Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies are looking for the program’s first 6-0 start in more than two decades; Alabama is looking to stay buoyant in the conference landscape, having already lost to Ole Miss. Another loss would all but eliminate the Crimson Tide from SEC title game contention, and Nick Saban hasn’t dropped two games this early in the season since 2007, his first year with the program.
“Is it a benchmark (game)? It’s a benchmark in the SEC every week,” Sumlin told the media this week.
Here’s how the Aggies can win their third game over a ranked opponent this season.
Opponents scored first in each of Alabama’s last four losses dating back to the Iron Bowl in 2013. Coincidentally, the Aggies reach their offensive apex in the first 30 minutes, having outscored opponents 121-37 in the first half (63-20 in the first quarter).
This year’s Alabama squad is the most penalized in the Saban era, averaging 6.67 penalties per game. A few early scoring drives from A&M would only heighten the pressure on the Crimson Tide to stay cognitively sound. Sure, more often than not, starting quick drastically improves a team’s chances of winning, but it also applies pressure on a component of Alabama’s team that has consistently been lackluster, and it plays into A&M’s game plan.
A quick start would allow Chavis’s defense to clamp down in the final quarter, as it has all season. The Aggies’ defense averages less than a touchdown allowed per fourth quarter. Per the team’s athletic department, Power 5 opponents are averaging just 4.2 yards per play in the final 15 minutes.
Win the turnover battle
This oft-cited metric can be mostly applied to every football game, but under Sumlin the Aggies are 14-0 when they win the turnover battle.
Quarterback Kyle Allen — who enters Saturday having thrown more than 75 passes without an interception — and the offense haven’t had a turnover since the third quarter of the team’s Sept. 19 win against Nevada, going turnover-free the past nine quarters.
The Crimson Tide have lost twice as many turnovers (12) as the Aggies, and quarterback Jake Coker is tied for second in the SEC in interceptions (6). He threw two last week against Arkansas. Moreover, as ESPN noted, Alabama’s offensive line is allowing pressure on 22 percent of team dropbacks, the worst rate for an Alabama offensive line in a half-decade.
Control third-down situations
No team has produced more three-and-outs (29) than Alabama. However, the Aggies convert 45.2 percent of team third downs and, as shown below, give Allen the reins, even on third-and-shorts.
In the first quarter of A&M’s 30-17 win over Mississippi State, Allen diagnosed the defense on a third-and-two, pump-faked toward the sideline, and waited just long enough to free up wide receiver Damion Ratley.
Ratley took the slant route 29 yards for A&M’s second touchdown of the game.
Under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Crimson Tide are 13th in the SEC (104th nationally) in third-down offense, converting just 34.1 percent of the time. Chavis’s outfit ranks fourth in the SEC in third-down defense, holding opponents to a 10 percent downtick in third-down conversion percentage from a year ago.
The Aggies have never beaten Alabama at Kyle Field. However, if they control the turnover battle, convert and defend third-down situations, and pace the game offensively early on, they’ll be in prime shape for Sumlin’s sixth win of the season. A win would vault the Aggies into the national title picture and could eliminate the Crimson Tide from the SEC title game; there will be no shortage of stakes come Saturday.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.