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Hope for the Best: Texas A&M edition

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Once again facing an old pupil, Nick Saban’s Alabama team will face its biggest test of the young season against Jimbo Fisher’s first Aggies team. Will master once again defeat pupil?

Alabama v Florida State
Student meets the master for the second year in a row...will the outcome be any different this time around?
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Nick Saban is undefeated when facing members of his expansive coaching tree. The most recent defeat of a former pupil came on the grandest stage of college football as the Tide came from behind to beat former Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s Georgia team for Saban’s sixth national championship. That brings his record to 12-0 against his former assistants, and Saban’s teams have outscored those of his pupils by an insane 453-135.

That kind of record is mind-boggling when one considers the plentitude of Saban acolytes filling the college coaching ranks today. Almost a third of SEC coaches coached with Saban at some point in their careers (those being Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, and the aforementioned Smart at Georgia), and yet, none of them have ever bested The Man.

There’s a first time for everything, though. Until 2016, Saban had never lost a championship game. He shouldn’t have lost one then, when a persistent Clemson team stretched out a victory over the Tide’s generational defense and snatched a title from Saban’s grasp in the waning moments of the game. As powerful and almighty as the Tide looks at times, such instances prove that every Goliath has its David, and even the generation’s greatest football team is not impervious to a well-placed stone.

Can Fisher and his rejuvenated Texas A&M team be the stone-slinger that fells the giant that Alabama has become? It’s a longshot, but then again, so was David’s hurl in the Valley of Elah that brought the undefeated Philistine to his knees.

Alabama has rolled over all opponents to date, but truthfully, none could match the Tide in talent nor coaching prowess. While Fisher isn’t a multi-time champion in the cast of his mentor, he did win a national championship as an offensive coordinator at LSU and later as the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles. This is not Jimbo’s first rodeo on the big stage, and he knows the kind of precise, disciplined effort it will take for his team to best the men in crimson.

Despite his short tenure in College Station, Fisher has his Aggies once again believing in themselves, as was evident in their second-week game against Clemson in which they gave the Tigers everything they could want. They nearly shocked the world by upsetting the Tigers, and that loss gave them the confidence to believe they can play with anyone in college football. That confidence can be a dangerous thing for a favorite like Alabama, as the combination of will, an explosive offense, and a healthy dose of “rat poison” in the ears of a young Alabama team could set the stage for an upset.

Texas A&M is the Tide’s most talented opponent to date from top to bottom, and their style of play is not unlike Alabama teams of the past. They’ll try to be stingy on defense, run a balanced offense, and let their explosive quarterback take advantage of big play opportunities. Unlike Ole Miss, which had the explosive offense and a horrific defense, Texas A&M has strengths on both sides of the ball, much like the Tide. While the four-touchdown spread indicates that Texas A&M is in for a fate similar to that of Bama’s previous opponents, they are the most qualified to offer resistance to the crimson war machine.

Will Texas A&M shock the world by knocking the Crimson Tide off its early season championship stride? Do they have the defense to offer more than a speed bump’s resistance to a Tide offense that is the most explosive unit ever seen in Tuscaloosa? Will the Alabama defense be able to repeat its performance against a gifted Ole Miss offense and once again corral a talented dual-threat QB and a corps of rangy, tall wide receivers?

We’ll know Saturday evening. Until then, let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense against the Texas A&M defense

Unlike last week’s opponent, the Tide will face a defensive team this week that is loaded with talent, has veteran leadership, and is coached by one of the up-and-coming defensive minds in the game, Mike Elko. Elko’s rise to fame has been a rapid one, but what he’s accomplished in his time at Bowling Green, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame speaks volumes about his system and his ability to get the players to buy in.

Elko runs a 4-2-5 defense as did two of the Tide’s first three opponents. His iteration is different, however, in that instead of keeping five defensive backs in the secondary in a constant nickel look, he employs a safety/ linebacker hybrid that plays in the box with more coverage responsibility than your average linebacker. He uses his safeties as wrecking balls, not in a physical manner, but as run fitters who fill gaps up front and confuse opposing quarterbacks with movement just before the snap. Like his offensive minded head coach, Elko likes to create chaos for opponents by undercutting RPO calls with a stacked box late after sideline check-ins and running a ton of coverage looks out of a standard 2-high shell in the defensive backfield.

He also has the benefit of a well-arrayed defensive roster with weapons at every position. Up front, tackles Daylon Mack (6-1, 320 pounds) and Justin Madubuike (6-3, 300 pounds) are run stuffing monsters in the middle. Tackles Kingsley Keke (6-4, 305 pounds) and edge rusher Landis Durham (6-3, 255 pounds) round out the front, and the group has an average weight of 295 pounds (the light-by-design Durham draws the average down below 300). Along with bulky inside linebackers Otara Alaka (6-3, 240 pounds) and Tyrel Dodson (6-2, 242 pounds), the Aggie defense has held opponents to a ridiculous 87 yards per game on the ground. Those are Alabama-type numbers on run defense, though many would claim the Aggies have only played one quality opponent.

The backfield is equally gifted and deep, with corners Charles Oliver (6-2, 202 pounds) and Debione Renfro (6-2, 193 pounds) sealing the edges and returning starters Donovan Wilson (6-1, 207 pounds) and Derrick Tucker (6-1, 200 pounds) playing the all-important safety role in Elko’s defense. They’re giving up a mere 251 yards per game through the air, and they’re doing it with and only moderately successful pass rush, as the Aggies only have five sacks on the year.

Honestly, as good as this sounds, as improved as the Aggie defense may be, is there really any way they’ll be able to derail the Tagovailoa Express? The young quarterback has been nothing short of sensational, as has his supporting cast. Whereas Alabama’s previous offenses were more siege engines ready to batter away mindlessly at opposing defenses until they crumbled, the Tua-driven offense is more JDAM: precise, directed, versatile, and devastating. He runs through progressions like a supercomputer and delivers the ball on target, in stride, on the right read, every time. That may be hyperbole, but only slightly. When Tagovailoa is in the game, the ball simply doesn’t touch the ground.

He has the weapons around him to maximize his talent, a symbiotic ecosystem of elite receivers, stone-wall line play, and a running game that can house it on any carry. So what hope does Texas A&M have?

As good as Tua is, he’ll still be starting his fourth game in crimson. The defensive style the Aggies have embraced under Elko is designed to give young quarterbacks fits, as it begins by forcing the offense into bad calls on RPOs and packaged plays, then proceeds to cause the quarterback to second-guess himself and inject hesitation. That’s not to say that those tactics will work against the lightspeed thought process the quarterback has displayed to date, but it will give him something to process that he hasn’t seen before.

As previously mentioned, Elko likes to play with the quarterback’s mind a little. He runs almost everything out of a 2-high shell. The effect that has on the QB and opposing OC is that it prevents them from diagnosing a coverage pre-snap on formation alone. No matter what, when Tagovailoa stares across the line at the defense on Saturday, he’s going to see a four-man front, and two safeties deep with the corners to the edge.

Why does this matter? The way Elko calls his defense, those safeties can be used as a diversion to help force the offense into a desirable play in which the defense has the advantage. Say Tua lines up, looks at the defense, sees seven in the box, and checks into a run play. Elko may walk a safety up after Tua has read the personnel and made the call, forcing Alabama to run into an eight-man box. It doesn’t mean that the Tide won’t have success on the ground, it just means their chance of success decreases because their designed advantage is erased.

At first, it may be annoying to the QB and offense. It may lead to a few negative plays. But if it’s successful early, Tagovailoa may become hesitant in making his pre-snap reads, which can create all kinds of chaos. If the young quarterback second guesses himself, it will throw off the timing of the Tide’s precision team and cause systemic problems for an offense that thrives off precise execution and a lightning pace.

Also, Elko’s propensity to run a variety of coverages out of the base 2-high alignment will take away some of Tua’s ability to read tendencies as the game goes on. The QB won’t be able to sense weaknesses in coverage based on personnel against A&M, because he’ll never have any indication of whether the aTm defense will run a Cover-2, Cover-3, or Cover-6 out of that shell.

That said, there will be chances for Tagovailoa to carve up the inside of the Aggie defense. The Aggies will run a lot of zone since they don’t have the athletes to cover Alabama’s receivers in man without help. Even then, the help will be deep, which means that Texas A&M will have to cede ground underneath where it counts on linebackers and the Rover to make sure the underneath zones are covered. The idea of running zone against the likes of Alabama’s electric receivers seems like a bad plan. Alabama’s passing game is so advanced because it has all the weapons to be unstoppable on the short field: quick, shifty receivers, a super accurate passer, time to get the ball out, and backs/ tight ends that are excellent receivers in the flats.

Imagine the folly of a 240-pound Alaka attempting to cover Jaylen Waddle in the slot. Sure, the Aggies could bring a safety in to stick Waddle, but then who’s covering Henry Ruggs or Devonta Smith or Jerry Jeudy? Who has responsibility for Irv Smith, or a rejuvenated Josh Jacobs peeling out of the backfield? The equation is simple. Texas A&M has better defensive athletes than any team Alabama has played to date. That said, if Tua is on his game, it still won’t matter. The Tide has too many athletes of their own with which to wage war on the aTm defense, and though one can expect the Aggies to offer the stiffest resistance to date, the Tide offense should still have its way.

One battle of note bears watching. The Aggies have been tremendous on third-down defense, as they’re only allowing conversions on 20 percent of attempts. They held Clemson’s mighty offense to a mere four third-down conversions. Alabama, conversely, has a ridiculous conversion rate, with the Tide offense picking up the first-down on 26 of 43 attempts (60.47 percent). That number would be higher if Tua played more than the first half, as he has personally been phenomenal on third-downs. He’s 13-for-13 passing on third downs for 298 yards and six touchdowns. Do the math…that’s almost 23 yards to the positive per third-down pass.

Third-downs will be a key for the Aggie defense, and they’ll need to keep their impressive conversions allowed rate low to have a chance in Tuscaloosa. If Alabama can continue that juggernaut and continue to extend series after series, there’s probably not an offense in the land that can keep up and go blow-for-blow. Third-downs will be a key battle and an accurate barometer for the outcome of the game.

Alabama defense versus the Texas A&M offense

Herein lies the challenge of doing battle with any Jimbo Fisher-led offense: a defense will see almost every personnel grouping and every formation an offensive coach can have in his playbook, with all the motions and misdirections to go along with them. It’s a multiple offense, but it’s multiple in a different connotation than is traditionally connected to the word. It’s pro-style multiple, which means the offense will run from a variety of alignments with a variety of personnel package to befuddle opposing defenses.

Alabama’s defense has appeared more steady with each passing week, but with each passing week, the Tide has merely faced another iteration of a no-huddle style offense that mostly remains stationary in its personnel groupings. Ole Miss ran almost all its offensive plays last weekend with 11 personnel (three wides, one tight, one back) with very little pre-snap motion. The same was true for Arkansas State. Those offenses keep things simple in terms of formation to run as many plays as possible, but Alabama has proven adept at slowing offenses and knocking them out of the race-car game plan, thus stealing their advantage by revealing a predictable weakness. When personnel groupings are static, it minimizes the pre-snap reads and adjustments a defense must make, which plays right into the hands of a Tide defense with so many new starters in the front seven.

The Aggies provide a different challenge altogether. Sure, they won’t run 99 offensive plays a game. They don’t want to. Fisher has always favored quality over quantity, and with offensive playmakers, he can afford to be methodical and play an elaborate chess game with defensive coordinators. The Aggies will line up in 21 personnel (two wides, one tight, two backs), 22 personnel (one wide, two tights, two backs), 12 personnel (two wides, two tights, one back) 11 personnel (three wides, one tight, one back), and even 10 personnel (four wides, no tights, one back).

From those personnel groupings, they’ll give you some two-back set like the traditional I-formation. You’ll see some pistol, some shotgun spread, and the occasional double-wing with an empty backfield. Pair that diversity in appearance with pre-snap window dressing like backs in motion or tight end/ wide receiver shifts, and one can see just how difficult it will be for the Tide defense to get any bearing on what they can expect from the Aggie offense before the ball is snapped.

While the Tide defense has looked more comfortable with reading and reacting in the last two weeks, as previously stated, they were doing so against teams that were somewhat vanilla in the looks they offered. If Ole Miss was vanilla, consider the A&M offense Moose Tracks, as they’ll throw a little of everything in the hopper and see what spins out.

For the system to work, Fisher must have a quarterback who possesses the athleticism to pass at a high level and be mobile enough to evade pressure, but who can also be a field general and lead his team through the constantly-changing offensive formations with ease. A year ago, few would have thought that the Aggies had a quarterback who had those qualities. But the Kellen Mond (6-2, 210 pounds) that is starting for the Aggies this year represents an evolution over the previous incarnation that lost his starting job to pocket passer Nick Starkel last season. He’s Kellen Mond 2.0, if you will, a quarterback who combines accuracy, mobility, arm strength, and intangibles as a true sophomore. He’s one of the main reasons, along with Fisher’s balanced offensive strategy, that the Aggies have performed as well as they have in the first quarter of the season.

Mond has been excellent as a passer, with a 162.4 passer rating, 824 yards on 56 completions with six touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s averaging 275 yards per game through the air and he’s rushed for three touchdowns on the ground with a four-yard-per-carry average without his sack yardage removed. That’s impressive for a guy who didn’t weather the year in 2017.

Part of the reason he’s been successful is his improvement as a passer with a good understanding of the concepts of Fisher’s offense. The other aspect is the talent he has around him. As has been the case since the Aggies entered the league, their wide receiver corps is once again loaded to the gills with big, athletic receivers who put up gaudy yards and make circus catches routinely. Quartney Davis (6-2, 201 pounds) and Jhamon Ausbon (6-2, 220 pounds) are the starters, and both average over 15 yards per catch. Behind them are a trio of sophomores who are as dynamic as they come in Camron Buckley (6-2, 190 pounds), Kendrick Rogers (6-3, 210 pounds), and Hezekiah Jones (5-11, 194 pounds). It’s well-known that Fisher has an affinity for including tight ends in the passing game, and junior Jace Sternberger (6-4, 250 pounds) has been a security blanket for Mond (especially in the red zone), as he averages almost 15 yards per catch with three touchdowns.

It must be stated that Mond is likewise a tremendous runner with elusiveness and escapablity. Those kinds of quarterbacks have given the Tide trouble in the past with their ability to extend plays and allow wide receivers to create space during scramble drills. Alabama hasn’t played a true dual-threat QB to date, though Juwan Pass of Louisville was able to scramble for a few nice gains in the Tide’s opener. Those gains extended drives, and Alabama will have to be more disciplined in containment to keep the same thing from happening against A&M.

But unlike year’s past, the Aggies aren’t just an Air Raid team that will sling the ball around out of 10 personnel, using short passes for a proxy running game. Fisher seeks balance with his offense, and just as he used Dalvin Cook at Florida State as the peanut butter to his passing game jelly, junior running back Trayveon Williams (5-9, 200 pounds) has been a steadfast contributor to the Aggie offense this year. Williams is cannonball-like, a smallish banger of a back with a low center of gravity who can get lost behind his enormous linemen before exploding into a hole. He’s a dangerous if diminutive runner who is averaging 6.8 yards per carry this season with four touchdowns, and he averages an impressive 133 yards per game.

He is running behind an interior line that is among the best in the conference, with junior center Erik McCoy (6-4, 315 pounds), LG Keaton Sutherland (6-5, 315 pounds), and RG Jared Hocker (6-5, 318 pounds) acting as the point of the running game spear for aTm. The sophomore tackles are less seasoned and somewhat more suspect, as RT Carson Green (6-6, 300 pounds) and LT Dan Moore (6-5, 317 pounds) have been inconsistent and at times, easy to manipulate for opposing edge rushers.

Texas A&M has all the tools to exploit the weaknesses in the Alabama defense, which to date, hovered around the linebacking corps. Many of those weaknesses were healed last week against an explosive Ole Miss offense. The Tide rallied up and snuffed everything the Rebels threw at them after the initial touchdown salvo. The secondary is no longer a cause for concern but instead a strength. Deionte Thompson, Xavier McKinney, Shyheim Carter, Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith, and Patrick Surtain Jr. have proven they have what it takes to get the job done against elite passing offenses. They’re getting more help from the front seven as well, and the Tide pass rush has picked up steam with the contributions of the OLBs on the edge and Quinnen Williams’ dominant play at nose.

There’ll be an interesting battle in the trenches this week between Williams and future NFL center McCoy, as each offers the other the biggest test of their careers to date. Williams has been an unstoppable wrecking crew, and not since the time of A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed has Alabama seen such a disruptive force in the middle of their defense. Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs have emerged as well, and the addition of great play from Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller has propelled the Tide to be ferocious in pass rush and against the run.

As good as the A&M line has been in the running game, they have let a few defenders slip by in pass rush, allowing seven sacks of Mond. Granted, they played a pressure-happy Clemson team, but Clemson only accounted for three of those sacks (in the same number of games, Bama has allowed only three). If the Tide can take advantage of that weakness and rattle Mond’s cage early, force him to make rapid decisions, and generate a turnover or two, they’ll all but have the game in the bag.

But if Mond has time to sit in the pocket, he has the arm to dissect the Tide’s underbelly and force the safeties to squat on routes close to the line. If Alabama does that, then the Aggies have the receivers to get lose for long gains behind the defense if Mond can connect.

The other new twist for Alabama will be facing a team that has a solid running game, as none of the Tide’s opponents to date have leveraged the ground game. As part of Fisher’s desire for balance, that rushing attack is a built-in part of the Aggie game plan, and Alabama will have to improve their play against the run if they want to impose their will, which is to make an offense one-dimensional, then pressure them into mistakes that act as coffin nails.

Alabama’s tandem of inside ‘backers played well against Ole Miss after a few weeks of mild confusion. Mack Wilson is playing through pain, as has been well-documented. But he looked like what he was forecasted to be against Ole Miss, and Dylan Moses flew around like a cruise missile with a purpose last Saturday in Oxford. The back-ups, particularly Markail Benton, are developing well, giving the Tide some much needed depth. If the Tide can see their inside linebackers raise the standard again this week and be a force in snuffing the interior run of the Aggies, Alabama’s prospects for a win will be brighter.

With an Aggie offense that averages nearly 600 yards of total offense per game, the Tide won’t have a margin for error. They’ll have to have their best game of the season and minimize mental errors, because Texas A&M has the roster talent and the talent to burn Alabama when they falter.

Special Teams

Alabama appears to have found a place kicker in Joseph Bulovas, as the redshirt freshman acquitted himself well after earning the starting job last week. Skyler DeLong is a work in progress, but one can hope that he adds more boom to his kicks. That said, his accuracy has been solid to date.

In the return game, everyone appears terrified of kicking to Waddle, though he did get a return or two last week. He’s a threat to put the ball in the end zone every time he touches the ball, and watching him await a sailing kick reminds one of bottled lightning. Jacobs is the other half of the return equation, and together they give the Tide its most explosive, potentially game-changing pair of return men since Eddie Jackson.

On the Aggies sideline, junior Braden Mann handles the punting and kickoff duties, and he has an impressive 51.67 yard per punt average with a long of 73 yards so far this season. On kickoffs, he’s been equally effective with 16 touchbacks to his credit. Longtime placekicker Daniel LaCamera has struggled a bit this season, hitting three-of-five field goals with misses over 50 and inside 30.

The Aggies have solid return options in Roshauud Paul (6-0, 180 pounds) and Kwame Etwi (5-9, 200 pounds), two electrifying jukers who can make the most of space in the open field. Paul handles most of the punts and has five returns for 34 yards. On kickoffs, Paul is averaging 15.5 yards per return, while Etwi has 17.5 yards per return.

While Alabama has looked damn near unstoppable this season on the offensive side of the ball, the criticism that they haven’t played a quality defense to date holds true. Louisville ranks in the bottom quarter nationally in most statistical categories, Arkansas State was just plain outclassed, and the Ole Miss defense is an abominable tire fire. While Alabama has looked surgical and dynamic in the passing game and has been able to impose its will on the ground, they’ll be facing a different beast this week.

That’s not to say that the outcome won’t be the same as it has been for the last three weeks. There are likely fewer than three defenses in the nation that Tua couldn’t shred with accurate passing, and though Texas A&M is vastly improved, they’ve not yet shown themselves capable of handling what the Tide will throw at them. In the past, if a defense could shut down the Alabama running game then the Tide would be in trouble. Now, Bama simply takes to the air and can do so with confident effectiveness. No matter how good a defense is, it’s tough to defend against an effective attack on two fronts, and Alabama is one of the few teams in the nation that can do just that.

The real question is not whether A&M can stop Alabama, as they probably can’t. Not completely, anyway. The good news for Aggies fans is that they may not have to if the aTm offense can light a fuse and have the kind of outing it enjoyed against Clemson. The Tigers have a legitimate top-flite defense, and the Aggies hung more than 500 yards of total offense on them. Texas A&M hasn’t built statistical bulk playing patsies, as has been the case in the past. Their stats are representative of an excellent, efficient, balanced offense with a shifty dual-threat QB pulling the trigger. That could give Alabama problems, and if the Texas A&M defense can get a few stops while the offense keeps pace with the Tide O, then it’s anybody’s game.

Can Texas A&M repeat their performance against Clemson in Tuscaloosa this weekend and hold the Tide offense in check? If they lock down the run, can Tua and Company still find yards through the air? Can A&M find a way to create balance with their running and passing games to keep a still-growing Tide offense off-kilter? Will the Tide keep pressure on Mond with the pass rush while seeing continued improvement from the inside backers against a formidable running attack?

We’ll see just how good Alabama is soon. Hope for the best…