It's pretty harsh to pile on a team after a loss, especially after a complete disaster like Texas A&M experienced at Mississippi State. And that's what it was. A disaster. Fans are grumpy and bad things get said, bringing everyone down. However, everything that we are about to talk about has been building up since Lamar. We knew we were playing sloppy then but nobody wanted to be a Debbie Downer because we were winning. Well, all those mistakes against Rice and SMU caught up to us against Arkansas last week and now against Mississippi State. It's time to put them out in the open, because I doubt you'll see many others put them out there.
Undisciplined and Unfocused Play
Texas A&M Football has adopted a mantra for 2014: "Let's focus on us." You've heard Coach Sumlin say that repeatedly during media sessions this season. If we focus on our play, then we'll go toe-to-toe with anybody. That sounds great, especially with a young, inexperienced team. But has that idea resonated with players in the locker room? It doesn't seem like it.
The Aggies came out spitting straight fire against South Carolina. We all saw that performance. The Aggies had a whole offseason to think about that game, listen to all the doubters, and come in playing the underdog role. They came out ready to bust heads. But every game since South Caroline, the Aggies have come out looking lackadaisical and lethargic. We attributed this to being disinterested against overmatched Lamar, Rice, and SMU teams. Unfortunately, that same mindset manifested against Arkansas and yesterday against Mississippi State. We can't blame it on the quality of opponent any more.
This team lacks the fiery leadership of the seniors in 2012 and Johnny Manziel in 2013. There hasn't been anybody to step up and replace them yet. In 2012 against Mississippi State, we celebrated the motivating role of surprise black uniforms after the 38-13 performance. A&M pulled out the same gimmick yesterday with the "icy whites" and chrome but saw no boost in player performance. Gimmicks won't get a team fired up and focused to play. It's the leaders and preparation heading into that week. We lack that now. Our roster only has 16 seniors, so the gap in upperclassman leadership is apparent.
And the penalties....believe it or not, Texas A&M isn't the most penalized team in college football. They currently rank as the 34th most penalized program in the country, with 33 total penalties for 323 yards. That averages out to 5.5 penalties per game for 54 yards. Not terrible but not great either. A lot of the penalties are self-inflicted with false starts and defensive holding. While some calls seem ticky-tack, they can often be avoided with smarter play. Our lack of focus shows with these "dumbass" penalties.
Poor Offensive Player Rotations
This topic is so silly but needs to be addressed, especially when we are labeling our coaching staff (we are guilty) as "offensive geniuses." A staff of offensive geniuses should do better than constantly running sweeps with Tra Carson. Our rotations are as simple as subbing players in and out every 5-6 plays for new running backs or playing different receiving groups for a series. You guys have made good points in the past about not wanting to give your hand away with subbing in certain players for player-specific plays. But we also have to be conscious of what plays we are running with certain personnel in the game.
The running back situation is frustrating because we never see our running backs get into the flow of the game. We get a guy in there for a couple of plays, then he is quickly subbed out and may disappear for a series or two. That has to be frustrating for a player. How can you make an impact on a game if you only get a couple of touches every 10-15 plays? You honestly can't. What we need is to decide who is going to be our bell cow at running back and roll with that guy. Maybe it changes week by week, but we have to let someone roll and then call an offense around that player. Not only does it get the running back comfortable, but also the offensive line can settle in with a particular running style.
For receivers, we seem to have adopted bringing in our "#2" guys every couple of series. We have done this since 2012. We are again committing to this approach of rolling with whoever happens to be in the game. I'm not okay with that. All of our receivers have their own strengths and weaknesses. Why not target guys in certain situations to take advantage of those strengths? Why not bring in a possession receiver like Ed Pope on all 3rd downs? Because there is a high chance we may target him and give it away? So what? He's made plenty of contested catches already. That also brings up boxing in certain receivers to one position. Our best four receivers are Malcome Kennedy, Speedy Noil, Ed Pope, and Josh Reynolds. You get those four on the field. I don't care if Ed Pope and Speedy Noil have been playing the same position. Adapt.
Staying With Underperforming Players
This has always been my biggest pet-peeve with the coaching staff. It takes several games longer than it should to replace underperforming players in the starting lineup and rotations. Right now, we have several guys starting who have no business being on the field with their current level of play. If these guys are, in fact, injured then they don't need to be playing. If they are not injured, then they need to be replaced with players who can do their jobs more effectively. Simple as that.
Remember last year when it took forever to get Daeshon Hall on the field? Jay Arnold? Even Darion Claiborne didn't start playing a significant role until after the Alabama game. The coaches chose to go with experience over talent. Sometimes you just have to ride the young guys and take their good with their mistakes. Now our coaches have put a lot of trust in young players like Armani Watts, Speedy Noil, and Myles Garrett. But maybe it is time to start thinking about turning to more freshman like Josh Walker and Nick Harvey. Even players with some experience, like Shaan Washington, are still not starting even though they are clearly better than the players in front of them. Let's get our best players on the field, regardless of whatever position you have boxed them into, and go to war with those guys. They'll make their mistakes, but I'd rather watch that group than what we are currently putting on the field.
With so much talent accumulating in College Station, you have to send a clear message to our guys that if you don't do your job, then it is next man up. We're starting to build enough depth to do that. After all, aren't we preaching competition?
The dreaded "Rhino" formation. It looked cool at first because we were bringing in an extra offensive lineman and players that looked like tight ends and fullbacks. It also worked because we were simply able to overpower weaker opponents. But it also is a dead giveaway and hasn't proved effective against SEC competition because we don't know how to line up and then cannot execute the given play. Why must we slow down the pace of our offense to bring in this mass substitution of players just to run the same 2 or 3 plays in short- or goal-to-go situations? Aren't we more versatile and unpredictable in our 10 or 11 personnel? We can keep the same defensive personnel in the game by going quick after a 2nd down play and would probably be more effective in picking up a 3rd and short than bringing in the heavies.
But it is more than just one formation. It is outsmarting ourselves. Before the end of the first half yesterday, we lined up in a 3x1 formation with three receivers bunched together wide to one side of the field, with Josh Reynolds the lone receiver on the other side. We've shown this same formation a couple of times already this season, most notably against South Carolina where Ricky Seals-Jones caught a touchdown on a quick slant pass out of the bunch. However against Mississippi State, we decided that the defense would adjust, cover those 3 wide receivers, and give Reynolds a one-on-one situation. That's what happened. And we elected to go with the fade into the end zone to end the half, which fell incomplete. First the fade out is a low percentage play to begin with in college football. It's not being run by professionals like in the NFL. You need an accurate quarterback to put the football in a unique spot for the wide receiver, and unfortunately Kenny Hill has been pretty sporadic in terms of accuracy. Josh Reynolds has been a pretty good receiver for us, but you also need a receiver who can make plays on the football and that guy is Ed Pope. This is an example of being smarter about personnel and bringing in a receiver whose talents are optimized for the play called. There are a lot of things to consider about one simple play, but that play before the end of the half was the difference in carrying some momentum in the locker room versus leaving with a meaningless field goal.
One Last Quick Thing
Did you know that South Carolina lost to Kentucky last night? They did. With losses to Missouri and Kentucky, it is time to stop looking at that game as any type of measuring stick for this team. South Carolina isn't the Top 10 opponent we thought they were. Hell, they aren't even close to a Top 25 team. With half of the season complete, we still don't have a good feel about where this Texas A&M football team is. We know were aren't among the bottom half of the SEC, but I seriously doubt we are close to the top like we thought we were a week ago. Maybe this team is actually the 7-5 or 8-4 team we thought they were back in July and early August.