Texas A&M: Beyond the Box Score Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.  And if you just don't like or care about numbers, skip them -- I always attempt to explain what they might be telling us afterward.

First, an aside.  Sorry for the tardiness on this post -- it's been a very busy week, both for writing and work work.  That said, it's been one of my favorite writing weeks in a long time.  I was quite happy with the MU-CU diary on Monday, pleased with Tuesday's Varsity Numbers, perfectly satisfied with the day-late MU-CU BTBS post, thrilled to see my FO-on-ESPN piece for the week hit the WWL front page for a little while (even if it was just as an attachment to Ivan Maisel's piece), and the Varsity Numbers that I handed in for today (running this afternoon) is one of my favorites that I've written.  (If Varsity Numbers were a blog, today's column would be about 17 different posts/topics.)  Anyway, enough chest-pounding -- on with the preview!

Rarely will you see a game that features more "strength versus weakness" matchups than tomorrow's Mizzou-ATM game.  Because of that and the general momentum that typically flows through games like this, there is really no score that can surprise me, from a quadruple-overtime thriller to a 35-point win in either direction.  Both of these teams have high ceilings and low floors, and I can't wait to watch (even if part of me just wants to fast forward to 3pm tomorrow to find out what happened).

We'll continue to follow the same theme that we've been using for this year's BTBS preview posts -- reference the pieces that were written over the summer, then provide updates.

Texas A&M: BTBS Offensive Preview
Texas A&M: BTBS Defensive Preview

Coaching

Mike Sherman was a curious hire when he was brought aboard to coach the Aggies two years ago.  He was an assistant at Pittsburgh, Tulane, Holy Cross, UCLA and Texas A&M from 1981 to 1996, but he had spent the last 11 years coaching in the NFL.  He was the Green Bay Packers' coach for six years; he won three NFC North titles and two playoff games, but a) he never got all the credit for that (it mostly went to Brett Favre), and b) he was dumped after a disastrous 4-12 campaign in 2005 and spent his next two seasons as an offensive assistant (that is, an assistant on the offensive side of the ball, not an assistant who offends) for the Houston Texans.  His experience at A&M (he was OL coach for seven years) and his experience as a head coach apparently made for a nice combination, even though he had not generated a ton of respect for his tenure with the Packers (fair or not), and he hadn't been on a recruiting trip since probably late-1996.  Plus ... well, it's not like he's the most charismatic guy in the world, so I can't imagine he had the most slam-dunk interview ever.  Just an odd hire.  But sometimes odd hires work out.  Take Jeff Capel at OU.  Or Gerry Faust at Notre Dame.

Hmm.  Wait a second.

There's an odd phenomenon in sports -- particularly college football -- that sees teams gain or lose momentum throughout the offseason.  Mizzou is beginning to pick up momentum in college basketball, for instance.  This offseason in football, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Arkansas all became critical darlings.  Thanks to Taylor Martinez, Nebraska has (surprisingly to us) lived up to the hype so far.  The jury is out on Arkansas through six weeks, but the results have been strong.  Meanwhile, a Texas A&M team that went just 6-7 last season was predicted to break through in a pretty major way as well; really, this was unfair.  This was a team that barely qualified for a bowl, got romped by Georgia in Shreveport, and got outscored for the season.  Marginal improvement should have been expected, but the hype began to exceed the realistic possibilities.  (Of course, it did for Nebraska as well, and that hasn't stopped them from thriving so far.)

With the premise of "They went 6-7 last year and are hoping to improve a bit," this season hasn't been too bad so far for the Aggies.  They are 3-2 following three cupcake wins (the one over Florida International required a solid comeback, not unlike Mizzou versus San Diego State) and two tough-but-forgivable losses (38-35 to undefeated Oklahoma State in Stillwater, 24-17 to Arkansas at Jerry World).  If they beat Mizzou, Kansas (in Lawrence, not that that matters) and Texas Tech, they will be 6-2 when Oklahoma comes to town.  But one gets the impression that thanks to the inflated expectations, A&M's season is at a precipice right now.  Jerrod Johnson is strangely going through a sophomore slump in his senior season, and if Mizzou were to knock off the Aggies, Mike Sherman would jump to near the top of the "Coaches on the Hot Seat" list, behind Minnesota's Tim Brewster but ahead of, say, Ole Miss' Houston Nutt.  It's a big game for Mizzou tomorrow, but it's a really big game for A&M.

Offense

There is no way around it: 2010 has been extremely disappointing for the A&M offense.  The preseason expectations were unfair primarily because the defense had a long way to go -- the defense has actually come a long way, but the offense has regressed significantly at the same time.

Overall Ranks

S&P+: 70th
Success Rate+: 65th
PPP+: 67th

Standard Downs S&P+: 63rd
Passing Downs S&P+: 78th

Redzone S&P+: 97th

Q1 S&P+: 29th
Q2 S&P+: 94th
Q3 S&P+: 29th
Q4 S&P+: 53rd

1st Down S&P+: 72nd
2nd Down S&P+: 55th
3rd Down S&P+: 31st

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 43rd
Rushing SR+: 38th
Rushing PPP+: 44th

Standard Downs: 67th
Passing Downs: 26th

Redzone: 110th

Adj. Line Yards:42nd

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 91st
Passing SR+: 82nd
Passing PPP+: 84th

Standard Downs: 33rd
Passing Downs: 94th

Redzone: 65th

Sack Rate: 58th
SD Sack Rate: 64th
PD Sack Rate: 74th

Thanks to Jerrod Johnson's legs and a wealth of bail-out options, A&M almost had the best Passing Downs offense in the country last season and did have the best third-down offense.  Being that all of the same options return this season, A&M might be able to expect the same success in those situations.  But here's a suggestion if you want to improve your overall offensive consistency: stay out of so many passing downs!  While A&M converted on a higher-than-expected number of passing situations, they also gave up a lot of drive-ending sacks.  Because of this (and a sieve for a defense), the Aggies ranked just 98th in Field Position Advantage, a neat stat created by my Football Outsiders colleague Brian Fremeau.  This means they were constantly having to put together longer drives than their opponents.  They were dangerous at all times (particularly in the first and fourth quarters), but they made just enough mistakes that they were often unable to make up for their defensive struggles.

A&M's Standard Downs offense was okay -- 30th is nothing to scoff at -- but it held them back.  The passing game was especially shaky.  It's like the passing game couldn't thrive until Johnson was scrambling and attempting to create something downfield.  In normal first-and-10, second-and-4 situations, the passing offense left something to be desired.  While Johnson is a wonderful creator, he needs to become more steady in the passing game if he wants to avoid having to create too much.

So far in 2010, pretty much everything in the previous two paragraphs has been reversed.  A&M has had a below-average passing downs offense, but Johnson has fared reasonably well passing on standard downs.  The running game has not clicked like it should have, an while A&M has been decent on third downs, they have regressed quite a bit as a whole.  Fremeau will be releasing updated Field Position Advantage rankings soon, and I can't imagine A&M has improved all that much in 2010.

Quarterback

There might not be a more exciting quarterback once Johnson has escaped the pocket.  While he might not be the type of 2000-1000 running threat that Brad Smith was at Missouri (who is?), I think he's more than happy to settle with the just-as-rare 3500-500 split.  Unless Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase does his own solid Brad Smith impersonation in The Dome to start the season, Johnson will be Mizzou's first true fight-or-flight test.  MU linebackers will need to remain extremely disciplined to contain Johnson and the Aggies.

And to be sure, Johnson can be contained.  He was held below 40 yards rushing six times last season, and he was sacked repeatedly by an inspired Kansas State defense.  And when his legs are hindered, his arm usually is too -- in those aforementioned six games, Johnson only completed 52.9% of his passes (it falls to 49.1% if you take out his 23-for-28 performance against Iowa State, in which he wasn't necessarily "held" to under 40 yards rushing, but just didn't rush very much).  In the other seven games, he completed 65.9% of his passes.  When it works for Johnson, it all works; and if you stop Johnson's legs, you stop the Aggies' offense.

In 13 games last year, Johnson had eight interceptions.  In five games this year, he has nine.  Johnson is completing a lower percentage of his passes (56.4%, compared to 59.6% last year), averaging fewer yards per pass (7.0 vs 7.2), and throwing a much higher INT rate (4.3% vs 1.6%).  This despite a very experienced receiving corps.  He's also getting sacked more (3.2 per game vs 2.2), and the pressure he's facing could explain some of the overall regression.  Also: he's carrying the ball (not including sacks) about 7.0 times per game -- it was 8.8 last season.  In all, it's like he's having a "Brad Smith in 2004" type of season; he's acting against his instincts to some degree, and the results have been discouraging.  He is still tremendously dangerous, but he hasn't done well to prove it in 2010 yet.  "Yet" being the operative word, I guess.

In all, one of A&M's biggest weaknesses (turnovers) has been one of Mizzou's biggest strengths, and if things continue that way, Mizzou will do themselves quite a few favors.

Running Backs

What Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray -- the RB duo with the coolest pair of names in college football -- managed to do last year was astounding considering their youth.  The true freshman Michael and grizzled sophomore Gray combined for five yards per carry, 1,601 yards and 15 touchdowns.  Granted, five yards per carry is only good and not great, but they showed both durability and occasional explosiveness ... and again, they had one combined year of experience between them.  If it really is true that you make your biggest leaps in your first two years on campus, Michael and Gray could easily jump to 5.5 yards per carry or so in 2010.

I predicted 5.5 yards per carry for Michael and Gray; so far they're averaging 4.8.  Not great, not terrible.  They're also combining for 3.4 receptions per game (9.4 yards per reception); unlike Blaine Gabbert, Johnson is not afraid of the dump-off, and Mizzou must account for this.

As a whole, Michael is probably the scariest member of this offense for me.  Mizzou has faced one truly explosive back (San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman), and while they contained him a very high percentage of the time, he killed them twice on long gains, and San Diego State almost won because of it.  I love the discipline that we have seen from Mizzou's defense so far, not to mention the ability to swarm to the ball, but this is still not a defense with top-end speed.  I'm going to be holding my breath anytime Michael gets the ball in the open field.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

It was all-or-nothing for the Aggie passing game in 2009.  Six of their top seven returning receivers averaged at least 11 yards per catch, while each of their top four averaged over 13 yards.  This is not a conservative passing game -- if they want conservative, they'll dump the ball to Gray.  The threesome of Nwachukwu, Tannehill and Fuller go deep.  A lot.  And for Missouri fans still having nightmares about defensive backs getting burned deep by Baylor and Texas last season (and a lot more teams in 2008), thinking about this unit will not improve your anxiety level.

In theory, this is the kind of receiving corps Mizzou's defense, as structured, should be able to handle.  The principles for the Missouri passing defense are to allow big cushions, avoid getting burned deep, and allow underneath completions while making repeated big hits.  These big Aggies aren't the waterbug speedsters that Baylor torched Mizzou with last year, and the secondary is built to handle big, physical receivers ... but only if they execute as planned.

So far Uzoma Nwachukwu and Ryan Tannehill have done very little in the passing game -- they have combined for just 17 of A&M's 122 receptions, though they have scored three times.  The stars have been Jeff Fuller (34 catches, 503 yards ... very much all-or-nothing) and sophomore Ryan Swope.  To make the obvious comparison, Swope has been their T.J. Moe, catching 29 passes and providing them with a possession guy that they really didn't have last season.  This is still a dangerous receiving corps, but struggles from Johnson and the offensive line have limited their effectiveness.

Offensive Line

If there is a weakness on the Aggie offense, it comes up front.  Only two starters return (three with solid starting experience), and there is the very distinct possibility that at least one true freshman will find his way into heavy rotation.  Luke Joeckel ended the spring as a starter, and while his recruiting rankings were good and he might eventually be a great tackle, you still have to like your chances against a true freshman halfway through his first season.  If Mizzou's defensive line can collapse the pocket as much as possible, it might allow Johnson escape and roam free at times ... but it might also end a few drives.  You're going to allow some good plays against the Aggies -- the key is to make explosive plays yourself.

The rankings themselves (42nd in Adj. Line Yards, 58th in Adj. Sack Rate) aren't bad, but when you watch A&M play, you see Johnson having to scramble quite a bit, and you see Michael and Gray having to make moves behind the line of scrimmage.  Really, this what you would expect from a line that features three true freshmen, a redshirt freshman, and two sophomores on the two-deep.  It really is a shame that Aldon Smith is not ready to play -- lining Agent Smith up against a true freshman like Joeckel is certainly an appealing thought.  As it is, if guys like Jacquies Smith and Terrell Resonno play as well as they did last week, they should be able to see the same level of success they saw against Colorado.  Johnson is at least as elusive as Tyler Hansen, however, so they will need to make sure to contain Johnson while they are harassing him.

Defense

Overall Ranks

S&P+: 30th
Success Rate+: 17th
PPP+: 17th

Standard Downs S&P+: 19th
Passing Downs S&P+: 40th

Redzone S&P+: 8th

Q1 S&P+: 20th
Q2 S&P+: 7th
Q3 S&P+: 38th
Q4 S&P+: 24th

1st Down S&P+: 9th
2nd Down S&P+: 30th
3rd Down S&P+: 9th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 28th
Rushing SR+: 16th
Rushing PPP+: 23rd

Standard Downs: 12th
Passing Downs: 9th

Redzone: 16th

Adj. Line Yards: 1st

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 36th
Passing SR+: 33rd
Passing PPP+: 31st

Standard Downs: 16th
Passing Downs: 49th

Redzone: 17th

Sack Rate: 70th
SD Sack Rate: 97th
PD Sack Rate: 78th

Credit Sherman for one thing: he's willing to change.  Like the rest of the country seems to be doing, Texas A&M is moving to a 3-4 defense in 2010.  Sherman brought Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter aboard, and I personally think this is a great hire.  He came to Air Force in 2007, and their Defensive F/+ rankings improved immediately.  After ranking 113th in 2006, they surged to 90th in 2007, 55th in 2008, and a staggering 18th last year.  He is a 3-4 wiz, and if Sherman survives long enough in College Station, DeRuyter's hire could pay huge dividends.  Because of A&M's recruiting base, you have to think that they will be able to bring some pretty strong athletes into the fold, and since the 3-4's intent is to confuse offenses and bring more speed onto the pitch, this could work out very well.

Unless I am forgetting somebody, I am pretty sure Mizzou has faced only one three-man front in the last four seasons -- Navy in last year's Texas Bowl.  In the first nine games of 2010, they will face three: San Diego State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.  Colorado varies between three and four men on the line as well.  This is actually good -- face it once, and it is a novelty.  Face it more than once, and you start to get a grasp for what you need to do.

In all, Christine Michael is Reason No. 2 I am wary of this game.  A 3-4 defense that has improved with each game is Reason No. 1.  A&M's defense was rather awful last year, and they rank 30th in overall S&P+ so far this season.  They did a solid job of containing Ryan Mallett and Arkansas last week, and if Mizzou wins tomorrow, they will likely be doing so while scoring 24 points or less.  That is not as scary a thought as it would have been last year -- Mizzou has clearly proven they can win lower-scoring games this season -- but still.  They are learning how to confuse and harass like a good 3-4 defense should.

Defensive Line

While the linebackers should take to the new scheme pretty easily, the line could continue to be an issue.  Eddie Brown could be a man without a position (I saw him projected at DT, but he makes more sense at DE to me), and there really isn't any new blood on a line that quite frankly needs some.

The most jarring stat in the table above: A&M ranks first in the country in Adj. Line Yards allowed.  I did not see that coming when I stated in my Colorado BTBS piece that CU's line is definitely better than A&M's.  They do not rush the passer tremendously well -- they have only eight sacks this year -- and they occasionally struggle on passing downs because of it.  But they are forcing quite a few passing downs because of their surprisingly solid ability to stop the run.  They are allowing just 2.6 yards per carry after allowing 4.6 last season.

As is often the case, the line itself does not make many plays -- starters Lucas Patterson, Tony Jerod-Eddie, and Eddie Brown have combined for a respectable, but not mind-blowing, 6.5 tackles for loss in five games (hybrid LB/DE Von Miller has managed only 3.5 TFL's as well) -- but they have done well in filtering the play to the linebackers.

Linebackers

Even though he was already basically playing a hybrid role last year as an OLB and the team's primary pass rusher, it is just staggering that Von Miller only made 39.5 tackles last year ... and over half of them were for a loss.  I mean that in two different ways: 1) 21.5 tackles for loss is insane for even a part-time linebacker (Aldon Smith had 19.0 TFL, and basically everything he tried to do came behind the line ... plus, his TFL-to-tackle ratio was only 0.350, and 2) can Miller do anything else?  I mean ... anything?  He broke up five passes, presumably while flying after the QB, not dropping into coverage.  Can he cover?  Can he hold up against the run?  I think we're maybe seeing why he didn't go pro last year -- NFL teams don't typically draft 240-pound defensive ends ... and that's really what Miller apparently is, no matter how his position is actually listed.

...

The rest of the A&M linebackers: solid.  They've got decent size (then again, do they have enough size to stand up to run blocking?), and five of them made tackles for loss last year.  They should fit well in this scheme ... and that would help the defense.  It's a broken record here, but stopping the run is key for this team, and I'm really not sure this unit will do any better than last year's, but there's at least comfort in the fact that things probably won't be worse.

Not including Miller, the three starting linebackers -- Garrick Williams, Sean Porter and Michael Hodges -- have done exactly what 3-4 linebackers are supposed to do: make tackles.  They are the three tackling leaders on this team, and they have made some disruptive plays to boot.  They have combined for 9.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble.  So far, they have adapted to the new scheme quite well, which is unfortunate; it would have been nice facing a defense that was still getting its bearings.

Secondary

Now we get to a unit that was super-young last season and struggled when Von Miller didn't get to the quarterback.  Of the returning starters, two were sophomores last year and one was a freshman.  Three of the top four projected safeties were freshmen last year, in fact.  Into the mix comes four-star JUCO cornerback Coryell Judie, who signed with A&M in 2009.  There is plenty of athleticism here, and there are plenty of recruiting stars.  If it's true that you make your biggest leaps in each of your first two years, the secondary could improve quite a bit this year.  It won't really matter if the front seven still can't stop the run, but improvement is still improvement.

Whereas the run defense has been strong, there is still potential for breakdowns in the passing defense.  The Aggies have improved here too -- what can you say, Tim DeRuyter is a phenomenal defensive coordinator -- but when you're looking for weaknesses, the pass defense has to come first.  Oklahoma State seemed to have more success against the Aggies when they began to aim downfield more, so it will be interesting to see how David Yost and the Mizzou offense choose to attack.  The sidelines are their strength and area of focus, but the downfield routes might reap more reward (and risk, of course).

Special Teams

Strangely, at 83rd, this unit ranked about as high as any unit Mizzou will have faced to this point.  Punting was a serious issue -- two returning punters (Ken Wood and Ryan Epperson) failed to flip the field very well -- and returns were extremely hit-or-miss.  Against Mizzou's kick return coverage, Cyrus Gray could have a chance to break one, of course, but consistency wasn't really his thing.

Actually, that goes for the unit as a whole.  Lots of potential here, but not a lot of consistency.  Considering the kicker, punter and kick returner were all sophomores, and the punt returner was a freshman, maybe that was to be expected.  As a whole, A&M was about as young as Mizzou was at a lot of positions, so if you're expecting drastic improvement from Mizzou, maybe you should expect the same from A&M.

Here are A&M's main special teams rankings so far:

  • FG's: 51st (7-for-9).
  • Net Punting: 55th.
  • Kickoffs and Opponents' Kickoff Returns: 101st and 56th, respectively (opportunity here for Marcus Murphy -- short kicks and average coverage)
  • Punt Returns: 62nd.
  • Kickoff Returns: 20th.

It certainly isn't good that A&M's biggest special teams strength (kickoff returns) coincides with Mizzou's biggest special teams weakness, but as a whole, this is an average special teams unit.  Punting has improved, but only kickoff returns are anything to write home about.

Summary

Are you a "glass half-full" or "glass half-empty" person?  (Trick question: as we learned from the Roundtable, Mizzou fans are both at the same time.)

The "glass half-full" person will point to A&M's turnover trouble and a pass defense that is only decent as reasons for an impending Mizzou victory.  The "glass half-empty" person, meanwhile, is already having nightmares about Blaine Gabbert facing a very good 3-4 set, and of Christine Michael running wild at least once or twice.  In the end, I'm thinking a score of somewhere around 27-20 (either way) is the most likely scenario.  Mizzou will have their opportunities, but I am expecting a slow offensvie start as Gabbert gets accustomed to what he is seeing (and as he gets used to playing with whatever pain is lingering from the hip pointer).  It is imperative that the Mizzou defense make some early stops as well, otherwise Mizzou will be facing quite a hole by the third quarter.  With the hot-and-cold offenses that Mizzou and A&M both possess, no lead will be safe until about the last two minutes, so hunker down for a long one.  There is reason for optimism if you are so inclined, but it is certainly likely that nothing will come easy in this one.

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