There were days, not so long ago, when the Alabama Crimson Tide was loath to meet the Texas A&M Aggies.
After Johnny Manziel and a brash cadre of cohorts pulled off a shocking upset of the Tide in Tuscaloosa during the 2012 season, few of the Tide faithful relished the annual fireworks show with the division’s newest member. Confidence in Alabama’s usually-devastating defense was tempered by the exploits of Johnny Football and receivers like Mike Evans, and even when Alabama vanquished the Aggies the following year at Kyle Field, the offensive explosiveness of the A&M team shredded Bama’s defense and caused first-half heart palpitations among the Tide faithful.
Flash-forward to the present age: the Aggies are no longer powered by the neutron star that was Manziel. Texas A&M still has a potent offense, but gone are the high-flying aeronautics that were the trademark of then-OC Kliff Kingsbury’s prolific Air Raid attack. The Aggies are now more grounded…literally…as they rely on a running game powered by a fearsome stable of backs exceeded in the conference only by the likes of the Crimson Tide, and a defense that is adequate if not spectacular.
The Aggies have morphed from their decidedly Big-12 roots to something different, something far more SEC-ish in tone and timbre. Whereas the Aggies were once the high-octane harbinger of the coming of the hurry-up pace-driven offenses that have swept over the conference, they are now far more like the Crimson Tide than many would admit.
But being like the Crimson Tide, and unseating the crimson giant, are two totally different endeavors entirely. Alabama once again appears the team to beat, not only in the West, not only in the conference, but in the nation. Texas A&M may put forth a valiant effort, and they may make a good accounting. But as the last two weeks have displayed, a fully-functioning and operational Tide Death Star is a damn near unstoppable force when it takes aim on its goal, as evidenced by the team’s 125-3 scoring differential the last two weeks…not against non-conference scrubs, mind you, but against fellow members of the SEC.
That said, Texas A&M may have a puncher’s chance this weekend against a Tide team that appears to be hitting its stride at the mid-season mark. A&M is one of the few programs in the conference that can even come close to matching athletes with the Tide. Though there are some rough spots on the Aggie roster, by many accounts, there is quality talent in the first string across the board. Depth is an issue, however, as a large parcel of true freshman dot the two-deep. Will that come into play against Alabama? If the game devolves into a four-quarter grudge match, you can bet it will be an issue.
Can Texas A&M repeat the magic of yesteryear and gain victory in a game no one thinks they can win? Can they establish their running game against the nation’s second-ranked run defense? Can Alabama do what it does best – run the ball – against the Aggies’ tenacious top-20 run defense? If aTm does stuff the run, can Jalen Hurts make plays through the air against the Aggies’ horrendous pass defense?
We will know soon enough. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…
The Alabama offense versus the Texas A&M defense
There’s no doubt that Alabama’s offense is improving each week. After lighting up a nationally-ranked Vanderbilt defense the week before, the Tide sledgehammered a pitiful Ole Miss run defense last week en route to one of the biggest margins of victory in modern Tide history. Over the last two weeks, the Tide has levered Brian Daboll’s newly-minted system into 1,290 yards of total offense, a shocking output for a team that leans on the run primarily and plays physical field-position football.
Daboll took the reins off Hurts in the passing game last week against the Rebels, and the results were promising. Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa threw for a combined 248 yards on a day where any passing yards of any kind were mere icing on the cake given the way the Tide manhandled the Ole Miss defense on the ground. Hurts is getting the ball out more quickly, and he’s displaying decent accuracy on intermediate throws to the sideline and across the middle, leaning on his stellar receivers to protect him while developing timing and honing accuracy.
Texas A&M has an excellent defense in some ways, though in other aspects it’s mediocre at best. The positive for the Aggies is that their defensive strength plays to the Tide’s strength as an offense. Alabama wishes to run the ball, and the Aggie defense is built to stop the run. Defensive coordinator John Chavis has made his living at several stops around the SEC (Tennessee, LSU) by installing hard-nosed, physical, run-stuffing schemes and stocking them with the talent tailor-made to get the job done. While his defense this season suffers for the loss of current NFL defensive ends Daeshawn Hall and Myles Garrett, Chavis still has a solid group up front, including the up-and-coming alpha dog of the front seven, junior Landis Durham (6-3, 255 pounds), who leads the team in sacks with 5.5. The Aggies are explosive off the edges in the pass rush (they are ranked fourth nationally in sacks with 20 total), and they get upfield and bracket the run against opposing rushing attacks.
This plays right to Alabama’s strength, as the Tide is a run-first offense that seeks to destroy defenses from the inside out with simplified Power blocking schemes in which the big athletes up front strive to maul the men across from them. No zone steps, no precise timing to work out, no fancy techniques that were characteristic of the previous offensive line play. This season, Alabama’s linemen line up and try to bulldoze the man across from them. So far, the returns in 2017 have been positive, as the Tide has manhandled the previous two opponents after shifting more towards those straight-up tactics.
The Aggies have talent at the end, and they have size at tackle, the two keys that make their run defense so stout. They also have a corps of linebackers that is adept at its role in the Chavis defense: they read and react, they play downhill to fill gaps behind a four-man front, and they get help on the back end from physical safeties who are as dedicated to run defense as they are to coverage.
No matter what the Aggies do up front, the returns of the previous two outings would indicate that Alabama will have success running the ball. The Tide O line is playing as a mauling, channel-dredging unit at the moment, and with a stable of future NFL backs lining up next to the elusive and fleet-footed Hurts, it’s hard to imagine that a front seven that is rather thin in experienced depth will be able to hold the hounds at bay for four quarters. Therein lies the poison with which Alabama dispatches its enemies. It’s not enough to get off to a good start defensively against Alabama. It’s not good enough to play a perfect half. An opponent must execute a near-perfect four quarters of football AND get help from the Tide in terms of mental errors and turnovers to even have a chance of stopping the crimson offense when it’s at full speed.
The truth is that if Aggie can’t slow the Bama running attack, they have little shot at keeping the score even remotely competitive. As much potential as the Aggie run defense has, the pass defense is currently a dumpster fire. That is ironic given the fact that the aTm front seven routinely gets pressure (again, A&M is ranked fourth in sacks with 20, and 21st in tackles for loss with 7.8 per game), but it’s likely a function of the quality of the secondary and the lack of depth behind the starters. The Aggies secondary features only three upperclassmen in the two-deep (nickel Priest Willis, strong safety Armani Watts, and back-up nickel DeShawn Capers-Smith), and they start true freshman Myles Jones at right corner. There are three other true freshmen serving in back-up roles in the second string.
It's not just the youth of the secondary, but what Chavis asks them to do that complicates matters. Chavis has complex responsibilities for his defensive backs, and it’s been clear in the early going that though those young players have the physical measurables to man the Chavis scheme, they still have quite the learning curve ahead of them. The defensive backs are expected to play a healthy amount of man coverage against teams that run the ball well, as Chavis likes to disguise his coverages, but still dedicate a safety or two to the box to keep running gains modest. This could be a recipe for disaster against the Tide. It’s clear that extra personnel will be needed in the box to stop an Alabama running game that has blossomed in the last few weeks. But expecting freshmen and sophomores to routinely blanket the likes of Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, Jerry Jeudy, Josh Jacobs, and Bo Scarbrough in man coverage seems an awful lot like a fool’s errand.
A better Aggie secondary that featured Donovan Wilson couldn’t get the job done last year against a less-refined Hurts, so it’s difficult to believe that a younger unit will fare better this season given Hurts’ progress as a passer. If Alabama even sniffs that it will struggle to assert the run against the Aggie D, expect Daboll to dial up running back passes and quick hits to the Tide’s playmakers Ridley and Foster to get them in space with the ball in their hands. Those tactics are low-risk, high-reward, as the Tide has electric playmakers who are liable to house the ball on even the most seemingly modest touch.
That’s if the Aggie defense can hold the fort against the Alabama run, which is unlikely. With the offensive line clicking, it’s hard to imagine any defense outside of Clemson being able to hold Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Hurts in check. There are just too many weapons at the Tide’s disposal, and though Aggie may make a valiant effort, expect them to fall before the fourth quarter begins.
The Alabama defense versus the Texas A&M offense
The Aggies were previously known for their ability to apply Air Raid tactics to strike from anywhere on the field, a factor that Alabama knows all too well. But the aTm offense has morphed into something completely different over the last two or three seasons. In the absence of an electrifying, dual-threat quarterback, they’ve now come to lean on the run. A&M has always had elite offensive line talent, and this year is no different. The line is young, but experienced, and they will offer the Da’Shawn Hand-less Tide front seven quite a test.
The Aggies are more like Bama than one could ever imagine in their goals as an offense. They, like the Tide, want to run straight over, around, and through their opponents, and they’ll do it by any vector the defense will give them. They have the backs to get the job done, too. Senior Keith Ford (5-11, 215 pounds) is an SEC-style banger who slashes holes and gashes defenses. Couple his physical ability with the electrifying sophomore Trayveon Williams (5-9, 200 pounds), and you have possibly the league’s best two-back tandem not housed in Tuscaloosa. For good measure, there’s sophomore back-up Kendall Bussey (5-9, 200 pounds), another fireplug back who is dependable and fearsome between the tackles.
It’s easy to see why the Aggies are content to run the ball. Much like Bama, they also have the wildcard of an athletic dual-threat quarterback in freshman Kellen Mond (6-2, 210 pounds), who has run for over 250 yards on the season. Mond’s athleticism and speed provide yet another facet to an offense that is beginning to round into shape.
Though the Aggies have elite skill position talent at receiver with the likes of Christian Kirk (5-11, 200 pounds), Damion Ratley (6-3, 190 pounds), and Jhamon Ausbon (6-2, 220 pounds), that talent isn’t being utilized to its fullest potential, thanks in large part to Mond’s limitations as a passer. The intermediate and downfield passing game are almost non-existent with Mond under center, with most passing attempts limited to under seven yards and typically restricted to screens, curls, and slants. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the Aggie receivers that they generate substantial yards-after-catch, which against a sure-tackling, aggressive secondary like Alabama, will be difficult at best.
The complete lack of a downfield passing game will likely doom the Aggie offensive game plan against Alabama, quite simply. Alabama’s doesn’t need to stack the box to stop most rushing attacks, as evidenced by the Tide’s allowance of a mere 73.8 yards per game on the ground. If Alabama can load up the box and feel confident leaving its DBs in more skeletal coverages, then the threat of Aggie success in the running game will be next to nil.
Alabama will likely do what Alabama does best. They will place a focus on stopping the run. Though the Tide was once again thinned up front by an injury to Hand, they should have enough role players to hold serve, especially given the quality of linebacker play Alabama has enjoyed this season since recovering from first game injuries. Without much a passing threat to speak of, expect Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick to play a larger role in run defense, as their support of an already formidable front seven facing the run will create a critical mass that should hold the Aggies in check.
On the rare occasion that the freshman Mond does drop back to pass, Jeremy Pruitt is likely to throw exotic manufactured pressures at him to make even those short seven-yard completions difficult to muster. One of the saving graces of this year’s defense has been the scheme Pruitt has put in place to confuse and obfuscate opposing quarterbacks. While Bama doesn’t have a Jonathan Allen or Tim Williams right now, it does have a defensive coordinator who is dedicated to attacking the backfield relentlessly from any position on the field, whether it’s a linebacker, corner, safety, or end. The point is that with nearly every play, pressure will pop through from some angle, and for a freshman quarterback, that will be a harrowing experience that will cause his already-low 54 percent competition rate to suffer further.
Sure, Texas A&M is too talented a team offensively for Alabama to squelch every potential play. The Aggies will make a few plays, they will extend a few drives thanks to Mond’s legs or the work of the trio of lead backs behind a big, adept offensive line. But the question is whether or not they can have sustained success over four quarters, and whether they can string enough of those small successes together to move the ball into the end zone. Without an explosive play threat, the prospects for such an outcome are not positive.
Both teams have adequate special teams units, with solid kicking, punting and return teams helping to buoy their respective programs. For A&M, senior Shane Tripucka handles the punting, and he averages 45.2 yards per punt with a long of 64 yards this season. Daniel LaCamera is the place-kicker of choice for the Aggies, and LaCamera is having a fantastic year in hitting nine of 11 attempts with a long of 48 yards. Sophomore Braden Mann handles the kickoffs, and he has 18 touchbacks on the season.
Return duties are centered around the electrifying Kirk, as he has a brand of athleticism that makes him a liability to score from any spot on the field. Kirk has been phenomenal as a kick returner, where he averages over 30 yards per return with a 100-yard touchdown return to his ledger. Fellow speedster Roshauud Paul (6-0, 10 pounds) is the second coming of Kirk, as he also has shifty moves and quick feet. Paul has done a good job in limited action as a punt returner behind Kirk, with one 24-yard return on the season.
While Texas A&M has a fine team this season, they remain a tier removed from Alabama’s league on most fronts. The things they do well still pale in comparison to the Crimson Tide’s strengths. Though the Aggies run the ball well, Alabama does it better. Though aTm has a stout run defense, Alabama’s is likely the nation’s best. The Aggies have the added weapon of a mobile quarterback, but Alabama has one of the most dangerous dual-threat signal callers in the SEC.
Make no mistake, the Aggies will put up a fight. They are a much better team than the one the Tide resolutely crushed last weekend, and they are superior in most ways to the Vanderbilt team that Alabama likewise trounced. This will be the next step in an early-season escalation of challenges for the Tide. Given the last two outings, there’s little doubt that Alabama should win the game handily, as evidenced by the 20+ point line out of Vegas.
But there is a sliver of a chance that after two incredible performances, the Tide comes out flat, or makes a ton of mental errors that keep Aggie in the game. A&M can play with the Tide under such circumstances, but if Alabama continues to do Alabama-type things, then the Aggies – or anyone else, for that matter – have the firepower to stop the Crimson Tide.
Can Alabama keep the momentum rolling against a well-rounded Texas A&M team? Will they have another statistical explosion against one of the better defenses in the league? Can aTm do what few other teams do against the Tide…namely, run the ball with authority? Are the short passes and yards-after-catch going to be enough to keep the Tide from going all in against the Aggie running game? If Alabama trounces Texas A&M the same way it demolished Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, does any other team in the conference even have a chance of unseating the once and future King of college football?
These questions and more await in College Station…hope for the best.