Texas A&M at Missouri preview: Win in the trenches, take the East

Bill Carter

If Missouri's advantages in the trenches offset the play of Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, the Tigers should beat Texas A&M and take the SEC East.

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here. Or just skip to the words. I won't be offended. (Okay, I'll only be a little offended.)

Texas A&M at Missouri

Record BCS
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
Texas A&M
8-3 21 24 3 87 8
Missouri 10-1 5 12 22 10 84

Projected Score: Missouri 42, Texas A&M 34 (win probability: 74%)

In terms of stakes and/or the size of the battle heading into the game, in terms of build-up, here is my list for the biggest home games in Missouri's history:

  • November 4, 1939: Missouri 27, No. 10 Nebraska 13
  • November 18, 1939: No. 12 Missouri 7, No. 5 Oklahoma 6
  • November 15, 1941: No. 16 Missouri 28, Oklahoma 0
  • November 17, 1945: Missouri 14, No. 14 Oklahoma 6
  • October 9, 1948: Missouri 20, No. 4 SMU 14
  • November 12, 1949: No. 3 Oklahoma 27, Missouri 7
  • December 1, 1956: Missouri 15, Kansas 13
  • November 5, 1960: No. 2 Missouri 16, No. 18 Colorado 6
  • November 19, 1960: No. 1 Missouri 7, Kansas 23 (see what I did there?)
  • October 30, 1965: No. 3 Nebraska 16, Missouri 14
  • November 23, 1968: No. 7 Kansas 21, No. 13 Missouri 19
  • October 11, 1969: No. 7 Missouri 17, No. 20 Nebraska 7
  • November 1, 1969: No. 14 Missouri 41, No. 12 Kansas State 38
  • November 8, 1969: No. 9 Missouri 44, No. 20 Oklahoma 10
  • October 17, 1970: No. 3 Notre Dame 24, No. 18 Missouri 7
  • October 13, 1973: No. 12 Missouri 13, No. 2 Nebraska 12
  • November 10, 1973: No. 3 Oklahoma 31, No. 10 Missouri 3
  • November 1, 1975: No. 3 Nebraska 30, No. 12 Missouri 7
  • September 16, 1978: No. 1 Alabama 38, No. 11 Missouri 20
  • September 29, 1979: No. 4 Texas 21, No. 5 Missouri 0
  • November 5, 1983: Missouri 10, No. 11 Oklahoma 0
  • September 29, 1984: No. 19 Notre Dame 16, Missouri 14
  • (massive void)
  • September 27, 1997: No. 7 Ohio State 31, Missouri 10
  • November 8, 1997: No. 1 Nebraska 45, Missouri 38
  • November 21, 1998: No. 2 Kansas State 31, Missouri 25
  • September 25, 1999: No. 6 Nebraska 40, Missouri 10
  • October 5, 2002: No. 3 Oklahoma 31, Missouri 24
  • October 11, 2003: Missouri 41, No. 10 Nebraska 24
  • October 6, 2007: No. 17 Missouri 41, No. 25 Nebraska 6
  • October 11, 2008: No. 17 Oklahoma State 28, No. 3 Missouri 23
  • October 8, 2009: No. 21 Nebraska 27, No. 24 Missouri 12
  • October 23, 2010: No. 18 Missouri 36, No. 3 Oklahoma 27
  • September 8, 2012: No. 7 Georgia 41, Missouri 20
  • October 19, 2013: No. 14 Missouri 36, No. 22 Florida 17
  • October 26, 2013: No. 20 South Carolina 27, No. 5 Missouri 24
  • November 30, 2013: No. 19 Texas A&M at No. 5 Missouri

Of the 36 games above, you could make a case that tomorrow's game is bigger than up to 35 of them. Missouri has played for conference titles before, but a) it hasn't happened much in the last 40 years, and b) a lot of Missouri's biggest games have been away from Faurot Field. This is easily, easily Missouri's biggest November home game since 1997 or 1998, and probably it's biggest since the late-1960s.

It's huge. So many of Missouri's biggest games came in October, where we had no idea how the final chapter of the season would take shape even if the Tigers won. This time around, we're in the final chapter. The next 2-3 games will define how we remember this incredible season. And Missouri's odds are pretty damn good.

When Texas A&M Has The Ball…

Basically, Texas A&M runs an effective spread offense on standard downs, then tells Johnny Manziel to go make something happen on passing downs. He does so frequently.

Standard Downs
A&M Offense Missouri Defense
SD % Run 48.9% (115th)
S&P+ Rk 6th 9th
Success Rate 58.9% 45.4%
PPP 0.71 0.42
S&P 1.299 0.869
Rushing S&P 1.141 0.771
Passing S&P 1.450 0.963

Targets & Catches
Mike Evans (WR): 59 targets, 42 catches (71%), 896 yards (15.2 per target)
Malcome Kennedy (WR): 52 targets, 40 catches (77%), 418 yards (8.0)
Derel Walker (WR): 36 targets, 22 catches (61%), 338 yards (9.4)
Travis Labhart (WR): 29 targets, 24 catches (83%), 249 yards (8.6)
Ben Malena (RB): 16 targets, 12 catches (75%), 135 yards (8.4)
Sabian Holmes (WR): 14 targets, 10 catches (71%), 97 yards (6.9)
LaQuvionte Gonzalez (WR): 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), 36 yards (4.0)
Trey Williams (RB): 5 targets, 5 catches (100%), 40 yards (8.0)

An offense is in control on standard downs. The Texas A&M offense is completely in control. You must account for Johnny Manziel's legs, a solid running game, Mike Evans, and, on any given play, four other fast receivers or running backs out of the backfield. That's typically too much for a defense to handle. Your only chance is to control the line of scrimmage (against a strong A&M offensive line, mind you) and limit the running game by preventing holes from being formed between the tackles. A&M still has the advantage then -- for one thing, the Aggies really don't run that much to begin with -- but it's not as large.

Passing Downs
A&M Offense Missouri Defense
PD % Run 38.0% (35th)
S&P+ Rk 7th 60th
Success Rate 47.6% 32.9%
PPP 0.79 0.51
S&P 1.267 0.835
Rushing S&P 1.071 0.890
Passing S&P 1.386 0.818

Targets & Catches
Kennedy (WR): 22 targets, 12 catches (55%), 146 yards (6.6)
Evans (WR): 21 targets, 11 catches (52%), 302 yards (14.4)
Labhart (WR): 17 targets, 12 catches (71%), 206 yards (12.1)
Walker (WR): 16 targets, 15 catches (94%), 226 yards (14.1)
Malena (RB): 6 targets, 6 catches (100%), 37 yards (6.2)
Holmes (WR): 6 targets, 6 catches (100%), 75 yards (12.5)

Here's where you beat Texas A&M ... if you indeed beat Texas A&M. Everything we've heard this week about keeping the pocket closed around Johnny Manziel, about making sure you stay in front of him, etc., really only matters on second- or third-and-long. That's when he's asked to make magic happen.

Texas A&M puts so much pressure on a defense because a) forcing passing downs is very difficult, and b) taking advantage of the passing downs you create requires extreme discipline and resilience. Missouri allows successes on fewer than one-third of passing downs, but A&M is successful on nearly half. Something has to give here. From Wednesday's depth chart examination:

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. […]

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.

A&M favors Evans heavily on standard downs, but Manziel could go almost anywhere with the ball on passing downs. This offense is really hard to stop, even in and-long situations.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
Missouri Offense A&M Defense
SD % Run 55.9% (91st)
S&P+ Rk 35th 60th
Success Rate 50.2% 50.2%
PPP 0.60 0.57
S&P 1.103 1.072
Rushing S&P 1.050 1.081
Passing S&P 1.169 1.058

Targets & Catches
Marcus Lucas (WR): 44 targets, 26 catches (59%), 295 yards (6.7 per target)
L'Damian Washington (WR): 43 targets, 24 catches (56%), 434 yards (10.1)
Dorial Green-Beckham (WR): 40 targets, 22 catches (55%), 341 yards (8.5)
Bud Sasser (WR): 20 targets, 12 catches (60%), 144 yards (7.2)
Jimmie Hunt (WR): 15 targets, 13 catches (87%), 179 yards (11.9)
Jaleel Clark (WR): 8 targets, 6 catches (75%), 50 yards (6.3)
Darius White (WR): 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 50 yards (7.1)
Eric Waters (TE): 7 targets, 5 catches (71%), 27 yards (3.9)
Henry Josey (RB): 5 targets, 4 catches (80%), 16 yards (3.2)

The averages above are rather similar, yes? That's a very, very good sign for Missouri. Mizzou spreads you wide, pokes holes in the middle of the defense with the run, and tries to attack you both vertically and horizontally with the passing game. The Tigers attack every inch of the field, and it works. It could work very well against an A&M defense that is terribly young up front and has struggled to even slow down good running games this year.

  • Auburn: 11th in Rushing S&P+, 379 rushing yards vs. A&M (6.32 per carry)
  • Auburn: 12th in Rushing S&P+, 234 yards (6.32 per carry)
  • Arkansas: 25th in Rushing S&P+, 201 yards (6.70 per carry)
  • LSU: 27th in Rushing S&P+, 324 yards (5.89 per carry)
  • Mississippi State: 37th in Rushing S&P+, 299 yards (6.95 per carry)

The narrative from last week's LSU-A&M game was that LSU was too physical, and A&M could do nothing to stop the Tigers' good ground game. But this was actually A&M's best performance, on a per-carry basis, against a top-40 rushing offense all season. That's ... that's bad. And it's something Missouri and its three-headed running back should be able to take advantage of over the course of 60 minutes. It would be disappointing if Missouri didn't average at least 6.0 yards per carry; and in games where Mizzou averages at least 5.5 per carry, the Tigers also average 44.3 points per game.

Passing Downs
Missouri Offense A&M Defense
PD % Run 42.7% (16th)
S&P+ Rk 12th 80th
Success Rate 42.7% 37.0%
PPP 0.74 0.66
S&P 1.168 1.033
Rushing S&P 1.133 0.991
Passing S&P 1.195 1.056

Targets & Catches
Lucas (WR): 28 targets, 22 catches (79%), 285 yards (10.2)
DGB (WR): 21 targets, 17 catches (81%), 229 yards (10.9)
Washington (WR): 21 targets, 12 catches (57%), 275 yards (13.1)
Sasser (WR): 13 targets, 7 catches (54%), 133 yards (10.2)
Josey (RB): 6 targets, 5 catches (83%), 39 yards (6.5)
Hunt (WR): 5 targets, 5 catches (100%), 50 yards (10.0)

Despite the run issues, Texas A&M's defense is actually a mediocre 60th in Standard Downs S&P+, better than one might imagine. The Aggies fall to 80th on passing downs, when they get aggressive, make some big plays ... and alloweven more big plays. Missouri gets vertical with its passing (while maintaining a run presence) on second- and third-and-long, and it could pay off. A&M has struggled desperately in big-play prevention, so Missouri's offense could be alright even if it falls behind schedule.

Still ... it would be disappointing if Missouri did fall behind schedule too much.

Summary

So here are the key factors, then:

1. The Trenches

Of course. Missouri has won the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball in basically nine or 10 of 11 games this year. Defensive line play will be key to both slowing A&M's run down and making the Aggies one-dimensional on defense and gashing the soft middle of the A&M defense with the run on offense. Line play makes such an enormous difference, and if Mizzou dominates on offense and, at worst, breaks even on defense, the Tigers will be tough to beat.

2. Passing Downs

Again, A&M doesn't fall behind schedule very often. When the Aggies do, it's imperative that Missouri make stops. And when Missouri doesn't make a stop, it's imperative that the Tigers bounce back and get ready to make a stop the next time. A&M is going to gain a lot of yards and score quite a few points. But a stop here and there, a field goal attempt here and there, will make all the difference in the world.

(And at the same time, as long as Missouri's offense converts more passing downs than A&M, that could be enough, too.)

3. Big players making big plays

This one's pretty obvious, but it's obvious for a reason. Texas A&M has Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Missouri has James Franklin/Maty Mauk, a three-headed running back, a three-headed receiver, Michael Sam, etc. If Manziel has 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards ... if Evans goes crazy for 225 receiving yards ... A&M could very well score enough to win. It's not hard to imagine that happening. But if Missouri's big players play bigger -- if Henry Josey (or somebody) breaks away for 120 yards ... if a Mizzou receiver, any Mizzou receiver, comes up big ... if James Franklin completes 70 percent of his passes with 90 rushing yards ... if Great Michael Sam has another breakout ... it's going to be hard to beat Missouri, too.

4. Little Things

Always. As with all reasonably tightly matched games, turnovers, field position, and finishing drives will probably tell you who won this game.

*****

We all know what's at stake, we all know what it will take for Missouri to win, and we all know how incredible this result is going to be, one way or the other. There are no style points necessary, there is no reading into the future, and it was even hard for me to come up with "key factors" because we know all the keys. Just win. Somehow, some way.

The numbers give me confidence. As strong as A&M's offense is, Mizzou's defense still matches up more closely with it than A&M's defense does with Mizzou's O. It's close enough that a couple of big plays could make an enormous difference, but I like the line matchups, and I like Missouri's running game. Being a sports fan, feeling confident just makes me more nervous, but ... I feel confident. You should too. Mizzou could very well lose tomorrow, but the Tigers have a very, very good chance of taking this enormous home game and heading to Atlanta next week.

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