Texas A&M preview: Aggies have found out the hard way about modern QB production

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DEFENSE

The Aggies will base from a pure 4-2-5 set, and have been very effective against passing offenses in 2021, ranking 23rd in raw pass defense and 22nd in pass efficiency defense. The Aggies also rank 5th in scoring defense. But rushing defense has been an issue (69th overall), which has contributed to a total defense ranking of 41st. Alabama is 14th in total defense, 27th against the run and tied with A&M at 23rd in raw pass defense.

Alabama’s efficiency defense (58th) has been just average. As usual, Alabama will use a 3-4 over/under base, which might play bigger personnel this week due to A&M’s reliance on the running game as well as Alabama’s injuries at outside linebacker.

DEFENSIVE LINE
A&M will start DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy at the tackle slots, with Tyree Johnson and Micheal Clemons at the ends. Prior to the season, this was expected to be perhaps the best line in the conference, which makes the mediocre rush defense numbers all that more curious. Depth is fantastic across the board; A&M is one of the few schools in the country who can match Alabama spot-for-spot in regards to raw numbers of personnel.

A&M ranks 24th in sacks and 16th in tackles for loss. Leal in particular is a handful to interior offensive linemen. He’s the third-leading tackler on the team, with 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 2 PBUs and also 2 QB hurries.

Alabama will start Phidarian Mathis and D.J. Dale at tackle, and given the loss of Drew Sanders, Mathis might end up also playing more defensive end than usual. Justin Eboigbe, LaBryan Ray and Byron Young will split between the other end position and providing depth at the combo spots, while Jamil Burroughs, and Tim Smith will provide depth primarily up the middle. This is a close call but A&M edges out due to being just a tick better all around. Advantage: A&M

LINEBACKERS
The mystery as to why A&M might struggle a bit in run defense could be the fault of this group. Aaron Hansford has put together a solid season at weakside linebacker, but the Aggies could use better production from middle linebackers Andre White and Edgerrin Cooper. White and Cooper have combined for only two tackles for loss from that position. In addition, the MLB position has just 1 pass defended and 1 QB hurry on the year combined.

Alabama will start potentially the country’s best outside linebacker, Will Anderson Jr., next to Henry To’o To’o and Christian Miller inside. The strongside linebacker spot, though, is up in the air. Drew Sanders injured his thumb against Ole Miss and while he finished that game, postgame evaluation found ligament damage and he had surgery on his hand this week.

Sanders is now the second SLB out for Alabama on the year, as Christopher Allen was also lost, so Alabama will have to start a freshman there, either redshirt Chris Braswell or true freshman Dallas Turner. Quandarrius Robinson, King Mwikuta and Keanu Koht will handle depth outside. Alabama might also move Christian Harris from WLB to an outside spot, which would put into the starting lineup.

Most likely, Alabama uses less of the 2-4-5 (or 2-3-6) rabbit packages it has utilized this year, and opt for an extra DE instead, like Byron Young or Justin Eboigbe. Even with Sanders out, Will Anderson’s presence here all but gives the category to Alabama by itself. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
The Aggie secondary has been a sore spot for years, so the solid play of the 2021 group has been welcome news. Myles Jones and Jaylon Jones will start at the cornerback positions, with Leon O’Neal and Demani Richardson at the high safeties. The nickel will be either Antonio Johnson or Erick Young. The one negative for this group has been lack of caused turnovers; O’Neal has 2 interceptions, but no other DB has one, and the team has just 4 overall, with a linebacker and a defensive linemen recording the other two.

Alabama will start Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis at cornerback, with Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams at safety and Malachi Moore and Brian Branch splitting the Star position. Daniel Wright will play dime safety. The secondary is coming off its best performance of the year, in which it came as close as anyone will in 2021 to shutting down Ole Miss’ QB Matt Corral.

The big question here is one of competition: Aside from last week’s game against State, A&M hasn’t really faced a pass-heavy offense in 2021, so some of these stats may be phantoms. We’ll give the Aggies the benefit of the doubt based on superior pass efficiency numbers but it’s yet another tight one. Advantage: A&M

SPECIAL TEAMS
A&M is one of the nation’s best teams in punting the ball (8th), and also ranks 12th in kickoff returns and a respectable 48th in punt returns. Alabama’s numbers in the same categories are 87th, 15th and 52nd. Aggie placekicker Seth Small has missed but one kick, just like Alabama’s Will Reichard. Reichard’s miss was a rare misfire in close, while Small’s miss was on his lone attempt from beyond 50 yards. With the return game about equal, one other category sticks out: kickoff return defense.

Alabama is 16th in that category, while A&M is a grim 108th. The question now becomes what is more important, net punting or kickoff return coverage. Caden Davis and Randy Bond have split kickoff duties for A&M, and most of their kicks go for touchbacks anyway, so we’ll give the Aggies the edge here due to punting, which is more likely to be a common factor. Advantage: A&M

OVERALL

This becomes our first 4-4 split of the year, but rare is it that so many categories could literally go either way: Special teams, defensive backs, defensive line, wide receiver and arguably running back are all very tight. Only in the three other categories – quarterback, offensive line and linebacker – is there a clear winner, and in each, that winner is Alabama.

As for OL-DL cross-matchups, each team’s DL controls the matchup against the other team’s OL. But again, Alabama has the wider gap. When Alabama’s DL is on the field, it is expected to control the Aggie offensive line, whereas when the A&M DL is on the field, the gap between it and the Alabama OL is expected to be much closer.

This all makes sense given where A&M was predicted to finish in the preseason. A lot of prognosticators had the Aggies winning the West outright, while others had them a solid second to Alabama and well ahead of the other teams. The injury to A&M QB Haynes King proved to be a bigger problem for the Aggies than anyone had thought, however, and Caldaza – who supposedly was pushing King for the starting job in both spring and fall – has proven to be well behind.

That’s not to say that A&M isn’t capable of beating Alabama, because it is. The game is in College Station, and there’s little doubt that has circled this game, just like every other Alabama opponent likes to circle their dates with the Crimson Tide, too.

The difference is whether A&M can keep up the scoring pace Alabama is expected to set. The Aggie defense should be too strong for Alabama to win in a runaway, but given how Texas A&M has struggled to score against lesser already, it’s hard to imagine the Aggies suddenly exploding against Alabama.

Alabama 34
A&M 20

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