Last week I started doing a weekly series of five stats that I think may be relevant or telling in regards to this week's A&M game. After seeing just how popular the feature was (over 1.5 million views last week) (editor's note: previous parenthetical should just say "1.5 views"), I've been looking forward to this all week. Here we go!
- Let's start with a biggie: 3rd down conversions. I'm certainly not the first to point this one out, but let's go in depth for a minute. Last year, A&M led the nation in 3rd down conversions, at 55%. Alabama's defense was fifth nationally in 3rd down defense. In last year's match-up, A&M won this category, going 11/18 on third downs. This made Alabama very sad and is possibly the reason Nick Saban sunk to the level of cargo shorts. He probably started wearing Crocs too, for that matter. They don't want to let this happen again.
In Alabama's first game this year, against Virginia Tech, the Hokies only converted 3/17 third downs. Meanwhile, this season, A&M is again dominant on 3rd downs offensively, converting 12/16 (75%) when Johnny Football has been in the game. Manziel is 7/7 passing on third downs this year, for 100 yards and five first downs this year. (See, I'm giving you way more than five stats in my "5 Stats" article. The bonus stats are because I like you.)
What does all this mean? It's pretty simple. If A&M can continue to convert third downs, A&M should be able to score lots of points. If Alabama can limit A&M's third down success, they should be able to limit A&M's point total.
(Bonus bit of scouting for you: So far this season, with Johnny in the game A&M has faced four third downs of 8 yards or longer. And on three of them, we have thrown screen passes rather than throwing down field. Something to keep an eye on against Bama.)
- So, what if third downs go Bama's way? Can A&M still win? Well, yes, if third downs aren't a factor. What would make third downs not be a factor? BIG plays. For example, two of A&M's worst games last year on third down performance came against Arkansas and Sam Houston, and A&M scored 58 and 47 points in those games, because of big plays.
A&M has been a big play team since Sumlin/Manziel arrived, and they were against Bama last year. The Aggies led the nation in 20+ yard plays last year, while Alabama led the nation in fewest plays allowed of 10+ yards (and only allowed four such plays against Virginia Tech in week one). Just like the third down battle, A&M won this particular clash last year, getting some big runs from Manziel and at least four big passes. This made Nick Saban very angry, so angry that he literally shrunk another two inches to his current height of 3'8". Any shorter and he's in the danger zone, you know, midget-wise.
- Yet another "Aggie offense vs. Bama defense" category to consider: the red zone. Last year and this year both, A&M was a stellar offensive team in the red zone, while Alabama was the third best red zone defense in the country. A&M needs to continue that success. This year the Aggies are scoring touchdowns 80% of the time in the red zone, and last year they were at 73%. 65% and up is a good number.
Red zone match-ups go both ways though. Alabama's offense last year was, like A&M, very good in the red zone. A&M's red zone defense was pretty good too (especially against Bama last year). However, A&M's red zone defense this season has been a weakness. In a game of (allegedly) superior offenses versus over-matched defenses, it may very well be that the team that goes for touchdowns is the winner and the team that settles for field goals is the loser. The fact that Mark Snyder out-coached Nick Saban on the game-deciding red zone possession last year is quite possibly the real reason that Saban tortured all those puppies earlier this summer (details to be released soon by Darren Rovell, whose source is an anonymous blog poster on Good Bull Hunting).
- So what else could impact the game? Again I'm hitting on some pretty obvious stuff here, but special teams. Alabama's Christion Jones put up a performance for the ages in week 1 for Alabama, returning both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown (not to mention catching a touchdown pass as well). In a game in which Alabama's offense fought to a virtual standstill with Virginia Tech, his big plays in the return game proved to be the difference. The Aggies can't allow him to do the same thing this week.
Thankfully for A&M, the Aggies lead the nation in net punting (the total yardage of the punt minus the punt return yardage), at 52 yards per punt. (Upon realizing that, Saban became very sad, and, rumor has it, had his agent send out sarcastic text messages to some folks in Austin, pretending to be really interested in the soon-available coaching job. Laughter ensued. Good times.) As long as Aggie punter Drew Kaser doesn't out-kick his coverage (punt the ball high rather than far, Drew), A&M should be able to contain Jones. As for kickoff returns, the best defense against Jones in this case is kicking the ball out of the end zone, which A&M has done 13/19 times this year.
- OK, I just realized I've been severely stretching the limits of simply posting "stats to consider." My apologies. I didn't set out to write so much. I'll end with a much more simple, singular "stat to consider." Drumroll.....
11/111. There. What is it, you ask? It's the catches/yards for Ryan Swope against Alabama last year. Swope is gone. Will Malcome Kennedy be able to do what Swope did? Will Sabian Holmes rise to the challenge? Will Ricky Seals-Jones have a breakout performance, muscles shimmering in the sunlight like a freaking racehorse (And to keep making fun of Nick Saban, wouldn't he make an adorable little jockey? I think Nick Saban riding Ricky Seals-Jones could easily win some races and maybe even qualify for the Derby)? Will Mike Evans improve on last year's performance (season low 5 catches for 40 yards)? One or two of those guys need to step up and Swoperize the Crimson Tide if A&M is to win again.