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By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 20, 2018
There are a lot of similarities between Texas A&M in 2018 and Alabama in 2007. Both programs were coming out of the pit of despair – which for their respective fan bases, means anything less than 10 wins a season.
Alabama had just ditched Mike Shula in favor of Nick Saban; Texas A&M has sent Kevin Sumlin on his way and replaced him with Saban protege Jimbo Fisher, who appears to have gotten out of Tallahassee, Fla., while the gettin’ was good. Like Alabama in 2007, which barely missed knocking off a much superior LSU team at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Texas A&M came within a whisker of beating heavily-favored Clemson at Kyle Field.
That close shave got the media’s attention, and for a national media obsessed with finding any way possible to knock Saban down a peg, the focus in recent weeks has been on what happens when Texas A&M visits Bryant-Denny this Saturday.
First of all, Bryant-Denny is not Kyle Field. Secondly, the quarterback set to play in this game who most resembles Johnny Manziel isn’t on the A&M sideline this time.
Jimbo Fisher is making Texas A&M steadily better. Only Alabama has more resources to throw at a football program (or, at least, the willingness to throw them), so teams like Auburn and LSU ought to be looking over their shoulders the next few years. Whether A&M can supplant Alabama atop the SEC West is another matter entirely.
This game may put Alabama on the hot seat a bit, at least until the offense is able to create some space. While the Aggie offense is much improved – which you’d figure would happen, given Fisher’s history as an offensive coordinator – the Aggie defense might not be able to slow down Alabama’s high-powered passing attack enough to pull the upset.
Fisher quietly got an assist from Noel Mazzone, A&M’s coordinator in 2016 and 2017, because Mazzone had already put the Aggies on a path of toughening up the offense. Sumlin would throw every down if he could get away with it, but Mazzone at least attempted to recommit Texas A&M to running between the tackles more on early downs. As such, the changeover from the Sumlin regime to the Fisher regime has gone much smoother than it would have after, say, the 2015 season. Both A&M and Alabama will employ multiple, pro-style attacks, but Texas A&M’s is more focused on the run. The Aggies have the 5th-ranked offense in the country (Alabama is 14th), with the 9th-ranked rushing attack and 24th-ranked passing attack. Alabama ranks 27th in rushing and 25th in passing, but the Crimson Tide has played much better opposition overall in its games, whereas the only legitimate defense Texas A&M faced was Clemson’s.
Kellen Mond had a better game against Alabama last year than he ever got credit for, making a couple of big plays in key situations and using his scrambling ability to keep the Tide defense off-balance. He’s much improved this year, going 56-for-89 (62.9%) so far, for 824 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s also rushed 25 times for 103 yards (4.1 avg., which includes yardage lost to sacks) and 3 scores. On top of that, Texas A&M has an experienced backup in Nick Starkel, who threw for nearly 1,800 yards in 2017. Mond’s field vision has improved greatly so far this year and his performance against tough opponents has Aggie fans hopeful he won’t wilt under the pressure Alabama will try to bring.
For the Crimson Tide, there’s Tua Tagovailoa and his unbelievable stats, tops among them his 100% completion rate on third downs so far in 2018. Tagovailoa has actually thrown for fewer yards than Mond (646 to Mond’s 824), but Tagovailoa has more touchdowns (8), a higher completion percentage (72.0), and a 233.3 QB rating compared to Mond’s 162.9, a staggering difference. Tagovailoa has run 14 times for 93 yards (6.6 avg.) and 1 touchdown.
The difference in raw passing numbers, of course, is because Alabama has worked Jalen Hurts (19-of-28, 67.9%, 248 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 12 carries, 61 yards, 5.1 avg., 0 TD) as much as it has, and has been ahead by so much in all three of its games. Mond is a solid quarterback already, and will get better, but Tagovailoa is much better head-to-head and Alabama’s depth chart is better as well. Advantage: Alabama
Trayveon Williams had to get more effective in 2018, and he’s done just that. Williams has carried 59 times for 399 yards (6.8 avg.) and 4 touchdowns, and despite Mond’s improvement at quarterback, Williams is Texas A&M’s best player on offense. Kwame Etwi has been a capable backup, and the emergence of true freshman Jashaun Corbin has given A&M numbers at this position, finally. The question is how will Corbin and Etwi perform against a defense as good as Alabama’s. Against Clemson, Etwi carried 3 times for 8 yards and Corbin didn’t see the ball.
For Alabama, the two Harrises, Damien and Najee, have combined for about as many yards as Williams has alone. The Crimson Tide has much better depth, though, as Texas A&M has no one like Josh Jacobs on its roster, and Brian Robinson Jr. and Ronnie Clark give Alabama extra bodies at the position that A&M doesn’t even begin to have. What Texas A&M does have, though, is a pretty good fullback, walk-on Cullen Gillaspia, who will see the ball as both a runner and receiver. Alabama does not use a fullback. The question here is how to compare one back (Williams) against two or three Alabama backs and make it equitable. Give the edge to Bama, but it’s not by much. Advantage: Alabama
Few would ever catch themselves questioning talent at the receiver position for Texas A&M, but there was some uncertainty nonetheless coming into the year, as only Jhamon Ausbon had any appreciable experience. Assuming Texas A&M stays in a three-wide base, Quartney Davis and Camron Buckley will be the other two starters.
The Aggies, though, have leaned more towards a TE/FB or TE/H-back look so far in 2018 as a base. Buckley has proven himself a solid deep threat, as has Kendrick Rogers, while Ausbon is a good do-everything receiver. Davis, once a top recruit, has been slow to fire so far, but he can’t be ignored; the raw talent he possesses is too great. Tight end Jace Sternberger rounds out this group (along with Gillaspia, when he lines up at H), and predictably, the tight end has held a greater focus in the Aggie passing game this year.
Alabama counters with probably the best receiver in the SEC, Jerry Jeudy, who already has 6 touchdown catches, and a strong supporting cast that includes Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith as starters, and Jaylen Waddle, Derek Kief and Tyrell Shavers as backups. If Sternberger suddenly finds himself a focus of the A&M offense, what Alabama is doing with Irv Smith Jr. is on an even higher level. Smith slides between Y and H and has been both a fierce blocker and a key receiver, especially in the red zone. Hale Hentges and Miller Forristall also figure to get work at tight end. This is another category closer than it might first seem, and yet another one the Tide manages to hold a slim edge. Advantage: Alabama
If there’s been an Achilles heel for the A&M offense, it’s up front, where the Aggies rank 85th in sacks allowed and 54th in tackles for loss allowed. And now, they might have to go to work without their best player, center Erik McCoy. McCoy suffered a leg and/or foot injury against Louisiana-Monroe, left the game, and was supposedly on the mend until mid-week practices. If he can’t go, Ryan McCollum, last year’s right guard who lost his job in the spring, will probably get the call.
The Aggies will start Keaton Sutherland and Jared Hocker at the guards, and Dan Moore and Carson Green at the tackles. There has been significant turnover on this team since Fisher took over, with McCollum and Connor Lanfear losing their jobs, Koda Martin transferring to Syracuse and only Sutherland holding his job over the offseason break.
Alabama will start Ross Pierschbacher at center, and starting tackles Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills have been monsters so far. If Alabama is going to get into any trouble, it will come over either LG Lester Cotton or RG Alex Leatherwood, but Alabama still ranks 20th in sacks allowed and 13th in tackles for loss allowed. Advantage: Alabama
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