By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 15, 2014
TideFans.com doesn’t often make reference to betting lines, as that’s not our thing. But when Alabama opened up as roughly a two-touchdown favorite over Texas A&M, it got everyone’s attention in the sports media world.
Alabama, a team that had just scraped to a 14-13 victory over Arkansas, the SEC West’s presumptive worst team, was being made a two-touchdown favorite over a team that beat Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012, carried the Crimson Tide to the wire in College Station in 2013, and has many of the same pieces returning from those teams in 2014. On the face, it doesn’t make sense.
Digging in deeper, the sudden confidence in Alabama in this game would seem to be a result of Texas A&M’s conference resume so far. Texas A&M is 2-2 in the SEC, with a close win over Arkansas and a big win in the opening week over South Carolina, although that particular victory looks less impressive every time South Carolina straps on the helmets. The Aggies have lost to both Mississippi schools and have ho-hum out-of-conference victories over Lamar, Rice and SMU.
Unfortunately for Alabama, this could well be the Crimson Tide’s resume had Alabama played Mississippi State early in the season alongside Ole Miss. Alabama has a narrow-margin victory over Arkansas, it lost to Ole Miss, and wins over Florida Atlantic, West Virginia and Southern Miss didn’t tell a lot. Alabama also had a blowout win over an SEC East opponent (Florida) that, in retrospect, doesn’t seem to mean much.
While Vegas does usually prove itself time and time again to be accurate in these matters, this game feels different somehow. Texas A&M may be coming off back-to-back losses, but Alabama is coming off a loss and an unimpressive performance, and the Aggies’ strengths could be an issue for Alabama’s weaknesses.
Texas A&M brings a full-bore passing spread to Tuscaloosa, but the Aggies aren’t entirely terrible in the running game. Texas A&M ranks 4th in total offense, 3rd in passing offense and 64th in rushing offense. While competent in the running game, the loss of Johnny Manziel at the quarterback position has handicapped the running game somewhat. Alabama utilizes a multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 18th in the country despite struggling mightily against Arkansas. Alabama is 30th in rushing and 28th in passing, but still ranks 5th in passing efficiency.
The Aggies’ Kenny Hill came out of the gate strongly against South Carolina, and even during last week’s loss to Ole Miss, was still proving to be an accurate passer. He’s 197-of-295 (66.8%) for 2,511 yards already on the season, with 23 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Hill is a dual-threat quarterback, but lacks Manziel’s innate ability to improvise. Hill is a capable runner (42 carries, 167 yards, 4.0 avg., 0 TD), but isn’t explosive in the way Manziel was. Alabama will counter with Blake Sims (101-of-149, 67.8%, 1,480 yards, 10 TD, 3 INT), who followed up a difficult Ole Miss game with a borderline poor effort against Arkansas. The backups (Jake Coker for Alabama, Kyle Allen for Texas A&M) have remarkably similar stats and makeup, so this comes down almost solely to whether Hill’s superior yardage wins out over Sims’ edge in passing efficiency. In the end, Hill simply has more tools in the passing game, and isn’t on a downswing the way Sims has been recently. Advantage: Texas A&M
Even with the injury to Kenyan Drake, Alabama should hold the advantage here. The two-man tandem of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry gives Alabama a cut-and-power combination no other SEC team outside of Georgia really has right now. Given Texas A&M’s struggles in stopping the run, Alabama seems to be in prime position to exact damage on the Aggies. Altee Tenpenny provides depth, and Tyren Jones might be back this week. Even still, Texas A&M actually has better depth with Trey Williams, Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and James White available. Trey Williams is the outside threat, while Carson has plenty of size to be an inside banger. Neither player has the kind of field vision Ben Malena possessed last year, however. Texas A&M won’t use a fullback, but Alabama will, and Jalston Fowler has turned into a weapon in the passing game and as a blocker. Michael Nysewander provides depth there. Alabama may still be looking for a replacement for Drake, but Yeldon and Henry are more than enough at this point. Advantage: Alabama
Prior to the season, Alabama was thought to have one of the best, if not the best overall SEC recruiting corps. Instead, outside of Amari Cooper, Alabama has been a huge disappointment overall. DeAndrew White is a weapon when he’s healthy, but he hasn’t been healthy enough. Christion Jones has been visible only when making mistakes, and Chris Black hasn’t seen enough snaps to make a difference. Cameron Sims and ArDarius Stewart will provide depth, although they play only sparingly. At tight end, Brian Vogler was injured toward the end of the Arkansas game, while O.J. Howard has been hit-or-miss. With Vogler not completely healthy, Dakota Ball or even Brandon Greene might get a look in this game. As for Texas A&M, the Aggies have seven receivers with double-digit receptions already, led by Josh Reynolds and Edward Pope. The two have combined for 12 touchdowns and both players average more than 16 yards per catch. Malcolme Kennedy, the emotional leader of the unit, will be limited for this game, but it might not matter. Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil, Sabian Holmes and Boone Niederhofer are all capable of picking up the slack. The one disappointment so far for Texas A&M has been the lack of emergence of tight end Cameron Clear, who has just 4 catches for 35 yards (8.8 avg.) on the season. Still, with the sheer numbers the Aggies can throw at Alabama – thereby keeping fresh legs – it more than makes up for what Cooper brings to the table for the Tide. Advantage: Texas A&M
The Aggies haven’t blocked quite as well in the running game as originally hoped, but to be fair, the Aggies have faced three of the conference’s most talented defensive lines already. Along the way, they’ve rotated starts and built some real depth. Mike Matthews will start at center, flanked likely by Jarvis Harrison and Joseph Cheek at the guard slots and Germain Ifedi and Cedric Ogbuehi at the tackles. Ben Compton and Garrett Gramling are also available inside, and Gramling could draw a start in this game. Ryan Lindblade provides depth outside. Alabama’s starting lineup is in flux at the moment thanks to Ryan Kelly’s continuing absence at center and the competition at right guard that involves Leon Brown, Alphonse Taylor and perhaps Dominick Jackson and Grant Hill as well. Bradley Bozeman will start at center, with Arie Kouandjio at left guard and Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd at the tackles. Brown is the most likely to draw the start at right guard. While A&M hasn’t had a stable lineup in its own right, the Aggies are in much better shape at the moment than Alabama is. Advantage: Texas A&M
It’s difficult to guess what Alabama’s defense will look like here. Alabama prefers to run a 3-4 over/under scheme, but the Crimson Tide will probably be in nickel and dime sets the entire game to counteract A&M’s four-wideout look. Alabama ranks 3rd in total defense, 3rd in rushing defense, 33rd in raw pass defense and 30th in pass efficiency defense. The Aggies have not had comparable success. Texas A&M is 71st in total defense, 81st against the run, 50th in raw pass defense and 66th in pass efficiency defense. Those numbers actually reflect improvement over 2013 against the pass, but it could be because teams have found it so easy to run against the Aggies that they haven’t bothered throwing the ball. Texas A&M uses a multiple front that typically swaps between a 4-3 base and 4-2-5/3-3-5 looks.
True freshman DE Myles Garrett already has 7.5 sacks on the season and appears to be a lock for freshman all-SEC honors. He’s the best pure pass rusher on the field for either team. Problem is, he’s really a one-man band at this point. Julien Obioha, the Aggies’ other end, has been fairly silent. Tackles Alonzo Williams and Ivan Robinson are decent at getting penetration, but aren’t consistent enough in holding the point of attack. Hardreck Walker will rotate with them, while Daeshon Hall and Qualen Cunningham will back up the ends. Although Alabama would like to go with its base set of Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, it is much more likely that Robinson starts in the middle flanked by Jonathan Allen and either Reed or D.J. Pettway at the ends. Pettway was banged up against Arkansas, though, so Dalvin Tomlinson might be more likely. Da’Shawn Hand provides depth outside, while Darren Lake and Josh Frazier back up the middle. Alabama’s line has improved vastly over 2013 levels and clearly holds the edge here, despite Garrett’s strong start. Advantage: Alabama
Again, this depends mostly on who Alabama starts. Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest typically start in the middle, with Xzavier Dickson outside. Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee split Denzel Devall’s position last week and will do so again this week. Against A&M, Dickson is likely to go to defensive end exclusively, while either Ragland or DePriest will come off the field entirely along with the other outside linebacker. Texas A&M will start Justin Bass and Jordan Mastrogiovanni, and Donnie Baggs might get a start here if the Aggies favor their base defense over a 5-man secondary. Bass is the team’s third-leading tackler, but he has been almost completely AWOL in making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Mastrogiovanni lacks the athleticism, and Baggs lacks the size and consistency to be frontline playmakers. A.J. Hilliard, who backs up the inside positions, has been arguably more effective than the starters, but it’s marginal. Even if Alabama plays just one true linebacker position in this game, the Crimson Tide still has an edge in playmaking ability. Advantage: Alabama
Texas A&M’s improvement in 2014 can be directly traced to the safety trio of Howard Matthews, Devonta Burns and Armani Watts. While not exactly turnover specialists, the three have proven to be competent against receivers and running backs alike, which is a huge step up over prior years. Floyd Raven provides plenty of experience off the bench, as well. Cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and Victor Davis are also improved. Still, this is a team prone to give up big plays and get lost in space. Alabama counters with Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown at the corners and Landon Collins, Nick Perry, Jarrick Williams, Geno Smith, Maurice Smith and Jabriel Washington at the safety slots. The Jackson-Brown corner position is still being debated, and Alabama needs to get better safety play opposite Collins, but for the most part, complaints have been few. Mostly, Alabama has gotten measurably better production out of its group despite Texas A&M facing roughly the same degree of competency in opposing passing attacks. Advantage: Alabama
Despite the fact that Alabama punter J.K. Scott can kick the ball to the nearest state line, there is no way to give Alabama the edge here. Alabama’s punt and kickoff return games have turned into a circus, with fumbles, misplayed balls and clueless gunners running hither and yon while the ball is in the air. In addition, placekicker Adam Griffith is working out of a midseason mini-slump. Texas A&M, meanwhile, ranks 11th in net punting (Alabama ranks 3rd), and placekicker Josh Lambo has been nearly automatic. Alabama’s group simply isn’t well-coached, and that’s an oddity for a Nick Saban-led team. This is the most lopsided edge on the board, running backs and wide receivers included. Advantage: Texas A&M
Alabama and Texas A&M both lead in four categories. Of particular interest are the OL-DL matchups. It’s strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness, but Texas A&M holds a slight edge going both ways. Alabama’s DL is tuned to stop running games, not spread passing attacks, while the Alabama offensive line is somewhat of a mess.
That leaves one to wonder what Vegas oddsmakers are seeing here. Texas A&M has the superior quarterback, better trench matchups and stronger special teams. All indicators are pointing to an Aggie win with the exception of home-field advantage, which meant nothing to Alabama in this game two years ago.
It’s certainly possible that Alabama will win this game by two scores, but it will have to come from areas not seen by this analysis. Alabama’s best hope here is that Texas A&M’s defense is so much behind that of Ole Miss and Arkansas that Blake Sims has multiple options downfield, and/or that Alabama’s offensive line can exploit seams in the Texas A&M front.
The real problem for Alabama is that its secondary doesn’t necessarily match up well with Texas A&M’s receiver corps. Alabama will be forced to use safeties on inside receivers, which hasn’t been a recipe for success under Nick Saban. Alabama will have to show something it has yet to show in 2014 – a more stable pass rush, more intuitiveness from its safeties, better penetration from the front four – before this one goes in the home team’s column.
As it stands, this could end up being the game that puts Alabama out of the national title picture – unless Vegas really is clairvoyant.
Texas A&M 27
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN