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November 8, 2013

Tarp's pregame thoughts

-The big question going into tomorrow's game is how much has Texas A&M's defense really improved over the course of two games in which it has performed well against outmanned opponents.

So far, like a software program, we've had different versions of A&M's defense so far this season. Here they are as follows:

1.0….the Aggies trotted out a multitude of inexperienced players due to multiple suspensions in their first two games and didn't play very well. It was followed by..

2.0….some of the experienced guys returned and were teamed with some newcomers who hadn't played much. They were quickly overwhelmed by Alabama 1) which essentially cost A&M any realistic shot at a national title 2) in a nationally televised contest that 3) may have been the biggest game ever at Kyle Field and 4) overshadowed an offense that rolled up over 600 yards. It was followed by….

3.0…the defense was loaded up with upperclassmen who it was hoped would make fewer mistakes than the younger players with the exception of Mike likebacker Darian Claiborne who was by far the best player at the position regardless of classification. Although the defense was faster and more experienced, it still wasn't fast enough. In addition, it was undone by playing nickel alignments regardless of the opposing personnel and a lack of rotations up front which resulted in players wearing down late in drives and in games. As with Alabama, the last straw was a loss, this time to Auburn, in which they 1) lost a double digit lead to a running team and 2) scored 41 points. More changes ensued to produce…

4.0…safety Floyd Raven returned from injury and allowed DeShazor Everett to move back to cornerback. Donnie Baggs hadn't panned out as an inside linebacker but was moved back to his more natural position of outside linebacker. Injuries put some younger players in the lineup such as defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and increased rotations in the front seven meant that athletic guys like Daeshon Hall…considered to be undersized as a true freshman…could see more snaps but not necessarily where they would exposed so much.

All of a sudden, the defense was more athletic, especially up front. Although the level of competition wasn't the same (Vanderbilt and UTEP), the unit played much better and most importantly started playing on the opponent's side of the ball more often. The Aggies collected more sacks in two games than they had all year and forced six turnovers. A unit that was dead last in the SEC versus the run held up much better.

Now, version 4.0 of the 2013 Texas A&M defense gets its toughest test tomorrow when they find out if the changes are for real or the illusion that version 3.0 turned out to be after some initial success. Remember that version 3.0 held SMU to 13 points and held Arkansas and Ole Miss to 23 points over a four quarter span before imploding to allow 83 points over the next six quarters of football.

The one thing that A&M has gotten much better at the past two games is playing front seven people who can get penetration and either make plays in the backfield or force a double team to free up someone else to do so. Tomorrow, A&M's defense will live or die on this aspect of the game against Mississippi State because the Bulldogs have a big, physical offensive line led by mammoth guard Gabe Jackson. Mississippi State likes to pull its linemen and there's opportunities to come in behind the reach and down blocks of those lineman and spill the play for a loss. If the Aggies play like they did versus Auburn and don't make much happen behind the line of scrimmage, then Mississippi State will be able to get the Aggies in favorable second and medium or third and short situations. If A&M makes those plays, then a Bulldog team that likes to throw short routes or off of play action will be moved out of its comfort zone.

In addition, an underrated aspect of A&M's last two games defensively has been its ability to get off the field early in games. This translated to a 28-0 lead against Vanderbilt and against UTEP it allowed the offense to get going after multiple three and outs early in the game. Last season, you may remember that the Bulldogs fell behind 31-0 as they failed to score on their first six possessions. That may be too much to ask of this A&M unit but if Mississippi State can't match the Aggie offense early they will have lost their best chance to win the game and if they keep having to overcome negative plays they'll never get the opportunity to even come close to doing so.

-Versions 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 of the 2013 A&M defense had one big stat problem: they allowed opposing teams to generally put up higher point totals against A&M than they were accustomed to over the course of a season. Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Auburn all scored one to two touchdowns more than their season averages. As a result, games that should have been comfortable wins wound up going into the fourth quarter with too much left to chance.

Mississippi State has scored a high of 28 points against BCS opponents this season and that was against Kentucky (which hasn't been much better defensively than A&M has been) and averages 28 per game. If Version 4.0 is who we think they are based on the past two games, then they should be capable of reversing that trend as they did versus UTEP (18 points below their season average) and Vanderbilt (eight point below their season average). That means holding Mississippi State to 28 points or less rather than letting get into the 30s or even 40s (which they've done only against the likes of Troy and Alcorn State). More importantly, that should give A&M confidence that they can go on the road and play good enough defense to beat LSU and Missouri.

-The Bulldogs' defense is east/west unit that makes plays sideline to sideline rather than a north/south unit that makes plays down the field or in the backfield. That's because they lack people who can change direction or make plays on the ball in the secondary. You saw this last season in Starkville as the Bulldogs sacked Johnny Manziel just once, allowed over six yards a carry, permitted around an 80% completion rate, and forced zero turnovers…and all of this with a secondary that was much better than the 2013 unit.

This year's A&M offense is much more willing to go down the field and stresses these weaknesses even more than A&M's offense could last year. If a team can't pressure the quarterabck or can't make plays down the field against receivers, how are they going to even come close to slowing down A&M's passing game? LSU is probably most comparable in this regard to A&M because Zach Mettenberger has a big arm and has fast receivers….and all the Tigers did was score 59 points and average 12 yards per passing attempt. Last week, South Carolina's Connor Shaw threw for four touchdowns. Even if Mississippi State manages to be better offensively, this looks to be a game in which A&M hits its average of 49 points a game and could very well exceed it which means that the Bulldogs will get to a point where they just can't keep up.

-We haven't talked special teams much but Mississippi State does feature punters Baker Swedenburg and Devon Bell who average about 44 yards an attempt. Jameon Lewis is a good kickoff returner. However, they've only hit 54% of their field goals this season and rank in the bottom half of the league in opponents' punt returns (that whole pesky change of direction thing gets them there too). Most teams seeking an upset usually work special teams to obtain one but the Bulldogs really can't rely on this aspect of their team. Even having a good punter really doesn't mean much against an A&M offense that doesn't care if it starts a possession at its own 20 or your 20 because they'll score either way.

-Finally, I love tradition as much as anyone else but people are making too much out of this being the last game at Kyle Field before it's reconstructed…the last game it will ever look that way. Seriously, did anyone get misty eyed when they added the third deck in the late 1970's or when the second deck was added in the 60's? Even the older Ags I know that I like to turn back the clock wouldn't want a return to that.

It's a stadium whose fans are much better than the facility itself, a place that lacks adequate restrooms, concessions, and places for assistance with young children. Forget all of the items that will make it the premier revenue generator among its collegiate brethren…it's going to be much more fan friendly and accommodate families in a far superior way so that it will be easier to pass down the legacy of being an A&M fan to your children and grandchildren and friends.

It's the people…the fans and players…that it make it special, not the concrete and steel. It's still going to house the best crowd in all of college football for three hours on a Saturday in the fall and that's the best part of all.

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