Each week provides certain answers to previous questions and then forces new questions upon us as we try to make sense of Jimbo Fisher’s first season in Aggieland. First, let’s look at
Things we can be sure of at this point
Kellen Mond is much improved
This is basically just a confirmation of what I wrote about after the first game of the year. It was clear then that Mond had grown exponentially from where he was last year. As a true freshman, Mond struggled to lead scoring drives against even the worst opponents and was barely completing over 50 percent of his passes.
Just one year later, he’s a 60 percent or better passer almost every week and the Aggies, while still far from perfect offensively, are better. Mond isn’t there yet (more on that later), but first things first when evaluating him: he’s gone from a guy last year that flat out wasn’t good enough to a guy that, well, is. That’s a huge start.
The run defense is for real
A lot has been said on this and there’s not much I can add, but not only is A&M leading the SEC in rush defense, they are leading by a whopping 34 yards per game. The Aggies also lead the SEC in yards per rush allowed. Sort by conference games only and the same results come up. A&M is #1 in both. Sort by ranked opponents, same thing. Aggies lead. FBS opponents, P5 opponents, every single way you sort it, A&M is #1 in the conference in both categories.
Want more? Ok here’s more. Last year A&M gave up over 200 yards per game rushing in SEC play and the year before that, 238. This year? 77.
Want more? Ok. Sacks are counted as run yards, so when a team sacks the quarterback, their defense gets credit for stopping a run behind the line (which doesn’t technically make sense but I digress...). Last year’s A&M defense was great at sacking the quarterback, so through seven games, the ‘17 Aggies had 11 more sacks than the ‘18 Aggies. So take out the sacks, and the run defense this year is even more improved than it first appears.
This is what happens when you have old, mature, experienced talent. Kingsley Keke, Daylon Mack, Justin Madabuike, Landis Durham, Tyrel Dodson, Otaro Alaka, those are all players that are at least three years out of high school. Hats off to the entire front seven for A&M.
Braden Mann and Jace Sternberger should win national awards
Mann is “just” a punter, but goodness, he is having the best season in the history of punting, and that’s not an exaggeration. Maybe he will come back to the pack in the last five games, but for now, Mann is shattering records.
The all-time record for punt average in a season is 50.3 yards. Mann’s average is 54.5. Not only that, on Saturday against South Carolina, it was Mann that made the tackle and forced the fumble that was, incredibly, A&M’s first fumble recovery of the season.
Oh, and as a kickoff specialist, his kickoffs result in a touchback 75 percent of the time, which is among the NCAA leaders as well.
As for Jace Sternberger, again, if awards were being handed out today, there’s just no argument that he’s been the best tight end in the nation. He leads all tight ends in yards and touchdowns, and is top 5 in receptions and yards per catch. In conference games only, he’s #3 in the SEC among ALL receivers in yards per game and touchdowns.
When your tight end’s least productive game of the year (so far) was a game in which he still had 48 yards, you’ve got a good one.
The Aggies will give up big plays on defense
This too has just sort of been a constant all season. For as great as the A&M front seven has been, this defense just manages to get out of position, take a bad angle, or miss a tackle often enough to give up an inordinate number of big plays.
A&M ranks outside the top 100 nationally in plays allowed of 20+, 30+, 40+, and 50+ yards. The passing game is where it really shows up, as A&M ranks in the bottom five nationally in most of those categories for passes allowed.
Seven games in, there’s enough data to just say that this is who the Aggie defense is. They stop the run, but they will give up big plays. Better that than to be a team that just can’t stop the run, right?
Things we still can’t be sure of
So, how good is Kellen Mond?
He’s been improved over last year. He’s made such great strides. He has the confidence of his team and his coach. He has led A&M to a 5-2 record and has orchestrated some important late drives in each of the last three wins. He’s #31 in the nation in ESPN’s QBR rating.
But there is still a lot to nitpick. Just 4 touchdown passes against 5 interceptions in conference play. Just 46th in the country in passer rating, and just 62nd in the country when looking at passer rating during conference games. Several near-turnovers, along with a disastrous turnover against Kentucky that almost cost A&M the game, and several missed passes.
There’s a lot of hidden work that Mond is clearly doing well, the things that Fisher constantly praises him for, like setting protections and getting the offense into the correct play. His passing is good if not great. He’s mobile and is a running threat, although he hasn’t had any real success running the ball since the Alabama game (just 54 yards on 40 carries in the last three games).
The offense seems to sputter and just isn’t quite running at the efficiency it appears it should. So I have a hard time knowing exactly how good Mond is playing. At worst, he’s average, and at best, I’d say he’s been really good, but his season is still one that can go up or down. I don’t think we can really judge him until we see how these final five games go.
Four of A&M’s final five opponents are currently in the top 20 in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Teams know how to defend Mond. Will he finish strong?
Can the A&M run game run against LSU, Auburn, and Mississippi State?
A&M’s rushing attack is right on the edge between good and mediocre, it seems. Good enough to run, sort of, on Kentucky and Arkansas, but not able to run at all on the Clemsons and Alabamas of the world (the nice long run by Kellen Mond vs Alabama notwithstanding), and then not able to run against South Carolina, until they were able to, in the latter part of the game.
So the Aggies can destroy lesser teams with the run, can’t create a hole against elite defense, and are hit and miss against good defenses. Well, A&M faces three more good run defenses, but none of them are elite. Can the Aggies scrap out 150 yards rushing against Mississippi State? LSU? Auburn?
I honestly have no idea. Florida ran for 5 yards per carry and over 200 yards against LSU, but Georgia mustered just 113 yards against the Tigers the next week. Kentucky ran for 4.9 yards per carry and 229 yards against Mississippi State, but Florida only managed 118 rush yards against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State ran wild over Auburn (349 yards, 6.1 yards per carry) but that same Auburn team held LSU to just 121 yards rushing and Washington to just 102.
From this point on, each A&M opponent is good to great in certain areas but flawed enough to be beaten, which also happens to perfectly describe Texas A&M.
The Aggies have, for three weeks now, lived on winning close games, winning ugly, winning in the fourth quarter. But they’ve HAD to win in the fourth quarter because they haven’t been able to put seemingly inferior teams away in the first three quarters. A&M is walking a fine line right now but with a week off to rest and prepare before Mississippi State, Jimbo Fisher has to like the position his team is in.
Now if we could just change that targeting rule...