It was a classic battle of size versus speed, smashmouth football versus modern day spread football, swine versus swag. I don't know if it necessarily qualifies as an "ass kicking," as that can only be determined by Kliff Kingsbury, but it did qualify as a victory for Texas A&M. What did we learn from the 28-21 overtime win?
Texas A&M is still physically inferior in the middle of the defense.
There's no questioning the talent and the depth A&M has at defensive end, and that's an important piece of their defensive puzzle. However, the question was always going to be whether or not the middle of the defense—the tackles and the linebackers—could withstand the pounding of a big, bruising, straight-ahead SEC rushing attack.
The early returns are not encouraging. The players, rather than the scheme, raise concerns. John Chavis has earned trust in his scheme, but we could see problems with the A&M depth chart long before the season began. The defensive tackles and linebackers for A&M, the main pieces responsible for giving up an average of 271 rushing yards per game in conference play last year, are a mix of underclassman, inexperienced upperclassmen, and experienced upperclassmen who, objectively speaking, were not capable of stopping anyone in seasons past.
The linebackers are young and most of them were hampered with some form of injury in the Spring or Summer. They are also still learning the new scheme. Against Arkansas, the tackles generally got no push up front and could not generate negative plays. I would argue that A&M has a defensive line that is quick but not strong (with exceptions, of course). That quickness leads to slashing and penetration against teams that try to attack side to side. However, against a straight ahead team like Arkansas, those skills are somewhat neutralized.
Football is a matchup game, and A&M doesn't currently match up very well with Arkansas. The good news is, the Aggies still found a way to win and still have time to improve knowledge of the new scheme. The bad news is, barring major improvement, Alabama and LSU will each possess the ball for the vast majority of those games and beat A&M with the same game plan that almost earned Arkansas a victory. A&M needs to figure out a way to shore up the middle of the defense. Sooner is better.
Christian Kirk is possibly the best true freshman A&M has ever had.
That's lofty praise for sure, but the only other player I can think of who might compare is Greg Hill. Hill rushed for over 1,200 yards as a true freshman in 1991. Kirk is on pace to have over 1,400 receiving yards (just in the regular season), plus he returns kicks at an elite level. Through four games, Kirk is averaging over 200 all-purpose yards per game. Last year, Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin led the nation with 195 per game. Kirk is averaging 20.6 yards per touch. That would have been #2 in the nation last year.
The all time record for all-purpose yards in a season at Texas A&M is 1,806 (Cyrus Gray, 2010). Kirk is on pace for over 2,600 assuming he plays in a bowl game.
It's not just the numbers though. Kirk has already established himself as Texas A&M's #1 threat. He is so dynamic that A&M is doing things with their formations and plays that they have never done before, all to get the ball into Kirk's hands. The Aggies clearly realize that they have someone special and it was obvious from the first quarter that getting Kirk involved was a priority. A&M would have lost both the Arkansas game and the Arizona State game if not for Christian Kirk. It's that simple. I don't think it's unrealistic or premature at all to say that outside of Johnny Manziel, he is the most dynamic skill position player the Aggies have ever had.
The Aggies really need James White to get healthy.
Watching A&M handle their running back situation this year has been interesting. In each of the four games, A&M has looked different. In the first game, it was almost all four wide receivers, one running back. The next two games featured heavy use of tight ends and a power running game. Then, against Arkansas, the Aggies start using empty sets and were clearly intent on passing the ball.
This isn't a criticism at all, as it likely is a product of A&M identifying how to attack each opponent and being willing to commit to that. And it worked. Let's be clear on that. Texas A&M had a very good day offensively against Arkansas.
The interesting part though is the lack of options that the Aggies currently have at tailback thanks to James White's injury. One gets the feeling that A&M would prefer to run more, like they did against Nevada, but with only one legitimate option at running back currently, it's just not feasible to build the attack around that. I have to believe that is why A&M spread out and passed so much on Saturday.
The good news is that A&M is very well equipped to succeed by passing. But you need to be able to keep a defense honest with the running game. And while Carson is a good back, he is not a speed back. The lack of any speed in the A&M backfield is something that just limits what the Aggies can do. A&M can still do quite a bit, but it's limiting. Not having a true option at tight end is another major limiting factor, but for now we're talking about running back.
I don't think we'll truly see what this A&M offense intends to look like until James White returns. Credit A&M for beating both ASU and Arkansas with one running back and no tight ends. That's actually pretty impressive. Like many of A&M's issues, the running back depth issue will be resolved in 2016. But as A&M tries to scrape their way to 10 wins in 2015, it might require some smoke and mirrors to scheme their way around roster deficiencies.