-It's gotten to be a useless exercise to try to predict which bowl game Texas A&M will play in over the past couple of years, particularly for the bowls themselves. No matter how many scouts they send out, everything depends on the last set of games for championship Saturday because the conferences affiliated with the SEC's bowl games now interfere for various reasons. Last season, A&M was headed to the Capitol One Bowl until the SEC and Big 10 got involved in the last 12 hours prior to the actual selection and decided that they wanted a true matchup of their respective number two teams which turned out to be the conference championship game losers, Georgia and Nebraska. They also didn't want them falling too far in the selection order and appear not to be rewarding them for having really good regular seasons.
Prior to yesterday, the consensus was that A&M was headed to the Chick Fil A Bowl to face the ACC's Duke Blue Devils. Then, word started filtering out that the Outback Bowl (which selected immediately ahead of the Chick Fil A Bowl) wanted Texas A&M for Johnny Manziel and also because LSU starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger had gotten hurt. The Aggies had jumped LSU in the selection order last year for almost the exact same reason despite the fact that the Tigers had beaten them and now LSU reportedly faced the same issue. As a result, someone lobbied on LSU's behalf and A&M wound up in Atlanta. Not only that, the Chick Fil A Bowl itself apparently wanted Miami because they would be a bigger television draw but the ACC stepped in and got them to take Duke which beat Miami and lost the ACC title game (mirroring the same reasons that Georgia went to the Outback Bowl last season).
You can now see why tracking the bowl selection process…at least from the SEC's standpoint….is now worse than trying to follow that of an 17 year old deciding where he's going to college.
-Anyway, on to Duke, A&M's opponent in the Chick Fil A Bowl game.
People have been comparing the Blue Devils to Vanderbilt in terms of teams that A&M has already seen this season for comparison purposes. However, from a size and scheme standpoint, they're probably more akin to Rice which just won the Conference USA championship and whom the Aggies faced in their season opener.
The Blue Devils have two sub 300 pounders in their offensive line and unlike Vanderbilt they don't have a lot of height, generally averaging about 6 feet 4 inches. They're similar in the defensive front as nosetackle Jamal Bruce is just 6 feet and 280 pounds. The defensive ends in their two deep are all under 255 pounds and most are 245 pounds or less. They also start a 6 foot linebacker and a 5 foot 9 corner. Like the Owls, quarterback Brandon Connette (who's 230 pounds) is used like former Kansas State player Colin Klein down in short yardage situations to outnumber the defense (13 touchdowns). In addition, like the Owls, they lack the speed don't get the ball down the field that much. Their best skill player is receiver Jamison Crowder who's 5 foot 9 but had 96 catches for just 12 yards a reception.
So, you're asking yourself…how did Duke get to ten wins?
Well, for one thing, outside of Florida State and Clemson, the ACC wasn't very good this season. Clemson did beat Georgia but later lost to South Carolina. Miami beat Florida which was a big deal for all of about five seconds until everyone realized that the Gators were horrifically worse than anticipated. Georgia Tech blew a big lead against a Georgia team without Aaron Murray. Virginia Tech got mashed by Alabama in their opener. In fact, it's returned to the days of the 1990's when Florida State dominated the league like it does now because the Seminoles were located in the heart of one of the three richest talent producing states in the country and no one else in the league except Miami has near that advantage in procuring talent.
If you look at Duke's schedule, they were 4-2 in the first half of a season in which they lost to Pitt and Georgia Tech (which lost 11 games between the two of them). They preceded to win six in a row before the ACC title game and in those six games they were plus seven in turnover margin which would have ranked them third in the ACC just on that six game stretch. They're a smart football team that also doesn't incur a lot of penalties (just 61 on the season). Their return games are very good as they returned four kicks for touchdowns. Their offensive line communicates well and they don't miss assignments (they ranked first in the ACC in tackles for loss allowed).
Overall, down the stretch they didn't have a lot of negative plays, made some big ones on special teams, and they have a running quarterback in Connette who can score touchdowns rather than allow them to settle for field goals. This allows them to play close games (three of the six were decided by a touchdown or less) and win them. Otherwise, there's nothing that screams that this should be a ten win team.
Being the better team, A&M's challenge will be to avoid negative plays, break even on special teams, run the ball (Duke is 11th in the ACC in rushing defense) and get Johnny Manziel back to being close to 100% from a health standpoint. If they do those things, there's no reason that A&M shouldn't win and if the Rice game is any indication they should win by at least double digits. However, far too often this season, A&M has not done these things and played closer games than they should have and Duke has displayed a penchant for winning those types of games.
-I watched a lot of football on Saturday like the rest of you but unlike most weeks the teams that were playing really had no direct connection to A&M except in the SEC title game. However, there were some items that I noted that were of interest to me from a football standpoint….some of them applicable to A&M, some not.
-You look at the Auburn/Missouri game and wonder how the Aggies (who didn't have a very good run defense) held Auburn to far fewer yards than did Missouri (which was very good against the run). Well, it's real simple: Missouri used a Bear front (from the days of Chicago's 46 defense that Buddy Ryan ran) in which the guards and center were covered by a defensive lineman. Back in the day, Ryan essentially did more than that with this front….he had another defensive lineman and both outside backers on the line with the Mike linebacker and a safety behind them in an eight man box with man coverage everywhere else.
However, teams that use this front (including A&M) have gotten where they use it to compliment their other three man front looks against the spread. That means that they use three linebackers with a nickel look in the secondary. However, what happens when you do this is that the outside linebackers are uncovered over offensive tackles who may outweight them by 100 pounds. If you play a two deep look with it in the secondary, your safeties are not close enough to provide proper run support.
In other words, it's a defense that may be suited as a third down defense like most three man fronts. It's certainly not a look that you would think would be appropriate against a running team like Auburn. Not only that, the strength of Missouri's defense is its defensive ends who are quick and can change direction. Its defensive tackles are undersized but relatively athletic and can get upfield, especially by attacking gaps and shoulders of the offensive linemen. They protect the linebackers in their scheme by forcing double teams via quickness, not by absorbing blocks, and are suited for a four man front.
When Missouri used this three man front, they essentially were asking undersized linemen to absorb blocks which they weren't used to doing…no stunting, no blitzing. Not only that, they had six people in the box versus Auburn's eight (five linemen, quarterback, H back, tailback). They were outnumbered and outsized. When Auburn ran inside zone, they simply doubled Missouri's interior linemen and pushed them back. When they ran outside, those linemen got pushed back into the second level which meant that the linebackers got caught up in traffic and couldn't get to the perimeter.
It was like watching a train wreck over and over. You wanted to scream at the TV for the engineer to hit the brake but he just kept his hand on the throttle and as a result there was wreckage and bodies everywhere to the tune of 545 yards rushing by the end of the day. Tre Mason carried 46 times for 304 yards and the vast majority of his carries were between the tackles. In case you're wondering, Auburn did all of this damage even though they're not particularly big up front and they don't start a single senior.
Three things in summary:
One, Auburn runs the option but spreads the field with three receivers. As a result, teams default to nickel defenses against them. You can't do that because Auburn's quarterback is involved in the running game and they outnumber you in the box. They essentially lock you into a man free look in the secondary and force your free safety to be a box player. Missouri is basically a cover two team to prevent big plays and never really adjusted away from their base philosophy. It probably didn't help Missouri that they matched up better against Ole Miss (which essentially runs the same offense) and stopped their running game and so they underestimated just how good Auburn was.
Two, Gus Malzahn is a former high school coach. Those guys keep things simple and if you don't adjust, they don't worry about showing you how smart they are. They just keep running the same thing which is what happened to Missouri on Saturday. Note that Malzahn didn't go away from what was working to try to hit play action or something else.
Three, A&M faces three teams that essentially run this offense…Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn…every season because they're all in the same division. The Aggies struggled with the same issues that most teams do in being outsized in the box versus the spread option because they want to play nickel personnel versus three wideouts. They are going to have to figure out what gives them the best chance to win and it's certainly not what we saw Saturday from Missouri.
-Now for some randomness:
Bob Stoops won ten games this season despite not being able to stop the run, having a quarterback, or his usual talent at receiver. He beat Oklahoma State on Saturday in deplorable conditions that were good for a Cowboys' team that runs the ball and stops the run. He did by winning special teams, finding ways to run the ball, and Blake Bell not looking like Case McCoy when it mattered.
Stoops isn't recruiting like he has on past years but he coaches every game like it's his last. He squeezes every win he can out of every season. He maxes his teams out. He somehow lands BCS bids when he shouldn't.
That's what coaches are supposed to do.
That was an awful loss for Mike Gundy. He's lost twice at home to his arch rival in four years with a better team.
Texas' Mack Brown somehow rallied his team from a terrible 1-2 start to play for a BCS bid. It's probably one of his better coaching jobs but it may get him fired anyway because everyone realizes except himself that even though he's doing his best, it's just not good enough.
Saturday, Brown's best resulted in too many coaching mistakes. They started on their first drive when they called a play action pass on their second play after Malcolm Brown had a good run on first down and continued throughout a day in which they put the ball in the hands of Case McCoy 34 times when he simply couldn't have played any worse. Brown himself wanted the wind for the fourth quarter so badly that he gave Baylor the wind AND the ball to start the third quarter. Of course, Texas' isn't built to come from behind so why not take the wind in the third to get the lead and just run the ball and play defense in the fourth quarter? Sure enough, Baylor used the wind to grab a three score lead and Texas had to throw it the fourth to try to come back which wasn't happening.
Baylor just got a BCS bid. Hell just froze over. Considering where they were a few years ago, Art Briles has done one of the great building jobs of all time, comparable to that of Bill Snyder during his first run at Kansas State. He recruits fat people up front and fast ones everywhere else and has the best offensive scheme going. He's a great developer of quarterbacks in a QB friendly league. He has a cutthroat mentality that doesn't sit well with opposing fans or coaches and he just doesn't care.
Missouri put up 42 points in the SEC title game, led as late as deep in in third quarter, and lost. That's how bad Missouri's defensive scheme was and they never changed it up.
If you think of Auburn as a triple option team like what you saw in the 70's, they start to make sense as a program. They attack all points of the line of scrimmage horizontally to spread you out and then garner big plays vertically.
Tre Mason should get the Heisman Trophy. Auburn's interior running game has single handedly gotten them on the doorstep of winning a MNC and he's the biggest part of that.
Ohio State's season came down to fourth and one late in the game and running back Carlos Hyde was used as a blocker. Someone should be fired over that.
-Finally, looking at the bowl matchups, the SEC should emerge from the bowl season with perhaps one, maybe two losses tops. They've got favorable matchups in every game save the national title game.
The ACC isn't a great league this season. We all know that. But FSU has SEC caliber athletes all over the place and Auburn is going up against a front four in which Mario Edwards is the baby as a 285 pound defensive end. Auburn's secondary isn't very good either and they play man coverage and give up a lot of big plays.
If FSU can hit the same big plays as everyone else does, it's going to be hard for Auburn to pull this off. However, despite running an option offense, Auburn came from behind to beat Mississippi State, A&M, Georgia, and Alabama late in the game, some of them so improbable that you couldn't make a movie about them because the script would be rejected as being too unrealistic.
Find another game to bet on and don't bet this one.