2011 Missouri Football Preview: Texas A&M

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends | Offensive Line

Texas A&M has mastered the art of headline domination, haven't they? The Aggies spent the first three-quarters of this offseason raking in the "This year's Top 10 sleeper!" and "Darkhorse title contender!" headlines; the last quarter, their open flirtation with the SEC has distracted from practice reports. If they continue to rake in attention as the actual season unfolds, either they are living up to heaping expectations or they are crashing and burning.

Hope springs anew in College Station, as a 9-4 season salvaged from the wreckage of a 3-3 start a year ago has given birth to the Big 12’s preseason darlings. Preseason consensus has generally slated the Aggies in the No. 8-12 range nationally, and more than a few pundits have gone as far as putting the Aggies in the top five. A&M returns a deep and talented corps of players, but it’s important not to get lost too deeply in the hype. After all, if long-term trends hold up better than short-term results in prognostication, it can’t be forgotten that the Aggies have averaged 6.5 wins for the last four seasons. They got hot at just the right time last season and finished with the magic 9-4 record at which pollsters instantly look for "new, sexy darkhorse" picks, a la Nebraska 2009, Ole Miss 2008, etc.

It is easy to assume overnight change when it comes to Texas A&M in 2010. The Aggies were limping around at 3-3, and Mike Sherman's time in College Station looked like it might be coming to an end. Then, they changed quarterbacks from Jerrod Johnson to Ryan Tannehill, and ... voila … a Top 10 team! Part of the reason A&M was a measly 3-3 after six games is because they played three Top 16 teams by combined drive and per-play rankings (No. 7 Arkansas, No. 14 Oklahoma State and No. 16 Missouri) over the course of 17 days. With Tannehill at quarterback all season, they still probably would have been around 3-3 or 4-2 after six games. A&M went from a decent team to a strong one, but they did not instantly turn into a Top 10 team down the stretch.

So basically, the hype is all about degrees here. Is A&M going to be good? Absolutely. Just probably not "Top Five" or "Top Ten" good. A&M has made significant strides since the incredible lows of Mike Sherman's first year in 2008, but they most likely aren't an elite team just yet, nor did they play like it even late last fall. A&M’s true mean should be somewhat in place by the second week in October. After warmups against SMU and Idaho, A&M faces another brutal early stretch: Oklahoma State, Arkansas at Jerry World in Arlington, and Texas Tech in Lubbock. If the Aggies are 5-0 after that, then they are indeed set up for an elite-level run. But they'll most likely be somewhere closer to 4-1 or 3-2 and hoping to position themselves for second or third in the conference. Those who remember the still-recent lows of 2008 should remain very impressed by that; those expecting darkhorse national title contention will find that disappointing.

Missouri has the misfortune traveling to College Station in late October, where the Tigers’ will revisit the scene of the crime from last year’s 30-9 drubbing of the Aggies. It was a gruesome affair for Texas A&M, one so bad the Aggie coaching staff burned the game film in front of the team. From the ashes (and the quarterback change) came rebirth. Whether or not revenge will come we’ll have to see in October.

OFFENSE

Oklahoma may be the standard bearer in terms of pace, but Texas A&M wasn't that far behind, playing at the nation’s fifth-highest tempo, and despite running back Cyrus Gray catching fire at times, playing almost as pass-heavy as conference mates Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Missouri. They passed to set up the run, and they were efficient at both. And "efficiency" is the key word here. Both Gray and receiver Jeff Fuller (1,066 yards, 14.8 yards per catch, 12 touchdowns) provided memorable moments of big-play potential, but efficiency was what made A&M's engine run. They attempted to wear defenses out by moving the chains and quickly lining up to do it again.

By all means, the efficiency should be there again in 2011, and Gray and Fuller are just the start. Ryan Swope, a slot receiver who needs no time reaching fifth gear, is a rising star in Big 12 was almost as important in his ability to catch quick passes and move the chains. When he was involved, A&M was devastating. Fuller, already Texas A&M’s record holder in career touchdowns, went nuts against Kansas and Texas Tech (16 catches for 292 yards and four touchdowns), but in the last four regular season games, he caught a total of just 10 passes for 125 yards to Swope’s 18 catches for 261 yards in that span. Defenses that choose to key on Fuller will pay.

The other interesting aspect of A&M's high-efficiency machine is how much they incorporate flares to the running backs. Gray, Christine Michael (prior to injury), and Bradley Stephens combined for 53 catches and 496 yards. "The running back" was a far more important piece of the A&M passing game than receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu or any of the other receivers beyond Fuller and Swope. But on the ground, Gray and a healthy-again Michael once again form one of the most talented 1-2 tailback combinations in the conference if not in the country. Michael is a patient runner with good vision who punishes poor tackling with physicality (though it does open himself to injury). Gray is shiftier, with quicker feet and better body control, but most of his punishing is done by beating defenders who take poor pursuit angles.

Those buying the A&M hype have another bullet in their argument. Not only does A&M return four starters on the offensive line, but two of those starters – Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel – were true freshmen last year. Tannehill justifiably gets a lot of the credit for helping to turn the offense around, but let's not understate the impact that pure experience had on the line. At the start of the year, they were one of the greenest lines in the country. Luke Joeckel was abused by Missouri in early October. But as Texas A&M grew, so too did the Aggie offensive line.

DEFENSE

The offense has taken top billing in College Station, but observers shouldn’t sleep on the job defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has done with the Aggie defense. Those in Aggieland aren’t quick to bestow the coveted "Wrecking Crew" label made popular in the 1990’s, but at the very least, DeRuyter's first season implementing the 3-4 in College Station was a rousing success.

The Aggie defense saw major gains across the board in drive and per-play rankings in 2010. A&M was completely incapable of leveraging teams into passing downs before DeRuyter, but the changes came rather quickly. Typically after single-season improvement of such a striking nature, the goal is maintenance instead of further improvement, and the loss of all-world and perfect-for-the-3-4 OLB/DE hybrid Von Miller (17.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 6 PBU) should further make that the goal. Looking at their game-to-game progression above, it seems that A&M's defense was very matchup-based. The 3-4 completely confounded some schools (Oklahoma, Nebraska, Florida International) but got pushed around by others (Missouri, Baylor, LSU). As Big 12 schools get more used to their tendencies, they will become less vulnerable to the scheme’s unfamiliarity, but as long as the Aggies keep upgrading their own level of talent and experience, they can cope.

The 3-4 defense is fun because even bad versions of the defense rack up huge TFL numbers and big plays, and, as has been addressed, A&M was not a bad version. Of the eight players with at least five tackles for loss last year, and five return in 2011 -- tackle Eddie Brown, likely Miller replacement Damontre Moore , outside linebacker Sean Porter, inside man Garrick Williams, and cornerback Terrence Frederick. The work on the line was particularly impressive. It's easy to perceive the 3-4 as an undersized defense since you're sacrificing a lineman for an extra linebacker, and it's easy to then assume that maybe the defense isn't built to stuff the run, but the run game was where A&M saw the biggest improvement last fall. The tackle position is the most questionable in moving from four down linemen to three (are the tackles big enough to occupy more blockers), but Brown and Jonathan Mathis held up beautifully.

Virtually the entire secondary returns in 2011. A&M was perhaps not quite as good at getting to the quarterback as one would expect. As a result, the pass defense fell behind their run defense a bit, but the depth and experience here could help them improve a bit. Frederick is particularly impressive, though cornerbacks Dustin Harris (four interceptions, nine passes broken up) and returner extraordinaire Coryell Judie (2.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 4 PBU) had plenty of shining moments too. The Aggies need to cut down on the big plays a bit, but it's all relative – this was still a stellar unit.

SERIES SPOTLIGHT: NOVEMBER 16, 2002 (Mizzou 33, Texas A&M 27)

Mizzou's last five trips to College Station have all been memorable in their own way. In 1993, the Tigers got memorably smoked by Texas A&M, 73-0; it was a loss that all but punctuated the Bob Stull era in Columbia. In 1998, Randy Potter famously fumbled a punt, allowing Texas A&M to kick a late, game-winning field goal. In 2006, Will Franklin was stripped at the half-yard line and fumbled through the end zone, denying the Tigers a touchdown in a game they lost by six. In 2010, Mizzou toppled the Jerrod Johnson era, smoking the Aggies, 30-9, and resulting in a quarterback change that kick-started an A&M winning streak.

We sometimes skip over the 2002 game, however, and that's a shame.

Needing a win to still give them a chance at their first bowl game in four years, the Tigers faced off on Kyle Field with a Texas A&M squad that had just upset Oklahoma the previous week. It was freshman versus freshman: Brad Smith and the Tigers versus Reggie McNeal and the Aggies. Smith and his underrated bowling ball Zack Abron dictated the early proceedings; Abron scored on an eight-yard run, and after Brandon Smith blocked a punt, Smith found Abron for an eight-yard touchdown pass and a 17-3 halftime lead.

The Tigers' momentum quickly turned in the second half. With McNeal dinged up, A&M's Dustin Long directed a scoring drive to cut the lead to 17-10. Then, late in the third quarter, Smith was sacked and coughed up the ball; A&M's Johnny Jolly recovered at the Mizzou 30, and on the first play of the final period, Long sneaked in from a yard out. 17-17. The young Tigers, however, responded. Smith found Justin Gage for a 32-yard touchdown to cap a 13-play drive, and when Sean Doyle picked Long off in A&M territory with three minutes remaining, it looked like the Tigers would pull out a 24-17 win. Not so fast. Doyle fumbled on the return, giving the Aggies one last chance. Nine plays and 67 yards later, on fourth-and-goal from the MU 1 with 15 seconds remaining, Joe Weber plowed in for the tying touchdown. Time to go to overtime.

Mizzou took the ball to start the first overtime period, but after a false start penalty on third-and-4, the Tigers had to settle for a 40-yard Mike Matheny field goal. No worries; Michael Harden broke up a third-down pass to Bethel Johnson, and Todd Pegram tied the game at 27-27. In the second overtime, Harden struck again. A&M drove to the Mizzou 6, but on third-and-goal, Harden stepped in front of another pass to Johnson and picked it off. With Mizzou needing to just position themselves for a field goal and A&M going for the strip, Abron plowed forward four times for 24 yards, ripping off an 11-yarder to set up first-and-goal at the A&M 1. Smith sneaked in behind A.J. Ricker, and Mizzou had pulled off their first ever win in College Station. Finally, a happy ending after a season of near-misses.

FOOTBALL STUDY HALL

The Texas A&M Aggies And Too Much, Too Soon

Honestly, this is unfair to those teams.  Ole Miss won nine games again in 2009, but because of ridiculous expectations, that felt disappointing.  (Nine wins should never be disappointing for Ole Miss.)  Nebraska won ten games last fall, just as Football Outsiders predicted, but between the preseason expectations and Taylor Martinez' September and early-October supernova, that wasn't enough to live up to the hype.  Hype is always potentially dangerous, but it is particularly so when you have not proven worthy of the hype with your recent performance.

This year's bandwagon team is pretty clearly Texas A&M.  SI's Andy Staples ranked them seventh this week, and we've seen them as high as fourth or fifth.  This despite the fact that they have averaged 6.5 wins over the last four seasons.  They got hot at just the right time last season and finished with the magic 9-4 record.  Make no mistake, there is a lot to like about A&M ... as, say, a Top 15 team.  But this just screams "too much, too soon" for Mike Sherman and the Aggies, and in the end it does them no favors.

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