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Can a downshifted Bama offense open the door for A&M?

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Maybe? Hopefully? Please?

Houston Texans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Texas A&M will likely enter the 2021 football season as a top 10 team, and while almost any game can pose a potential slip-up if the team doesn’t play well, fans and media alike are already circling Saturday, Oct. 9, on the Aggies’ calendar as their pivotal game of the season. This, of course, is when the Alabama Crimson Tide travel to College Station. Both teams are likely to be undefeated entering the game, in fact the game may be the only one in which the Aggies won’t be favored all season. A victory against the Tide would put A&M in the driver’s seat to make their first appearance in the SEC Championship game since they joined the conference in 2012, and potentially challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Beating Alabama under Nick Saban has always been a monumental task (there’s a reason A&M has only done it once in nine tries), but in recent seasons, Bama has been more than a roadblock. They’ve been a river that sweeps away the road completely. And it’s the exceptional potency of Alabama’s offense that has made the tall talk of beating them seem almost impossible. The Tide have been ranked in the top three in the country in scoring offense in each of the past three seasons, which combined with their still very talented defense, has meant opponents need to play an almost perfect game (or have Bama make some very uncharacteristic mistakes) to have a chance.

But in 2021, maybe there’s a chance that changes.

It’s easy to look at the talent that just departed this offense and make the case that maybe they’ll take a step backward. After all, they just had five offensive players taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft (WR Jaylen Waddle, WR DeVonta Smith, QB Mac Jones, OT Alex Leatherwood and RB Najee Harris). They also had two other offensive linemen taken in later rounds, so there will undoubtedly be some new faces on the field this fall. But keep in mind that Bama had four offensive players taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft...and four taken in the first three rounds of the 2019 draft. Point being, until proven otherwise, we should probably assume that the players who step into new roles in 2021 will be just as crazy talented as the ones who just left. Alabama recruits at unprecedented levels, so the players on the field will be good enough to have an amazing offense for the foreseeable future.

But what about the coaching staff?

As you no doubt have heard, Alabama Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian departed Tuscaloosa this offseason to become the head coach at Texas, and he also took a good chunk of the Tide’s offensive staff with him in TE/Special Teams Coach Jeff Banks, OL Coach Kyle Flood and Analyst A.J. Milwee (now UT’s QB Coach). In addition, Bama RB Coach Charles Huff has taken the head coaching job at Marshall. So suffice to say, the Alabama offense will be in very different hands this season, and the biggest of those hands (metaphorically, I don’t actually know the hand sizes of Bama’s staff) belong to Bill O’Brien.

Penn State Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/MCT

If you’re a football fan, especially one in Texas, you likely know who Bill O’Brien is. He notably took the Penn State head coaching job following the child abuse scandal involving former coach Jerry Sandusky, and after two seasons, became the head coach for the Houston Texans. O’Brien has spent the past 25 years coaching at either a Power 5 school or the NFL, but what can you point to that indicates he can keep this Crimson Tide offense at the very top of college football?

Scoring Offense ranks of Bill-O’Brien-coached teams

Penn State (NCAA)

  • 2012: 62nd (29.1 pts/gm)
  • 2013: 69th (28.7 pts/gam)

Houston Texans (NFL)

  • 2014: 14th (23.3 pts/gm)
  • 2015: 22nd (21.2 pts/gm)
  • 2016: 29th (17.4 pts/gm)
  • 2017: 17th (21.1 pts/gm)
  • 2018: 11th (25.1 pts/gm)
  • 2019: 14th (23.6 pts/gm)
  • 2020: 19th (24.0 pts/gm)

Will Alabama’s offense sink anywhere close to these numbers? Of course not. As I mentioned above, they’re simply too talented to be outright bad. But could this amount of coaching turnover (and a coordinator who has spent the past decade running middling offenses) take that offense from absurdly great to just very good? Absolutely. I might even lean toward it being likely. Because what about O’Brien’s history running an offense makes you think he can maintain the high levels we’ve seen from Alabama the past three seasons?

So suppose that the 2021 Bama offense comes down off the highs of the Sark/Michael Locksley (who is now the HC at Maryland) levels and settles back in to where they were under Brian Daboll (now the OC for the Buffalo Bills) Lane Kiffin (now the HC at Ole Miss) and Doug Nussmeier (now the QB Coach for the Dallas Cowboys). Not an epic collapse by any stretch of the imagination, just a regression to the mean. From 2012-2017, the Alabama offense never ranked worse than 30th nationally in scoring offense, but they also never ranked higher than 12th. They were always good, sometimes very very good. But were by no means an unstoppable force. Essentially it was an offense with elite talent and good (but not great) coaching.

You may think that difference between an offense ranked in the top 15-30 and an offense ranked in the top three is relatively negligible, but it’s actually pretty massive. Those Bama teams from 2012-2017 scored an average of 37.5 points per game. Their offense in 2018-2020 averaged 47.1 points per game. That’s a nearly 10-points-per-game difference. That’s the kind of dip that could make a seemingly invincible Alabama team vulnerable.

Obviously Texas A&M would still need to play their best game of the year in order to beat the Crimson Tide. Probably their best game in several years, in fact. But Jimbo Fisher has been building a roster and a culture with the sole intention of competing with teams like Alabama, and 2021 might just be the first year that his team is prepared to take on that challenge.

If Bryce Young could throw a couple interceptions too that would be great.

Poll

What do you think the Bama offense will do in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Keep on rolling.
    (84 votes)
  • 51%
    A minor dip but still great
    (267 votes)
  • 23%
    Regress to what they were 2012-2017
    (120 votes)
  • 9%
    I’m a Houston Texans fan
    (49 votes)
520 votes total Vote Now