The SEC West showdown between Alabama and Texas A&M has lost some of its appeal from the preseason hype, but there's still plenty of intrigue for Saturday night's matchup in Week 6 of the 2021 college football season. The Crimson Tide boosted its resume as the No. 1 team in the nation with a convincing win over Ole Miss last Saturday, while the Aggies dropped their second game in a row with a 26-22 loss to Mississippi State.
After dispatching Miami and Mercer in easy wins to start the year, Alabama escaped the Swamp with a two-point victory over Florida on Sept. 18. However, while some wondered whether or not that victory was a sign of things to come, it was simply a speed bump in the path to another SEC West title and a 12-0 regular season for coach Nick Saban's squad. The Crimson Tide used an old formula — a strong ground game and defense — to easily handle Ole Miss last week, moving to 5-0 on the season. After Saturday night's matchup against Texas A&M, Alabama has a road trip at Mississippi State, followed by home dates against Tennessee, LSU, New Mexico State, and Arkansas before the finale at Auburn. In other words, this team will be a heavy favorite in each of its next seven contests.
Texas A&M opened the 2021 season with high expectations. After falling just short of the CFB Playoff last year, the hope was a reloaded offense could pair with a standout defense to push Alabama for the top spot in the SEC West. Instead, the Aggies have slipped more than expected and enter Saturday's game at 3-2. Texas A&M's defense is still among the best in the SEC, but the offense is dealing with growing pains with a young line, and quarterback Haynes King is out indefinitely with a leg injury. After losing to Arkansas and Mississippi State in back-to-back weeks, coach Jimbo Fisher's squad faces a tall task trying to keep pace with Alabama.
Alabama is 8-1 versus Texas A&M as a member of the SEC. The lone victory in SEC play for the Aggies against the Crimson Tide took place in 2012. Alabama has outscored Texas A&M 144-75 and has recorded at least 45 points in each of its last three matchups in this series.
No. 1 Alabama at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -17.5
When Alabama Has the Ball
With the limitations of Texas A&M's offense right now, the defense needs to play its best game of the year to give Fisher's team any shot at the upset. Of course, that's a tough proposition against an Alabama offense that's already firing on all cylinders despite a lot of turnover from last season. The Crimson Tide enter Saturday's game averaging 45.6 points a contest and 6.8 yards per play. This unit has recorded at least 40 points in four out of the last five games, including 42 in the victory over Ole Miss last week.
In his first year as the starter, quarterback Bryce Young inherited big shoes to fill in replacing Mac Jones. But the California native has ensured the offense hasn't missed a beat, throwing for 1,367 yards and 17 touchdowns to just two picks. Also, Young is connecting on 73 percent of his passes and is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt. The sophomore has been pressured by opposing defenses more than Jones was last season but isn't fazed by the pass rush or extra weight on his shoulders. Texas A&M's secondary ranks fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense but showed vulnerability by allowing 408 passing yards to Mississippi State last week. Jameson Williams (21.4 yards per catch), John Metchie III, and tight end Jahleel Billingsley headline the top targets, and the depth of Alabama's receiving corps, along with Young's all-around playmaking ability, is going to be a massive challenge to contain.
Slowing down Alabama's offense might be impossible, but if there's a path to containment, Texas A&M has to win the battle up front. A revamped Crimson Tide offensive line isn't playing up to the level set by last year's group but is only going to get better with more snaps. Alabama averaged 5.04 yards per carry in SEC games last fall, but that number has dropped to 3.9 in '21. Last week's game versus Ole Miss provided some signs that the Crimson Tide are starting to figure things out in the trenches, as Brian Robinson Jr. powered the ground game for 171 yards and four touchdowns over 36 attempts.
For Texas A&M to have a shot at the upset, limiting big plays by Alabama and forcing the offense to put together drives that last eight or nine plays is a must. Also, the Aggies have to rely on a strong defensive front to help control the Crimson Tide's rushing attack and get pressure on Young in passing downs. If Young and this offense get on track early and put a couple of touchdowns on the board, coming from behind is a tough ask for the Aggies right now.
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
The departure of quarterback Kellen Mond and four key starters along the offensive line was the start of a rebuilding effort for Texas A&M's offense in 2021. However, progress on reloading at those two positions has been hindered by youth and injuries. Starting quarterback Haynes King was lost indefinitely due to a leg injury versus Colorado, forcing backup Zach Calzada into action. Up front, the Aggies have used a handful of freshmen and sophomores in major roles, providing plenty of good news for the future — but plenty of growing pains in the interim.
One look at Texas A&M's stat profile shows just how much a work in progress this team is right now. After scoring 41 points in the opener against Kent State, Texas A&M posted 10 against Colorado, 34 versus New Mexico, and just 32 combined in losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State. Also, the offense is averaging only 5.1 yards per play in SEC games so far this fall. Calzada delivered a solid performance in his first game as the starter, throwing for 275 yards and three scores versus New Mexico. However, he's thrown for just 286 yards with two picks over the last two weeks combined.
Calzada's play certainly has to improve for Texas A&M to pull off the upset, but Fisher's squad won't have a chance to win unless the play up front is better, and the Aggies are able to get something out of the ground game. The one-two punch of Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane is the strength of the offense, but running behind a revamped offensive line against Alabama's defensive front — holding SEC teams to 4.2 yards per carry — isn't going to be easy. Can Fisher scheme Calzada manageable throws on early downs to keep the Crimson Tide off-balance and to open up opportunities on the ground?
Alabama's defense had an uneven performance against the run versus Florida but rebounded with a strong outing against Ole Miss. This unit seems to be rounding into form, as it enters Saturday's game holding teams to just 4.7 yards per play and 18.2 points a contest. Edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. and linemen Phidarian Mathis and Byron Young (combined 20 TFLs in 2020) figure to be a handful for the Aggies up front. However, fellow edge rusher Drew Sanders is out with a hand injury, with Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner likely to see more time at outside linebacker.
The preseason buzz expected Alabama's trip to College Station against Texas A&M to be one of the top games of the 2021 SEC slate. However, six weeks into the season, the outlook is significantly different. The Crimson Tide are favored by nearly three touchdowns, and the Aggies aren't ranked in the Top 25. For Texas A&M to pull off the upset, it will need an elite performance by the defense, limiting Alabama under 30 points with no big plays. Calzada needs to be efficient on the other side of the ball, while the offense is able to find rushing lanes against the Crimson Tide defense. Perhaps Alabama is a little sluggish early after last week's big win, but the path to a close game or Texas A&M upset requires a lot to go right. The Crimson Tide should win relatively easy here, moving to 6-0 and maintaining the top spot in the nation for another week.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Texas A&M 17
Podcast: Week 6 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread