When we started the 2013 season, all the talk around Texas A&M football was about Alabama and competing for a national title.
Now, as we near the end of it, and the talk around A&M football is about perhaps playing in a BCS bowl, netting another Heisman Trophy for Johnny Manziel, and what A&M needs to do to keep head coach Kevin Sumlin.
But to do all of that….well, most of it….the Aggies have to win their last two games on the road and win them against very good football teams. On the surface, that would appear pretty daunting. However, outside of Alabama, there's not a team in the SEC this season that doesn't appear to have at least one significant issue that can be exploited by an opponent. That's why it's been such a wild ride this year around the conference…ranked teams losing at home, ranked teams losing to unranked teams, the spread offense and improved quarterback play removing the running game's stranglehold from the league, and contests with teams playing into the 30's and 40's.
Not only that, other than having the same nickname, there's no similarities whatsoever between LSU and Missouri. In fact, these two teams don't even resemble their 2012 selves and so pose vastly different challenges for A&M.
LSU has put its offense in the hands of quarterback Zach Mettenberger although it still can run the ball with Jeremy Hill and Terrence Magee who each average nearly seven yards a clip. But given their history, who would have guessed before the season that the Tigers would rank fourth in the SEC in passing offense and tenth in rushing offense? Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron worked with Mettenberger on his footwork and stepping up into the pocket and he's significantly improved his completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown/interception ratio. Receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry average 200 yards a game combined receiving and they are playing so well that Mettenberger will force down the field throws to them because they will get the ball for him.
The Tiger's improved passing game means that they are averaging about a touchdown a game more in 2013 than 2012 but they've needed every point with their defense giving up about a touchdown more per game this season. They lost a number of talented defenders to the NFL over the past couple of years and their lack of experience shows in a sophomore laden secondary that can't seem to tell whether they're in zone or man coverage. However, it's been their front seven that has let them down a surprising amount of the time…they rank in the bottom half of the conference in run defense and teams with quality offensive lines have gotten all day to throw.
On the other hand, Missouri has shown in 2013 what they intended to show the league in 2012…that the spread would open up the field for their running game and that a defense built around speed could measure up to bigger teams intent on cramming the ball down your throat. In particular, a defense that starts almost all upperclassmen stops the run (3.33 yards per carry), gets you in long yardage situations, and then either sacks you or forces a turnover. Missouri has some very quick people up front that can beat your reach and down blocks and make plays on the backside (eight tackles for loss a game) or beat your linemen in the pass rush (34 sacks). They play a two deep alignment behind that and so they don't give up many big plays. It's the synergy of a scheme and personnel coming together to play better than the sum of its parts.
Like last season, the Tigers did lose starting quarterback James Franklin to injury but redshirt freshman Maty Mauk has played beyond his years in 2013. He hasn't done stupid things with the ball (just two interceptions) and an offensive line ravaged by injuries last year now has some size to it (four players over 305 pounds). They have a trio of undersized tailbacks from Texas averaging about seven yards a pop and a big receiving corps (four starters over 6 foot 2) that can help out a young quarterback by fighting for bad throws. If Franklin is back from injury, then Missouri can ramp up a quarterback run game that has given A&M fits this season. The Tigers are also second nationally in turnover margin and 20th in penalties and don't beat themselves.
As a result, both teams provide totally different challenges for the Aggies. For example, speaking of playing smart football, LSU ranks near the bottom of the SEC in both turnover margin and penalties. Missouri poses a bigger challenge as a football team although there's no home field advantage like Death Valley.
In the middle of all of this, A&M brings the ultimate wild card to the table in Johnny Football and an offense that's scoring to score a minimum of 40 points a game even with multiple turnovers. It's the Greatest Show On Turf with the most entertaining player in college football today. However, A&M is going to have to do one thing well that it hasn't done all season (and has gotten worse at lately) and that's protect the ball in the red zone. The Aggies have more turnovers in the red zone than they do field goals. They actually lead the SEC in touchdown percentage in the red zone (73% of the time) and they get there far more than anyone else (67 trips versus just 50 for Missouri) but their overall scoring percentage ranks 11th in the league. Converting turnovers to field goals might have enabled A&M to beat Alabama and certainly would have allowed them to beat Auburn.
We can talk about the A&M defense playing better all we want but at this stage of the season, you are what you are. The burden for these last two games rests with the offense and more specifically whether or not they can score touchdowns inside the 20 when they get the opportunity.
-The Georgia/Auburn game Saturday encapsulated everything that the SEC has been outside of Alabama this season…wild, wonderful, and wacky.
Auburn took a 20 point lead at home late in the fourth quarter and in most years the game would have been over at that point, especially given the way that the Tigers had run the ball (323 yards). Instead, the Bulldogs (who have gotten some of their injured players back kept coming). Auburn took a loss on a third and three on one possession, a play that they had been converting all day. Worse, on their next to last possession, they put the ball in the hands of quarterback Nick Marshall and although his final stats were good, he's not someone you want throwing the ball three consecutive plays (two incompletions and a sack on that drive).
As a result, when Aaron Murray got the ball back and converted a fourth and goal from the five, Georgia had its first lead of the game and they had Auburn right where they wanted them…backed up into their own territory and having to rely on Marshall and an okay cast of receivers to win the game. Not only that, they had blown a 20 point lead at home and weren't just pushing the self destruct button on a Cinderella season, they were jumping up and down on it.
As a result, their season rested in the hands of a converted defensive back playing quarterback, a non descript group of receivers, and an offensive line that had given up multiple sacks on its last few plays. They faced a fourth and 18 from their own 27 yard line, they were out of time outs, and there were just 35 seconds left.
You know the results of Auburn's final play but people really don't understand how much of a miracle it was until you go back and examine the replay in detail.
First, despite having 18 yards to go for a first down, Auburn's play call sent exactly one receiver beyond the marker.
That's right, ONE. Personnel limitations aside, the Tigers literally significantly reduced their chances to convert with no help from Georgia whatsoever.
Second, as a result, when Marshall threw the ball, Auburn was outnumbered down the field three defensive backs to one receiver.
Third, the pass wasn't well thrown and the receiver, Ricardo Louis, never adjusted to it. Not only is it to his left but he NEVER EVEN LOOKS FOR THE BALL. He just keeps running in a straight line down the field oblivious to what's necessary of him.
Fourth, one Georgia defensive back tries to intercept the ball rather than knock it down. Thus, when one Georgia defensive back collides into the other, the ball pops out.
Fifth, instead of going sideways or even backwards, the ball travels forward in the same direction as the receiver and hits his left hand. You can see that Louis is not even looking for the ball at that point…it hits his left hand and he's as surprised as everyone else in the stadium when it does.
Sixth, he doesn't even grab it. It hits off of his hand and bounces in the air…AGAIN!…before he finally realizes "Hey, I'm supposed to catch this thing, aren't I?" and finally latches onto it.
Seventh, he makes his way unmolested into the end zone.
And if that wasn't enough excitement, Georgia came back down the field and had not one but two chances to throw the ball in the end zone at the end of the game and couldn't get it done.
As a result, Auburn's hopes for a SEC title stay alive, Georgia continues to wonder who they angered in a season in which they have lost three games by 12 points, and A&M fans have to hope that Alabama beats Auburn to get them some traction for a BCS bid.
-USC is now 5-1 since firing Lane Kiffin and interim head coach Ed Orgeron is making it hard for athletic director Pat Haden to look outside Los Angeles for a new head coach. The upset of fifth ranked Stanford Saturday night on national television may not have gotten Orgeron the job but it certainly complicated Haden's hiring process. If Oregeron beats cross town rival UCLA in two weeks, it's going to be hard for Haden not to give him the job. Despite being a defensive guy, he's gotten a lot out of a limited offense no longer shackled by Kiffin's play calling. In addition, he was a member of Pete Carroll's staff and will have the backing of money people who remember the good old days when USC was a national championship team.
For coaches counting on using USC to garner better contracts for themselves, the window is closing quickly and may be shut tight by the end of Thanksgiving weekend. Then, they'll be only one job possible capable of providing leverage and that's…
Personally, Texas' 38-13 defeat Saturday was like watching the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 for a dedicated Kremlinologist…you've gotten to know someone over the years because it was your job but at some point you know that their time is up even before it's officially over.
In covering A&M, you've had to follow Texas intently because they were a rival on the field but more importantly they were a rival off the field in recruiting. That meant that you had to study and understand Mack Brown, especially as Brown has consistently been one of the top five recruiting college head coaches in the country.
Brown's program has had issues for a few years and he had worked hard in the off season to convince everyone that this was a BCS team…most of all himself. Even so, after the debacle at BYU early in the year, Brown seemed to be the most surprised of anyone about how good his team really was.
As a result, he canned defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, upgraded Greg Robinson from consultant to take his place, and then watched his team reel off six straight wins including the most unexpected win of Brown's career over Oklahoma. Although Texas was struggling to beat mediocre competition, they were finding ways to put up Ws and he was telling everyone to let everything play out as Texas was unbeaten in the Big 12 and controlled its own destiny.
Nonetheless, everything came to a head Saturday at home versus an Oklahoma State program that beat the Horns for the third straight time in Austin. Unlike previous weeks, this time there were no miracle finishes or officials' calls to change a game. Cowboys' quarterback Clint Chelf ran the ball at Texas for nearly ten yards a clip just like BYU and Ole Miss had earlier in the year. Injuries had piled up so much that Texas was missing multiple starters on both sides of the ball. Nonetheless, Texas found itself an underdog against a program which featured players that it had never recruited coming out of high school. Worse, Case McCoy is the type of quarterback who will take chances and sometimes they'll pay off but doesn't have the arm to do it all of the time. When he plays too much, he gets exposed…three interceptions including Justin Gilbert's return for a touchdown right before the end of the first half that sealed the game for the Cowboys even though there were still 30 minutes of football to be played.
Most of all, it came in front of Texas' biggest and best list of unofficial visitors all year. Texas's staff had worked hard to get prospects to the game by convincing them that despite all evidence to the contrary, Brown would be back next year because he would win out. However, the only speculation from here out is who will replace Brown rather than what bowl game Texas will qualify for.
Texas fans have convinced themselves that Alabama's Nick Saban will ride into the rescue but we all know that he's not coming. Texas has money and history on its side but those items alone don't guarantee success. Just ask USC, Notre Dame, Florida, or even Alabama pre-Saban.
The situation bears watching because like it or not, Texas is A&M main recruiting rival within the state. However, like Kremlinologists back in the day, Brown's wall fell on Saturday and we're all going to have to get to know someone different.