82ºF

5 things to watch when No. 24 Texas A&M takes on No. 1 Alabama

photo
(2019 Getty Images)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – No. 1 Alabama travels to Kyle Field this weekend to face No. 24 Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon.

The Aggies are just the fifth school to ever face two No. 1 teams twice in one season, and they're looking for their first win against the Crimson Tide since beating them in Tuscaloosa in 2012.

Here are five things to watch in this weekend's SEC matchup:

1. Can Texas A&M's wide receivers keep up with Alabama's pass catchers?

It is well-known that Alabama has some tremendous wide receivers this season. It has three top-10 SEC receivers, while the Aggies have just one. The Tide's top three receivers have totaled 1,386 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, while the Aggies' have totaled 934 yards and just six touchdowns.

The players charged with covering the Crimson Tide's pass catchers are not afraid of the challenge.

"I promise you, we're confident in our ability as a secondary group," junior safety Keldrick Carper said. "We've played against good receivers. … Going in Saturday, I feel like we're prepared to go against anybody in the country."

Alabama's top receiver is junior DeVonta Smith, who has totaled 537 yards and eight touchdowns this season. For Texas A&M, it is junior Jhmaon Ausbon, who has 446 yards and two touchdowns. Ausbon said he and his teammates will be motivated by their counterparts on the opposite sideline.

"Obviously, we're trying to make the biggest plays," Ausbon said. "But seeing those guys make plays when they're playing on the other team, it's a pride thing also. You want to leave the field knowing you played a better game than them."

In recent weeks, Ainias Smith has brought some freshness to the Aggies' receiving group, as the freshman has caught a touchdown in each of the last three games.

"He's been a huge part of this offense," Ausbon said. "I grew up with him, so I knew what he was about when he came here. I can say I expected all of this to come.

"He's always been super confident. He's never seen himself as a freshman. … How you walk around is who you are. It all just turned out well, and he's going to have a great career and season."

The Aggies' wide receivers will need to step up if the maroon and white want to have a chance to win this weekend's game.

2. Can the Aggies limit their turnovers, unlike Alabama games of the past?

The Aggies have had some turnover issues when playing the Crimson Tide. In their six SEC losses to Alabama, Texas A&M has had 14 turnovers, five of which have been returned for touchdowns.

"You can't have self-inflicted wounds, negative plays, penalties, turnovers and those kind of things," Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We've got to find a way to create big plays. … You can eliminate turnovers, but if you can [also] eliminate negative plays and self-inflicted wounds on offense, it gives you a much better chance to move the football."

This year's stats do not bode well for the Aggies. Alabama is tied for third in the nation in turnover margin, at plus eight, while Texas A&M is tied for 90th, at minus two. Along with that, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has thrown zero interceptions this season, while Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond has thrown four.

The Aggies' defense will need to force multiple turnovers to give themselves a chance to win Saturday.

3. Who will win the SEC quarterback duel?

Saturday afternoon's game will feature two top-three SEC quarterbacks in Tagovailoa and Mond, who rank second and third in terms of passing yards. Granted, Tagovailoa is the more talented quarterback, who is firmly entrenched in the Heisman Trophy race. This season, Tagovailoa has 1,718 yards, 23 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Mond, on the other hand, has totaled 1,333 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.

"He's as good as there is in college football, and he's an outstanding player," Fisher said of Tagovailoa.

However, where Tagovailoa has an advantage with his arm, Mond has an advantage with his legs. Over their respective careers, Tagovailoa has rushed for 368 yards and nine touchdowns, while Mond has totaled 924 yards and 12 touchdowns. In two games against Alabama, Mond has rushed for 112 yards and two scores. Mond said it will be important for him to be involved in the running game this week.

"Not necessarily every single play or a bunch of designed runs," Mond said. "But keeping that defense on their toes and have them respect my ability to run, whether it's quarterback draws or other plays on third down."

Nobody is expecting Texas A&M to win this game, but if the game is close in the fourth quarter, I suspect it will be thanks to Mond's legs.

4. How intimidating will Kyle Field be for the Crimson Tide?

Some Texas A&M feathers were ruffled this week, as well-known ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit questioned how much of a home-field advantage Kyle Field really is. He also questioned when the Aggies last won a big game at home.

"I'm not doubting that it's not a great environment, but I'm saying, is it an intimidating environment?" Herbstreit said.


Mond

"I think it's a big home-field advantage for us," he said. "It's one of the best in the country, if not the best. I don't really listen to a lot of the outside stuff, but I definitely think the 12th Man helps."

The Aggies are looking for their first win over Alabama since beating the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa with Johnny Manziel in 2012.

These comments from Herbstreit might be just what Texas A&M needed. I expect the 12th Man to be louder than ever Saturday afternoon as they try to help the maroon and white to an upset.

5. Can Texas A&M's running backs turn their lackluster production around?

In their first two SEC games, the Aggies have struggled to get anything going on the ground. As a group, the running backs have totaled just 68 yards and one touchdown. Texas A&M ranks 13th in rushing offense in the SEC this season.

Even with starting running back Jashaun Corbin lost for the season with a hamstring injury, the Aggies should have better production from both freshman Isaiah Spiller and sophomore Jacob Kibodi.

"Obviously, they haven't been perfect, but [they are] seeing how they can execute better in the run game," Mond said. "Their will to grow has been a big thing for them."

Alabama has a stout defense, but it does rank 51st in the country in rushing defense, allowing 184 yards per game on the ground. Texas A&M will need to try and attack the Tide with a balanced offense, so any production on the ground will be key.