As the midway point of the 2015 college football season approaches, conference title races and playoff positioning takes center stage, and Saturday’s massive showdown between Alabama and Texas A&M will help provide clarity and insight into how the rugged SEC West will play out over the next seven weeks.
Alabama lost earlier this season to Ole Miss, and coach Nick Saban’s team cannot afford another defeat. While the Crimson Tide still has another huge showdown against LSU in November, a loss to Texas A&M likely ends any hope of making the playoffs. It’s a different theme in College Station, as coach Kevin Sumlin has Texas A&M on the rise after a 5-0 start. The Aggies scored a key non-conference win against Arizona State in the season opener and continued the momentum to easy wins over Ball State and Nevada, followed by conference victories against Arkansas and Mississippi State.
Related: Predictions for Every Week 7 Game
While Texas A&M has three quality wins (Arkansas, Mississippi State and Arizona State), Alabama is the best team it has faced so far in 2015. A win over the Crimson Tide would setup Sumlin’s team for an opportunity to win the SEC West. Remaining road trips to Ole Miss and LSU will be a challenge, but Texas A&M should be favored – and likely by double-digits – in its other remaining contests.
In addition to earning a statement win, revenge is also on the mind for Texas A&M after last year’s 59-0 loss in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama owns a 5-2 series edge over Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide is 2-1 over the Aggies since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012.
Alabama at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Myles Garrett vs. Alabama’s Offensive Line
Alabama’s offensive line returned two starters this preseason – center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson – and this unit has experienced its share of ups and downs so far this year. The Crimson Tide has allowed only seven sacks, but rushers are averaging only 4.6 yards per carry. This group needs its best performance of the season so far against an aggressive Texas A&M defensive front. The Aggies rank second in the SEC with 19 sacks and fifth in the conference with 42 tackles for a loss. Sophomore end Myles Garrett (7.5 sacks) is the headliner, with Daeshon Hall (five sacks) also a prominent force off the edge. Who will win the battle up front on Saturday afternoon?
Related: SEC Week 7 Predictions
2. Alabama’s Secondary vs. Texas A&M’s Passing Attack
The biggest knock on Alabama’s defense in recent years has been its secondary. Going back to the 2013 season, the Crimson Tide struggled in the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma and surrendered 19 passing scores in 2014. Texas A&M passed for 253 yards and two touchdowns in a surprising 29-24 upset over Alabama in 2012 and gashed the Crimson Tide for 464 yards and five scores in a 49-42 loss in 2013. But in last year’s matchup, Alabama held the Aggies to 141 yards and zero touchdowns in a 59-0 rout. And so far this season, the Crimson Tide ranks 11th nationally in pass efficiency defense, with only one opponent (Ole Miss) eclipsing 230 yards through the air. After giving up 341 passing yards to the Rebels in mid-September, will Alabama’s secondary pass the test in Saturday’s game? Senior Cyrus Jones is the top cornerback for coordinator Kirby Smart, while freshmen Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey have major roles in this secondary. Texas A&M’s receiving corps is loaded with talent and is arguably one of the top groups in the nation. Junior Josh Reynolds and freshmen Christian Kirk are the top options for quarterback Kyle Allen, but the overall depth of this group will stretch the Alabama secondary. Can the Crimson Tide limit the big plays allowed through the air? The key to stopping the Aggies’ passing attack starts up front. Alabama’s defensive line has registered 16 sacks and can generate pressure with just its front three and by rushes from the edge by linebackers. If the Crimson Tide gets to Allen with its base package, that’s a good sign for Smart and Saban as they look to alleviate some of the pressure on the secondary and prevent big passing plays.
3. Alabama QB Jake Coker and RB Derrick Henry
As mentioned above, Alabama’s offensive line has to win the battle up front against an aggressive (and incredibly talented) Texas A&M defensive line for its offense to click. Assuming the Crimson Tide’s line keeps Hall and Garrett in check, the focus then shifts to Coker and Henry. Alabama doesn’t need Coker to throw for 350 yards to win. However, the senior can’t afford mistakes, especially when you consider the Crimson Tide’s only loss (Ole Miss), he tossed three picks. Helping Coker’s cause is the development of receiver Calvin Ridley (31 catches), along with the steady play of running back Derrick Henry. The junior is one of the nation’s top backs and has 665 yards and 10 scores through the first six games. In SEC play, Henry is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 25.3 carries per game. While Texas A&M has the edge in talent coming off the edge, this defense has been vulnerable against the run. The Aggies are 12th in the SEC in rush defense, surrendering 182.6 yards per game. The gameplan for Alabama is simple: Get Henry on track, keep the Aggies’ offense on the sidelines and allow Coker to hit some easy throws to keep the chains moving.
This game is just one of a handful of huge SEC contests over the next eight weeks. A loss to Texas A&M doesn’t necessarily knock Alabama out of the playoff picture. However, two losses would be incredibly difficult to overcome. With that in mind, the Crimson Tide have their backs against the wall. The Aggies are a team on the rise and are a contender for the SEC title. Quarterback Kyle Allen leads an explosive offense, but the real story for this program is the development of the defense behind coordinator John Chavis. This game is likely to come down to two aspects: Which team wins the battle in the trenches and which one dictates the style of play? Texas A&M wants to play up-tempo and get Alabama out of its element. The Crimson Tide would prefer to slow the game down and let Henry control the clock with 25-30 carries. Alabama wins the battle up front on offense to establish the run and grinds out a 31-27 victory to stay in the thick of the playoff chase and SEC West title picture.