By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 4, 2017
Kevin Sumlin is probably not worth the steep buyout he negotiated for himself with his employer, Texas A&M. But Sumlin – and his team – are likely better than most would admit.
The question is, is this team good enough to beat Alabama at home?
The answer depends somewhat on how one views A&M’s massive choke in its opener against UCLA. Up 34 points at one time, Texas A&M tried to coast home instead of finishing the game. UCLA won 45-44, Sumlin was suddenly persona non grata in College Station, and a nation of critics descended upon the program to pronounce it dead, schedule the U-Haul trucks for Sumlin’s house, and call for the firing of everyone in the whole world with a Texas A&M degree.
Cooler heads prevailed.
Sumlin and his team went to work, and since the UCLA debacle, the Aggies have won four straight, including a clutch overtime victory over Arkansas and a fourth-quarter comeback over South Carolina. Neither Arkansas nor South Carolina are going to pass for national title contenders – and no one is going to be impressed by a 24-14 win over Nicholls State in Week 2 – but teams that have quit on themselves don’t win games in the fourth quarter, much less overtime.
Instead, what’s happening here is A&M basically got back on schedule after a (highly) disappointing loss to the Bruins. Sumlin realized two years ago that the Aggies’ style of play was too soft for the SEC, and made a conscious effort to toughen up his team. To that end, he brought in veteran SEC playcaller Noel Mazzone, who immediately re-committed the Aggies to a ground game. Texas A&M, once an all-pass offense that relied on whatever yardage its quarterback could scramble for as a running game, is now ranked 14th in the country in rushing and 95th in passing. Up is down, down is up. Literally.
The result has been a team tougher to wear down in the second half of games. Despite the low passing numbers – which aren’t much different than Alabama’s, as the Tide is ranked 94th – Texas A&M finds itself ranked a respectable 41st in total offense (Alabama is 14th) and suddenly isn’t the playground softy, ready to be bullied by whatever power team came along.
The much bigger issue for Texas A&M may be its defense, which is improving against the run but is woeful against the pass. Alabama, meanwhile, has yet to show a weakness on that side of the ball.
Mazzone’s first order of business was to make the tight end position relevant again in this offense, both as a receiver and a blocker, and get the running backs moving downhill. Texas A&M’s base set is a three-wide, one-back pro-style attack with some spread elements, which makes it reasonably similar to Alabama’s attack. Like Texas A&M, Alabama is heavy on the run (4th overall nationally). The biggest difference here is Texas A&M still relies fairly heavily on running backs recruited for a spread attack, so size in the backfield is an issue. But the weightroom has been kind to the Aggies, as there is just one sub-200-pounder left on the roster.
Freshman Kellen Mond has quietly become a real dual-threat quarterback for the Aggies, but he is extremely raw and needs polish. Think Jalen Hurts as a freshman, at about 80 percent. Mond has rushed for 252 yards on 51 carries (4.9 avg.) and a touchdown, and is the team’s third-leading rusher. As a passer, Mond has thrown just 2 interceptions against 6 touchdowns, but his accuracy is a serious issue (54.8% completion rate) and his QB rating is 35 points lower than Hurts. But if he happens to be “on” in this game, his ability to escape pressure could be an issue. Mond is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, even though sack yardage comes off that total, and the Aggies have done a poor job of protecting the quarterback. What that means is Alabama will need creative scheme work to keep him contained.
Alabama’s Hurts is coming off probably his best performance of the year, which saw him throw 2 touchdowns, have a third dropped in the end zone, and generally create havoc for the Ole Miss defense with yet another 100-yard rushing game. Alabama’s freshman backup, Tua Tagovailoa, is quickly establishing himself as one of the best backups in the league despite his inexperience. Texas A&M is one of the few teams that has a backup situation that can rival Alabama’s, but it’s iffy right now, as Jake Hubenak – a seasoned senior and highly accurate – has a shoulder issue. An ankle injury to third-stringer Nick Starkel further muddies the water. No matter, Alabama was winning this category anyway, but now it’s by a larger margin. Advantage: Alabama
The combination of Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford is as good as anyone’s. Williams plays bigger than his size (5’9”, 200) and has more big-play ability than all but 3 or 4 SEC backs. Ford is the designated inside banger, an Oklahoma transfer. Together, they’ve rushed for 12 touchdowns this year, 686 yards and are averaging around 5.5 yards per carry. Third-stringer Kendall Bussey has a build much like Williams, and has carried for 218 yards himself through 5 games. This may be the best stable of running backs Alabama will face in the regular season. Whether it’s as good as Alabama’s attack – Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris, Joshua Jacobs, Brian Robinson and Ronnie Clark – that’s a different matter. Damien Harris in particular has been highly effective early on, and then there is the threat posed by Jalen Hurts, who is Alabama’s leading rusher.
Neither team uses a fullback in a base set, but Alabama has used Robinson and can also use Clark in a hybrid H-back role in short yardage. The other element to watch here is how both teams use their backs as receivers, because both teams do. Alabama probably has a slight edge in that department due to the presence of Jacobs as a third-down back. This one is closer than it would first look but the Crimson Tide still holds a slight edge. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams have three receivers that get the bulk of the work, and both teams have one true alpha dog. For Texas A&M, that man is Christian Kirk; for Alabama, it’s Calvin Ridley. Ridley has 24 receptions on the year and Kirk 23, and both are speed merchants with the ability to break open both before and after the catch. Kirk holds an edge in TD catches so far; Ridley is averaging more yards per carry. Both will be multi-year NFL pros, so this is a wash. At the second level, Texas A&M’s Damion Ratley and Jhamon Ausbon have more receptions than Alabama’s Cameron Sims and Robert Foster, but Foster and Sims hold a slight edge in athletic ability. Ratley, though, is averaging more than 20 yards per catch and is a key downfield threat for the Aggies.
The key metric here may be the difference between each team’s first and second units. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith are all true freshmen, but each has made at least one eye-popping play apiece, while A&M’s trio of Kendrick Rogers, Hezekiah Jones and Roshauud Paul have yet to really emerge.
At tight end, Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. is becoming one of the league’s most versatile players and one of the best blocking tight ends around. Together with Hale Hentges, it’s an effective 1-2 punch. Major Tennison and Kedrick James add depth. Texas A&M has gotten slightly more receiving production out of Tanner Schorp and Aaron Hansford, while Kalvin Cline is a good in-line blocker. But even if Texas A&M held an edge there – and it doesn’t; tight end is at best a wash for the Aggies – it wouldn’t be enough to overcome Alabama’s depth advantage at receiver. Advantage: Alabama
Prior to the season, Texas A&M’s offensive line was profiled as a transitional group that was fast improving, but had some potential issues on the edges. So far, the script has been correct. Despite the nice performance from Aggie running backs, the offensive line has been maddeningly erratic. A&M might rank 14th in rushing offense, but it is also 97th in sacks allowed (despite Kellen Mond’s ability to escape) and 101st in tackles for loss allowed, despite both Mond’s abilities and those of a veteran running back group. The lineup has been shuffled a couple of times this year already, but the ones to start all five games are Keaton Sutherland and Erik McCoy. Some combination of Koda Martin, Ryan McCollum, Connor Lanfear and Colton Prater will get the other three spots.
Alabama could have a small shakeup in its usual lineup this week, as Bradley Bozeman has been limited by an unspecified injury in practice. If he’s out, either Brandon Kennedy or J.C. Hassenauer would start at center. The rest of the lineup will be the same as it’s been so far this year: Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton at the guard spots, Jonah Williams and Matt Womack at the tackle spots. Jedrick Wills has been seeing regular time at right tackle and will probably continue to do so regardless of score. Josh Casher would be the top reserve guard. Having Bozeman less than 100 percent for this game is a concern, but Alabama’s offensive line has come together and has been an unstoppable force in both SEC games this year. Big edge to the Tide in this one. Advantage: Alabama
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