Three times in three years, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Texas A&M Aggies have met with both teams ranked in the top 25. Other than last year's 59-0 drubbing of the Aggies in Tuscaloosa, those match-ups have been barn-burning, white-knuckled offensive affairs, the first two powered by Johnny Manziel's shenanigans prior to Alabama's shockingly dominant performance in 2014.
Once again, the two teams will meet with top 10 rankings and a shot at the SEC West title on the line. After dropping a loss to Ole Miss, Alabama has no margin for error, while the Aggies are climbing the ladder of national acclaim thanks to a restored offense and a defense that may eventually prove reminiscent of the "Wrecking Crew" Aggie defenses of yore.
The Aggies easily represent the biggest challenge the Tide has faced to date (outside of possibly Ole Miss.) The Tide secondary has indeed showed signs of improvement under first-year defensive backs coach Mel Tucker, as the play of the young defensive backs has been a work in progress since Week One. Against Georgia, the secondary, for the most part, was solid...aggressive even, and that level of play continued last week against Arkansas' rather anemic passing attack.
But the Texas A&M Air Raid is a collie of a different color, bringing not only a bevy of physically-gifted, elite receiving targets, but a laser-guided, precision passer in Kyle Allen. Alabama must play a near-perfect game defensively to limit the Aggie offense. If any defensive unit in the country could play a perfect game, it may well be the one in crimson. But if the Tide falters, the Aggies have the offense to make them pay for every single mistake.
While the jury may still be out regarding the reconfigured Aggie defense, the Alabama defense is a known commodity. It is good...possibly, historically good. Likewise, even without a highly-elusive quarterback like Manziel, aTm's offense has proven explosive and efficient with Allen under center. This Saturday's game will feature the type of "good-on-good" philosophical chess match that Coach Nick Saban seems to relish, and one can only assume the Aggie coaches look forward to working against Alabama as well.
Will the old proverb "defense wins championships" hold true in College Station? Will Alabama's stellar defense be able keep the Aggie O in check, despite its death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach? Will the Alabama offense be able to consistently move the ball against defensive coordinator John Chavis' improved squad? Or will the Aggies be able to cage the elephant?
We'll know more Saturday, let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the Texas A&M defense
Let's be frank...last week's offensive performance against Arkansas was somewhat deflating following the Tide's commanding effort against Georgia. Arkansas has a solid defense, sure. But they are not the kind of defense that strikes fear into the hearts of offensive coordinators. They are workmanlike and adequate, but not much else.
It's not that Alabama looked particularly bad against Arky...after all, Alabama's stat line was decent, Coker made errors but only one egregious one to the casual eye. The offensive line was sloppy and undisciplined, which resulted in penalty flags and missed assignments. Alabama did enough to win the game against the Razorbacks, but there was little precision and focus to the victory.
That said, Alabama has begun to develop the offensive identity about which Saban sermonized earlier in the season. Alabama can run the ball well enough, and the play-action passing game is working. As the offensive line continues to gel, the ability to command the line of scrimmage continues to grow (if erratically at times.) Those are good signs that the Tide's earlier miscues were the product of inexperience. The penalties can be eliminated with better discipline, which is also encouraging. At this point, the Alabama offense can only get better.
The same could be said of the Texas A&M defense under first-year coordinator John Chavis. Chavis is a proven commodity with more than 20 years as a top-tier coordinator in the SEC. His defenses are intelligently aggressive, disciplined and physically imposing. In his first year in College Station, the defensive culture has begun to change, which is something that is necessary for the Aggies to move to the next level of success.
The Aggies bring a pair of future NFL Draft picks at defensive end in Myles Garrett (6-5, 262 pounds) and Daeshown Hall (6-6, 260 pounds), a tandem that has compiled 12.5 sacks to date in 2015. Garrett leads the SEC with 7.5 sacks, and is flourishing in a 4-3 system that encourages Garrett and Hall to aggressively push the edges upfield in pursuit of the quarterback. In this version of the 4-3, the defensive tackles are charged with taking on double teams while the ends strive one-on-one match-ups against the tackles.
This will be a critical battle in this game. Sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson has been a starter since arriving at the Capstone, and he will himself be an NFL Draft pick in the future. After a great initial campaign, Robinson has struggled at times this season with the mental aspects of the game. Physically, he's been as dominant as ever. Mentally, however, Robinson has looked out of sorts at times (possibly due to an undisclosed lingering injury), and he has also been responsible for several uncharacteristic penalties in 2015 (Bret Bielema not withstanding.) Robinson appears to lose leverage at times, which is something that didn't happen often in his freshman season. Regardless, Alabama will depend on Robinson to win the battles with Garrett consistently if the Tide is going to execute its game plan offensively. Leverage shouldn't be as much of an issue, as Garrett is a rangy 6-5. His speed, however, is pro caliber and will give Robinson his biggest test of the season. At times, Robinson may be called upon to lure Garrett upfield on the edge so that he overruns the play, as that is a weakness shared by both Garrett and Hall.
On the right side, the match-up of Hall against right tackle Dominick Jackson is somewhat troublesome. Jackson has been inconsistent this season, making progress at times only to backslide at others. Jackson has been better when blocking the run than in pass protection, and that could be a problem when he is called upon to protect the pocket against Hall. While Hall is the lesser of the two Aggie ends, the drop-off isn't great. He will challenge Jackson like few other players have this season, and he will need help to consistently hold the tall pass rusher in check. O line coach Mario Cristobal will need to find a way to give Jackson help with double teams from right guard Alphonse Taylor or possibly a tight end.
In the 2014 match-up, Alabama took advantage of the aggressive edge rush of the Aggie ends, allowing them to penetrate upfield and then running the ball into the gap left in their respective wakes. Chavis will likely have corrected that to some degree, though Garrett still struggles in defending the run at times. If the ends recklessly pin their ears back, Alabama can use run-pass option looks to safely check to a run when the defense gives the right look.
Center Ryan Kelly will likewise need help in moving defensive tackle Alonzo Williams (6-4, 305 pounds) off the line to create running room inside. If, however, Kelly gets push in man-on-man situations with the tackles, that will free up guards to assist with the ends and linebackers. Alabama will probe and test the heart of the Aggie defense with Derrick Henry, and for that tactic to be successful, either a solo Kelly or some combination of Kelly and left guard Ross Pierschbacher or Taylor will have to lend a hand.
Alabama's zone blocking schemes require movement up front in order to create not just vertical creases, but horizontal running room as well. If Kelly can get push at the point of attack, Alabama should be able to attack the center of the defense with the draw, as well as running at the edges (even if the gains are of the three- or four-yard variety.) If the offensive line can keep the gaps consistently clean, the the match-up in the running game begin to favor Bama. Chavis plays a safety up in run support on 70 percent of snaps, and while Henry should be favored against almost any safety in the SEC in a one-on-one match-up in space.
In the passing game, Alabama will likely utilize a great volume of plays with a run-pass option built in. It only makes sense against a defense with as many versatile looks as Texas A&M can present the Tide quarterback. Chavis has made a career out of running myriad plays out of rather vanilla base alignments, creating multiple coverages, pass rushes and blitzes using the same personnel packages. While the A&M corners are somewhat pedestrian, the Aggies have the tools of Chavis' trade in free safety Armani Watts (5-11, 200 pounds) and nickel Donovan Wilson (6-1, 205 pounds.) Wilson is a big-play catalyst for the Aggie defense, as he's been responsible for five forced turnovers this season. The nickel plays all over the field, and is used not only in coverage, but as a pass rusher and run stopper. With Alabama's penchant for turning the ball over in 2015, Wilson may be able to generate big plays for the Aggies once again if the Tide offense sees the miscues that have plagued the team in 2015.
Alabama's wide receivers, particularly Calvin Ridley and Richard Mullaney, should be able to get favorable match-ups against the man coverage of the Aggies. However, because of Chavis' roulette-like variety of coverages, it will be up to quarterback Jake Coker to make sure the ball is delivered on time and in stride, which is something he has done with increasing frequency as the chemistry has evolved with his receivers.
Coker will be able to attack the underneath of the Aggie offense with relative efficiency, whether using short slants or screens. The Aggies are content to allow short plays in a "bend but don't break" philosophy, as their "havoc" ratings indicate they are adept at making big plays on a regular basis. Rather than sell out and risk a game-breaking play for the offense, the tendency is to allow the short stuff while playing safe coverages and blitzing intelligently when the consequences are light, knowing that eventually the offense will make a mistake upon which the defense can capitalize.
Finally, third down conversions will be critical for the Tide. By that same token, positive gains on first down are a must. If Alabama experiences the three-and-outs that have been common at times, it could prove the turning point in the game against the Aggies. Not only is there the obvious negative side effect of a lack of scoring, but three-and-outs will put Bama's defense back on the field against the uptempo Aggie attack. Obviously, those are two edges of the sword that could slay the Crimson Tide (as has happened in past games against HUNH teams) despite the much-publicized defensive depth Alabama enjoys.
If the offense that lit up Georgia takes the field for the Tide Saturday, the chances of conquering the Aggies increase exponentially. However, if Alabama gets a sluggish start similar to the one witnessed last Saturday versus Arkansas, Bama may be in trouble with the high-octane Aggie offense chomping at the bit to make 2014 a distant memory.
The Alabama defense versus the Texas A&M offense
The Texas A&M offense will quite simply offer the Alabama defense its most difficult test of the season to date. Not only is the aTm offensive roster loaded with offensive talent and big bodies, but Kevin Sumlin's offensive attack is maddening in its diversity. What the Aggies lacked last season in Tuscaloosa was a quarterback who could flawlessly execute the game plan with surgical precision. This year, in Allen, Sumlin has just that.
Allen has proven to be the unlikely successor to Johnny Football, a cerebral, scripted signal-caller who is well-adjusted to making the read required in Sumlin's complex offense. Whereas Johnny football was an improvisational jazz musician, Allen is the classically trained symphony soloist. The 6-3, 210 pound quarterback has sliced and diced defenses this season in almost every way, from the precision short passing game to the explosive big-play fireworks the Aggies used to club Mississippi State (Allen had nine passes completed for more than 15 yards against the Bulldogs) into submission.
Sumlin's offense revolves around packaged plays combined with multiple, receiver-laden sets. Expect to see a lot of 11, 10 and 20 personnel on the field for the Aggies, and with the flood of wide receivers, Alabama's secondary will undoubtedly be challenged. Sumlin likes to create favorable match-ups for his receivers by using motion to draw defenders, creating situations which can be exploited with the run or short "stick" passes, while leaving room for Allen to take advantage of match-ups when (such as when, for example, a 5-10 corner like Cyrus Jones is in man coverage with no help against Ricky Seals-Jones, who is 6-5 and 240 pounds.) Seals-Jones and speedster Josh Reynolds (6-4, 195 pounds) give Allen the kind of large targets that Manziel had in Mike Evans, and against shorter defenders, these taller receivers create a nearly insurmountable challenge for defensive backs in coverage.
The battle versus the Aggie offense may come down to whether or not Alabama can get consistent pressure while rushing four or five against a big, veteran Aggie offensive line. Bama's strength on defense is the front seven, and the unit has proven this season to be able to get good pressure without a heavy blitz component. That's not to say, hoever, that Bama will not use blitzes to rattle Allen. If Saban has the luxury of creating havoc in the offensive backfield with his front four, then Kirby Smart will be able to effectively keep Bama in nickel and dime packages, thus making the task of defending the nation's best receiving corps that much more doable.
Expect the Aggies to attack the Alabama linebackers relentlessly in the short passing game. While the Bama ‘backers are excellent at defending the run, there are issues when they are called upon in coverage. This is a weak spot for an Alabama defense that has very few weaknesses, and the short passing game tends to be a strength for the Aggies. Allen has the precision and decision-making to get the ball out quickly (like 1.5 seconds quickly), and combined with the strength of receivers like Christian Kirk (5-11, 200 pounds) and Damion Ratley (6-1, 290 pounds) against Bama's linebackers, the Aggie defense could potentially prove almost unstoppable between the 20s if they execute their offensive game plan in nearly-flawless fashion.
While the Aggies are not a run-based team by any stretch of the imagination, their packaged plays (and solid O line) give them the ability to catch defenses off-guard with short bursts on the ground. Tra Carson (6-1, 240 pounds) is not your typical Air Raid tailback, as he is Henry-like in size with a good first step and the hands to hurt defenses in the screen/ short passing game. Alabama will have to play extremely disciplined football to keep from getting victimized on gashing runs when the play is set up and blocked as a pass, as the defenders will have little chance to anticipate the call. Football IQ among members of the Alabama defense is high, and it will come in handy against an offense than can (and will) run nearly any play from any formation in Sumlin's offense.
The Aggies are unpredictable on first down, leveraging both the run and pass with equal ferocity. And once they achieve a second and four, for example, the sheer number of play-calls they have at their disposal is mind-boggling. Tendencies are a pet peeve of Sumlin and his offensive staff, as they routinely reverse patterns from game to game and opponent to opponent. Defenses can only glean so much knowledge from watching tape of he Aggies, because the very next week, they may run a totally different play from a common formation with the same motions and look.
One of the keys to stopping the Aggie defense from moving the ball up and down the field comes in limiting them on first downs. Doing so doesn't preclude an eventual conversion altogether, but putting the Aggies on their heels early in a series is critical to slowing their rapid-fire attack.
Finally, tempo will be key if Alabama hopes to beat Texas A&M on their home field. Sumlin and coordinator Jake Spavital appear to have slowed the pace down from their break-neck gait in previous years. That said, Bama is a defense that has been susceptible to HUNH attacks (see the Ole Miss game), so one can expect that Sumlin make break with his tendency in 2015 and elect to pick up the pace at home against Bama.
If the Aggies can get good gains on first down and "race car" the Tide offense, it won't matter how good the Bama defense is. They'll be winded and exhausted, which only increases the potency of the Aggie attack. Alabama has great defensive depth, but when called upon to defend 90-100 snaps, even the deepest teams eventually tire. The tempo also keeps the defense vanilla, which also steals some of the potency of Saban and Smart's complex defense. Needless to say, tempo has been a problem for Alabama, and it could be a problem again if aTm controls the pace.
Alabama still doesn't have a super-solid place-kicking game, and it looks like that may be a season-long problem. While Adam Griffith is as automatic as they come in points after, he still can't be counted on entirely when it comes to field goals. That said, his improvement over the course of the season has been measured, and it appears the coaching staff has enough confidence in him to elect to kick inside of the 40 rather than just attempting a low-percentage fourth-down conversion, as was the case earlier in the season. Progress is progress, even if it doesn't represent a perfect world.
J.K. Scott seems to have returned to form for the most part, as for the last two weeks, his punting has been impressive. His leg will be important against the Aggies: if the Bama offense struggles, field position will be of the utmost importance. Alabama's defense is too good to be run-over by anyone, including aTm. However, routinely giving the Aggies a short field is pure poison, and Scott can at least make the defense's task a little simpler by pinning the Ags inside their own 20.
Alabama's kick coverage continues to improve, and that's a good thing. The kick coverage team better be ready for the Aggies spectacular return man, Christian Kirk. Kirk is Percy Harvin-esque in his speed, burst and elusiveness, as he can break one at any time. He already has one punt return for a touchdown, and he is a threat to add to that mark every time he touches the ball. Alabama won't be able to kick away from him altogether, so it will take solid, disciplined kick coverage to keep him from becoming a factor in the game.
Each week, the climb to the mountaintop gets steeper for the Crimson Tide, a team with little room for error as they attempt to work themselves back to the SEC Championship Game in 2015. Texas A&M has designs on that goal as well, as after 2014, Sumlin made the changes many deemed necessary to make the Aggies a legitimate title contender.
Make no mistake, the 2015 Aggie team is probably the most complete aTm squad the Tide has faced since the Aggies moved to the SEC. The offense is machine-like, and the defense is improving rapidly under Chavis. In other words, the weaknesses of the past, to some degree, are on the wane...and what has emerged is a top-flight football team that may very well take Alabama out into the deep water this weekend.
Add into the equation that the game will be played at Kyle Field, in front of 102,000-plus fans hungry for revenge after last year's loss, and it's clear that the Tide will have its work cut out this Saturday. If Alabama can hammer out its dents on offense and maintain a high standard of defense, then this could be a closely-contested, barn-burner of a football game.
If, however, Bama falters on either side of the ball, the result will be less than pleasing for those who follow the Crimson Tide. The Aggies are that good, and a victory this weekend will demand Alabama's best performance of the season to date.
Will Alabama's offense continue to gain momentum against the Aggies' revamped defense? Can Alabama find a way to stop Allen and the Aggie wide receivers? Will the Tide secondary hold up against the Berserker-like onslaught of the Texas A&M receiver corps? Can the brutal Bama front seven carry the day and hand the gun-slinging QB Allen his first loss of the season?
Time will tell...hope for the best.