Will Texas A&M bounce back from their Mississippi malaise?
Few would have guessed it before the season, but the two-game stretch Texas A&M just stumbled through now looks to be one of the worst back-to-backs in the country this season. Mississippi State and Ole Miss, considered dark horses in the SEC West before the season, currently occupy two of the top three spots in the national polls, and they just pounded the Aggies in consecutive weeks.
Losing to the teams currently sitting at Nos. 1 and 3 in the country is nothing to be ashamed of, even if the losses came one after the other. The way it happened, with Kevin Sumlin’s high-powered offense being knocked off rhythm early and never finding a groove in either loss, is concerning. The two losses knocked the Aggies from the top 10 in the polls, right back down to where they started the season at No. 21.
Do the losses mean Texas A&M is done? Or does it just mean that voters had it right before the season?
Rewind to the moment that Texas A&M’s expectations went from “middle-of-the-pack SEC West team” to “College Football Playoff contender.” On the opening night of the season, the Aggies came out and smoked South Carolina, 52-28. Quarterback Kenny Hill looked like a far better passer than Johnny Manziel ever was, and the defense befuddled a supposedly strong Gamecocks offense. That win looks like fool’s gold now, considering the Gamecocks have tumbled from preseason No. 9 to unranked at 3-3.
The Aggies continued to pummel mediocre competition, rising as high as No. 6, before getting to the meat of their schedule (read: SEC West). They struggled with Arkansas, as Hill faced substantial defensive pressure for the first time, although A&M escaped with a win. The two Mississippi schools exposed some flaws and raised the question: can Texas A&M hang with SEC West powers? The two losses, as well as the game against Arkansas, showed multiple ills that plague the Aggies.
Dak Prescott and Mississippi State were inhospitable to Texas A&M, and the Bulldogs’ versatile offense showed that the Aggies defense, as many thought before the season, would struggle against top-notch units. Prescott bulled through them on designed runs, and beat them through the air when the defense started coming down to the line to help. The Aggies defensive front doesn’t play the run nearly as well as they play the pass, and the second level has had trouble tackling. Faced with elusive runners, both at quarterback and running back, those are issues that can be deadly.
The loss to Ole Miss and the close call against the Razorbacks proved true another concern about the Aggies: they’ll struggle with physical defenses. Arkansas got pressure on Hill throughout the game, forcing him into his first subpar outing of the season. With defenders in the backfield, Hill was forced to make quicker decisions than he had to against the soft early-season schedule, and as a result missed throws that he had been hitting.
Arkansas found another effective way to slow the A&M offense that they seemed to let slip away as the Aggies made their comeback. Early on, they played Hill’s receivers close at the line of scrimmage, disrupting their routes and not allowing a free release. It worked for much of that game, but when Arkansas backed off and started trying to prevent big plays, the athleticism Texas A&M has at receiver took over. Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil, Malcome Kennedy and the rest are too talented to be allowed to get multiple free strides off the snap. When those receivers have had to deal with contact, they’ve been less consistent, with drops plaguing many drives.
Ole Miss took it to another level, hammering those receivers for the majority of the game until the score was out of reach. The Rebels’ nasty defensive front also made Hill jumpy in the pocket. Take the interception he threw in the second quarter that Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt took back for a touchdown. Hill had defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche coming right at him unimpeded, and as a result Hill rushed his throw, missed his receiver badly, then found himself chasing down a dancing Prewitt. In recent weeks, the pressure has gotten to Hill, and it’s been reflected in his rapidly rising interception total.
Going forward, Texas A&M is going to face a slew of both talented defenses and dangerous quarterbacks as they try to survive the rest of the SEC gauntlet. This weekend, they’ll face both a physical defense and a quarterback in Blake Sims (assuming he holds onto his role) who can hurt them with his legs when they run up against the Crimson Tide. Down the road, Auburn has an even more dangerous offense and an underrated, talented defense. Missouri, despite its struggles, has the mobile Maty Mauk and a pair of beastly defensive ends.
The Aggies certainly have the talent to knock off any of the foes left on their schedule. The team is young, with many key players getting their first real taste of SEC action. It’s plenty reasonable to expect this team to improve, adapt and find ways to win as they gain experience.
But it seems likely the Aggies will likely continue to along the path they’ve set out. They’re so loaded with young, explosive talent that lesser opponents, like Louisiana-Monroe and the mediocre LSU and Missouri teams they face down the line, will have a hard time keeping up. Of course, it’s the games against the top-10 opponents that will define how this iteration of the Aggies is viewed.
Can they rewrite the blueprint that’s been laid out for beating them? It seems more likely that the Aggies are exactly who we thought they were in August.