Posted: 2:00 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013
By Bill C.
Thanks to some strange scheduling quirk, Texas A&M; is apparently being asked to actually come to Columbia this season. Are we sure that's right?
A&M; didn't have to unleash the crazy, wild version of Johnny Manziel that frequently. The Aggies were 10th in the country on standard downs, mainly throwing short passes to Mike Evans and Ryan Swope, mixing in some carries by Ben Malena and Christine Michael, and moving the ball with strong efficiency.
Strangely, it was when they fell behind schedule that the Aggies became truly dangerous. On second- or third-and-long, it was pretty much Johnny-go-make-a-play time, and Johnny made plays. Manziel's eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head routine, his strangely innate ability to escape a collapsing pocket at the last possible instant and suddenly find himself in the open field with all sorts of run-or-pass options was downright confusing to watch. "How did he know to escape backwards and to the left?? Surely he won't be able to do that again ... that doesn't make any sense." But he did it all year, and A&M; had the best passing-downs offense in the country in 2012.
It shouldn't surprise you to learn that passing-downs success is tied rather closely to quarterback play; this means very good things for A&M; in 2013, obviously, but with Alabama, LSU, and five other SEC defenses that have now faced Manziel on the schedule, it will be interesting to see what adjustments opponents make.
A&M; signed three four-star tackles in last year's stellar recruiting class. The odds are good that at least one of them will become a stalwart up front.
But at least one will probably need to play at a high level immediately following the losses of Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis. Nealy was an occasional wrecking ball in the middle, racking up more tackles for loss than the rest of the line combined. In Jim Tressel disciple Mark Snyder's hybrid 3-4 defense (where the rush/OLB spends quite a bit of time with his hand on the ground), the three designated linemen aren't asked to make a lot of plays, just occupy blockers and bat down passes. But Nealy was a disruptive force and will be missed. [...]Take a look at A&M;'s spring two-deep (pdf). Six of the eight spots are filled by players who didn't make a tackle last year; three are newcomers (including two projected starters), and one is a former wide receiver. Now, the list doesn't include Steven Jenkins, who missed the spring with a torn labrum. Jenkins was a steadying force last year along side more aggressive players like Damontre Moore and Sean Porter. But Jenkins and Donnie Baggs are the only players who logged any serious playing time last year. The rest of this unit is as untested as untested can be.
I don't think A&M; will be as good as it was last year -- injuries could be a problem this time around, both lines will regress at least a bit, the receivers and linebackers are terribly green, and we haven't even mentioned the fact that 2012 offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury is now the head coach at Texas Tech -- but it might not need to be. Just beat Alabama on September 14, and it will take a pretty decent-sized upset to knock you out of the BCS top two before the late-November trip to LSU. And hell, even if you lose to Alabama, you're still potentially in decent shape for a title run. This doesn't feel like a title-caliber team to me this year, but that might not matter.
I can't wait to see how A&M; proves me both right and wrong this year.
Granted, we have no idea what to expect from Johnny Manziel this season -- his offseason has been unique in about 100 different ways -- but odds are decent that he'll be at least 80 or 90 percent Johnny Football when the Aggies come to town. And he'll still have a lovely line protecting him while he spreads the ball to a wealth of interesting skill position guys. The offense is going to hum again, in other words.
A&M; might have one of the SEC's worse defensive front sevens. If Mizzou can establish its own offense, especially on the ground, then the Tigers could keep up in a shootout. It will have to keep up because A&M;'s going to score and score, but it's certainly not impossible.
Few things would actually surprise me when it comes to A&M; this season. I could see the Aggies beating Alabama and becoming a national title favorite, and I could see them struggle on defense, struggle with turnovers on offense, and stumble to 8-4 or so. I would, however, be surprised to see Mizzou with a chance to win this game late in the fourth quarter.
It's hard to be overly optimistic against a team that beat Mizzou by 30 last year, obviously, but this game does have some solid shootout potential if Mizzou's offense improves as we expect it to. A&M; simply has too many weapons and should eventually pull (and stay) ahead, but it could be fun for a while. Give me something like A&M; 45, Mizzou 34. Again, whatever your goal for Mizzou is this year in terms of wins, it would behoove the Tigers to have reached that goal by the time they leave Lexington on November 9.