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Texas A&M is getting better, but ‘better’ isn’t good enough to beat Alabama

We've heard a lot about how Nick Saban struggles against the spread, and Texas A&M indeed utilizes that very offense. But you have to be efficient against the Tide, or they'll eat you for lunch.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

We do it even though we know better.

When you don't lose much, we tend to milk whatever meaning we can from when you do. Since the start of the 2008 season, Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide have lost just 12 games, a remarkable accomplishment in what is supposed to be an era of parity.

Because it's so jarring, we are quick to first announce that it is the beginning of the end of Saban's dynasty. Second, we draw whatever loose correlations we can find.

Of Alabama's 12 losses in the last seven-plus years, nine have come against teams with offenses we might define as spread-like. Really, only the losses to LSU in 2010 and 2011 came against someone outside of the spread umbrella. So if you throw in shootout wins over teams like 2013 Texas A&M and 2014 Auburn, you've got your narrative: Saban can't solve the spread!

This week's opponent, Texas A&M, runs the spread! And the Aggies are undefeated! Alabama's in trouble then!

Maybe. If A&M's defense, now led by coordinator John Chavis, is able to corral Alabama like a lot of Chavis' LSU defenses did, then the Aggies will have a chance. And this isn't one of Saban's very best Bama offenses.

But if "Saban can't stop the spread!" is one meme to consider in this one, allow me to present another one: Saban destroys inefficient offenses. Eats them for breakfast with one of those Little Debbie sandwich cookies.

Let's break out a stat from my toy box (one that will be offered soon within my Football Study Hall stat profiles): Success Rate+. It is an opponent-adjusted version of the success rate measure defined here. Every play is deemed a success or failure based on down-and-distance criteria: gaining 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down. Success rate is basically an on-base percentage for college football, and it allows us to track which teams are staying on schedule and ahead of the chains, so to speak.

Here's a look at the teams that have beaten Alabama since 2008 and their respective rankings in Success Rate+.

Year Opponent Success Rt.+ rank Score
2008 Florida 1 31-20
2010 Auburn 1 28-27
2014 Ohio State 1 42-35
2015 Ole Miss 3 43-37
2011 LSU 4 9-6
2012 Texas A&M 4 29-24
2013 Auburn 9 34-28
2010 South Carolina 12 35-21
2008 Utah 13 31-17
2014 Ole Miss 19 23-17
2010 LSU 28 24-21
2013 Oklahoma 43 45-31

Of Bama's 12 losses, six came to teams ranked in the SR+ top five and 10 came to teams in the top 20. (This table further emphasizes just how incredibly out-of-character Bama's loss to Oklahoma was, and for both teams.) If you're able to effectively move the ball four to six yards at a time and avoid passing downs, only then can you utilize the tempo and spread principles we've seen Alabama struggle with from time to time. Plenty of spread offenses have failed miserably against the Tide in this regard.

So, in more than seven seasons and 101 games, Alabama has lost just three times to a team ranked worse than 13th in this category. And in this category, Texas A&M currently ranks 49th. Uh oh.

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That's the bad news. The good news is that A&M is improving in this regard. With quarterback Kyle Allen taking more of the full-time reins of the offense from freshman Kyler Murray -- a potential Johnny Manziel scrambler-gambler in the future who was drastically inefficient in the season's early-going -- the Aggies have settled a bit.

The national average success rate is around 41 percent, but A&M was at 48 percent in its win over Mississippi State two weeks ago and 48 percent against Arkansas the week before that. Allen has been able to show some mobility here and there, rushing about six times per game at an efficient clip. And after his completion rate fell below 60 percent against both Arizona State and Nevada, he completed 46 of 69 passes (67 percent) against Arkansas and MSU. His full-season passer rating is a strong 169.0, ninth in FBS.

So yeah, things are looking up for the young Aggies. Combine that with a defense that is no longer a major liability -- the run defense is still problematic, but "problematic" is better than "woeful" -- there's a blueprint in place for winning this game.

But if Mississippi State is an efficiency midterm, Alabama is the bar exam. The Tide are, predictably, first in defensive Success Rate+, first in Passing S&P+, third in Rushing S&P+, second in Standard Downs S&P+ ... you get the point. If A&M can score some points and force Alabama into passing situations, the Aggies could remain undefeated. But while the latter is a possibility, the former is going to be one hell of a challenge.