Even after another impressive win, I can't help but say 'what if' with this Texas A&M team
Decades from now when DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy are old and gray, I picture that they’ll relax on a couple of oversized arm chairs with an adult beverage of their choice in hand, and they’ll say something bittersweet.
“Man, what if?”
What if Texas A&M could’ve simply found a way to beat Mississippi State and have control of its own Playoff destiny heading into the second week of October. What if the Aggies, with one of its best defenses in school history, could’ve figured out its offensive identity a bit earlier. Like, earlier than the Alabama game.
Sure, you could say that if the Aggies hadn’t lost 2 in a row that they wouldn’t have had the “nothing to lose” attitude it takes to take down the mighty Tide.
Still, though. What if?
On Saturday, there was no “what if” against Auburn. The Aggies’ defense scored more points than Auburn and helped fuel a 20-3 victory against the No. 12 team in the country. Technically, Jimbo Fisher’s team still has Playoff chances because if Auburn were to take down Alabama in the Iron Bowl, 10-2 A&M would take the tiebreaker and represent the SEC West in Atlanta. How likely is that? Not very, especially if Alabama’s defense can do what Tyree Johnson and Michael Clemons did to Auburn on Saturday.
What did the Aggies do? They sacked Bo Nix 4 times and had 6 tackles for loss. They also forced 7 punts and 2 turnovers.
This turnover was the first touchdown of the day, and for a bit, it appeared it would be the only touchdown:
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 6, 2021
Typical A&M defense. That’s what Mike Elko’s group has done all year. That is, suffocate teams.
Elko told the CBS crew that ever since his group fell behind 17-0 to Arkansas back in September, his defense has been dominant. It’s hard to argue with that. Taking away non-offensive points, A&M’s defense allowed 17.2 points per game in that 5-game stretch after Arkansas. Mind you, that includes a win against Alabama.
And sure, Auburn’s offense wasn’t exactly on Alabama’s level, but it came into Saturday’s top-15 showdown in College Station riding all sorts of momentum because of a run of its own. By game’s end, A&M made Nix look like his freshman self instead of the guy who won his first 2 SEC West road games of 2021. Nix looked like the version of himself who struggled with ball security and turtled against an elite defense in a hostile environment.
A&M is absolutely elite. At least on that side of the ball.
Offensively? Meh. The backs are great, but Zach Calzada is what he is — a tough-as-nails but inconsistent guy who somehow always stays in games after seemingly devastating injuries. Why he thought taking Smoke Monday head on was a good idea, I don’t know.
I do know that ever since that Colorado game when the third-year signal-caller struggled for most of the day, A&M’s defense took it upon itself to do the heavy lifting. It comes from every level. Antonio Johnson is having an All-SEC season as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded corner in FBS. Edgerrin Cooper might just be Buddy Johnson in a different uniform and Johnson turned into the un-blockable force who turns SEC right tackles into FCS walk-ons.
It’s quite the formula. It’s not a Playoff formula, though.
You see, a Playoff formula would’ve involved A&M getting more consistent offensive production when Haynes King went down. Some of that is on Calzada, some of that is on the makeshift offensive line and some of that is on the guy with the $90 million contract calling the plays.
But I’ve said enough about that, so I won’t go there.
A&M’s defense is championship-level. It won’t get that type of attention because Georgia’s defense is dynasty-level. And of course, if the Aggies’ Playoff path was a bit clearer, that’d be a more pressing topic of conversation. Two losses in consecutive weeks all but doomed that.
Having said that, you would’ve thought the team who took the field on Saturday was fighting to keep its Playoff hopes alive. Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter were held to a combined 83 rushing yards, speedster Demetris Robertson had 1 catch for 10 yards and Nix completed less than half his passes for 3.7 yards per attempt.
No quit? No quit.
Isaiah Spiller: “I saw no quit in our team, even from the beginning of the season. We don’t quit, no matter what.”
— TexAgs (@TexAgs) November 6, 2021
It’s too bad because on Tuesday, there’s a likely scenario that A&M climbs into the top 10 of the Playoff rankings. In one way, it’ll be different than when that happened last year because with an Alabama win in your back pocket, you’re like the underclassman who drives through campus with a Rolls-Royce. People — like the selection committee — treat you differently. There’s a respect factor.
A&M has earned all of our respect. Five wins in a row is nothing to scoff at, especially when 2 of those came against top-15 teams.
But having that second loss is like the underclassman who shows up at the party with the dorm room lanyard draped around their neck. People — like the selection committee — treat you like what you are. That is, a team who was a few plays here or there from truly being a topic of conversation worth their time.
The Aggies could’ve absolutely been worth their time with 1 more defensive stop against an inconsistent MSU team. On the other hand, maybe Calzada would’ve been swallowed hole by that Georgia defense in Atlanta. In all likelihood, we’ll never know.
Chaos is the only thing that can send A&M to a matchup with all-world Georgia. Then again, chaos is the only reason the phrase “what if” applies so much to this A&M team.
Nobody will ever question whether the defense was good enough to be a threat in the SEC. The same could be said for those offensive skill players. Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane are looking as good as any 1-2 punch in the country, Caleb Chapman is finally healthy and in pre-2020 injury form while Jalen Wydermyer is back to being one of the best tight ends in the sport (I know he had 2 more drops but he was still productive).
You could close your eyes and picture those guys playing for an SEC title with a Playoff berth in the balance.
But that’s probably more fantasy than reality for A&M.
Reality suggests that A&M will finish the regular season 10-2 with another trip to a New Year’s 6 Bowl. It’ll be remembered as one of those teams who knocked on the door but just couldn’t quite push through. Too bad. Those opportunities don’t come around very often, and if the 21st century taught us anything, it’s that success in the SEC for non-Alabama teams can be fleeting.
Even in the likely event that Leal, Leon O’Neal and a host of others are indeed off to the NFL at season’s end, the future should be bright. We don’t know if Elko’s time to finally take that head coaching gig will come, nor do we know what all of those aforementioned talented skill players will do at season’s end.
In the same way we often find ourselves asking what if 2012 A&M could’ve gotten a chance to play in a Playoff, it’s fair to ask that same question nearly a decade later. We’ll probably never get an answer to that.
Instead, A&M will have to settle for arm chairs and bourbon.