. Taking nothing away from McCarron, Manziel brings so much to the table in multiple areas that it’s impossible not to give the Aggies the edge here, especially with McCarron not at full strength. Manziel will be a major problem for the SEC West for years to come. Advantage: Texas A&M

 

RUNNING BACKS

Both teams have impressive 1-2 punches in the backfield. Alabama boasts Eddie Lacy (120 carries, 679 yards, 5.7 avg., 8 TD) and T.J. Yeldon (104 carries, 725 yards, 7.0 avg., 7 TD), while Texas A&M brings Christine Michael (69 carries, 321 yards, 4.7 avg., 8 TD) and Ben Malena (96 carries, 637 yards, 6.6 avg., 6 TD). The wild card, though, is Manziel, who has carried 138 times for 922 yards (6.7 avg.) and 15 touchdowns from the quarterback position – and those numbers include yardage lost to sacks. As for the Aggie backs themselves, Michael is an inside bruiser, while Malena is a scatback who needs more from his offensive line in order to make a big impact. And therein may be where the Tide breaks slightly ahead. Both Lacy and Yeldon are adept at inside and outside running, and can make plays for themselves even when the offensive line didn’t completely do its job on a play. Texas A&M holds a slight depth edge thanks to third-team back Trey Williams, who is more a fixture in the regular offensive package than Kenyan Drake is for the Crimson Tide. Williams, like Malena, is a smaller back. The question of what to do with Manziel regarding characterization for the purpose of analysis is a big issue, as it’s hard to give Alabama the edge when Texas A&M has been more effective on the ground this year. But we’ll take the Tide here anyway, restricting our analysis to running backs only. Advantage: Alabama

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

Alabama’s wideouts, as a group, have more potential than any group of Tide receivers in years, perhaps ever. Having said that, injuries (again) are a factor and Alabama isn’t quite there yet. Texas A&M is. Ryan Swope (45 catches, 641 yards, 14.2 avg., 5 TD) has done what Missouri’s T.J. Moe couldn’t do, and that’s remain relevant and dangerous after the move to the SEC. Swope is a bit of an odd bird, going about 6’1” and 210 or so pounds, with a thick build. He’s sort of a fast fullback running routes at times, and at other times an effective and nimble possession receiver – and will end his career at or near the top of virtually every school record for receiving. Redshirt freshman Mike Evans (56 catches, 802 yards, 14.3 avg., 2 TD), though, has been the real difference maker. He’s 6’5”, 220 pounds and very physical. Uzoma Nwachukwu rounds out the top group, but there is plenty of depth to be had, most notably Kenric McNeal and Thomas Johnson. Texas A&M also has two fine tight ends in Michael Lemothe and Nehemiah Hicks, but they have been mostly absent from the passing attack this year and are used mostly as blockers. Strangely, Texas A&M doesn’t use the backs as receivers much, with the curious exception of third-team Trey Williams, who has 148 yards on the year. Alabama counters with its top group of Christion Jones, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and Amari Cooper, with Marvin Shinn, Cyrus Jones, Nathan McAlister and Danny Woodson Jr. providing depth. Norwood came up big against LSU, while Bell remains a solid deep threat and Christion Jones a tough receiver over the middle. All eyes, though, will be on Cooper, Alabama’s best playmaker, who continues to deal with ankle injuries. His absence from the LSU game was a game-changer. Tight end Michael Williams is a furious blocker and decent receiver, and especially a weapon around the goal line. Kelly Johnson will start at H-back and Brian Vogler provides depth at both tight end positions. If Cooper is OK – and that’s a huge “if” at the moment – there isn’t much difference in terms of raw ability between the two groups. But A&M holds a substantial edge in experience, and depth can’t be ignored. Advantage: Texas A&M

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Everyone knows Manziel’s name; few know the names of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. They are Texas A&M’s left and right tackles, respectively, and there is a good chance both of them will skip their senior seasons for the NFL Draft. Joeckel in particular has pro scouts drooling, and could be a first-rounder. They are the best tackle tandem in the conference. Center Patrick Lewis is similarly solid. If Texas A&M has a weak spot, it’s going to show up in the guard positions, currently manned by Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi. The Aggies don’t often pass protect in the middle as well as they should, and while A&M has put up impressive rushing numbers, a huge chunk of that comes from Manziel’s scrambling and not between-the-tackles battering. Alabama counters with Barrett Jones at center, flanked by guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker. Fluker, maligned often this year for his one-on-one pass protecting, played the game of his life against LSU. Kouandjio gave up one sack, but otherwise was dominant. The middle of the Alabama line have been sturdy pass protectors, but where Alabama has really made its bones has been in consistent point-of-attack control in the running game. Depth for these two units is about the same, with Alabama having maybe a slight edge. Texas A&M has the best overall player (Joeckel, although Alabama’s Warmack might have an objection) and a fine supporting player (Matthews), but Alabama is more consistent across the board and better up the middle. This one is close. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSE

 

Both teams run variants of a three-man front. Alabama has its 3-4 over/under scheme, while Texas A&M plays more of a straight-up 3-1-3 jack split alignment with a stand-up end. The real difference, though, is not one of scheme, but of effectiveness. Texas A&M has been decent against the run (31st overall) and OK in pass efficiency defense (38th), but is 70th in raw pass defense, almost bringing up the rear of the conference. Scoring defense is good (27th), but total defense mediocre (46th). Alabama, prior to the LSU game was leading all five categories nationally; afterwards, the Tide leads only in scoring defense. Alabama dropped to 2nd in total defense and rushing defense, 5th in pass efficiency defense and 8th in pass defense, but those numbers would still qualify as the Steel Curtain to most schools.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

If Alabama fans don’t already know Damontre Moore’s name, chances are they will before the end of this game. Moore’s defensive stat sheet looks like something from a PlayStation game: He leads the team in total tackles with 69, has 19 tackles for losses and 11.5 sacks. All this production comes from the “Rush” position, Texas A&M’s codespeak for its Jack or stand-up end. Outside of Moore, however, the Aggies are quite pedestrian. Kirby Ennis and Spencer Nealy will start inside, with a true freshman, Julien Obioha, starting at weakside end. Size is a concern here, as Nealy and Ennis are average and Obioha badly overmatched at times. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle flanked by a tackle/end combination of Damion Square, Ed Stinson, Jeoffrey Pagan, Quinton Dial and D.J. Pettway. Reserve nosetackle Brandon Ivory has played quite a bit lately in a twin-tackle alignment with Williams, and has been effective. The Alabama defensive line struggled a bit against LSU’s inside beef last week, but Texas A&M’s offensive line isn’t as sturdy up the middle. While Moore is the name to watch here, Alabama holds an edge everywhere else. Advantage: Alabama

 

LINEBACKERS

The Aggie backers are a solid group with good athleticism and plenty of game experience coming into the 2012 season. Jonathan Stewart, the middle linebacker, can collect tackles with the best of them and is reasonably effective as a middle pass rusher. The outside players, Steven Jenkins and Sean Porter, are active and fast, and Porter in particular can cause problems. He is reminiscent of a larger, more disciplined Daren Bates. Donnie Baggs is a very capable player off the bench, but depth trails off substantially after that. Michael Richardson and Justin Bass, the other two top reserves, have yet to be factors in a game. Alabama will have C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest in the middle, along with its outside linebacker combination of Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson. Hubbard turned up his game against LSU, and Dickson has become a force when he moves to a rush end position. Being able to play Mosley more against the Texas A&M offense than he did against the LSU offense will be a net positive for Alabama. Depth is solidly in Alabama’s favor, thanks to Denzel Devall outside and Tana Patrick inside. The Tide has the edge here overall, unless you count Damontre Moore as a linebacker more than a defensive lineman, and even then it’s close. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This was supposed to be the problem spot for Texas A&M coming into the year, and fears were well-founded. There is good size at corner, where both starters are 6’0” or taller, but neither Dustin Harris nor Deshazor Everett is considered to be among the conference’s finest by any stretch. True freshman De’Vante Harris and transfer Tramain Jacobs make up the depth. At safety, Howard Matthews has good size but there are concerns about his speed, while free safety Steven Terrell would be considered small even in the Sun Belt. Alabama, though, might have issues of its own if the LSU game is to be considered a training indicator. Dee Milliner and Deion Belue will start at corner, with Robert Lester at one safety slot and some combination of Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix at the other. Milliner and Lester will be fine, but LSU went after Belue mercilessly and achieved good results, thanks not to deficient technique but because of Belue’s smaller size. While Robert Lester played well against LSU, Alabama got very little from the Perry-Sunseri-Dix trio. Don’t expect to see much of Perry this week as Alabama will not be in base defense often, but Sunseri and Clinton-Dix must rebound after getting worked by Zach Mettenberger. John Fulton, Geno Smith and Bradley Sylve add depth at corner while Landon Collins is available at safety. This one is still in the Tide’s favor, but perhaps there are some cracks showing. Advantage: Alabama

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Aggies have one of the best punting games in the nation behind Ryan Epperson, but Alabama’s Cody Mandell has been good enough where the edge is not substantial. Both teams are equally dangerous in the return game. Where Alabama pulls ahead is at kicker, where the Jeremy Shelley-Cade Foster combination has been mostly reliable on the season and deadly accurate from in close. As for Texas A&M … nobody knows what they’re going to get. True freshman Taylor Bertolet has made 11 of 19 field goals, but his miss/make chart makes no sense. He’s 2-of-3 from 50 yards and beyond, but only 2-of-8 from 30-49 yards out. He also found a way to miss a sub-30-yarder, although he’s hit his other 7 from inside that distance. Aside from the placekicking, this is a dead push. Depending on which Bertolet shows up, Alabama either holds a comfortable edge or A&M might hold a slim lead. Advantage: Alabama

 

OVERALL

 

Alabama leads in six categories, Texas A&M in two, although special teams could go either way. Alabama holds a definite edge in terms of its OL versus the A&M DL, but the matchup of Alabama DL vs. A&M OL is either a too-close edge for the Tide or a tie.

 

The real problem for Alabama – and the matchup that will turn this game – is how Alabama’s secondary turns up against the Texas A&M wide receiver corps, and whether Alabama can get any effective pressure at all on Manziel. So far, Manziel has seemed to take the occasional sack in stride. But after watching Zach Mettenberger carve up Alabama’s short-range pass defense last week, one has to wonder how the Tide DBs will do against a receiver corps that is twice as dangerous as what LSU brought to the table.

 

Perhaps the answer can be found in how Texas A&M did against Florida and LSU, the two defenses most like Alabama’s. Texas A&M scored 17 and 19 points against those two teams, respectively, although the Florida game comes with a caveat – it was Florida’s second game of the year, but A&M’s first thanks to a hurricane, and Manziel’s first collegiate start. Florida held Manziel to only 173 yards through the air and 60 rushing. Against LSU, he went for 276 through the air and 27 on the ground, and threw 3 picks. Neither defense yielded a passing touchdown.

 

Still, Manziel gets better every week. He seems to have the confidence of a fifth-year senior, and a large portion of the credit for that goes to a receiver corps that causes all kinds of problems for defenses. Alabama fans seem confident the Tide will shut down Manziel – but Alabama was supposed to embarrass Mettenberger, and the opposite nearly occurred.

 

In summary, even though Alabama holds a 6-2 category lead and likely the OL/DL matchups as well, this game isn’t likely to play out the way it looks on paper. Quarterbacks as dynamic as Manziel have caused problems for the Tide in the past, and this game will likely be separated by single digits.

 

If it isn’t, Alabama fans can feel good not just about shutting down Georgia in three weeks, but in facing whatever Oregon, Kansas State or Notre Dame might throw at them in January. But be prepared for trouble. As much as the secondary will be on the hook in this game, the onus is also on the Alabama offense to build a lead and not let off the gas.

 

Alabama 30

Texas A&M 24

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