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Hope for the Best: Texas A&M

By this time in their SEC tenure, everyone knows what to expect from A&M: an explosive offense, wide receivers galore, and heady quarterback play. Will the addition of a running game and an improved defense get them over the hump?

Tennessee v Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin has only beaten Alabama once...could 2016 be his lucky year?
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Since stepping into the SEC fray, the Texas A&M Aggies have done nothing if not step up their game.

Always an explosive offense, their defensive woes were enough to lower the ceiling on their potential success, as to thrive in the SEC West, a team simply must have a workable defense. As the old saying goes, offensive fills the seats, but defense wins championships. After resisting the maxim for a few seasons, Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin has become a believer, so much so that he added SEC old guard defensive coordinator John Chavis to his staff after poaching him from divisional rival LSU.

Now, the Aggie machine has taken a step forward, running through several quality ranked opponents (Arkansas and Tennessee among them) en route to a number six ranking in most national polls. Aside from Alabama, they’re the only other team in the conference with a legitimate chance at the College Football Playoff at season’s end. But to get to the Shangri La, they must first get through Tuscaloosa.

Easier said than done, for the football-centric burg on the Black Warrior River is no country for the weak of heart and constitution. Walking into Bryant Denny Stadium to face the intimidating top-ranked Tide is a task not many teams are cut to accomplish. Alabama’s usual prowess has been modified in this season by the installment of a dynamic, multi-faceted offense that has proven unstoppable against all comers thus far. Is there any reason to believe that the same Aggie defense that gave up 684 yards of offense to Tennessee, a team Bama held under 200, will be capable of keeping Jalen Hurts and Company in check?

It is certainly possible (if unlikely), as aTm’s defense has become sneakily efficient when viewed through the lens of some advanced metrics. They still give up a lot of yards (159.3 yards per game on the ground, 278.2 yards per game through the air), but they stiffen when and where it counts (fourth nationally in red zone defense and 22nd in scoring defense, allowing 19.2 points per game). At the end of the day, it’s not the raw stats that come into play so much on the scoreboard, but how those stats shape the dynamics in the game. And from that standpoint, Alabama simply hasn’t faced a team with the combination of strengths that this Texas A&M team will bring to the table.

History matters not, though some would have you believe that Alabama must lose a game this season, or more specifically, that they must lose to Texas A&M (or LSU, depending on the narrative). What the 2011 or 2012 teams did has no bearing on what the 2016 team will accomplish. And while the Aggies may indeed emerge from the game victorious, that win will not come on the shoulders of their predecessors or the whims of past events, but rather as a result of their own deeds against a team many believe to be the best in the land.

Will Alabama’s secondary be able to rise to the occasion of covering A&M’s big, fast, physical receivers? Can the Tide’s pass rush create enough havoc in the A&M backfield to make all those receivers a moot point? Will A&M’s new and improved defense be able to force Alabama to win through the air? Or will the Tide impose its will at the point of attack in the running game and keep the Aggies guessing (unsuccessfully) all afternoon long.

We’re a little over 24 hours away from getting these answers. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Texas A&M defense

What Alabama’s offense did to a depleted Tennessee defense last Saturday bordered on the obscene. The Tide had its way with an undermanned Vol defense that, though playing third-stringers in some positions, still had solid talent on the field. Most of that damage was done through the running game, as offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin saw the full power of his zone read Death Star come to bear in Neyland Stadium.

If you’d have told any ardent follower of the Tide at this point last year that in 2016, Bama would be shredding defenses with a zone read option offense run by a true freshman, you’d have been greeted with a blank stare. Watching the Tide’s offensive evolution this season has been astounding. Hurts has opened up a whole new dimension in Alabama’s attack, as they can now win defensive slugfests AND offensive shootouts with equal aplomb. The Tide is an adaptable beast that can pivot to meet the changing dynamics of the modern football landscape, and they are so diverse that they can alter their tactics seamlessly to confront the strengths (and weaknesses) of their relative opponents week in and week out.

This week, Alabama will face probably the best defense, top to bottom, that it’s faced this year with the possible exception of Ole Miss. Where past A&M teams have been sieve-like in regard to defense, the Aggies have a new swagger under second year defensive coordinator John Chavis. Chavis plays an aggressive style of defense chock full of innovations developed over his 20+ years as an SEC coordinator. His defenses at LSU were routinely able to do what other old-fashioned defenses were unable to do: namely, stop the wave of hurry-up, spread offenses that percolated through the league since the coming of offensive-minded coaches like Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn.

Statistically, the Aggie defense is all over the board. If one looks at the raw stats, the picture is not overly flattering. The Aggies have the 68th ranked run defense in the nation, along with the 10th ranked pass defense (even though they’re ranked 13th in team sacks). In total defense, they are tied for 98th, allowing 437.5 yards per game. Not a pretty picture at all.

But when one looks deeper, a better picture of the true strengths of the Aggie defense comes into view. They are ranked fourth in red zone defense, and 28th in third down defense (giving up a conversion on only 34 percent of attempts). They are third in team tackles for loss (58, 9.7 per game), and are 35th in team passing efficiency defense. The Aggie defense is 22nd in scoring defense, allowing a mere 19.2 points per game. These stats paint a picture of an Aggie defense cast in the bend-but-don’t-break mold, as the Aggies may cede chunks of yardage, but they manage to thrive on third downs and keep opponents off the score board even when they do penetrate the red zone.

The advanced stats may be even more telling. The Aggies are in the top-25 nationally in defensive S&P+, a metric that takes into account efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. The rush defense S&P+ is atrocious, as the Aggies are 109th nationally, but the pass defense S&P+ is ranked a modest 46th. The defensive success rate is 47th, though the IsoPP+ (a measure that takes into account explosive plays) is in the bottom quadrant of the nation at 91st.

Where the Aggies defense performs best in terms of advanced stats is in the “Havoc” department. The Havoc rate is a team’s total number of tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defenses divided by the total number of plays. It is a good forecaster of a defense’s ability to be disruptive to an opposing offense and dominate the line of scrimmage, and generally, teams that fare well in the Havoc metric have aggressive, attacking defenses that generate turnovers, routinely penetrate the back field, and have a lot of third-down and red zone success.

In examining this rather daunting assortment of statistical trends, one can imagine the type of game plan Kiffin will need to craft to take advantage of the unarmored underbelly of the Aggie attack. There’s no doubt that they’ll be extremely aggressive in the front seven out of Chavis’ 4-3 base set. They’ll blitz a lot, and Alabama will see a good bit of Chavis’ hybrid “mustang” defense, which is essentially a 3-3-5 nickel scheme that allows the Aggies to blitz while maintaining solid coverage numbers.

One thing shines through the numbers, however, and that is that the Texas A&M defense has a hard time stopping the run. In fact, their run defense is an absolute mess, and that is fortunate for Alabama, as the few teams have proven as successful on the ground this season as the Tide.

What Alabama does best is stretch defensive fronts out, then victimize them with the zone read packaged plays run with the dynamic Hurts at the helm. While Chavis prefers to limit the space created by spread formations by employing tall defenders, there’s only so much he can do in that regard. In Chavis' run defense, he likes to bring aggressive ends to force the run inside towards the solid duo of tackles, while the linebackers flow into the gaps and clean up if backs are successful in getting across the line of scrimmage. Safeties play an active role in run defense as well, headhunting at the edges on obvious running plays and providing an extra layer of run-stopping pop behind the linebackers.

All that said, the Aggies have struggled to implement that defense to perfection this season. Things won’t get any easier against the Tide’s explosive running attack. With the type of offense Kiffin is running at this point in the season, the Tide just may well see a repeat of the 400+ yard rushing effort Alabama registered against arch-rival Tennessee (an inferior Vol rushing attack put up nearly 300 yards on the Aggie run defense). Alabama has the nation’s number three rushing S&P+ offense, an attack which puts up an average of 265.7 yards per game and 6.24 yards per carry. That running game is too lethal a weapon to leave in the arsenal, so expect the Tide to attack the Aggie front with a litany of zone runs early.

One of the things that makes Alabama’s running attack so difficult to defend is the sheer number of different plays the Tide can run out of a single look. Alabama will run a number of different looks out of the exact same formation, and that set could include such divergent tactics as the jet sweep, inside zone run, zone read/ inverted veer calls, edge passes, or conventional screens. If a coverage breaks down, there’s generally a deep route tagged to most plays that can exploit it. The assortment of plays a defense must prepare for when Alabama lines up in a given formation is mind-boggling, and it makes the task of diagnosing potential outcomes a nightmare for opposing defenses.

Add into that equation the hefty helping of RPOs and kills that are built into those packaged plays, and the Bama offense becomes a literal Rubik’s Cube of offensive combinations. Thus far in the season, it’s easy to see opposing defenses struggling with reads and anticipation, oftentimes playing with their feet in quicksand while they attempt to discern what the Tide is doing at (and after) the snap. Defenses will start out in aggressive fashion…until Hurts burns them on an inverted veer, or the end plays the edge strongly to cut off an option keep and allows a streaking Josh Jacobs to gash out a huge run on an inside zone blocked running play. Once burned, the defenders become indecisive, they slow down, their fire is doused.

In a departure from the physical, predictable, smashmouth style of Kiffin’s 2015 offense, this year’s incarnation of the Bama O is a total mind-freak. It’s psychological warfare of the highest order, and it turns an aggressive, attacking defense into his own worst enemy. It must be maddening for an opposing defensive coordinator, as it nullifies some of the natural athleticism and aggressiveness of opposing defenses. They are prevented from using their instincts to anticipate and cheat towards a play, because doing so may render them completely unable to respond if the Tide is indeed using obfuscation of one kind or another.

A&M has possibly two of the top defensive ends in the nation not playing in Tuscaloosa in Myles Garrett (6-5, 270 pounds) and Daeshon Hall (6-6, 270 pounds). They are fast, powerful edge rushers who are tasked with collapsing the pocket from the outside in, forcing the run inside, and disrupting opposing passing games. And they are extremely good at performing those tasks. Both ends generate constant pressure, and both have a combination of speed, power, and technique that makes them formidable foes for any offensive lineman matched against them.

But the strength of Garrett and Hall may dissolve against Alabama. The Tide’s offense forces aggressive defenses to play more slowly, because that aggression and fast reaction off the snap becomes a liability rather than a weapon. Against A&M, this could be quite pivotal, as their defensive front seven (particularly the defensive ends) makes a living off of effective aggressiveness, bull-rushing the pocket, forcefully setting the edges to keep opposing runners between the tackles. In fact, outside of Ole Miss, Alabama hasn’t played a more aggressive, penetrating front four, and with the Tide’s new scheme, they may be able to put the Aggies’ chief defensive blade to their own throats.

One point of concern against Garrett and Hall could be the match-ups with the Tide’s tackles, as until the Bama game plan sinks in, they will have their hands full in dealing with the dynamic duo this Saturday. Cameron Robinson had one the worst games of his 2016 campaign last week against another elite edge rusher, Derek Barnett of Tennessee. The big Bama tackle allowed Barnett into the back field on multiple occasions, a dynamic that created several big plays for the overmatched Vol defense. For whatever reason, Robinson’s play has been a bit of a departure from his previous two seasons, as he has in some ways regressed while still maintaining an overall good standard of play. He’ll be tested again this Saturday as the likely match-up with Garrett, and Alabama will need him to win more battles than he loses.

While Jonah Williams, Bama’s right tackle, has been solid to date, asking him to shut down an edge rusher like Daeshon Hall is a tall order indeed. Williams is the likely heir apparent to CamRob, and he’ll get a true trial by fire against a healthy Hall, who leads the Aggies in sacks and TFLs at the moment. Hall is too good to be totally shut out, but if Williams can grade out well, his future (and the future of the Bama offensive line) will be bright.

Given that Alabama’s chosen vector of attack will likely be the running game, we’ll focus on that. And since the Aggie linebackers have been workable but not impressive, the main obstacle to an Alabama rush-apalooza will be the defensive line. The Tide will have several potential ways of dealing with the threat posed by the Aggie line. One option would be to simply use the aggressiveness of the Aggie ends against them, allowing penetration that could create running lanes for the Tide’s potent edge rushing game. Another approach would be to use double-teams in the Tide’s zone blocking scheme to isolate and overwhelm one defense end, while allowing Hurts to read and option the remaining unblocked end on the other side (as they’ve done most of the year). Hall and Garrett are fast, but it’s hard to imagine either one of them routinely corralling Hurts or the Tide backs on zone read and inverted veer plays. Another option would be to utilize the short passing game as the Tide did against Ole Miss, letting Hurts make safe, low-risk throws that move the chains and allow Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart to make plays in space. Doing so will loosen the box, and even if it doesn’t, five yard gains are five yard gains, whether they come through the air or on the ground. The chains will move, and that will be the most important thing against an Aggie defense that likes long yardage on second and third downs.

Expect Kiffin to stick with the overarching game plan that has gotten the Tide this far. After all, what Alabama is currently doing offensively is not terribly dissimilar from what Tennessee did against the Aggies, with an athletic running quarterback, a pair (or trio) of solid backs, and an able wide receiving corps. The difference is that Alabama has better skill talent at each of those positions, and with Kiffin’s tweaked system at play, Alabama should be able to use the tools in its toolbox to string out the Aggie defense and run the ball.

Kiffin has been using the jet sweep and edge passing game to spread defenses and make them account for the edges. It’s nothing new, as even last year, Kiffin was edging closer to a spread offense with West Coast concepts and execution. This tactic forces defenders to account for the whole width of the field, because even when those slow-developing low-gain plays don’t produce a great bit of yardage, they do make defenders adjust, thus setting up future mismatches.

Once Kiffin gets the defense spread out, the Tide uses a variety of inverted veer/ zone read runs off of zone blocking schemes to limit the number of effective defenders to the play side. For example, Alabama has shown an affinity for a package that features Hurts in the shotgun (or pistol) with a single back and a tight end to the left side of the formation. At the snap, Bama’s line takes a zone step left and applies blocking pressure in that direction with a combination of double-teams. The tight end (usually O.J. Howard or Miller Forristall) will pull across the formation in front of the quarterback and tailback. Hurts will read the backside defensive end. If he collapses down into the interior as if reading an inside zone run, then the play will go outside, with the tight end lead blocking and sealing the edge, leaving only one unblocked defender for the back or Hurts to beat. If the end stays home, stays wide, then the read goes inside between the end and the rest of the line, where a considerable gap will have opened up that is usually good for a four- or five-yard gain.

Keep in mind that Hurts has multiple opportunities before and after the snap to change the play, or to go to a different play in the package, to exploit the weakness that the defense is showing. The more experience Hurts has gotten under center, the more adept he’s gotten at making those reads. While he still struggles at times with reads in the passing game, his zone reads have gotten outstanding (he only missed one read blatantly versus UT).

Speaking of the passing game, Hurts’ seemingly took a step back against the Vols, as he looked uncomfortable throwing the ball throughout. At times in other games, Hurts’ passes appeared just an inch or two off the mark. Last week, he was one-happing passes and throwing behind receivers, which was less than encouraging. One can likely attribute it to nerves, as the freshman was dealing with easily the most rabid crowd of his short college career.

A&M doesn’t have a world-beating secondary by any stretch. The pass defense overall has shown some improvement (again, though raw data has the Aggies as the nation’s 109th worst pass defense with 278.2 yards allowed per game, the advanced numbers have the Aggies at 46th in pass defense S&P+), but it may not even be an issue on Saturday because the rush defense is so bad. Alabama will run as long as the run is there and is producing, as there’s no reason to risk errant passes against an Aggie D that is opportunistic with the takeaways. Since one of the only ways the Aggies can keep the game close is a flawless game coupled with copious Tide turnovers, expect the Tide coaching staff to engage in risk mitigation by only passing to set up the run, and even then, only giving Hurts safe passing options to keep the Aggie defense honest.

When Alabama does elect to pass, they’ll have to deal with the dynamic Aggie pass rush, though it appears Garrett may not be at full strength heading into the game (if the final moments against Tennessee two weeks ago are an indication). Alabama’s pass pro will need to be on top of its game nonetheless, and once again this week, the running backs will have to do their part to pick up Chavis’ aggressive blitzes and keep Hurts clean.

If the Aggie run defense happens to stiffen and keep the Tide at bay, then Kiffin will be forced to open the playbook a little, which is not an optimal situation. It’s not that Hurts and the passing game can’t click. There’s far too much skill position talent at receiver and tight end, and the Aggie secondary is decent, but ripe for exploitation. Again, they were burned on broken coverages and missed assignments against Tennessee, which was partially responsible for the Vols rather startling comeback late in the game. If Alabama has to resort to the pass more often than it’d like, there’s no reason to fret, as Kiffin is adept at giving Hurts opportunities to make plays within his spectrum of ability. Again, a four-yard pass is equal to a four yard run in terms of moving the chains and extending drives, and if the Tide has to do a little of that to generate a loosened-lane payoff in the second half, then so be it.

One thing that’s important to note is that as good as the Aggie defense has been in the red zone and on third down, they have had a difficult time limiting explosive plays from opposing offenses. Those plays are equally as likely to come on the ground or through the air, and opposing offense have struck from all over the field. A&M’s defensive IsoPP+ is ranked 91st nationally, which indicates that big plays may be there for the taking.

One easily-identifiable factor that may contribute to the explosive play propensity of opposing offenses is the Aggies’ struggles with fundamentals, particularly tackling. Such a problem is uncharacteristic among Chavis-led defenses, but against Tennessee, the Aggies missed an inordinate number of tackles, which led to an inordinate number of 20+ yards plays that should have been far less explosive. Other factors were at work, of course (such as players in the secondary out of position or making poor plays on passes), but tackling is one thing a defense must do if it’s going to have any chance of slowing down the Tide offense. If these problems persist, Alabama physical running attack will gut the Texas A&M defense, and if that happens, the Tide may not even have to worry about Hurts’ accuracy on intermediate passes. Alabama’s offense has always been one that thrives on yards after contact, and if the missed tackle trend continues for the Aggies this weekend, the Tide will get its fair share of big plays.

The match-up of Bama’s running game versus the A&M rush defense is one that definitely favors the Tide. Expect Alabama to play the kind of run-heavy, ball-control offense they played last week against Tennessee, as the Vols actually have a higher ranked run defense than the Aggies. If Alabama can routinely trump A&M’s solid third-down defense and extend drives for scores, therein will be a recipe for certain success. For as potent as the Aggie offense can be, there’s nothing it can do to change the outcome from the sidelines. If Alabama’s own offense marches the field and burns clock while tacking touchdowns on the scoreboard the way it did against Tennessee, this game could be easier than some have forecast.

By crafting a game plan that centers on the run and minimizes the Hurts’ weaknesses in passing the ball, Kiffin has the formula for taking advantage of the soft underbelly the aTm defense has shown this season against lesser opponents. Just as Alabama hasn’t faced a foe like the Aggies yet, Alabama far and away marks the greatest test that A&M has had to pass this season. Unless the Aggies can find a way to plug a finger in the dike of that porous run defense, Alabama’s inability to stretch the field with the passing game may be of little consequence.

The Alabama defense versus the Texas A&M offense

The Aggies have built their reputation of late on an explosive offense chock full of other-worldly receiving talent and solid play at the quarterback position. That much is a given. But this season, the Aggies have diversified, placing more emphasis on actually being able to run the ball consistently rather than wielding the pass as a proxy running game.

Despite the new emphasis, the Aggies are still getting outstanding production out of their offensive unit, with transfer quarterback Trevor Knight (6-1, 215 pounds) leading the newly-forged Aggie offense to great effect early on. Knight has completed 115 of his 215 passes for 1500 yards and nine touchdowns. Knight is also a running threat of note, as he has accounted for 549 yards on 65 carries for nine more touchdowns. Knight is actually the second leading rusher on the Aggie roster this season, and he gains those yards both on designed option runs and scrambles following breakdowns of the pocket.

Knight is no Johnny Football, to be sure. He is, however, an able substitute…with his skill set falling somewhere between Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs. He can run and throw, to be sure. He’s not as good a runner as Dobbs, and not as good a passer as Kelly. His release, though not lethargic, is not as snappy-fast as Manziel’s was. That said, he is an effective dual-threat quarterback, and with an efficient dual-threat quarterback in place, Sumlin’s offense is at its best.

What quarterback wouldn’t covet the stable of receiving targets that Sumlin has assembled as Texas A&M? The starting four wide receivers for the Aggies are the aptly-named Speedy Noil (5-11,200 pounds), gigantic Ricky Seals-Jones (6-5, 240 pounds), the talented Josh Reynolds (6-4, 193 pounds), and the dynamic Christian Kirk (5-11, 200 pounds). The Aggies have it all when it comes to receiving talent, with size, speed, electric elusiveness, and experience. Kirk leads the pack as Knight’s favorite go-to receiver, as he’s been targeted 40 times for 352 yards and four touchdowns. Reynolds is the big play specialist, averaging 81.3 yards per game with four touchdowns and 19.5 yards per catch. Seals-Jones is almost uncoverable, a tight end body type with wide receiver speed and moves. The Aggies leverage these skill position all-stars to great effect with quick, lethal strikes as evidenced by their offensive IsoPP+ ranking of ninth. Needless to say, Alabama’s secondary will have its hands full against this WR corps.

But there is a caveat that could, to a degree, negate all of that passing game talent. Alabama’s defensive front seven has been nothing short of mythic this season, with a legitimate minimum of at least three NFL-caliber pass rushers that Saban can put on the field at a given time. The Aggie offensive line, statistically speaking, has performed well this season, allowing only a sack per game, good for 12th nationally in terms of sacks allowed. But it must be said, they’ve not played a unit to date with the type of pass rush Alabama will throw at them on Saturday. Not even close.

Keep in mind that despite solid raw numbers in regard to sacks allowed, this Aggie line will be fielding a lone upperclassman along the offensive line versus Alabama’s ferocious front. And for offensive lines, experience and combined starts are effective barometers of eventual line play. Left tackle Avery Genessy (6-5, 315 pounds) is a senior, and alongside him he will have two freshmen and two sophomores. In fact, redshirt freshman Erik McCoy (6-4, 305 pounds) will be the starting center, and though he’s been workmanlike, again, he will be facing the best defensive line in the nation on Saturday. McCoy and his counterparts may grade out fine against the likes of UCLA and Arkansas, but Alabama’s front seven is a different animal altogether. (As a counterpoint, Auburn has a very effective defensive line, and only Montravius Adams managed a sack against the Aggies….food for thought.)

Alabama is ranked third in sacks nationally with 27, which amounts to an average of 3.86 per game. The Tide’s Havoc ranking is scary, as they are third in the nation, and third in the nation in defensive S&P+ overall. Those numbers do not portend consistent success for the A&M offense, as no matter how much talent they field, a quarterback is only as good as his offensive line, and an offensive line with four underclassmen versus Alabama’s defensive line would seem at first glance to be a losing proposition.

On a standard play this season, Alabama’s four-man pressure has generally enough to affect the passer and create pressure. But when the Tide defense goes to its diabolical “nickel rabbits” (as Saban called it after the UT game) scheme, that young Aggie offensive line will face an NFL quality pass rush. “Nickel rabbits” is the name provided by Saban for Alabama’s defensive package that swaps out the traditional 3-4 heavy nose and slides the ends (Jonathan Allen) to the tackle position. Two jack linebackers (Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson) bookend them at the end positions. The alignment looks more like a 4-3, with the jacks on the ends, and Allen alongside either Payne or Tomlinson in the interior.

The net effect is that this puts a ridiculous amount of pass rushing talent in the front four on the field at once, and that isn’t even taking into account the likely addition of a blitzing Reuben Foster (as was the case on Foster’s sack of Dobbs last week against UT). The scheme is designed to give the Tide the ultimate pass rush while still keeping lighter, athletic players on the edges against zone read quarterbacks and a full complement of defensive backs in the back field.

It was wildly successful against Tennessee, as Alabama played about three-quarters of its defensive snaps from that scheme, blitzing on 14 of 30 drop-backs. The strategy was particularly lethal on third downs. The Tide also used a similar alignment against Clemson in the championship game, especially in the second half, and the substitutions allowed the Tide to preserve its big men up front while keeping up the pressure and minimizing risk in the secondary with a nickel look on the bulk of downs.

If Alabama can generate a hellish amount of pressure in that formation, it leaves six defensive backs/ linebackers in coverage to defend the pass…if the unfortunate quarterback has a quick enough release to even get the ball out before being harassed. Given A&M’s similarity in style (especially in regard to tempo) to teams like Tennessee and Clemson, one can expect Alabama will spend a good bit of time in the nickel rabbit look this Saturday.

Sure, Knight is mobile and crafty in the pocket, and he has a decent arm on par with Austin Allen of Arkansas. But look what Alabama was able to accomplished against quarterbacks cut from the same mold as Knight this year. Without an appreciably better offensive line than Alabama’s previous opponents, it’s hard to imagine Knight sitting back in the pocket and dissecting the Tide secondary with his arm. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine him having a great deal more success as a runner than Dobbs had last week (Dobbs, for the record, ran for -31 yards on seven carries with sack yardage factored in).

All of this doesn’t indicate that the Aggies won’t be able to move the ball and make plays. Even when Bama’s defense has dominated, there have been plays or drives that opponents seemingly cracked the code and managed to get in the end zone. And if Alabama turns the ball over, it makes the task for the offense exponentially easier, as Alabama’s red zone defense is ranked 47th nationally, stopping opponents 80 percent of the time. Not bad, but not in the top-25.

Sumlin’s offense revolves around packaged plays combined with multiple, receiver-friendly 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” pass, while leaving room for Allen to take advantage of match-ups when, for example, a 5-10 corner is in man coverage with no help against Seals-Jones. Seals-Jones and Reynolds give Knight the kind of target that Manziel had in Mike Evans, and against shorter defenders, these taller receivers create a nearly insurmountable challenge for defensive backs.

Given the wide receiver talent, the battle versus the Aggie offense will come down to whether or not Alabama can get consistent pressure rushing four or five against the young Aggie offensive line. If Saban has the luxury of creating havoc in the offensive backfield with his four rushers, then Jeremy Pruett will be able to keep Bama in nickel and dime packages and thus make the task of defending the nation’s best receiving corps that much more doable.

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. Whereas the running game was an afterthought in previous seasons, this year Sumlin is calling the number of his freshman back Trayveon Williams (5-9, 200 pounds) far more often, and with impressive results. Williams (and backs James White and Keith Ford) have repaid Sumlin’s confidence in the ground game, as the freshman has accounted for 704 yards on 82 carries for an 8.6 yard per carry average.

While that’s impressive for an Aggie offense that has struggled to run the ball for ages, the reality is that those yards did not come against a run defense like the one the Tide will sport on Saturday. Alabama’s run defense has gotten better and better as the season has worn on, and that’s saying a lot considering their early performances against the likes of USC and Ole Miss. Alabama has the top run defense in terms of raw statistics, yielding a ridiculously low 63.9 yards per game on the ground. In terms of advanced metrics, Alabama is equally impressive, ranked second in defensive rushing S&P+.

While A&M has the seventh ranked rushing offense nationally with 274.3 yards per game on average, the advanced stats are not so kind. The Aggies are 40th in rushing offense S&P+, which is probably a more accurate indicator of where the aTm running game stands at the present time.

There’s no reason to suspect that the Tide won’t be able to slam the door shut on the Aggies running game in short order. No one runs consistently against Alabama…no one. Teams that have given Alabama trouble are pass-first teams that can mix in the run and involve the quarterback on zone reads. Take away one of those components, and it’s extremely difficult to sustain any kind of success against the Tide’s D. If Alabama can force Texas A&M into a one-dimensional offensive attack, it will allow the defense to pivot to the nickel, or nickel rabbits, or the dime, thus taking the steam out of the Aggie passing attack as well.

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. The key to stopping the Aggie defense from moving the ball up and down the field comes in limiting them on first downs. When they are forced into second-and-long and third-and-long situations, Knight is less efficient than when he is able to stay ahead on the “pitch count.” Those situations also favor the Alabama defense, as when the Tide smells blood in the water on second-and-10 or third-and-long, you can believe that the pass rush will be coming. Limiting A&M early 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. 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 by the fourth quarter, and if the Tide offense stalls and the game is close late, the Aggies have proven that they can win an overtime shootout. The Tide has done much to adapt to this fast dynamic in modern college football, and the impact of such a hurry-up tactic is not as great as it once may have been. Saban has recruited lighter, faster, more athletic defenders across the board, and this defense is more able to mitigate the impact of a hurry-up Air Raid attack.

Special Teams

Alabama continues to get a good, steady performance at punter from J.K. Scott, and his leg could come into play this Saturday as Alabama enjoys dominating the field position battle. One simply can’t underestimate the effect that Scott’s punting can have on a game until one charts the field position deficits he can create for opponents. His leg allows the Alabama defense to hold set and get the offense back on the field, and because of that, he’s a true weapon.

Adam Griffith continues to be shaky in terms of consistency, but at this point in the season, he’s the best option Alabama has. Some have speculated about an injury, as his kickoffs aren’t consistently going through the end zone, which was the case earlier in the season. Regardless, his inconsistency may shade future decisions on drives that stall in the opponent’s end of the field.

Alabama continues to see good returns from Eddie Jackson and an assortment of others in the kick return game. Xavian Marks didn’t play a large role against Tennessee, but Jackson seems to be the man for the punt return position moving forward.

The Aggies are the beneficiaries of a solid punter in junior Shane Tripucka, who is averaging 43.6 yards per punt (with a long of 59 yards). Daniel LaCamera handles the place-kicking duties, and he is a workable 12-of-16 on field goal attempts, and 29-of-29 on PATs. The shifty Christian Kirk is the primary punt returner for the Aggies, and he is averaging a modest 5.2 yards per return. On kickoffs, Keith Ford and Justin Evans have handled the returns, with Ford averaging 22 yards per return and Evans averaging 23.7 yards per carry.

While many have predicted that Alabama may see its first loss of the season against the sixth-ranked Aggies, the statistics don’t necessarily bear that forecast out. Alabama is the superior team in most ways, and, for example, it’s hard to imagine that the Aggie offense will be able to muster much against the Alabama defense.

While the Aggie offense versus the Tide defense is a bit of a known commodity, the true pivot point in the game will likely be how well Alabama’s offense (in particular the running game) can handle the Aggie defense. Again, the statistics indicate there will be room for the Tide to run. But if the Aggies are able to stifle the Tide’s multiple run game…then what? Will Hurts have enough wherewithal to execute the passing game at a high enough level to stretch the field and move defenders out of the box? Earlier in the season, that answer would have probably been yes. After a couple of pretty rough performances, however, confidence cannot be all that high.

Is Alabama’s running game good enough to beat A&M alone? With the Alabama defense holding the Aggies in check, probably so. But if aTm can lock down the running lanes and break a few explosive plays in the passing game, then it could set the stage for what anti-bammers across the country would love to see: an A&M victory.

While not probable, that outcome is definitely possible. The Aggies aren’t undefeated for no reason. They’ve beaten a good Arkansas team, a hyped UCLA team, and an Auburn team that appears to be rounding into form after a rough start. Beating the Aggies won’t be a walk in the park, and they have talent (particularly on offense) that must be respected.

Alabama will need another complete game to emerge from this contest of SEC West front-runners with its playoff dreams intact. Prepare for a war…and hope for the best.