College football: Texas A&M, Alabama is one of week's top matchups
COLLEGE STATION -- For college football fans, all 5-0 starts trigger a feeling of invincibility. But not all 5-0 starts are alike.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who has become an expert on fast starts in recent seasons, stressed the difference Tuesday in explaining why the ninth-ranked Aggies (5-0, 2-0 SEC) are better prepared to build on this year's five-game sprint from the starting blocks after the team faded at an identical point last season.
Sumlin did so with full knowledge that A&M faces No. 10 Alabama (5-1, 2-1) in a Saturday showdown that qualifies as a must-win proposition for the Crimson Tide.
Without a road victory at Kyle Field, the Tide can wave goodbye to any realistic hopes of repeating as the SEC champion and returning to the College Football Playoff.
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The desperation factor makes big, bad 'Bama -- the FBS' winningest football program since 2008 -- a dangerous foe for an A&M team that responded to last year's 5-0 start with a three-game losing streak that included a 59-0 loss to the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
But these Aggies, unlike last year's group, are rested, ready and primed to build on their fast start because of last week's open date and a more physical mindset.
In Sumlin's estimation, that represents a night-and-day difference from last season, when a finesse-oriented A&M team was physically spent after five games but still had to play three more contests against SEC foes before reaching its bye week. Those Aggies lost all three matchups by a combined score of 142-51.
Sumlin said the SEC schedule-maker did his troops a favor by providing them an open date last week while Alabama outlasted Arkansas 27-14 in a physical slugfest.
"The bye week came at the right time for us," Sumlin said. "Last year, going eight straight weeks was something we didn't handle very well ... We weren't a physical football team last year."
Sumlin sought to change that with a variety of off-season tweaks to schemes, personnel and practice schedules. He liked the results he spotted in SEC victories over Arkansas (28-21) and Mississippi State (30-17), as well as his team's energy level during the bye week.
"Right now, as a coaching staff and as a team, I feel good about the look in our guys' eyes. I feel good about our health right now," Sumlin said. "And I feel really good about where we are with our team speed and being able to carry that into games.
"Are we more physical? Yes. Are we better? Yes. How much? We'll find out Saturday."
Rest assured, a focused Alabama team looms as the ultimate test for the value of Sumlin's off-season tweaks. Since dropping a 43-37 decision to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, the Tide has knocked off its last three opponents by a combined count of 99-24. Included is a 38-10 rout of then-No. 8 Georgia in Athens.
Taking down the Tide will require a solid performance by the Aggies' ground game against a unit that ranks sixth nationally in total defense (264.5 yards per game) and fourth against the run (77.3). Jake Spavital, A&M's offensive coordinator, said coaches spent the bye week exploring "unique ways to run it" against Alabama's stellar front seven.
One possible wrinkle: Freshman receiver Christian Kirk ran some Wildcat packages against Mississippi State, with quarterback Kyle Allen lined up at receiver. In prior games, backup quarterback Kyler Murray came off the bench to run that package. But keeping Allen on the field prevented the defense from making substitutions to match personnel.
Expect more of that against Alabama, plus a few fresh twists that Spavital credited to the imagination of Dave Christensen, the offensive line coach/run game coordinator. Offensive guard Joseph Cheek said having an extra week to practice the new plays will be useful Saturday.
142-51 Margin by which A&M lost three consecutive games after a 5-0 start in 2014.
"We're going to try to run the football in this game, and we're going to," Cheek said. "We have a great game plan ... that we've been working on since last week. We've had an extra week to work on it, so there's no reason we shouldn't execute."
Texas A&M OL Joseph Cheek says the Aggies are rested and ready after a bye week to "make people shake their heads" if they were not already believers in this team as SEC title contenders. Video by Jimmy Burch.
Spavital said having extra time to tinker with plays and heal bruised bodies also has provided a fresh mental approach.
"The thing I like is there's not much finger-pointing going on -- like there was last year at this time," Spavital said.
Roll all the elements together and the Aggies consider themselves far more lethal at 5-0 this season than they were at 5-0 last season. Will that be enough to roll the Tide? Defensive end Myles Garrett, an Arlington Martin graduate, said the defense is ready to do its part.
"Definitely," Garrett said. "It's going to be prime time for us. Everybody's going to be watching. We've said we're improved on defense and we can stop the run. This is our chance to prove it, so we've got to go out there and do it."
DE Myles Garrett, an Arlington Martin graduate, says Saturday is Texas A&M's chance to prove its defensive progress against Alabama. Video by Jimmy Burch
A year ago, an unbeaten team from Texas A&M faltered in this spot. This time around, Sumlin sounds like a guy who likes his chances in the sequel.
This article was written by Jimmy Burch from Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.