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October 12, 2013

Tarp's pregame thoughts

One of the things that I always save for Saturdays is to take everything we've talked about during the week and figure out how does the underdog upset the favorite. Once again, A&M is the favorite so let's go through the checklist of what Ole Miss needs to do take the Aggies down

Last year, Ole Miss came very close to knocking off the Aggies via turnovers…they forced six of them. They did it by lining up in different fronts, using defensive linemen like linebackers, and spying Manziel with a fast defensive back. In fact, by being undersized to begin with, Ole Miss inadvertently stumbled into a great formula for dealing with him. Rather than attempting to contain Manziel like Florida did earlier in 2012 by staying in their rush lanes, they kept the spy near the line of scrimmage and attacked Manziel there. That kept Manziel from getting out into the open spaces where he was just more elusive than the guys assigned to watch him. As a result, the Rebels had an astounding 13 tackles for loss and four sacks and Manziel was pressured sufficiently enough to have four turnovers all by himself.

Ole Miss continues to play what I like to call junk defenses because they outnumber you in one area along the line of scrimmage or have people popping up in different coverages but leave themselves vulnerable in other areas. Typically, it's a feast or famine approach; you get a negative play or give up a longer gainer. That's what happened last year; A&M had 19 negative plays out of the 70 it ran which is an astounding ratio…literally one every four downs. The flip side is that A&M had three touchdowns over 20 yards in length because gambling usually means man coverage in the secondary with one or no guys back deep to prevent a big play should something break down early.

The Aggies are much better equipped to handle Ole Miss this year because not only do they have a better running game with their backs and offensive line but also because they have a different play caller. Unlike a lot of offensive coordinators, Clarence McKinney is also the running backs coach and so he has a different mentality with regard to play calling. That was evident against Arkansas when A&M got favorable numbers in the box and went to two back sets to run the ball versus Arkansas. In a night with bad weather and a frenzied crowd, the Aggies controlled the ball for much of the second half and didn't rely on their Heisman Trophy winner or an offensive system that's known for being able to spread the field vertically and horizontally in the passing game; they just lined up and mashed the Hogs.

Arkansas is bigger and better in the front seven than Ole Miss and so the Aggies should have similar results. There will be times that Ole Miss makes plays in the A&M's backfield but there will be more of them that go for big gains when the Aggies get the Rebels in man coverage or hit a seam with no one at the second level. In addition, since the LSU game last season, A&M just doesn't turn over the ball very often with the Alabama game being the only one in their last 11 where they even had two turnovers. Thus, a repeat of last year is highly unlikely.

In addition, how do turnovers swing the scoreboard? Most analysts feel that turnovers are worth four to seven points each which meant that Ole Miss' plus three turnover advantage was worth 12 to 21 points. Given that A&M won by three, that means that the Aggies were 15 to 24 points better straight up over the Rebels. That's the primary reason that in the podcast jmlittle and I were talking about a 14 to 21 point spread in this game.

Second, the kicking game is a big factor in upsets and the one advantage that Ole Miss has is Jeff Scott at punt returner. Teams kick away from him (he's only got five returns on the year) but when he gets his hands on the ball he's extremely dangerous; he averages 20 yards a return and has a touchdown return already. Otherwise, neither team has a decided advantage over the other one and the Aggies need to make sure that they stay in their lanes and that Drew Kaser doesn't outkick his coverage. One thing that should boost A&M is that new kicker Josh Lambo hit a field goal two weeks ago on the road in bad weather and so field goal and extra point issues should be a thing of the past.

Lastly…there's more intangibles associated with this game than you normally find. It's a game that Ole Miss truly needs with LSU coming to Oxford next week and the Rebels could be looking at a three game losing streak going into that one. They had some high expectations going into the season and now they've dropped out of the top 25. It's a night game on the road and in front of a home crowd that wants payback after what happened last season. However, the best way to take a home crowd out of the game is to smother the home team on defense or run it right at them on offense and A&M's running game can certainly accomplish that.

A&M also doesn't make a lot of mistakes. We've already talked about how they don't turn the ball over very often but outside of the SMU game (13 penalties in a game which saw SMU get flagged 16 times themselves) they've averaged five penalties a game. That's pretty standard fare in college football so you shouldn't expect them to make critical mistakes that Ole Miss that would turn the game in Ole Miss' favor.

Finally, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff are motivators and they've geared their program toward recruiting…they write lots of letters, play lots of freshman, and philosophically they take a lot of chances on the field which draws attention to themselves. They gamble on defense, keep things simple on offense so that they can play youngsters, and with their backs to the wall the last two weeks they've attempted six fourth down conversions. They've accomplished a lot despite starting more sub 5 foot 10 players than any team I've seen in college football in a long time. However, you can roll craps when you do that and that's what happened last season down the stretch of A&M's victory…Freeze made three crucial coaching errors that allowed the Aggies to overcome a ten point deficit and win the game. The Aggies are a more sound team fundamentally with better personnel and find ways to win like they did last week when they shifted gears philosophically and turned the game over to the offensive line and running backs. They haven't lost a road game in Kevin Sumlin's tenure which really says something about him and his staff as coaches and that trend should continue tonight as the Aggies pull out another high scoring contest.

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