By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 23, 2016
Before any in-depth analysis takes place, it should be noted that Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin deserves a heap of praise for evaluating the condition of the Aggie program last year and fixing the core problem: Himself.
Sumlin had fallen in love with the high-flying, all-passing-all-the-time spread offense, especially when it was keyed by a quarterback possessing the dual-threat skills of Johnny Manziel and most of his successors. But the fact of the matter was, Texas A&M was not going to win in the SEC with that offense. No one was, or can. The SEC is too physical, too fast on defense. Sumlin went on a self-scouting excursion and returned with an invaluable souvenir – humility.
To change Texas A&M’s identity, Sumlin first brought in veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis, who unlike many modern defensive coordinators, isn’t running away from the linebacker position like his pants were on fire. Seemingly every other college defense today is made up of four down linemen and seven track guys in the back end. Linebackers haven’t gone the way of the fullback yet, but defenses are increasingly hinging on guys in the secondary who are able to both defend the pass and impede, if not stuff, the running game.
Sumlin then brought in SEC mainstay Noel Mazzone as offensive coordinator for 2016. Mazzone’s first order of business was to take his quarterbacks aside and teach them that in addition to throwing the ball downfield, it was indeed legal, despite his quarterbacks’ protestations to the contrary, to turn around and hand the ball directly to a running back.
The end result is a Texas A&M team that came into this game against Alabama among the top 10 teams in the country in rushing, and mediocre in passing. Compared to recent Aggie teams, this kind of theoretical switcheroo was as unforeseen as a deer standing on the right-of-way of a Wilcox County highway after dark.
But while Sumlin, Chavis and Mazzone made their team tougher, they didn’t necessarily make it tougher to beat. Not Saturday in Tuscaloosa, at least.
Perhaps Texas A&M’s 2016 season is just one big mirage. Or maybe it’s a transitional year not unlike Nick Saban’s 2008 Alabama team. That Alabama team advanced to the SEC Championship Game and almost the BCS Championship Game as well, and it did so a year ahead of schedule. The 2008 Alabama team just kept winning as it kept getting tougher, and until Saturday, so did the Aggies of 2016.
Perhaps with a little more offensive imagination, the Aggies could have made the end result of this game be thrust deeper into doubt. Instead, Sumlin and Mazzone seemed determined to work a predetermined plan regardless of the score. Even down 19 points late in the fourth quarter – and even after the loss of S Eddie Jackson – Texas A&M was still running the ball a good bit, mostly behind Keith Ford.
It’s possible to chalk this up to bad playcalling from either Sumlin or Mazzone, but it’s more likely that Texas A&M is still playing for the future. This was an incomplete Aggie team; it completely lacks a tight end, its running back depth doesn’t include enough beef, and the middle of its defense is a weak spot. Sumlin must feel as if he has the patience of his bosses – and in that regard, he’s probably correct – and can thus play for future, more favorable matchups.
For his sake, we’ll hope so, because if Texas A&M really thought it could beat Alabama running the ball 38 times versus passing it 31 times, it might be time to send some THC-sensitive German shepherds through the Aggie team plane. As a character-builder, Texas A&M’s gameplan made perfect sense; as a way to actually knock Alabama off, it stunk.
Unfortunately for Alabama, the Crimson Tide may have lost more in the short term than Texas A&M did. Eddie Jackson’s leg injury is a huge blow to both the Alabama defense and its special teams units. Alabama has enough depth to cover the hole, but perhaps not enough quality to adequately fill it up. The sight of Jackson leaving the field on the back of the team’s medical cart, head hung low, was haunting.
Alabama gets a week off to get healthy, but Jackson isn’t coming back, and attention now focuses on his replacements, Hootie Jones and Tony Brown. Nick Saban called Jackson an all-America-caliber player, and he’s probably not exaggerating. Alabama has tough games left against LSU and Auburn, and poor safety play could doom each. The Tide needs to look no further than to last week’s opponent, Tennessee, to fully understand that the saying, “injuries are just part of the game,” is tough-talking hogwash; they can be season-killers when too frequent.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M:
1. Bama won by attacking A&M’s soft center on defense. We profiled Texas A&M’s issues at defensive tackle and linebacker, and that’s exactly where Alabama made its hay, particularly at the first of the game and at its end. Tight end O.J. Howard ran wide open all day and ended up with 8 catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. Nearly all of Alabama’s running was done between the tackles, with only the QB bootlegs and sweeps breaking up the monotony.
Alabama racked up 287 yards on 57 carries (5.0 avg.), but the most noticeable change in the attack plan was Howard’s day. A&M never picked him up and those routes would have been open on even more occasions had Alabama chose to attack them in that way. As predicted, only LB Shann Washington did a particularly good job among Texas A&M’s inside players. The Aggies will have to recruit their way out of this problem but Alabama will continue to attack that area until they do.
2. While capable of striking quickly, Hurts’ struggles in downfield passing showed Bama’s not built to come from behind: Jalen Hurts had a superb day on the ground, picking up 93 yards on 21 carries, with a run of 37 yards that went for Alabama’s final touchdown of the day. But Hurts averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt and both his deep- and his intermediate-range passing misfired. Only Alabama’s short passing game worked, and while Texas A&M’s secondary has improved tremendously under Chavis, it’s still just an average group – particularly after Donovan Wilson got ejected for targeting.
The one truly scary stretch of the game for Alabama came at the end of the second through the early part of the third quarters, when Texas A&M wiped out a 13-0 deficit and, for a brief time, took a 14-13 lead. That’s when it became most evident what the limitations of Alabama’s passing attack really are.
This is not a team built to come from behind, so getting a quick lead and building onto it is going to be a priceless concept over the next few weeks. Hurts particularly struggled on throws to his left or while rolling to his left, and he needs to improve quickly lest he become the second coming of Rick Mirer. Hurts, though, managed to keep critical errors down to just one, an interception on a dump pass attempt to a running back (his other interception, on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half, was statistically inconsequential), and Alabama picked off Trevor Knight on the next play anyway. Alabama must simply avoid a slow start the rest of the way in.
3. Kicking game has to tighten up. Adam Griffith did not have his best day, missing a field goal attempt of less than 30 yards and leaving multiple kickoffs short of the end zone. Alabama’s coverage units at least made the second issue mostly a non-factor, especially with Mack Wilson patrolling the kickoff units in search of someone to behead. But Griffith’s missed field goal eventually allowed Texas A&M to take the lead, as hitting that kick would have brought the score to 16-0 and kept the Aggies from going up a point in the early third quarter. If Alabama finds itself in a kicking battle with LSU or Auburn down the road, they’ll need a better performance than this.
4. Aggies never truly gave Knight a chance. Trevor Knight had already proven what he could do to Alabama, and some of Texas A&M’s most effective plays were quick plays designed to take advantage of Knight’s impressive decision-making skills on run-pass options. But Texas A&M either wouldn’t or couldn’t go downfield in the passing game. Surely, some of that issue was due to Alabama’s edge pressure, compressing the snap-to-affect times Knight was facing from Tim Williams and Alabama’s other pass-rush specialists. But there were also several untimely and exceptionally costly drops from Aggie receivers and backs, along with a simple refusal to stretch the defense, even after Jackson’s loss. Ultimately, Mazzone’s conservative gameplan did Knight no favors, and what Knight was asked to do was not sufficient to cause Alabama’s defense much trouble.
5. Defensive depth takes a hit, but things could have been worse. The loss of Eddie Jackson is a substantial one. Hootie Jones will become the starter, with Tony Brown taking Jones’ old role as the dime safety. If Alabama has to go any further beyond those two, it will be to pick from one of three true freshmen, a walk-on junior, or a converted redshirt freshman linebacker who plays only on punts.
Still, having Brown and Jones as potential replacements means Alabama is far more capable of sustaining a loss there than at, say, Jonathan Allen’s position. Allen left the game himself with an undisclosed injury, but is not expected to miss any time.
Alabama has essentially compressed its defensive line rotation to five players, the three starters plus Da’Shawn Hand and Joshua Frazier. Instead of Dakota Ball, Alabama is now using a collection of Jack linebackers, most notably Christian Miller, Terrell Hall and Anfernee Jennings.
While Alabama has a week to rest up, the three remaining SEC regular-season games will all be physical affairs, to say nothing of a potential SEC Championship Game matchup, a national semifinal or even another national championship game. If this team gets through the season with the front seven intact, Saban should get a trophy just for that.
Replacing Jackson will be difficult; Jones isn’t much of a dropoff against running teams, but needs help in coverage. Brown has better coverage skills than Jones, but he’s been suspended for four games this year already and figures to be behind somewhat in picking up new things. He’ll get a crash course on any outstanding issues this week.
Saban has been loath to develop much depth behind the starters on defense no matter the season, but he needs to make an exception here lest he lose a key player down the stretch and find himself back to square one.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN