If nothing else, the A&M-Missouri series is really good at following season trends.
In 2006, an A&M team that won nine games with turnovers and a sit-on-the-ball running game beat Missouri, 25-19, in part because of an early turnover and late on-the-ball sitting.
In 2007, a Missouri team that won 12 games with a ton of offense and timely defense beat A&M, 40-26, thanks to a ton of offense and timely defense.
In 2010, a Missouri team that won 10 games with an opportunistic defense and efficient offense whipped A&M, 30-9, with efficiency and opportunity.
In 2011, an A&M team that blew pretty big leads and lost five games it could have won, blew a pretty big lead and lost a game it could have won, 38-31.
In 2012, an A&M team that won 11 games with Johnny Manziel and defensive aggression, destroyed Missouri, 59-29, with Johnny Manziel and defensive aggression.
For Missouri's sake, let's hope this continues. The general trends for Missouri (great line play, a propensity for making most of the plays in the second half) and A&M (Manziel magic negated by lesser line play) this year certainly portend a Mizzou victory. Manziel gets to play the heel role he was born to play in this one, and it could suit him well; this is in no way a slam-dunk Missouri victory. But you have to like the Tigers' chances of pitting strength vs. A&M weakness and eventually pulling away.
Johnny Manziel (6'1, 200, So.): 246-for-356 (69%), 3,537 yards, 32 TD, 13 INT, 18 sacks (9.1 per pass attempt); 104 carries, 794 yards (7.6), 8 TD
Matt Joeckel (6'4, 234, Jr.): 22-for-37 (60%), 293 yards, 2 TD (7.9 per attempt)
Kenny Hill (6'1, 215, Fr.): 16-for-22 (73%), 183 yards, 1 TD, 1 sack (7.9 per attempt); 6 carries, 39 yards (6.5)
So ... Johnny Manziel's really good. Controversial statement, that.
I've noticed that the narrative seems to be that Johnny Manziel is a little more careless and mistake-prone in 2013, and I've seen his interceptions in losses as a key piece of evidence for that.
- Manziel in losses (2013): 72-for-118 (61%), 1,142 yards (15.9 per completion), 10 TD, 6 INT (5.1% INT rate)
- Manziel in losses (2012): 52-for-86 (60%), 449 yards (8.6 per completion), 0 TD, 3 INT (3.5% INT rate)
One more piece of data:
- A&M defense in losses (2013): 42.7 points per game, 566.7 yards per game (7.5 per play)
- A&M defense in losses (2012): 22.0 points per game, 311.5 yards per game (4.5 per play)
Because of some combination of a) having Mike Evans (and Evans being incredible) and b) having to do more because his defense is awful, Manziel is taking more chances downfield. And to a large degree, it's working -- after averaging 12.6 yards per completion last year with a 68 percent completion rate, he's averaging 14.4 with a 69 percent completion rate in 2013. And he's getting sacked less, too. But he's having to pass more, both because of an occasionally forgotten run game (A&M runs just 48.9 percent of the time on standard downs, 115th in the country) and because opponents are scoring more points.
I think Manziel's proven even more this year than he did last year, and I'm thankful that this is probably the last time Missouri has to face him (since we're all assuming he's going pro after the season ends).
Ben Malena (5'9, 195, Sr.): 101 carries, 487 yards (4.8), 9 TD; 23 targets, 19 catches (82%), 179 yards (7.8 per target), 1 TD
Trey Williams (5'8, 195, So.): 48 carries, 336 yards (7.0), 6 TD; 7 targets, 7 catches, 42 yards (6.0)
Tra Carson (6'0, 230, So.): 52 carries, 269 yards (5.2), 5 TD; 2 targets, 2 catches, 34 yards (17.0)
Brandon Williams (6'0, 200, So.): 38 carries, 212 yards (5.6), 1 TD; 7 targets, 5 catches (71%), 17 yards (2.4), 1 TD
Last year, Ben Malena, Christine Michael, and Trey Williams combined to gain 1,504 yards on the ground (5.4 per carry) with 25 touchdowns. They were the perfect "take advantage of a defense distracted by Johnny" backs. This year, the Aggies lost Michael and replaced him with two big-time transfers -- Brandon Williams (former five-star recruit from Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (former three-star recruit from Oregon). The result: these four backs have gained 1,304 yards (5.5 per carry) with 16 touchdowns. The Aggies were first in Rushing S&P+ and second in Adj. Line Yards last year; this year, they're third and second.
So things are basically the same, in other words. Malena isn't doing quite as well, but the combination of Williams (small), Williams (medium), and Carson (large), still make this machine successful.
Mike Evans (6'5, 225, So.): 89 targets, 61 catches (69%), 1,314 yards (14.8), 12 TD
Ja'Quay Williams (6'3, 210, Fr.): 6 targets, 3 catches (50%), 35 yards (5.8), 1 TD
Travis Labhart (5'9, 182, Sr.): 54 targets, 37 catches (69%), 469 yards (8.7), 5 TD
Sabian Holmes (5'11, 175, So.): 21 targets, 17 catches (81%), 210 yards (10.0), 1 TD
LaQuvionte Gonzalez (5'10, 165, Fr.): 21 targets, 13 catches (62%), 196 yards (9.3), 1 TD
Cameron Clear (6'6, 270, Jr.): 3 targets, 2 catches (67%), 4 yards (1.3), 1 TD
Nehemiah Hicks (6'4, 255, Sr.): 3 targets, 2 catches (67%), 6 yards (2.0), 1 TD
Here's perhaps the scariest thing about A&M's passing game: The Aggies don't focus on Mike Evans nearly as much as you think they do. Add up the targets for each position's two-deep above: 95 targets, 96 targets, 85 targets, 69 targets. Granted, A&M uses the tight end even less than Missouri does, but if you focus too much on Evans, Manziel will simply take whatever open receiver you have elsewhere. And if you fan out and leave Evans alone in man coverage, he'll kill you.
(Part of what hindered A&M against LSU was that tall freshman cornerback Rashard Robinson was able to negate some of Evans' built-in size advantage. If Ernest Payton were healthy, I'd say this would be an interesting way to deploy him. Alas, he is not, and if Duron Singleton is still out with his hip injury, then basically every remaining Mizzou defensive back who will play is right around a standardized 5'10/5'11 and 185 pounds or so. John Gibson's 6'0, I guess, so there's that.)
The trick for Missouri (and every defense defending A&M) is disruption. Force Manziel to check down, move around (but not downfield), take chances, etc. He's almost certainly not going to go 16-for-41 like he did against LSU last week, but if Mizzou can win the battle up front against a tremendous A&M offensive line, and if the secondary plays just well enough, the Tigers should get enough stops to win.
Jake Matthews (6'5, 305, Sr.): 44 career starts (11 in 2013)
Jeremiah Stuckey (6'4, 300, So.)
A&M had to replace the 2012 Outland Trophy winner (Luke Joeckel) and a four-year starting center (Patrick Lewis), and from a stat standpoint, there has been no dropoff whatsoever. My own eyes disagree with that a little, but not a lot. This is still a very good offensive line, one that could very much be up for the challenge of facing Missouri's defensive line. Cedric Ogbuehi has been struggling with injuries a bit (he missed two games because of an injured groin), but it appears this line should at least be in decent shape on Saturday. Here's to hoping Missouri can wear it down over time as it has against most offensive lines this year.
Gavin Stansbury (6'4, 255, Jr.): 36.5 tackles, 3 TFL (3 sacks), 1 QB hurry (9 games)
Tyrone Taylor (6'3, 240, RSFr.): 9.5 tackles, 3 TFL (1 sack), 1 FF
Jay Arnold (6'4, 275, Fr.): 2.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL
Julien Obioha (6'4, 255, So.): 27.0 tackles, 5 TFL (1 sack), 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry
Daeshon Hall (6'6, 245, Fr.): 12.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 QB hurries
Tyrell Taylor (6'4, 230, Jr.): 2.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 QB hurry
There are 10 players listed above. Five are freshmen, two are sophomores, and none are seniors. And of the seven linebackers listed below, three are true freshmen. If you're only as good as your up-the-middle defense, then it certainly bears mentioning that A&M rotates two true freshmen at nose guard and two at middle linebacker.
In other words, it's not hard to figure out why A&M's front seven has been so shaky this year. Injuries and a couple of suspensions have dinged the defense as a whole, but the inexperience up front has been as unkind as anything. A&M is 74th in Adj. Line Yards and 112th in Adj. Sack Rate; the Aggies were 11th and 30th, respectively, in those categories last year. They were also eighth in Rushing S&P+ last year; this year: 81st. A&M's six listed ends have combined 15 tackles for loss. Michael Sam has 17. When you look at the youth and the star caliber some of these players had in high school -- Isaiah Golden, Hardreck Walker, and Daeshon Hall were all four-star recruits, as was Ivan Robinson -- it's easy to assume that the hard knocks the Aggies have taken this year could pay off in the future. But they shouldn't pay off on Saturday. It would be very disappointing to see A&M holding its own up front and in some way slowing down the Mizzou run game.
Donnie Baggs (6'1, 230, Jr.): 20.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 FF, 2 QB hurries
Shaan Washington (6'3, 220, Fr.): 17.0 tackles, 4 TFL (3 sacks), 1 FF, 1 FR
Nate Askew (6'4, 235, Sr.): 22.0 tackles, 4 TFL (1 sacks), 2 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QB hurries
I think the linebackers have less upside than the line, but it has produced a bit more this year. It's easy to see Shaan Washington and Darian Claiborne turning into a hellacious duo in a couple of years. But while there is some play-making ability here, we're still not talking about a very consistent unit. They will punish mistakes, but they won't necessarily create the mistakes.
De'Vante Harris (6'0, 185, So.): 39.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 8 PBU (9 games)
Alex Sezer, Jr. (5'9, 180, Fr.): 8.0 tackles, 1 PBU
Toney Hurd, Jr. (5'9, 185, Sr.): 39.5 tackles, 2 TFL (2 sacks), 1 FF, 1 PBU
Noel Ellis (5'10, 175, Fr.): 5.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL (0.5 sacks), 1 FR, 1 QB hurry
Despite a questionable (to put it kindly) pass rush, despite little disruption up front, this is still a decent pass defense, at least until the safeties get sucked up to stop the run. If A&M is able to limit the ability of Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy, and Russell Hansbrough to find open space, the Aggies could have some success in cluttering up passing lanes on passing downs and countering Mizzou's big receiving corps with a defensive backfield that is pretty big itself. Both starting corners are 6'0, 185, and while that's not 6'4, 215, it's not 5'9, 180, either. This unit is the least of A&M's worries, against Missouri or any good offense.
Drew Kaser (6'3, 205, So.): 36 punts, 48.0 average (10 fair caught, 14 inside 20)
Taylor Bertolet (5'9, 174, So.): 84 kickoffs, 62.5 average, 36 touchbacks (43%)
Trey Williams (5'8, 195, So.): 22 returns, 25.8 average (long: 97)
LaQuvionte Gonzalez (5'10, 165, Fr.): 8 returns, 20.5 average (long: 40)
Ben Malena (5'9, 195, Sr.): 7 returns, 15.1 average (long: 23)
De'Vante Harris (6'0, 185, So.): 10 returns, 7.7 average (long: 30)
Travis Labhart (5'9, 182, Sr.): 5 returns, 11.4 average (long: 20)
A&M absolutely has an advantage in the special teams department. According to Brian Fremeau's special teams ratings, the Aggies rank in the top 11 in kickoff efficiency, punt efficiency, and punt returns, and they are really only substandard in kick returns. According to those rankings, this is the No. 8 overall special teams unit in the country.
Missouri's? 84th. The Tigers are between 51st and 89th in every category.
The thing about special teams is that there isn't always an advantage. Great success and great failure in special teams are sporadic and nearly random; if A&M doesn't derive an advantage here, it's going to be difficult for the Aggies to win. So ... yeah. Don't let them derive an advantage, huh?
BTBS preview coming Friday, but it should be pretty obvious what the keys to the game are going to be. If Missouri can make Manziel uncomfortable, run the ball as well as I think they should, and avoid special teams disaster, the Tigers should win. None of that is certain, but I feel decent about the odds.