Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!
What were you doing on November 24th, 2012? I can tell you what I was doing: turning off the TV after watching a clearly overmatched Tiger squad get shredded by Johnny Effin’ Football and the Texas A&M Aggies, 59-29. Lead by the eventual Heisman trophy winner, the Aggies jumped out to a 42-0 lead with 3 minutes left in the 1st Half and, essentially, called it quits right then. Credit to the guys on that overmatched Tiger team who eventually became the 2013 and 2014 SEC East Champs: they hung in there and scored 29 in the 2nd Half, refusing to quit. It was also the last time Texas A&M beat Missouri.
Before that, the last time the Aggies bested the Tigers was in 2006, when a young Tiger squad lead by fresh-faced sophomore quarterback Chase Daniel ran into a sentient log playing running back named Javorskie Lane, who ran the ball 28 times for 127 yards and approximately 3 billion broken tackles (Lane was 6’0, 260 pounds. Again, he was a running back) as the Tigers’ early winning streak was snapped, 25-19.
And that, dear readers, are the only two times A&M has beaten Missouri this millennium. Now, part of that is the fact that these two teams only met every two years in the Big XII and every seven years in the SEC but, still, Missouri has a hilarious history of beating A&M, usually when the Aggies are the much better team:
- 2010: even with future NFL stars Ryan Tannehill, Von Miller, Cyrus Gray, Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Matthews, and Luke Joekel, the preseason Big XII South favorites ran into a buzzsaw named the Missouri defensive line while Blaine Gabbert threw for 361 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 30-9 victory in College Station.
- 2011: Once again a preseason darling, the #8 Aggies were on a hot streak after two early losses. New starting quarterback James Franklin earned his moniker “Tanklin” that day, steamrolling defenders on an early touchdown run and sparking a back-and-forth victory, beating the Aggies (once again in College Station, afterwards dubbed “Columbia South”), this time in overtime, 38-31.
- 2013: Much was expected of an Aggie team that benefitted from Johnny Manziel back on campus for another year and the Aggies were picked to be 2nd in the SEC West, debuting at #7 in preseason polls. They had respectable loses to Alabama and Auburn but, surprisingly, got their doors blown off by LSU. Then they came to Columbia, looking to wreck the Tigers’ hopes of earning an SEC crown. Henry Josey made sure that the Tigers once again carried the day, capping a touchdown drive that gave the final score 28-21.
- 2014: nothing much was expected of A&M after a slew of NFL draft picks left, but even less was expected from Missouri. The Tigers trailed 13-6 at half before exploding for 28 points in the 3rd quarter, thanks to nearly 200 yards from Russell Hansbrough, and the Tigers once again won on Kyle Field, 34-27.
But those games were more than seven years ago, and both Missouri and Texas A&M look quite a bit different since that last, rainy matchup. Last year’s A&M team barely beat Vanderbilt and lost to Alabama (as one does) but never lost a game after Week 2, beating ranked Florida and North Carolina squads en route to a 9-1 record:
These weren’t lucky, skin-of-your-teeth victories, either. Seven of their nine victories were by two possessions thanks to a Top 15 defense that absolutely smothered every offense it faced (outside Alabama and Florida). Their glacially-slow offense was able to put up 40+ points four times, but only against defenses that were clearly overmatched. The Aggies played ball-control, field-position, mistake-free football and forced opponents to get desperate and reckless. It’s an antiquated approach to football but an effective one and as long as Jimbo is on the sidelines it’s probably what the Aggies will continue to run.
Jimbo Fisher - 4th Year - 26-10 (17-8)
Fisher has been coaching football for a long time but only really done two things before becoming a head coach: coach quarterbacks and coordinate offenses. As an OC in the SEC of the late 90s/early 2000s he was well-versed in the run-first/run-second/run-third style of offense that protects quarterbacks and defenses and tries to wear down opposing defenses. He was even Nick Saban’s OC at LSU for Saban’s entire tenure, then stuck around two more year once Les Miles took over. Eventually he was hired by Bobby Bowden to salvage the last years of Bowden’s empire then was tabbed as the eventual successor once Bobby retired. He ramped up recruiting immediately and won a National Championship four years after he took over. However, his last FSU teams were still pretty good but he was clearly checked out, openly squabbling with administration over every petty thing you can imagine. While his bolting for Texas A&M in 2018 was a surprise to most, it wasn’t a surprise to the recruits in the area, as most of them told other coaches that they hadn’t heard from any FSU coaches in over two months. Regardless of the junk drawer he left in Tallahassee, the crazy oil barons of Texas A&M threw $75 million at him to be better than previous coach Kevin Sumlin and, so far, he’s done the exact same: Fisher is currently 26-10 in three years, Sumlin was 28-11 in his first three years. The difference is that Fisher is a.) way more expensive to buy out, meaning he has a lot of liberty to do what he wants there and not be in danger of getting fired, and b.) had his “break-out” year last year rather than his first year on the job (something Sumlin could never overcome). Fisher’s tactics haven’t changed much but, when he’s interested and invested, he is an ace recruiter that can consistently put excellent teams on the field. If he gets a break somewhere, anywhere, in a given season, the Aggies will be ready to take it.
Darrell Dickey - Offensive Coordinator: As mentioned in the North Texas preview, Dickey was the architect of one of the most successful runs of Mean Green football since the turn of the century, winning multiple Sun Belt championships in a four-year span. He’s bounced around to Utah State, New Mexico, and Texas State since then, and teamed up with Barry Odom to help turn Memphis into the current G5 powerhouse it is today. His offensive prowess with the blue Tigers was enough to impress Fisher and he’s been OC of the Aggies since 2018. His Memphis teams moved a lot faster, mind you, but the concepts are similar to Fisher: find a stud running back, get him the ball in every facet possible, and find a quarterback that can reliably connect on down-field shots. Regardless of pace, Dickey and Fisher know how to coach quality offense.
Mike Elko - Defensive Coordinator: Elko earned his stripes in some odd, off-the-beaten-path FCS squads and the resume proves it: he coordinated defenses at Penn, the Merchant Marine Academy (apparently they have a football team!), Fordham, Richmond, and Hofstra. He then jumped to the FBS level with Dave Clawson’s staff at Bowling Green before following him to Wake Forest. Elko is a master tactician of doing more with less and creating havoc-happy 3-4 defenses. He was good enough to be poached by Brian Kelly and was DC at Notre Dame for a year before Fisher lured him to college station. The defenses are still havoc-happy but now he’s doing more with more as he gets to use the elite A&M recruit base to fill out his 3-4 scheme. Outside of Georgia, this will be the toughest defense the Tigers go against in 2021.
Tommie Robinson - Running Backs
Dameyune Craig - Wide Receivers
James Coley - Tight Ends
Josh Henson - Offensive Line: oh look it’s our old OC and offensive line coach! Henson worked with Fisher back in their LSU days before Henson became Missouri’s co-offensive line coach in 2009 and, eventually, offensive coordinator from 2013-2015. He spent a rehab year as an analyst for Oklahoma State after that disastrous 2015 offensive performance, then coached the o-line for the ‘Pokes for two years before joining the Aggie staff in 2019.
Terry Price - Defensive Ends
Elijah Robinson - Defensive Line
Tyler Santucci - Linebackers
T.J. Rushing - Defensive Backs
I’ve mentioned it a few times already so let’s address it here: Jimbo’s offense is slow. 127th in pace, to be precise (and there were 128 teams playing in 2020). If you like old school offense this is the one for you: they still do the RPOs that everyone does and they don’t huddle but the quarterback will frequently take snaps from under the center; they have, and use, full backs; and they utilize traditional-style passing concepts and route combinations that you would see out of the 1990s (which just so happens to be when Jimbo was coordinating offenses). But all that throw-back style stuff means that they take a long time between snaps, keep the plays to a minimum (they averaged 65 plays per game, 85th in the country) and limit total possessions (averaged 11 possessions per game, 110th in the country). They run on standard downs, pass on passing downs, rarely turn it over (only 4 total turnovers last year) and heavily rely on slot receivers and tight ends as they emphasize the short passing game. But this paleolithic offense has an incredible talent pool to run it so the Cro-Magnon attack tends to work, unless you have the talent and scheme to throw them off schedule.
Quarterback - Haynes King (Freshman) or Zach Calzada (R-Freshman)
Both of these guys figured to be the one to replace Kellen Mond at quarterback but, as of the conclusion of their spring practices, neither one has set themselves apart. Calzada is the older, more experienced player (by one year) but King got all the junk reps for 2020. Both were highly-rated 3-stars but King is considered more mobile of the two. Regardless of who starts, he’ll have a wide assortment of weapons to throw to and an excellent offensive lie to protect him; add to that the fact that Fisher and Dickey design the offense to protect the quarterback and give him easy reads and you can sense that replacing Kellen Mond is not as big a deal as it would be for other offenses.
Running Back - Isaiah Spiller - Sophomore
Isaiah Spiller freaking rocks, man. Over ten game last year Spiller had 188 rushes, 1,036 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 9 touchdowns, and only fumbled three times (losing none of them). He gains 5+ yards on 17% of his carries, averages 7.3 yards running outside, 4.5 inside, and 5.1 against a 7-man box. Obviously his offensive line helps with some of that but he’s able to gash any defense no matter where he’s running. They didn’t have a large rotation last year, with Ainias Smith and Devon Achane combining for 92 carries and 657 yards but, if Spiller is healthy and ready to go, you don’t really need anyone else.
Tight End - Jalen Wydermyer - Sophomore
I mentioned that the Fisher offense relies on slot receivers and tight ends to get the majority of targets and this is the product of that: a tight end leading the team with 69 catches (nice) and 46 catches for 506 yards and 6 touchdowns. What’s crazier than that? Backup running back Ainias Smith was the second-leading receiver with 66 targets and 43 catches for 564 yards and 6 touchdowns. Chase Lane and Hezekiah Jones are the slot guys who also contribute but the main threat will be Wydermyer. A&M’s 8.9 yards in the air per pass shows a lack of deep-ball threat and the development of a receiver who could burn the defense over the top would be a nice addition to an already potent offense.
Let me summarize the effectiveness of the 2020 Texas A&M defense for you in one sentence: if you couldn’t connect on a big passing play you had no chance of moving the ball, let alone score. A&M was a Top 30 defense in every standard down category you can think of and transformed into a Top 10 defense on passing downs, ranking 9th in defensive passing downs success rate. They play tight coverage and hardly ever blitz (12% of the time, 122nd in the nation) but got pressure on the quarterback 33% of the time last year (20th in the country) and effectively wipe out any opposing ground game. The secondary was fairly young last year so a more experienced unit could very well shore up the big passing play weakness from last year; bad news, if that turns out to be true.
Defensive End - DeMarvin Leal - Sophomore
Leal is a 6’4”, 290 pound defensive end who lead the defensive line with 27 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, and 3 passes broken up. And that’s a 3-4 defensive end! Leal was one of the big reasons A&M didn’t need to blitz to create pressure and now he’s back to make every body’s day worse. He’ll have another starter and some rotational guys back, as well, so this 3-man line will definitely be a legitimate problem to deal with.
Linebacker - Aaron Hansford - Graduate Student
Hansford and Buddy Johnson were super disruptive linebackers last year but Johnson is now on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. Hansford made only 16 tackles but 5 of those were for a loss while nabbing 3 sacks as well. He also was able to generate pressure on the quarterback about 20% of the time and could very well be a recurring nightmare for Connor Bazelak.
Defensive Back - Jaylon Jones - Freshman
Jaylon Jones was a 5-star corner coming out of high school who started all ten games last year. Oh, and he also lead the team in snaps, logged 18 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, and broke up 6 passes. Did I mention he was a freshman? He will be the face of a still young secondary that got beat a few times last year but were still very effective. There’s a solid chance we won’t hear his name that often as it would be a bad idea to pass in his general direction.
So what does it all mean?
Texas A&M is one of 16 teams in the country that recruits at an elite level. Their “blue-chip ratio” - a term coined by 247’s Bud Elliott to decide how much of a team’s roster is comprised of blue-chips recruits (you need over 50% to even attempt to win a National Championship) - is currently at 61%; Missouri is currently at 11%. So, yes, they do lose a lot of production and only return 61% of the guys who contributed last year (116th in the nation), but they are also uniquely equipped to manage those loses and replace it with equal - or better - talent.
Jimbo has famously said it doesn’t matter who his quarterback is since he’ll put enough talent around him to make him successful and that’s the case here: a new quarterback will be playing with a lot of returning skill position guys and the defense will be fully loaded to wreck shop once again. What Missouri is hoping for in this game is a couple of things:
- Hope Alabama beats the tar out of A&M. The Aggies host the Crimson Tide a week before they travel to Missouri and, if you believe in the “body-blow theory” - where teams that play Alabama are worse the week after - then that certainly applies here. Jimbo Fisher has never beaten Alabama but is undefeated in the games immediately following the Crimson Tide matchup...average score: A&M 30 - Opponent 24
- Hope A&M doesn’t travel well. The Aggie fans certainly travel well but college teams performances in general tend to fluctuate week to week and can occasionally struggle on the road. Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M teams are 6-7 in true road games in his three years at the helm, as compared to a 15-3 record at Kyle Field. Of note, the Aggies went 4-1 in true road games in 2020.
- Hope that the Gary Pinkel magic of usually beating better A&M squads transfers to the Drinkwitz team.
- And the most realistic: hope that A&M’s offensive style lets the Tigers stay close. Playing at an extremely slow pace is usually the tactic of the modern underdog (think Army-Oklahoma 2018), cutting down on the number of possessions and shrink the game down to limit the exposure an overmatched defense gets to an elite offense, hoping the close game causes the favorite to freak out and mess up. When you recruit at an elite level you usually want that athleticism to run up and down the field but that’s not the case at A&M. This style is what undid Will Muschamp at Florida and South Carolina as lesser teams consistently found ways to beat him; Fisher has gotten away with it so far but there is a chance that a shorter game lets Mizzou hang around for longer and possibly pull the upset.
This is a measuring stick game: how to you fare against a team who is clearly more talented than you from an athletic standpoint? The Tigers don’t have to win this one to accomplish any of their goals but a.) it would be nice if they did, and b.) this can show a lot about how far this team has come (if at all) from last season to this season. It won’t be some giant referendum, mind you, just a good chance to show out on what could possibly be a national broadcast.
I don’t see Missouri winning this one outright but neither did anybody predict that in 2010. Or 2011. Or 2013.
Since we won’t be playing these guys for another seven years I thought it would be worth it to see how recruiting rankings and wins have compared to our SEC pledge brother in the ten years since they both joined:
Obviously A&M has recruited better and won more games than Missouri but the Tigers have two division crowns while the Aggies have nothing. We’ll call it a draw!