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Alabama Football vs Texas A&M: When the Aggies have the ball

Can Ainias Smith just graduate already?

Arkansas v Texas A&M

After years of general grumbling from Texas A&M fans about Jimbo Fisher holding on to offensive playcalling duties while being the head coach, it seems that Fisher finally relented and hired Bobby Petrino to run the offense. And, through the first 5 games this year, that move seems to have paid off. At 38.6 points per game, the Aggies are 16th in the country in scoring, and massively improved over last year’s debacle (22.8 points per game... 101st in the nation).

The scheme really still looks pretty similar to what we’ve seen from Jimbo Fisher the past few years: A whole lot of quick slants, curls, and crossers in the 5-7 yard range meant to let receivers get the bulk of their yards after the catch, plenty of RB swings, about a 50/50 split on runs vs passes, and a high percentage of passes coming off of play action.

The main difference this year seems to be the fluidity at which they’re operating it. In years past, it seemed like most of those curls just turned in 4 yard completions and things died from there. Now, the other WR routes and play-action blends help open the field up, and the receivers are getting the ball with a lot more space.

With all of that said, though, there’s one big issue for the Aggies right now: QB Conner Weigman, who’s completing nearly 70% of his passes at 8.2 yards per attempt, is injured. In his place is the familiar lefty, Max Johnson. The former LSU QB is one that’s been around the SEC for a while now, and we all know his game at this point. He’s a QB with a decent enough arm and a whole lot of competitive fire. He’s a good scrambler that will absolutely burn a defense not watching out for it with his 6’5” stride. However, he can also be a slow to pull the trigger and often takes bad sacks thinking he can avoid a late rusher.

He’s done decently well in the last game and half taking over from Weigman, but he’s only completing 62.7% of his passes with a much weaker 7.4 yards per attempt. The last time Johnson played against Alabama, he completed 50% of his passes, averaged 5 yards per attempt, threw a pick and got sacked a few times. He’s on a different team now and two years removed, but he’s still going to be the biggest question mark for the Aggies.

His receiving weapons feature two extremely gifted wideouts. Ainias Smith has been featured in my annual preview for what feels like a decade now. The former running back turned wide receiver had 230 yards and 4 touchdowns against Alabama in 2020 and 2021 before missing the game last year. The speedy slot guy has made a living getting yards after the catch on quick routes, then getting 1 on 1 with a safety out of the slot and beating them deep.

On the other side, former 5-star and top-ten recruit Evan Stewart is one of the best receivers in the SEC already as a sophomore. He’s a little on the smaller side, but he’s one of the most explosive athletes in the country and possesses incredible ball skills. He had a 106 yard performance against Alabama last year and made a few really impressive catches in tight coverage. Stewart leads the team with 24 catches for 357 yards and 4 TDs so far this season.

The receiving group is rounded out by the 6’5” Noah Thomas, who has 4 TDs on 11 catches, Moose Muhammed, who’s taken a step back after being the team’s second leading receiver last year, and TE Jake Johnson, who is the brother of QB Max Johnson.

In the running game, the Aggies have a very strong duo of backs. Amari Daniels has been a rotational contributor the last couple of years and is one of the fastest players on the team. He’s averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He splits his time pretty much 50/50 with Le’Veon Moss, a former Alabama commit that wound up flipping to Texas A&M in the recruiting cycle. Moss may not have the speed of Daniels, but he’s about as pro-ready of a back as you’ll see. He’s a powerful runner with quick feet and an elusiveness and patience that make him extremely tough to tackle. He’s the engine that often keeps the offense moving, and is averaging 6 yards per carry.

Alabama’s defense will have their work cut out for them in this one. In a lot of ways, though, I think this is a good matchup for Alabama’s scheme. This offense is designed to beat a lot of the off-coverage secondary looks that are so popular right now, but Kevin Steele’s defense is much more tight in the short-to-intermediate areas. While Ainias Smith has a history of beating Alabama safeties, Caleb Downs seems to have a bit more speed than Battle/Hellams did, and Terrion Arnold is generally the fastest athlete on the field on the right sideline.

Alabama’s pass rush is likely a fairly even match with the Aggie OL, but Max Johnson’s tendency to hold the ball will give them a few sacks.

The running game is the bigger issue for Alabama, I think. The Tide has struggled a little with QB keepers, and the defensive line, while improved, has still given up a few more run fits than we’d like. And Le’Veon Moss is a natural at patiently finding vacated rushing lanes, while Max Johnson can definitely hurt a defense with his legs.

The Aggies won’t have a bunch of explosive scoring and I think their pass game will, overall, be a bit lackluster. But their rushing game and the occasional great play from the wide receivers will have them extend a lot of drives and hold more time of posession than Alabama is comfortable with. I think 27 points is a solid guess here.