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Texas A&M Preview: Bama wants revenge, but will Young’s injury allow it?

Somewhere around the end of the first quarter of last week’s game over Arkansas, it’s a good bet a lot of Alabama fans were looking forward to this matchup and licking their chops.

Texas A&M scored the upset of the year in 2021 when, behind QB Zach Calzada having a once-in-a-lifetime, out-of-body experience for the Aggies, the Aggies knocked the Crimson Tide from the ranks of the unbeaten. That set up the inevitable revenge game in 2022, this time with the game being played in Tuscaloosa instead of College Station.

The Aggies haven’t given anyone the idea that they might be competitive this time around, either. The Aggies have yet to find competency at the quarterback, their best receiver is out, and the defense, which was supposed to be able to win games singlehandedly, has been gettable, especially by good running teams. Yet all that changed when Bryce Young went down on a scramble, injuring a shoulder, and being – solely our projection here at .com, mind you – out for this game unless it’s an emergency situation.

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Suddenly, this year’s version of the Nick Saban Revenge Tour – which dictates that all Alabama losses must not just be answered by wins in the next meeting, but by wins of overwhelming margins – has hit a snag. Alabama might still beat Texas A&M soundly – the Aggies have had trouble with running teams and Alabama will become a running team if is under center – but it’s more likely that this one will end up going to the wire.

OFFENSE

We’re not really sure what Jimbo Fisher is trying to do with his offense, unless it’s to send it back to the 1980s. Fisher’s best attribute is his recruiting; even when he was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU, no one considered him to be particularly ground-breaking with a clipboard. The Aggies will base from a fairly standard pro set. There will be a lot of play-action and emphasis on matchups. So far in 2022, it hasn’t worked very well. Texas A&M is ranked 105th in total offense, 98th in rushing and 101st in passing. That’s balance, we suppose. Scoring is 108th and the Aggies lag in passing efficiency (85th). Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style spread attack, and what it looks like will depend heavily on the quarterback depth chart. For now, Alabama ranks 4th in total offense, 7th in rushing and 37th in passing.

QUARTERBACKS

Both teams have scrambled depth charts. Texas A&M began the year with dual-threat Haynes King, but he fell out of favor after throwing 4 interceptions against 3 touchdown passes in just 64 attempts. An interception percentage of 6.25% is outrageous in this day and age, so King was replaced by LSU transfer Max Johnson. Johnson is built out of the game-manager mold, but he has better athleticism than it would first appear, and he’s not flustered in big moments.

He performed fairly well against Alabama the last time he played them (as an LSU Tiger) and while he has similar numbers of attempts, completion percentage and yardage to King, he has yet to throw a pick. But Johnson hurt his hand last week and is questionable for this game, so true freshman Conner Weigman might get the call. Weigman is not what you’d call a typical dual-threat QB, but he does have the ability to scramble and was a highly rated recruit.

If Alabama had Bryce Young at 100 percent for this game, it would be one of the biggest gaps imaginable, but Young’s shoulder injury might preclude him from playing at all. took over for Young on the road against and, all things considered, did a fine job. Milroe has good arm strength, probably better than Young in that regard but not nearly as accurate, but it’s his scrambling ability that was on full display in and ultimately broke the game open. Milroe is Alabama’s third-leading rusher for the entire year despite barely playing. With him at the controls, Alabama will become much more zone-read and RPO-based.

The backup, if Young is out, would be true freshman Ty Simpson, who has shown flashes in limited work. The third-team QB would be a true freshman walk-on, Caleb Carruth. Basically this turns into QB roulette for both teams, with the leader of the comparison highly dependent on where the barrel stops spinning. We expect Milroe to start for Alabama and King to start for Texas A&M. If that’s the matchup, Alabama holds a slight edge, as King has more experience but Alabama oddly enough has better depth. Advantage: Alabama

Texas A&M is very much a one-trick pony, and that pony’s name is Devon Achane. He has carried the ball 81 times thus far; the nearest running back to him is L.J. Johnson with 9 carries. Achane has only 3 touchdowns on the ground but is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry, a feat given that know he’s getting the ball.

The Aggies’ second- and third-leading receivers are the quarterbacks, Haynes King and Max Johnson. King can do some damage running the football, whereas Johnson sort of runs out of necessity only. Amari Daniels is listed as second-team for this game, and he has 4 carries for 11 yards (2.8 avg.) this year. Alabama counters with Jahmyr Gibbs, who finally broke out against and has every talking head on television making references to Alvin Kamara. Gibbs has only 88 fewer yards than Achane does despite getting less than half the carries.

Where Alabama really shows out, though, is in its depth, as Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Trey Sanders are all available, as is true freshman Jamarion Miller. Then there is the running ability of both and Bryce Young, and if Ty Simpson has to play in this one, he can scramble, too. The fact Achane has been such a workhorse despite being just 5’9”, 190 is a wonder, and he’s also one of the nation’s best kickoff return men. But Alabama has so much more depth, it’s not really that close, and one has to wonder how much longer Achane can take such a beating at his size without a true backup stepping up. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS

The loss of Ainias Smith was a huge blow for the Aggies, because like Achane at running back, there hasn’t been much else to talk about. Smith was averaging nearly 20 yards per catch and had 15 receptions. The bellcow is now Evan Stewart, who has taken the lead in receptions with 18, but is averaging about half the yards per catch and has only scored once. Losing Smith also cost the Aggies their primary punt returner.

Chase Lane and Yulkeith Brown are listed as Stewart’s co-starters; they’ve tallied only 8 catches and 1 touchdown between them, but Brown has shown flashes of big-play ability. Muhsin Muhammad III has been effective off the bench, and he has given Alabama problems before, so there’s a little bit of depth still here. Chris and Devin Price round out the A-group, but they have only been targeted close to the line of scrimmage so far, not really downfield.

Texas A&M will utilize the tight end, and Donovan Green has been a pretty good one, but there are depth issues here, with a true freshman (Jake Johnson) and a part-time offensive lineman (Dametrious Crownover) filling out the chart.

While Texas A&M is losing receivers, Alabama is getting them back. JoJo Earle caught a touchdown against in his return to action from a foot injury, and Alabama is expected to get Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell onto the field for the first time in 2022. The rest of the unit continues to struggle with consistency, as several passes were dropped against Arkansas. The starters are expected to remain Traeshon Holden, and Kobe Prentice, with Harrell and Earle off the bench along with Isaiah Bond, Kendrick Law and Christian Leary. We’ll see how much players further down the chart – Emmanuel Henderson, Shazz Preston, Thaiu Jones-Bell – continue to play now that Harrell and Earle are mending.

Tight end Cameron Latu had a rough game against Arkansas, but Kendall Randolph had one of his career best games as an inline blocker. Robbie Ouzts and Amari Niblack add depth. Stewart is a reliable option for the Aggies and Muhammad has shown the ability to hurt Alabama in the past, but overall, Alabama has much better depth all around, and the return of Earle and Harrell is a solid positive. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE

Alabama is coming off one of its best performances of the last two years. It begs the question of how much of an effect the change at center from Darrian Dalcourt to Seth McLaughlin made, and whether Dalcourt will retake the spot this week given he lost it due to an injury.

Alabama’s three-guard rotation of Emil Ekiyor Jr., Javion Cohen and Tyler Booker were steamrollers last week, and tackles J.C. Latham and played nearly flawless games. McLaughlin had a handful of nearly-errant snaps, but he also controlled the middle and appeared to make all the calls correctly. For Texas A&M, things have been far more unsettled. Nine players have logged starts, and the Aggies haven’t found the right mix yet. They rank 80th in tackles for loss allowed and 88th in sacks allowed, and now here comes Alabama’s defensive front. Bryce Foster is expected to start at center, but Matthew Wykoff might get a look there as well.

The guards will be Layden Robinson – the unit’s only upperclassman – and Aki Ogunbiyi, with Reuben Fatheree II and freshman Trey Zuhn at the tackles. Josh Bankhead and Jordan Spasojevic-Moko could see some time at guard, while Dametrious Crownover and true freshman P.J. Williams are options at tackle. Alabama ranks 20th in both sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed, and has better stability. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Both teams run variants of the 3-4 over/under scheme, with five defensive backs in the starting lineup in most cases. By far the biggest surprise on this side of the ball has been Texas A&M’s inability to stop the run – the Aggies rank 97th in the category, despite one of its being throw-it-all-day Mississippi State – which has dropped their total defense to 57th. Against the pass, the numbers have been much better: 29th in raw pass defense, 35th in efficiency defense. Alabama counters with the 4th-ranked defense in the country, 10th against the run, 4th in raw pass defense and 4th in efficiency defense.

DEFENSIVE LINE

When Nick Saban went off about Texas A&M’s recruiting activities and alleged abuse of NIL rules, he was almost certainly thinking of this unit. Every name’s a big name here, it’s just that they haven’t produced yet. In addition to not stopping the run, the line doesn’t make plays in the backfield: Texas A&M ranks 116th in sacks and 115th in tackles for loss.

The starters look to be McKinnley Jackson in the middle, with Tunmise Adeleye and Shemar Turner at the ends. Shemar (yes, the Aggies have two) Stewart and the much-hyped Walter Nolen are the reserve ends, while Isaiah Raikes supports the middle. Anthony Lucas, Albert Regis and Marcus Burris Jr. also figure to see playing time. That’s a lot of depth for a defensive line, but most of the names are young – six of the nine are freshmen – and the Aggies haven’t figured out the right mix yet.

For Alabama, the big news of the week is that Justin Eboigbe’s injury sounds a lot more serious than it did at first. Eboigbe apparently has a neck injury of some kind, and he won’t play this week. That will force Byron Young to again hit the Advil jar while still dealing with a sprained ankle; he’ll start along with Tim Smith and Jaheim Oatis. D.J. Dale will back up the middle, while Alabama looks to be open to the idea of rotating Jamil Burroughs, Jah-Marien Latham and Damon Payne Jr. in at end more often.

All three played last week. Isaiah Hastings, Tim Keenan and Monkell Goodwine have all seen the field in the past, too. Going off recruiting reputations alone, the Aggies would figure to have this category, but the production simply isn’t there to justify it. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS

Production issues extend to this unit for Texas A&M, as well. Rush end Fadil Diggs hasn’t recorded a sack yet this year, and backups Enai White and L.T. Overton have combined for just one. Inside, Chris Russell Jr. and Edgerrin Cooper have been visible, but need to be more consistent. The thing to watch here is probably Cooper’s ability to drop back in coverage. Tarian Lee and Martrell Harris are the backups, but together, all four players have combined for just 1.5 sacks – and Russell has all of that by himself.

Alabama counters with Will Anderson Jr., and Chris Braswell outside, with Jaylen Moody, Henry To’o To’o and Deontae Lawson inside. Alabama lost special teams stalwart Demouy Kennedy for the season with a major knee injury at the end of the game, and his loss on coverage teams will be felt. He had also developed a role as a situational OLB in Bama’s pass-rush packages. Without him available, expect to see more of Kendrick Blackshire and Quandarrius Robinson depending on the situation. The difference in production between these two has been rather staggering. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Most observers thought the Aggies would have a quality secondary in 2022, but this unit has put up respectable numbers in spite of the struggles in front of them. Despite getting no real pass rush to speak of, Texas A&M is tough to throw over, and there is quality both on the edges and in the middle.

We would argue the safeties are even better than the corners, with Star safety Antonio Johnson a tackling machine, and high safeties Jardin Gilbert and Demani Richardson both solid in coverage. Tyreek Chappell and Deuce Harmon are listed as the starters at corner, but Jaylon Jones and Denver Harris will play a lot as well. Surprisingly, this unit has snagged just 1 interception overall, but we feel that stat is an anomaly.

Alabama will start Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Terrion Arnold at corner, and those two players have been the SEC’s best cornerback tandem so far in 2022. Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams will start at the high safety positions, and both have had solid years. There’s a question about how much Brian Branch will be able to play at Star after leaving the game for concussion safety protocol; if he is limited, Malachi Moore will move up from dime to that role.

Texas A&M doesn’t command a dime defense much, but if Branch is out and Moore is at Star, look for Jahquez Robinson to get some snaps if he is healthy and the situation demands it. If not, Devonta Smith, Kristian Story, Eli Ricks or Khyree Jackson could find their way onto the field, with McKinstry playing Star if needed. This one is actually the closest call on the whole board (outside of quarterback, due to the impact of injuries on both depth charts there), and Branch’s status for the game could be enough to flip it back to the Aggies. For now, we’ll call it a edge. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

It’s clockwork: We bragged on Alabama’s special teams, and they promptly went out and nearly lost the game. We’ll assume onside kick protocols have been updated after Arkansas executed a perfect one last week, but the bigger issue against the was the errant snap to punter that led directly to an Arkansas score.

Will Reichard missed his first kick of the year, but it was a 53-yard attempt with plenty of distance, and Alabama will need his prowess on kickoffs this week to keep the ball away from Devon Achane’s hands. Ga’Quincy McKinstry has helped lead Alabama to a of 3rd in punt returns, while kickoff returns have also been strong.

For Texas A&M, Achane gets the Aggies to 4th on kickoff returns, but punt returns languish at 107th, and Ainias Smith still hasn’t been effectively replaced there. Nik Constantinou gives Texas A&M an edge at punter, but the Aggies have split placekicking duties between Caden Davis and Randy Bond, and neither has been impressive. Both teams defend kicks and punts almost equally as well to one another.

In most special teams comparisons, we oversample the actual kicking over the return and coverage games. In that regard, A&M holds the edge at punter, but it’s not by as much as the edge Alabama has over A&M at placekicker. Throw in McKinstry on punt returns – which in the modern game are more important than kickoff returns – and Alabama gets the edge here, albeit modestly. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

A surprising straight-8 edge for Alabama, winning all categories. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama appears to hold significant edges in both of those, as well. The only question is, is this the game Texas A&M’s vaunted defensive line decides to wake up?

If A&M plays to its level on the defensive line – and we mean the level the Aggies have set thus far, not the one the recruiting analysts say they should have set – then it will come down to which team gets the most from the quarterback position. Alabama ought to be able to run the ball either way, and Milroe (presuming he’s the starter this week) will have had more starter’s snaps in practice leading up to the game, and thus, be more involved in the gameplan. Milroe threw only 9 passes after taking over for Young last week, and that’s not going to be enough to win here.

And unfortunately, we also have to ask whether Texas A&M can get the same kind of game from either Haynes King, Max Johnson or Conner Weigman that it got last year from Zach Calzada. Those games typically happen at a quarterback’s home stadium, not on the road. Of the three, King is the one that probably concerns Alabama the most, because he is a gifted runner outside the pocket. To what degree King concerns Alabama, that remains to be seen. Remember, too, that the reason Calzada had a chance to light Alabama up in 2021 in the first place was because King had injured his ankle.

Jimbo Fisher suddenly finds his seat in getting somewhat warm, after an offseason spent trying to defend his recruiting practices while at the same time managing expectations that upsetting Alabama brought to the program. Now it’s time to deliver again on an upset, or risk fighting off Auburn and Arkansas to stay out of the SEC West cellar. Due to QB issues, we see this as a low-scoring game, but one Alabama should win.

Alabama 27
Texas A&M 17

Week 06 Info:

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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