3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -26.5, Over/Under: 61
Old acquaintances have become annual rivals as the Top-Ranked Alabama Crimson Tide host the Twenty-Second-Ranked Texas A&M Aggies in a key SEC West battle from Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. After struggling through a dismal 7-6 campaign in 2017, Texas A&M (2-1, 0-0 in SEC) underwent quite an overhaul on the sidelines, dismissing former Head Coach Kevin Sumlin, and prying Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State for what amounted to a small fortune. The goal was a simple one, for with this hire, it became clear that the Aggies were doing everything in their power to become a greater national power, which meant finding a way to compete with today’s opponent in the habitually difficult Western Division of the Southeastern Conference. Needless to say, competing against the league was not one of Sumlin’s strong suits; after going 6-2 in SEC Play (11-2 Overall) in his first term on the job at College Station, Sumlin could only manage to go 19-21 against the rest of the conference, including five consecutive losses to Alabama in that span. Fisher, of course, arrives with quite a resume’, having guided Florida State to an 83-23 record (.783) from 2010 to 2017, highlighted by a National Championship in 2013. Three games into his inaugural campaign with the Aggies and there is much to like; Texas A&M have quickly proven to be a powerhouse offensively (44.3 P/G, 21st Overall), and a balanced one at that, racking up a staggering 596.3 Total Yards, including 311.3 Yards through the air and another 285.0 Yards on the ground. Furthermore, they’re in a rather exclusive club, as one of just four teams in the country to rank in the Top-25 in both Passing and Rushing Offense. Granted, they’ve certainly beaten up on some weaker competition, blasting the likes of Northwestern State and Louisiana-Monroe by a combined 107-17, but they also gave ACC powerhouse Clemson everything they could handle in a tightly contested 28-26 defeat. Trailing 21-6 midway through the Third Quarter, Fisher’s charges buckled down and scored all but seven of the game’s final Twenty-Eight Points. By the end of the night, the Aggies had accumulated a whopping 501 Total Yards against the Tigers’ typically staunch Defense, with Sophomore Quarterback Kellen Mond (62.9% 274.0 Y/G, 9.3 Y/A, 6 TD, 0 INT) turning heads with 430 Yards and Three Touchdowns on 23-of-40 Passing. Ultimately, a pair of Turnovers did the home side in, the most crucial being a Strip-Sack Fumble of Backup Quarterback Nick Starkel, who replaced Mond after the latter was forced to the sideline for a play after landing awkwardly out of bounds. The young Quarterback must continue his stellar play in Tuscaloosa this weekend, if the Aggies have any hope of upsetting the reigning National Champions for the first time in six years. They’ll also need a herculean performance from Trayveon Williams (59 CAR, 399 YDS, 4 TD), the SEC’s leading rusher at 133.0 Yards per Game. When these teams met a year ago, A&M couldn’t get much going on the ground, rushing for a meager Seventy-One Yards in a 27-19 loss at Kyle Field, with Williams mustering just Thirty-Eight Yards on Fifteen Carries, parlaying to a disappointing 2.5 Yards per Carry. Mond for that matter, who often factors into the ground game as well, was relegated to Fourteen Yards, but managed to rush for a score, in addition to a fairly impressive Freshman showing, completing 19-of-29 Passes for 237 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception. Once again, Turnovers had a major hand in the outcome of this one, folks, with the Aggies committing a trifecta of Turnovers, which one simply can’t do when trying to knock off the Crimson Tide.
Meanwhile, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same for Alabama (3-0, 1-0 in SEC), who three games into their most recent National Title Defense find themselves ranked No. One in the country once again. It’s been an eerily similar start to the previous campaign, in which the Crimson Tide got off to another perfect start before facing their first true test in the form of Texas A&M. Nick Saban’s charges escaped College Station with a 27-19 victory, a much closer game than anyone thought, which prompted Saban to lament the expectations from the media as rat poison. Granted, we can debate the veteran coach’s motivational tactics for hours, but for the sake of this column, that particular meeting with the Aggies wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate; after falling behind 3-0, the visitors ran off twenty-four consecutive points in route to a 24-3 lead early in the Third Quarter, before the home side tightened up and outscored ‘Bama 16-3 the rest of the way. The contest was remarkably close in terms of yardage, with the Tide holding a slim 355-308 advantage, though the ultimate advantage proved to be in the game’s most crucial category: turnovers. Saban’s Defense forced three of them on that day, as the home side self-destructed one too many times. So with Saturday’s affair being contested in Tuscaloosa, can we expect a similarly close game? Well, the Aggies cannot count on this current incarnation of Alabama being the same as the one they took to task last season, for this Offense is night and day in comparison to the previous one. In 2017, Texas A&M faced a relatively conservative attack piloted by Jalen Hurts (67.9%, 82.7 Y/G, 8.9 Y/A, 4 TD, 1 INT), while the 2018 model with Tua Tagovailoa (72.0%, 215.3 YDS, 12.9 Y/A, 8 TD, 0 INT) at the controls is another animal altogether. Tagovailoa, the hero of last year’s National Title Game, has morphed this Offense into a devastating passing force, with the Sophomore’s ability to eviscerate opposing Defenses from the Pocket proving a frightening development for the rest of the SEC. Granted, Saban has utilized both he and Hurts throughout the first three outings of the season, though the former is clearly the primary option with the latter in all likelihood set to transfer somewhere else in the Spring. Three games in, and Alabama is averaging a nation-leading 56.7 Points (1st Overall) on a staggering 544.7 Total Yards, including 308.0 Yards through the air and another 236.7 Yards on the ground, after dismantling the likes of Louisville (51-14), Arkansas State (57-7), and most recently Mississippi (62-7). The affair in Oxford was particularly impressive, for after relinquishing a 75-Yard Passing Touchdown on the Rebels’ opening drive, the Tide ran off Sixty-Two Unanswered Points, including forty-nine straight before Halftime. It would be hard to imagine a more lopsided matchup, but we’ll run down the numbers anyway; the visitors amassed Twenty-Seven First Downs opposed to Nine for the hosts, and outgained them 516-248 in Total Offense despite committing a pair of Turnovers. Tagovailoa was excellent in limited action, completing 11-of-15 Passes for 191 Yards and Two Touchdowns, while Hurst went 7-of-10 for Eighty-Five Yards, another two scores and an Interception. Sophomore Receiver Jerry Jeudy (11 REC, 287 YDS, 6 TD) made plays no matter who was throwing him the football, racking up 136 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns on just Three Receptions.