If this turns out to be yet another national championship year for Alabama, fans and sportswriters alike have a game they like to play: Find the one or two teams Alabama will struggle with on its way to the playoffs.
In 2009, it was Auburn and Tennessee. In 2011, LSU. In 2012, LSU and Texas A&M, etc. It seems to happen every year.
So far in 2016, Alabama escaped Oxford, Miss., with a win over Ole Miss that got much too close for comfort in the game’s closing minutes. Rivalry games with LSU and Auburn are still on the horizon. Alabama could very well face a much healthier Tennessee team in Atlanta than the one it drubbed 49-10 last Saturday.
But the truly worrisome matchup, the one Alabama has been regarding with a cautious sideways glance up to this point, is Texas A&M and most specifically, its quarterback Trevor Knight.
Knight has earned the reputation of a giant slayer, beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl following the 2013 season while at Oklahoma. This year for Texas A&M, he has led the Aggies to victory over Auburn, Arkansas, UCLA in overtime and, of course, a double-overtime thriller over Tennessee. Statistically, he appears just average, but when the chips are down, Knight finds a phone booth and comes out in a leotard with an “S” on the chest.
Texas A&M is playing better than anyone left on Alabama’s schedule, and while LSU is more talented (and perhaps Auburn is as well), the Aggies seem to have jelled behind new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, and the leadership of Knight.
Alabama is coming to the end of a string of physical, key games, while Texas A&M was off last week. This is a dangerous matchup for Alabama, the very epitome of a trap game, and the Aggies have enough talent in spots to pull the upset unless Alabama is just as focused this week as it was a week ago.
Texas A&M will still throw the ball around a lot, but Mazzone’s influence on the program has been to take a soft, finesse passing game and mix in a power running element out of a single-back pro-style spread set that is trending toward a three-wide rather than A&M’s wide-open, four-wide set. Texas A&M is 7th in the nation in rushing and 8th in total offense, while falling to 44th in passing offense. While passing efficiency has struggled (100th), the Aggies have the 16th-ranked scoring offense in the land. Alabama will counter with its multiple, pro-style attack that uses more big bodies, but has similar numbers to the Aggie attack: 10th in rushing, 17th in total offense, 54th in passing, 6th in scoring. This is a comparison of good vs. good.
Here’s a case where the stats don’t tell the whole story. Knight, a true dual-threat quarterback, has completed just 53.5% of his passes in 2016 for 1,500 yards (7.0 ypa), 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He carries a rating of just 121.3, which is not terrible but also not special. However, Knight has carried 65 times for 502 yards (7.7 avg.) and 9 touchdowns, which are ridiculously good numbers for a guy thought to be nothing more than an athletic pro-style passer while with the Sooners. It’s no wonder A&M’s sacks-allowed numbers are low (12th nationally, 2nd SEC), mostly a function not of the offensive line, but Knight’s escapability.
Texas A&M also fields an underrated backup, Jake Hubenak, although Hubenak hasn’t gotten as much work as the Aggies would like. In Knight’s case, he’s simply a gamer. He wins. He frustrates defenses because he’s hard to get to the ground, even though his frame isn’t much more than about 6’1”, 215.
Alabama counters with Jalen Hurts, who’s coming off a performance at Tennessee that was just fair through the air, but dominating on the ground. Hurts has completed 63.5% of his passes for 1,385 yards, good for a lower YPA than Knight (7.8), but he’s thrown fewer interceptions (3) while passing for the same number of touchdowns (9). As such, Hurts’ QB rating is substantially higher at 142.2, and his rushing numbers are similar (74 carries, 428 yards, 5.8 avg., 8 TD).
Backup Cooper Bateman doesn’t have Jake Hubenak’s raw skill set but he is much more experienced. In regards to Knight versus Hurts, Hurts may have slightly better numbers, and it’s clear whose future is brighter. But Knight has proven more, is older and most importantly, has shown in the past he won’t get rattled by Alabama’s defensive pressure. Advantage: Texas A&M
Both teams are relying heavily on true freshmen. In Texas A&M’s case, Trayveon Williams (82 carries, 704 yards, 8.6 avg., 5 TD), a 5’9”, 200-pound sparkplug, has helped A&M take the offense to the next level more than any other player besides Knight. Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford (49 carries, 242 yards, 4.9 avg., 3 TD) gives the Aggies quality depth off the bench, but Ford has not been quite as impactful as he was predicted to have been by this point. Knight is the team’s second-leading rusher, and after Ford, the quality of the depth drops off precipitously. Kendall Bussey, James White and Kwame Etwi have mostly been limited to trash time and/or just a carry or two here and there.
Alabama will likely start Damien Harris (69 carries, 572 yards, 8.3 avg., 1 TD), but at this point, the Crimson Tide has built so much depth that the starter doesn’t matter. The Tide’s own stellar true freshman, Joshua Jacobs (43 carries, 345 yards, 8.0 avg., 3 TD) has the look of the next great Alabama back, almost a carbon copy of former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Bo Scarbrough broke out (finally) against Tennessee, and he’s a weapon in goal-line situations.
B.J. Emmons rounds out the top unit, along with Hurts at QB. Alabama also has the luxury of a package fullback in Mack Wilson should the need arise. There’s not a thing wrong with Trayveon Williams, and he’ll be a thorn in the side of the SEC West for at least two more seasons after this one. But Alabama can match him with either Harris or Jacobs, and rules the depth comparison. Advantage: Alabama
If there was ever a case where a unit could be described as a grenade with the pin out, waiting to blow up, here it is. Aside from Josh Reynolds (25 catches, 488 yards, 19.5 avg., 4 TD) and Christian Kirk, who has caught 40 passes in a possession role, Texas A&M fans have to be wondering where’s the beef. Ricky Seals-Jones has just 10 catches to this point, and Speedy Noil and Jeremy Tabuyo just 8 apiece.
The quality of this unit was supposed to make the sometimes-scattershot Knight into Tom Brady, but it hasn’t happened. Texas A&M is committed to greater use of the tight end – Tanner Schorp starts there when one is on the field – but he has yet to catch a pass and is mostly a blocker. Wide receiver blocking, at least, has been sharp, and the most believable excuse so far for this group is that they are simply acclimating to Mazzone’s more physical expectations and brand of football.
Alabama will start Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, who have combined for 65 catches and virtually all of Alabama’s big plays from the outside. Gehrig Dieter starts in the slot, while Trayvon Diggs, Cameron Sims, Derek Kief and Robert Foster add depth, but it’s a fair point of criticism to say the supporting cast has not lived up to expectations, at least as receivers. Like A&M’s group, though, blocking is not to be doubted. Tight end O.J. Howard gives Alabama a big edge at that position, but Alabama has yet to do more with Hale Hentges than utilize him as a blocker. Miller Forristall has become an effective H-back, while Brandon Greene and Irv Smith Jr. add depth.
This one’s a tough call, because coming into the year these were probably two of the top 3-4 wideout groups in the conference, yet neither team has shown enough consistency. Take A&M simply because its production goes deeper down the depth chart, but it’s not a big edge because of the lack of receiving options at tight end. Advantage: Texas A&M
The work Texas A&M has done to bolster this group in 2016 has been nothing short of a miracle. There were multiple observers who were expecting the Aggies to have the worst OL unit in the conference, but it sure hasn’t turned out that way. Texas A&M blocks well in the running game, doesn’t yield sacks and in general has played infinitely far above its collective heads. In baseball terms, this was a AA offensive line trying to play in the big leagues. The strength is on the edges, where seniors Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor simply don’t let anybody in. The interior group is made up of freshmen Erik McCoy at center and Colton Prater at left guard, and sophomore Connor Lanfear at right guard. There isn’t an upperclassman to be found in the reserve units, but it hasn’t mattered.
Alabama counters with Bradley Bozeman at center, Ross Pierschbacher at left guard and Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams at the tackles. It appears Lester Cotton will have to start at right guard against this week for Alphonse Taylor, who is still recovering from a concussion. Cotton started earlier in the year at left guard and if he plays this week like he did against Tennessee, there will be no dropoff from Taylor. Alabama has put together two superb showings in a row from its offensive line, although Robinson did understandably struggle with Tennessee’s Derek Barnett last week, which just means Robinson has a lot of company.
The Crimson Tide has slightly more experience here, but this is yet another close category with both teams having success against good defenses and, in fact, a couple of common opponents. Alabama’s better depth lets it eek out a tight win. Advantage: Alabama