The best matchup of college football’s Week 8 slate takes place in Tuscaloosa, as Alabama hosts Texas A&M in a clash of top 10 teams. Not only does this matchup feature significant implications in the SEC West title picture, but this game will have a big impact on the first College Football Playoff rankings, which are slated to be released on Nov. 1. Alabama has a bye following Week 8 and a convincing win over Texas A&M would only solidify coach Nick Saban’s team as the best in the nation. If the Aggies can pull off the upset, coach Kevin Sumlin’s team would vault into the top four with a favorable stretch of games to finish out the 2016 season.
Texas A&M has arguably been the biggest surprise in the SEC this fall. Coach Kevin Sumlin entered the year on the hot seat, and this team featured a lot of uncertainty on offense. Fast forward to late October and Sumlin is in the running for SEC Coach of the Year honors, and the Aggies appear to be the biggest threat to Alabama’s supremacy in the SEC West. Transfer quarterback Trevor Knight and new coordinator Noel Mazzone have provided stability and a spark for the offense, while defensive coordinator John Chavis continues to transform the defense into one of the best in the SEC. The Aggies have already scored quality wins over UCLA, Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee, but Saturday’s trip to Tuscaloosa is a big step up in competition.
It’s a simple statement, but there’s a lot of truth in it: Another year, another dominant Alabama team. The Crimson Tide are 7-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally and appear poised for another trip to the College Football Playoff. As usual, Nick Saban’s defense is one of the best in the nation – if not No. 1 – and the offense ranks first in the SEC by averaging seven yards per play. And here’s the scary part for the rest of the conference: The offense is only going to get better as freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts gets more experience.
Alabama holds a 6-2 series edge over Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide is 3-1 against the Aggies since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012. After losing to Texas A&M in 2012 and a seven-point win by Alabama in 2013, the Crimson Tide have won the last two meetings by a combined score of 100-23.
Texas A&M at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -18
Three Things to Watch
1. Texas A&M’s Passing Attack Against Alabama’s Defense
Finding a weakness on Alabama’s defense is no easy assignment. The Crimson Tide are first nationally against the run, limit opponents to just 4.2 yards per play and rank first in the SEC with 27 generated sacks through seven games. If there’s a weak spot – which is all relative considering the strength of this unit – the secondary has allowed a few big plays this year and isn’t as deep as the defensive backfield Alabama had in previous years. The Crimson Tide ranks fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense but has surrendered five passing plays of 40 yards or more (tied for third-most in the SEC). With an elite pass rush and front seven, opposing quarterbacks usually don’t have a lot of time to throw on Alabama’s secondary. However, quarterbacks with mobility have presented plenty of problems for coach Nick Saban’s defense over the last few seasons. The Crimson Tide have countered by adding more speed and length on this side of the ball, but Knight’s ability to extend or make plays with his legs is an x-factor to watch on Saturday.
Through six games this season, Knight has passed for 1,500 yards and nine scores and added 502 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. In order for Texas A&M to pull off the upset, Knight has to deliver the best performance of his 2016 campaign. The senior already has a win over Alabama (2014 Sugar Bowl) from his career at Oklahoma and can utilize many of the same concepts in this matchup. The Aggies need Knight to hit playmakers in space and allow them to create, while using his legs to avoid the pass rush and keep plays alive. If Knight can extend plays, there’s a good chance Texas A&M can take advantage of Alabama’s secondary for a few big plays. When Knight throws, Josh Reynolds (19.5 ypc), Christian Kirk (40 catches), Speedy Noil (14.5 ypc) and Ricky Seals-Jones (17.5 ypc) are all dangerous threats. Alabama has already faced two potent passing attacks – Arkansas and Ole Miss – and gave up a combined 821 yards. There are opportunities for Texas A&M to connect downfield on big plays. However, Knight has to be efficient and avoid turnovers (5 INTs so far in 2016).
2. Establishing the Run
While the No. 1 section in this article revolves around the matchup of Alabama’s secondary against Texas A&M’s passing game, the ground games for both teams are going to be critical. The Aggies lead the SEC in rushing offense (274.3 ypg), with the Crimson Tide (265.7 ypg) checking in at No. 2. However, there’s a significant difference on the stat sheet in terms of stopping the run. Alabama is the nation’s best run defense (63.8 ypg) and has limited opponents to a meager 2.04 yards per carry in 2016. The Aggies aren’t bad (seventh in the SEC) but have surrendered 159.3 yards per game on the ground.
While running against Alabama has been nearly impossible this season, Texas A&M can’t abandon the ground game. Knight needs to be involved in draws and on read plays, but freshman running back Trayveon Williams is too explosive to ignore. Williams has rushed for 704 yards and five touchdowns this season and averages a healthy 8.6 yards per carry. The Aggies may not break too many big runs, but the threat of a rushing attack has to remain to take some of the pressure off of Knight and the passing game. How patient will coordinator Noel Mazzone be with the ground attack if it struggles to generate production early on? Avoiding third-and-long situations against this defense is critical.
Alabama may not have a standout Heisman contender at running back like it did last season, but the ground attack isn’t missing a beat. The Crimson Tide gashed Tennessee for 438 yards last Saturday and has averaged at least six yards per carry in four out of the last five matchups. The rushing ability of quarterback Jalen Hurts is an added dimension to an offense that already features Damien Harris (572 yards), Joshua Jacobs (8.02 ypc) and Bo Scarbrough (273 yards). The ground game has found its rhythm over the last few weeks, and Alabama’s offensive line is also starting to jell. That’s bad news for Texas A&M, even though the Aggies are much-improved against the run in 2016. Stopping the run is critical because…
3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
As we mentioned above, this Alabama team doesn’t have many weaknesses. But what happens if Texas A&M contains the ground game and forces the Crimson Tide to win this one through the air? True freshman Jalen Hurts has been one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks and is only going to get better with more snaps. However, he can be streaky as a passer, and coordinator Lane Kiffin isn’t handing the true freshman a complex gameplan each week. Texas A&M is the best defense Hurts has seen in 2016, and the success for coach John Chavis’ group starts up front with end Myles Garrett. The junior suffered an ankle injury in the win over Arkansas and was at less than full strength for the victory over Tennessee. With a bye week to heal, Garrett should be closer to 100 percent. His return is essential for Texas A&M’s upset hopes. The Aggies have to win the battle up front – whether against the run or on passing downs – generate a couple of turnovers. Garrett is the unit’s best player, but Texas A&M has a standout group of safeties – headlined by Armani Watts and Justin Evans – and an improving set of linebackers. When Hurts drops back to pass, his favorite target is Calvin Ridley (40 grabs), but ArDarius Stewart, Gehrig Dieter and tight end O.J. Howard are all valuable weapons. Alabama likes to spread the field and use tempo to give Hurts easy completions and favorable reads outside of the pocket. Can Chavis and this defense give the freshman a few different looks to confuse the passing game or create turnovers? Or will Hurts deliver another standout performance after a huge game at Tennessee last Saturday? One area Texas A&M has to perform better than it did against the Volunteers two weeks ago: Tackling. When Hurts connects with any receivers on the edge, the Aggies need to wrap up and prevent 10-yard gains from becoming 30-yard big plays.
The first thing that jumps out about this game is the spread. The good folks in Vegas have listed Alabama as nearly a three-touchdown favorite. That seems like a lot, but the Crimson Tide have steamrolled a couple of good teams – Tennessee and Arkansas – while defeating Ole Miss on the road after falling behind early. Simply, Alabama is in a different class than the rest of college football. There’s too much talent on both sides of the ball to lose to a much-improved Texas A&M team on Saturday. The Aggies need a lot to go right in order to pull off the upset. The offense needs to utilize its tempo and spread the field with the pass and hope to generate a few big plays against Alabama’s secondary. And when the Texas A&M defense is on the field, creating turnovers and forcing Hurts to win this one through the air is a priority. The formula is there, but it’s asking a lot of the Aggies to pull it off – barring a complete collapse by Alabama with turnovers. Even if Texas A&M falls short, this team should give the Crimson Tide a better game than the spread suggests.