It’s hard to believe that we are seven weeks into the college football season but, here we are, at the tipping point of the Tide’s SEC title (and national title) aspirations. Sure, down the road there are a few teams (most notably LSU) who will test the mettle of the 2015 version of the Crimson Tide. But, from where we sit, A&M is THE key remaining matchup on the schedule.
Lose to A&M and Alabama would then need the Aggies to find a way to lose three SEC games before the Tide could pass them up in the West. But, if the Tide beats the Aggies, then Alabama would hold a two game advantage over one of the most powerful teams in the SEC this season.
Make no mistake about it – Saturday is a HUGE game for Alabama. Here’s how we see it going…(and in the immortal words of hoops coach Avery Johnson – BUCKLE UP!)
Alabama on Defense
We’ll start this week by changing things up a little bit and we’ll look at Alabama’s defensive matchup first. This matchup features the classic “irresistible force” going against an “immovable object”.
Of course, A&M’s offense is playing the role of the irresistible force because they are currently ranked #2 in the SEC in total offense, #2 in scoring offense and they are the #2 passing offense. True freshman wide receiver Christian Kirk leads the SEC in receiving and he moves around the line of scrimmage more than jello on top of a washing machine. You’ll find Kirk (#3) in the backfield, in the slot, and split out wide. He’ll get handoffs, screens and bombs. And then he runs the wildcat and returns punts and kicks as well…and he’s a true freshman. And he’s really, really good.
Pulling the trigger (at least for the majority of the time) for the Aggies’ offense is 6’3, 200 lb, true sophomore Kyle Allen. Allen took over the A&M offense after the 59-0 whipping the Tide gave them last season and he’s now seen as one of the SEC’s top QBs. Allen is very mobile and he’s extremely accurate, making him the perfect QB for the Sumlin system.
When Allen isn’t behind center, they like to use another true freshman named Kyler Murray (#1) and he is lightning quick. He’s only 5’11 (I think the Aggies are being generous here) and 188 lbs but they like to line him up in an empty backfield and then let him loose. There’s about a 99% chance he will run when they empty out the backfield with him at QB and he runs the ball like the Tazmanian Devil on speed. Between the two, Allen is still the guy who scares us the most because he can create plays with both his feet and his arm. Here are a few other items to watch for…
Under Pressure: Unlike Alabama’s other foes this season, the Aggies will not be hell bent on getting the ball out quickly on every pass. In fact, the majority of the time they’ll actually have Allen play action and then roll out, buying more time for his fleet of tall five-star quality wide receivers to get open. If Alabama uses Denzell Devall and Jonathan Allen at defensive end, then QB Kyle Allen should be able to maneuver outside of the pocket pretty much at his leisure. Allen is athletic and is adept at buying time both in and out of the pocket. However, if Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans are used at defensive end, then you’ll see the Tide’s front four having a huge impact on the passing game. And, know this: Alabama needs to get pressure on Allen in order to survive Saturday’s contest.
Like a Surgeon: Repeat after me – Kyle Allen is a very, very good QB. It’s so unusual for me to see plays designed where they actually ask a right handed QB to roll to his left and then execute in the passing game but A&M did this no less than six times against Arkansas. Allen is also adept at rolling right and throwing on the run so he’s an equal opportunity passer. This allows Allen to change his launch points which will certainly keep the defense guessing. Look for Alabama to blitz Minkah Fitzpatrick and perhaps a safety or corner a few times as they try to guess which side Allen will roll to. It’s interesting but Allen seems to enjoy fleeing the pocket prematurely so containing him on the edges will be an important but difficult task.
Captain Kirk: Christian Kirk is the Aggies’ answer to Amari Cooper and as you watch the game, remember this kid is a true freshman. Much of the A&M offense runs thru Kirk so Bama will have to be cognizant of where he is lined up all times. He’s been a wildcat QB but he has also lined up as a fullback which can match him up in the passing game against linebackers. Kirk is especially effective when he’s working out of the slot against safeties. Either way, once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s electric. With Sumlin preferring four and five wide receiver sets, it limits the ability to double team Kirk in coverage.
Ready to Run: For the first time in recent memory, Kevin Sumlin is using just one back in the backfield the majority of the time and his name is Tra Carson (#5). Carson is 6’0, 235 and spends his time running between the tackles. Allen likes to run the zone read with Carson and will often keep the ball around the corner. With Kirk threatening the edges on fly sweeps and Carson plunging up the middle, it’s a dynamic run game to try to stop – far more dynamic than Ole Miss, a team Bama struggled to defend on the perimeter.
Stunt Men: On four separate occasions against Arkansas, the Aggie tackles and guards got completely lost when trying to pick up a stunt. In fact, against both MSU and Arky, Allen was on the run much of the game. Again, sometimes Allen simply bailed on the pocket but sometimes he was legitimately on the run. Look for Alabama to use stunts and twists in an effort to confuse the big uglies from Aggieland.
Unbroken (and unblocked): Texas A&M loves to leave opposing defensive ends completely unblocked and both Mississippi State and Arkansas took full advantage. Instead of just standing there flat footed, the Arky and MSU ends oftentimes sprinted into the backfield to disrupt the play. Look for Tim Williams and the other ends to have several opportunities to get into the backfield from an unblocked position and disrupt some plays.
Here are a few other things that we unearthed during our film studies…
- Texas A&M ran no less than five WR screen against MSU and four against Arkansas. After a few bubble screens, they then faked the screen and took a deep shot.
- We counted numerous option plays and zone read runs. On the options, Allen always pitched the ball very early. He only kept the ball once and that was for a loss.
- A&M will stay spread out in short yardage situations and will use Allen’s ability to roll out. Look for the zone read here, as well. Typically, A&M did not fare well in short yardage situations so this is an advantage for Alabama.
- When Allen is in the empty set, that is when they usually use a three step drop to get the ball out quickly. When a back is in the backfield, that is when they will play action and use longer developing routes.
- Allen is very accurate so if he’s given time and the front four isn’t hell bent on getting a sack then Allen will hurt Alabama in the passing game.
Alabama on Offense
Offensively, this week’s write up will be very similar to the Georgia and Ole Miss write ups because, once again, this week’s opponent should be susceptible to the run. The A&M defense is currently ranked 40th in the country in scoring and 57th in total yards and allowed Arkansas to run for 232 and Mississippi State to run for 196. MSU also passed for 210 yards while Arkansas passed for 225 yards so, as you can see, both the Bulldogs and Razorbacks gobbled up over 400 yards of offense against the Aggies.
Where the A&M defense will bite you is in long yardage situations. If your favorite team gets behind the chains against this bunch then it’s a 50/50 proposition that your QB will end up on his back. Myles Garrett (#15) and Dashon Hall (#10) are first and third in the SEC in sacks and the strip-sack is their specialty. On first and second downs it will be imperative for the Tide to gain yardage. That is why it will be essential that the Tide’s offensive line play a clean game with no penalties. The problem is, Kyle Field now seats over 106,000 people and they designed the place to keep in as much sound as possible. Look for false starts to be a problem. Look for audibles to be a problem. And look for the tackles to get beaten around the edges because they are late getting off the ball.
Here’s what else to look for on Saturday afternoon…
He’s a Keeper: Both Arkansas and MSU gashed the Aggies with QB runs. Whether it was from a zone read, a QB draw or a scramble from the pocket, both Brandon Allen and Dak Prescott found huge chunks of yardage up the middle of the field. Look for Jake Coker to convert some critical first downs with his legs in some form or fashion. Incidentally, did you know that Coker’s 107 scramble yards are 2nd in the SEC? Well, now you do…
Hard Counts: The aforementioned Hall and Garrett thrive on getting off the ball quickly. Even true freshman defensive tackle Daylan Mack (#5 – plays similarly to Nkemdiche) is incredibly quick off the ball. Of course, that quickness comes at a price and that means they are all three susceptible to hard counts. Look for Coker to use a hard count to get five free yards a few times during this game.
Four on the Floor: With ends like Hall and Garrett, new defensive coordinator John Chavis can simply rush four men and drop seven into coverage. A&M plays a lot of zone out of this with the open spots again being in front of the linebackers, the flats and the area of the field behind the corners but in front of the safeties (corner routes). FWIW, it’s soft coverage – especially off play action – and the Hogs’ very average Brandon Allen started the game 13 for 13 against the Aggies.
Need for Speed: The fear of the speed rush off the ends resulted in numerous false starts by the Hogs. Alabama’s line hasn’t played a clean game in a really long time so we think penalties will be a factor.
Draw it Up: Arkansas gained most of their 232 yards on the ground off of draw plays. The draw induced the Aggies ends up the field, creating massive running lanes behind them. The A&M defense seemed to adjust this against MSU but we still think draws and screens will be effective. Against Arkansas, I stopped the screen at the handoff on the draw play one time and spotted Garrett a full six yards up the field while Hall was four yards upfield – there were HUGE running lanes behind them.
Sledgehammer: With all of A&M’s speed, they are still very light in the shorts on defense and that is why the Lighthouse staff is a strong advocate of the running game. Come by the house on Saturday and you’ll hear us screaming RUN THE DAMN BALL! In the last two games, Lane Kiffin seems to have gotten the message, calling far more running plays than passing plays and we hope this continues as it will help us stay ahead of the chains and keep us out of long yardage opportunities for Hall and Garrett to pounce.
Teeny Weeny: Across the front, A&M goes 245, 260, 280 & 305. LBs are 231 and 235. Neither Hall nor Garrett typically show well when asked to stand up against a running play so that’s where our bread should be buttered.
Third and Dead: Third and long will be a death sentence. Sacks, holding calls, false starts – all come from the threat of the speed rush on third downs.
Here are a few other items from our film study…
- Garrett likes to rush wide which opens up a huge hole for the LB to blitz. Bama running backs will need to be ready to pick this up.
- I never, ever saw A&M stop a third down and short run. They are not equipped to defend short yardage. Block Daylan Mack and all will be well here. Also, A&M has to sell out to defend the run so play action passes off of short yardage situations should be available.
- Arkansas killed the Aggies with a roll right and a throw back left to their wide receiver.
- Short curls and slants will be wide open.
- The Aggies botched their alignments against bunch formations so look for Kiffin to see if they have fixed this during their week off.
- MSU gashed the middle of the Aggies’ defense with several runs, including QB runs.
- The Aggies’ zone seemed to screw up a coverage on a slot receiver off play action. Slots may be key here in this game – that would be Richard Mullaney and Chris Black.
Alabama on Special Teams
Texas A&M’s kicker Taylor Bertolet seems to have been there for a decade. At any rate, he’s got a big leg and has converted on 9 of 11 attempts this season with a long of 55. Let’s just say “advantage Aggies”.
Punter Drew Kaser is averaging 51 yards per boot. Advantage Aggies.
Christian Kirk and Speedy Noil both average over 20.5 yards per kick return and Kirk actually averages 27 yards on punt returns. Again, advantage Texas A&M. Alabama needs to kick away from Kirk any time they possibly can in order to avoid any game changing heroics on his part.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
This game is essentially for the SEC West. Win it, and Alabama is once again back in the driver’s seat with manageable games remaining on the schedule. Lose this one, and Alabama can watch the SEC Championship and the NCAA playoffs from their homes in Tuscaloosa.
This game should be a shootout, with both teams being able to move the ball at an alarming rate. The key to the game will be the Tide’s front four – can they rush the passer? Will they be allowed to rush the passer? In the past, Saban wanted to form a picket fence around Johnny Manziel and that “limited” the Aggies to over 600 yards of offense in one game. This week, the Tide has the horses on the outside in Williams and Evans but the question is whether or not they will be utilized in a game they were perfectly made for.
The Aggies have had a week off so they’ve had plenty of time to prepare themselves for this game. There are metrics that show the BYE week has a huge impact on the games that are played and Alabama should know this better than anyone – no team has faced as many teams coming off a bye than Alabama.
In the end, it boils down to the Tide’s front four and Kiffin’s willingness to run the football down the A&M throats. Arkansas led the Aggies 20-13 with 4 minutes to play. Everyone seems to get 400+ yards on their “improved” defense, where being ranked 57th is seen as a historic accomplishment for Texas A&M. We don’t think it’s improved enough to get this win. But, wow, this is gonna be a crazy game.
Final Score: Alabama 31 Texas A&M 27