Alabama looks to continue its early-season dominance, as coach Nick Saban’s team welcomes Texas A&M to Tuscaloosa on Saturday afternoon. This matchup is the first road trip of 2018 for the Aggies, and it’s also the SEC opener for new coach Jimbo Fisher. The former Florida State coach worked under Saban at LSU, so there’s no shortage of familiarity between these two head coaches.
As expected by most in preseason predictions this season, Alabama appears to be the team to beat in 2018. The Crimson Tide have rolled to a 3-0 start, beating Louisville 51-14 in Orlando, followed by wins over Arkansas State (57-7) and Ole Miss (62-7). While Saban’s team is once again dominant on defense, Alabama now has one of college football’s top offenses. Sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has already emerged as one of the top players in the nation, and the Crimson Tide ground attack remains prolific. Saban’s team doesn’t have many weaknesses, but kicker (and field goals) remains a concern going into Week 4.
Fisher is just three games into his tenure at Texas A&M, but it’s clear this program is on the right path. The Aggies defeated Northwestern State 59-7 in the opener and nearly upset Clemson (28-26) in Week 2. Last Saturday, Texas A&M handled ULM 48-10 to move to 2-1. Fisher’s background and track record of developing quarterbacks has continued in College Station. Sophomore Kellen Mond looks like his next star pupil and is a key piece for Fisher to build around for the next few years.
Alabama holds an 8-2 series edge over Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide have won five in a row versus the Aggies. Additionally, Alabama is 5-1 against Texas A&M in SEC matchups.
Texas A&M at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -26
Three Things to Watch
1. Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
For Texas A&M to pull off the upset on Saturday, Fisher’s offense is going to need a huge effort out of quarterback Kellen Mond. As evidenced by the two-point defeat to Clemson in Week 2, the sophomore is certainly capable of delivering that type of performance. For the season, Mond has passed for 824 yards and six touchdowns and has rushed for 103 yards and three scores. The sophomore looks more confident in the pocket and has displayed better accuracy (51.5% in 2017 to 62.9 in ’18).
Dual-threat or mobile quarterbacks have given Alabama’s defense and Saban plenty of headaches in recent years. However, the Crimson Tide have made changes to match up better against spread offenses. Going into the season, the biggest uncertainty surrounding the defense was a rebuilt secondary. So far, this unit has passed the early tests. In last week’s win against Ole Miss, Alabama gave up a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the game but allowed just 58 passing yards the rest of the contest. Fisher will throw a variety of formations and looks at the defense to create mismatches or get a breakdown in coverage. How will the Crimson Tide’s rebuilt secondary hold up against Fisher’s attack?
Mond’s ability to extend plays with his legs will be a valuable asset against one of the nation’s top defenses. And if Mond can keep a few plays alive once the initial rush collapses, there could be opportunities downfield for huge gains via the air or run. Can Mond carry this offense like he did against Clemson? If so, Texas A&M is going to keep the score much closer than most would indicate. And for Alabama, keeping Mond, receivers Jhamon Ausbon, Kendrick Rogers, Camron Buckley and tight end Jace Sternberger in check would be another sign a rebuilt secondary is already operating at full strength.
2. The Battle in the Trenches
While much of Texas A&M’s upset bid rides on how well Mond performs, the battle in the trenches is critical on both sides of the ball. The Aggies gave up four sacks and only managed 2.2 yards a carry versus Clemson. On the flipside, Fisher’s defense allowed just 3.6 yards a rush and generated one sack.
Texas A&M’s defensive line is only giving up 87 yards a contest, but it will be tested by Alabama’s standout ground game. Senior Damien Harris is the No. 1 back, but there’s an embarrassment of riches here, including Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. The Crimson Tide are averaging 5.5 yards per carry and over 230 rushing yards a game. Can the Aggies win enough battles here to keep Alabama from winning early downs? If Texas A&M can stop the run and force the Crimson Tide into third-and-long situations, that’s a win for Elko’s defense.
When Texas A&M has the ball, its offensive line has to do a better job of clearing running lanes for running back Trayveon Williams than it did versus Clemson. When Williams has room to run, he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the field. The senior is averaging 6.8 yards per rush and has accumulated 399 yards so far. The Aggies have also allowed seven sacks this season and will have their hands full against Alabama’s active front.
3. Alabama’s Offense Against Texas A&M Defense
As mentioned above, Alabama now has one of the top offenses in college football to go with an elite defense. Needless to say, that’s a scary thought for the rest of the SEC. The Crimson Tide are averaging 56.7 points a game, 7.7 yards a play and have five plays of 40 yards or more in 2018.
The catalyst for Alabama’s offense is quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The sophomore is 36 of 50 for 646 yards and eight touchdowns this season, averaging a whopping 17.9 yards a completion. In addition to the nation’s deepest group of running backs and a standout offensive line at his disposal, Tagovailoa also has a group of rising stars at receiver. Jerry Jeudy leads the offense with 11 catches for 287 yards and six touchdowns, with fellow sophomores DeVonta Smith (10) and Henry Ruggs (seven) working as main contributors. Tight end Irv Smith and freshman receiver Jaylen Waddle round out one of college football’s top receiving corps and provide Tagovailoa with plenty of weapons on the outside.
How will Texas A&M counter Alabama’s offense? As mentioned previously, the Aggies are going to have to win some battles on early downs and force the Crimson Tide into third-and-long situations. Elko’s defense also has to create some havoc. Texas A&M needs to pressure Tagovailoa and find a way to get a couple of takeaways. The Aggies are giving up 6.2 yards a play, but this unit is better than that number would indicate. Elko’s defense held Clemson to 413 yards in Week 2 and is only giving up 15 points a game.
A potential trouble spot for Texas A&M’s defense is the big plays this unit has allowed in 2018. Through three games, the Aggies have surrendered seven plays of 40 yards or more and three of 60 yards or more. If Tagovailoa has time to throw, he will have no trouble connecting with Jeudy, Smith or Ruggs on big plays downfield. The Aggies have to find a way to balance generating pressure on Tagovailoa and not giving up big chunks of yardage on the back end.
Alabama has cruised to a 3-0 start and are heavy favorites to move to 4-0 with Texas A&M visiting Tuscaloosa. The Aggies are the best team the Crimson Tide have faced this year, so this is a good barometer for Nick Saban’s program. With Mond leading the way for Texas A&M’s offense, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this unit has some success moving the ball. Mond’s ability to utilize his legs and make plays outside of the pocket is key to the Aggies’ upset bid. However, even if Mond plays well, the Aggies still have to find a way to slow down Alabama’s offense. Fisher finds a way to keep Texas A&M in this one, but Alabama pulls away late.