Welcome to the second annual SEC West Fire Bowl. The losing coach’s seat will burst into flames.
There’s a lot on the line for Bret Bielema and Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin’s seat is certainly hotter, but this game feels like one with two desperate teams. Arkansas hasn’t beaten the Aggies since that 42-38 come-from-behind thriller back in 2011.
The Hogs deemed the situation serious enough to break out alternate uniforms. Bielema, ever superstitious, seems to do that right when he needs a spark: 2014 LSU and 2016 Florida — both blowout wins — come to mind. Maybe the Hogs can summon the defense played in both of those games on Saturday.
Texas A&M (2-1) has rebounded (somewhat) after blowing a 44-10 lead against UCLA in Week 1. The Aggies surrendered nearly 500 passing yards to Josh Rosen and saw their offense shut down after the midway point of the third quarter. They lost starting quarterback Nick Starkel, who looked semi-decent, for the season. In his place, true freshman Kellen Mond had a Brandon-Allen-vs.-ULM-in-2012 kind of game, completing 3 of 17 passes down the stretch as the A&M offense collapsed. And UCLA isn’t exactly a juggernaut on defense: Memphis rolled up 560 yards of offense on the Bruins last week.
With Starkel out, Mond and senior Jake Hubenak split time in an ugly 24-14 win over Nicholls State. But Hubenak, who looked better than Mond in that game, is dealing with an undisclosed injury that forced him to miss the Louisiana-Lafayette game in Week 3. His status for Saturday isn’t known. Mond had an uneven first half against the Ragin’ Cajuns, who boast the nation’s worst defense (allowed 48 points to Southeast Louisiana and 66 to Tulsa) and the Aggies actually trailed 21-14 at the break before scoring 31 unanswered to win 45-21.
Let’s take a closer look at Texas A&M.
- Dynamic running game. The Aggies are top-50 in Rushing Success Rate (efficiency) and Rushing isoPPP+ (explosiveness). They lean heavily on their run game, especially on early downs.
- Good run defense. The caveat is that they haven’t played a major running team yet (UCLA runs it just 38% of the time on standard downs, 128th in the country) but the advanced stats say the Aggies are at least decent at stopping the run.
- Very poor passing game. Even unweighted stats against an atrocious Power 5 defense (UCLA), the worst defense in all the FBS (UL-Lafayette) and an FCS school (Nicholls) can’t save these numbers. The Aggies are 76th in Passing Success Rate and 104th and Passing isoPPP+.
- Both lines struggle with pass-rush. The Aggies have a hard time protecting their quarterback on passing downs (112th) and have issues getting after the quarterback on early downs (99th).
When Texas A&M has the ball
The Aggies will start by trying to establish the run. They run on 65% of standard downs, 36th-most in the country. Their base personnel is “11” (3 WR, 1 TE/H, and 1 RB), but they will use 4WR looks as well. They like to pull guards to create power looks in the run game. Their ultimate objective is to hit big plays in the run game, and Trayveon Williams (7.8 yards per rush) is just the back to do that. His opportunity rate (percentage of runs to gain 6+ yards) is just 33% — below average — meaning that most of his runs are either home runs or go nowhere. Williams missed the ULL game with an injury but will play against the Hogs. It’s unknown how healthy he is. Kendall Bussey (204 yards, 6.4 yards per rush) and Keith Ford (130 yards, 4.2 yards per rush) are less explosive but more balanced.
This panel shows Texas A&M’s biggest advantage. TCU gouged Arkansas with short-but-efficient runs (71% rushing success rate) and the Aggies will likely copy that strategy.
What kept the Hogs in it against TCU was the ability to limit big plays: Arkansas is the only team in the FBS that hasn’t allowed a 30-yard gain this season. Limiting big plays will force the Aggies to drive the length of the field, which inevitably means completing a few passes....
...which is definitely not their strength. Added onto Kellen Mond’s passing issues is the fact that he takes a lot of sacks on passing downs. And like Arkansas, Texas A&M is terrible when they try to pass on early downs and not much better when try to throw in must-pass situations. TCU, with a much better passing game, opted not to throw downfield after their lone long pass was intercepted by Santos Ramirez. Arkansas seems poised to clamp down here. If not, A&M may waltz to an easy win.
When Arkansas has the ball
As in previous years, the Aggies do most of their damage with their defensive backs, led by the talented safety Armani Watts. Defensive coordinator John Chavis asks the secondary to play close to the line of scrimmage and help against the run, which could open them up to the pass, particularly the play-action pass. Aggie linebackers are not very active and the defensive line, while still talented, hasn’t adequately replaced the departed Myles Garrett.
This panel is the definition of a push. The Aggies boast a slight efficiency advantage on standard downs, but the Hogs may can generate more big plays — both via opportunity rate and by protecting Austin Allen when he tries to throw off play-action.
I think Arkansas needs to double-down on trying to generate rushing efficiency, not necessary explosiveness. If that means making David Williams the primary back over Devwah Whaley or Chase Hayden, then do it. With the way A&M’s defense is set up, Arkansas needs to be able to lure the Aggie secondary close to the line before the play-action pass is ready to generate the big play. A run game that features an occasional big run but mostly nothing, like last year’s run game, doesn’t complement the Enos/Allen passing attack very well.
Here’s the bad part (for both teams). Look at all the white space to the right side of the graph. The Aggies’ numbers are still reeling from getting torched by UCLA and Arkansas is still reeling from not doing much against TCU. Unlike in the TCU game, the Hogs may have a little bit of magic in must-pass situations (as I wrote in the Bye Week Advanced Stats article, passing downs are when Austin Allen is usually at his best). Protecting Allen will be the big issue here.
Keys to the game
- Third-and-Austin. The Aggie defense collapsed when faced with a must-pass situation in Week 1. Does Austin Allen have a little bit of Josh Rosen in him? He doesn’t need 500 passing yards, but a few third-and-long conversions will keep the chains moving. This key will require some clutch play from the line and from the inexperienced receivers.
- Keep Mond uncomfortable. This is basically Key 1B. If the Hogs can turn this game into a battle of third-and-longs, the Hogs will win because their offense is better-equipped to win in a must-pass game. The defense couldn’t force TCU into enough third-and-longs (5 of the Frogs’ 10 conversions were on 3rd-and-1) and that will need to change. Keeping the Aggies from getting into a rhythm with early-down passes is important, and getting after the quarterback on passing downs is also important.
- Smashmouth. I’ve written about this at length, Arkansas’ offense broke last year because it switched from being an efficient run game to being an explosive run game. The lead-draw runs with Alex Collins are designed to constantly crack out 4- and 5-yard runs, which sets up the play-action pass. But last year’s low-efficiency, high-explosiveness run game didn’t help set up the play-action pass, which left Austin Allen having to survive on third down passes from shotgun. The Hogs appear to have made a concentrated effort to improve run game efficiency, but all that work will be put on the line Saturday. Can they consistently run it against the Aggie front?