Alabama looks to continue its dominance of SEC opponents in 2017, as the Crimson Tide head to College Station on Saturday night to take on Texas A&M. Alabama has won its last two games by a combined score of 125-3 and is nearly a four-touchdown favorite over the Aggies. Texas A&M is also off to a 2-0 start in SEC play and has won four in a row since dropping the opener against UCLA.
As the second full month of action in the 2017 college football season begins this week, it’s clear Alabama is starting to fire on all cylinders. As mentioned previously, the Crimson Tide thoroughly dominated their last two SEC opponents and has won every game by at least 17 points. Quarterback Jalen Hurts looks more comfortable in his second year as the starter, and as usual in Tuscaloosa, the defense is among the best in the nation. After Saturday’s game in College Station, Alabama won’t have to hit the road again until Nov. 11 against Mississippi State.
It’s no secret Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is on the hot seat. And Sumlin’s job didn’t get any easier after the Aggies blew a 44-10 lead to lose 45-44 against UCLA in the season opener. However, the Aggies have quietly improved since that game. Freshman quarterback Kellen Mond is getting better with each snap, and the rushing attack is among the best in the SEC. Texas A&M has won four in a row, including a 24-17 victory over South Carolina last Saturday. This matchup against Alabama starts a key stretch of games for Sumlin. After the Crimson Tide, the Aggies have to take on Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn. It’s not out of the question Sumlin’s future could ride on how well this team performs over the next four games.
Alabama owns a 7-2 series edge over Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide have won all three meetings in College Station and are 4-1 against the Aggies over the last five years in SEC play.
Alabama at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 7:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -26.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
Nick Starkel opened the season as Texas A&M’s starter, but the redshirt freshman suffered a season-ending leg injury in the opener against UCLA. Mond finished the game against the Bruins and struggled to get the offense on track in the fourth quarter, completing just three of his 17 attempts for 27 yards. Those numbers weren’t completely unexpected. After all, Mond is a true freshman and wasn’t a finished product when he arrived on campus. However, after an uneven performance against Nicholls State in Week 2, Mond has played better over the last three games and posted a career high in completion percentage (70.4) in last week’s win against South Carolina. Through five games, Mond is completing 54.8 percent of his throws for 808 yards and six touchdowns and has rushed for 252 yards and two scores. Mond has been especially productive in the run game against SEC opponents. In the 50-43 overtime victory over Arkansas, the true freshman rushed for 109 yards on 10 attempts. And against the Gamecocks, Mond posted 95 yards on 16 carries.
While progress has been noticeable, Saturday night’s matchup against Alabama is Mond’s toughest game to date. The Crimson Tide are holding opponents to just 4.2 yards per play and 8.6 points per game. This unit isn’t as strong in the trenches as it has been in recent years, but Alabama’s defense features plenty of talent, speed and athleticism across the board, along with a standout secondary.
How will Mond perform in his toughest assignment? It’s no secret Texas A&M wants to establish the run and take some of the pressure off his shoulders. Dual-threat quarterbacks have provided their share of headaches for Nick Saban’s defense, but the Crimson Tide have made a few tweaks and scheme changes to better combat spread attacks. When Mond looks to throw, Christian Kirk (23 receptions) is one of the nation’s best playmakers and will also be a factor on special teams. But with Kirk likely to see some extra attention from the Crimson Tide defense, freshman Jhamon Ausbon and senior Damion Ratley will be asked to step up.
If Mond can extend some drives with his legs and play mistake-free ball, Texas A&M will have a chance to keep this game close into the second half. This is the freshman's biggest test so far in 2017.
2. Alabama’s Defense Versus Texas A&M’s Ground Attack
This is a strength versus strength matchup to watch on Saturday night. Alabama’s run defense ranks No. 1 in the SEC, limiting opponents to just 2.8 yards per carry and 73.8 yards per game. Only one opponent (Colorado State) has eclipsed the 90-yard mark on the ground versus the Crimson Tide in 2017. Despite the loss of standout linemen Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen and linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. The next wave of stars in Tuscaloosa starts with linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton, Dylan Mosses and Rashaan Evans, with Da’Ron Payne and Isaiah Buggs anchoring the three-man-front. Senior Da’Shawn Hand started the first five games at end but suffered a knee injury against Ole Miss last Saturday and is out for this week’s contest.
In Texas A&M’s 2012-13 meetings against Alabama, Sumlin’s offense generated 329 rushing yards. However, over the last three contests in this series, the Aggies have only 177 yards on 88 carries (2.01 ypc). With Mond learning on the job as a true freshman, it’s imperative for the offense to establish the run on Saturday night. Texas A&M is still looking for the right mix in the trenches, but the offense is averaging 5.3 yards per carry (bolstered by six rushing plays of 40 yards or more). Sophomore Trayveon Williams (384 yards) leads the way in the backfield, with Keith Ford (302 yards) providing a solid No. 2 option for coordinator Noel Mazzone. Additionally, Mond will contribute to the ground attack, giving Texas A&M three standout rushers to counter Alabama’s front seven.
Will Texas A&M’s offensive line clear the way for Williams, Ford and Mond to have success on the ground? Or will Alabama’s defense dominate in the trenches and prevent the Aggies from getting traction in their rushing attack? If the Crimson Tide win this battle and force third-and-long situations all night, Texas A&M will have no chance to keep this game close into the second half.
3. Can Texas A&M Slow Down Alabama’s Offense?
It’s tough to read too much of stats through the first five games, but Alabama’s offense leads the SEC in scoring average (46.2 ppg). That’s nearly an eight-point increase from 2016. New coordinator Brian Daboll has picked up where Lane Kiffin left off and continued to build on the previous play-caller's success this year. Daboll’s offense is also averaging 7.2 yards per play, has generated six plays of 50 or more yards and is third in the SEC in red zone conversions. In other words, it’s hard to find many flaws for this group.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts continues to progress as a passer, connecting on 64 percent of his throws through the first five games and accounting for 241.6 total yards per contest. Hurts’ favorite target is Calvin Ridley (24 catches), with freshmen Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith and seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster rounding out the list of key weapons. Considering Ridley has a commanding lead in catches for Alabama (24 compared to six for Jeudy, Sims and Foster), Texas A&M’s defense needs to find a way to make Hurts throw to his second and third options.
As if slowing Hurts and the passing game wasn’t enough, Texas A&M is going to have its hands full against the run. The Aggies rank fourth in the SEC against the run but surrendered 226 yards against Arkansas two weeks ago. The strength of coordinator John Chavis’ defense is up front but this is a tough assignment trying to slow Alabama’s ground game. Hurts (461 yards) is the top statistical leader, with Damien Harris (376) and Bo Scarbrough (239) headlining a deep stable of backs.
Texas A&M ranks 12th in the SEC in scoring defense (28 ppg) and is 11th in yards per play allowed (5.68). Repeating those numbers (or giving up more) is not a recipe for success. One positive for Chavis has been the pass rush. Through five games, the Aggies have recorded 20 sacks, which ranks first among teams in the SEC. Texas A&M has to slow Scarbrough, Harris and Hurts on the ground on early downs to get Alabama’s offense out of its rhythm. This unit needs to force long-yardage situations and get off the field on third downs. If the Aggies consistently get the Crimson Tide into obvious passing downs, there's a good chance the pass rush can get to Hurts.
Texas A&M needs a lot to go its way in order to win on Saturday night. The Aggies have to find a way to slow down Alabama’s high-scoring offense, win the turnover battle and generate consistent production of its ground game. The Crimson Tide have been nearly flawless over the last two games and it’s unlikely to stop on Saturday night. The home crowd will keep Texas A&M in it for the first half, but Alabama is simply too strong on defense and playing too well on offense to stumble in College Station. Once again, the Crimson Tide cruise to a victory in SEC play.