In his first year at the helm, Texas A&M Head Coach Kevin Sumlin has turned things around in College Station. The Aggies are two weeks removed from handing Alabama their only loss of the season, 29-24 in Tuscaloosa.
Earlier this week, Coach Sumlin reflected on his team's first year in the SEC.
"It's a great league," said Coach Sumlin. "The week to week competition, the physicality of the league, the style of play and coaching is really, really exceptional."
Under Coach Sumlin, the Aggies have made an impressive transition to the SEC.
"We're happy to be in the SEC," said Coach Sumlin. "And I think we've proven that we belong here."
Coach Sumlin inherited a very talented Texas A&M squad, including a terrific offensive line anchored by a pair of NFL-caliber tackles, an outstanding red-shirt freshman QB who is one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy, and an all-conference caliber defensive end who leads the conference in sacks.
The Aggies lead the SEC in total offense (543.7 yards/game), rushing offense (234.9 yards/game), scoring offense (43.5 points/game), and third down conversions (54%).
Offensive Coordinator/QB Coach Kliff Kingsbury's prize pupil is Johnny Manziel 6'1" 200, who is having a season for the ages. In his first year as a starter, the red-shirt freshman has twice been named the Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week, and he has been named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week three times this season. He is the first player in Texas A&M or SEC history to pass for 3000 yards and rush for 1000 yards in a season. He is on pace to break Cam Newton's SEC total offense record of 4327 yards.
For the record, Manziel comes into the Missouri game with 1114 rushing yards (6.5 yards/carry) and 17 TDs on the ground. Through 11 games, Manziel is 241-356-7 (68%) for 3047 yards and 21 TDs passing, with a passer efficiency rating of 155.13.
Earlier this week, Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel talked about Manziel.
"He's really good," said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Manziel. "He's a very, very talented young kid. And he's a great competitor. He runs well. He has no fear. But he also has great accuracy."
Coach Pinkel called Manziel a "battlefield commander", and said that Manziel reminds him a lot of Chase Daniel, although he allowed that Manziel runs better than Daniel.
Manziel runs counter to the mold of a QB, especially a young QB, who runs that well. He runs as well as just about any QB ever, as evidenced by his having recently surpassed Brad Smith's freshman rushing record. Yet, he's an exceptionally accurate passer.
But, Manziel is not alone. First of all, there's those tackles, and that offensive line. A pair of juniors, left tackle Luke Joeckel 6'6" 310 and right tackle Jake Mathews 6'5" 305, lead the way for one of the best offensive lines in the country.
Missouri Defensive Line Coach Craig Kuligowski talked about the Texas A&M offense.
"They've got great offensive linemen," began Coach Kuligowski, speaking of Texas A&M. "And, they've got a quarterback that's hard to sack………………………………………… They're very good on the offensive line. They have two very good tackles. Their tackles are certainly one of the strong points on their team."
Texas A&M runs a multiple spread offense, somewhat similar to the one that Kingsbury ran under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Most of the time, they'll line up with four WRs on the field. They'll also utilize a TE in place of one of those WRs, and they'll go 5 wide, or 3 wide with 2 TBs. They also have a short-yardage package that includes 6 or 7 offensive linemen. Several of the Missouri coaches pointed out that Texas A&M has answered the question of whether a spread offense will work in the SEC.
Missouri is more familiar with Texas A&M's personnel than any team the Tigers have played this season, in part because the Tigers have played, and beaten, Texas A&M, in each of the last two seasons. But also because the Missouri staff recruited so many of the Aggies. However, schematically these are not the same Aggies. Offensively, they're more like Texas Tech was a few years ago, although the Red Raiders' QBs didn't have the ability to run the football like Manziel.
Besides Manziel, who leads Texas A&M in rushing, the Aggies utilize a trio of tailbacks in Ben Malena 5'8" 195, Christine Michael 5'11" 220, and Trey Williams 5'8" 185. Malena has 706 yards rushing on the season, and averages 6.0 yards/carry. Michael is the Aggies' big back, and he has scored 10 TDs on the ground.
Texas A&M has six WRs with at least 16 receptions on the season. Red-shirt freshman Mike Evans 6'5" 218 and senior Ryan Swope 6'0" 206 lead the way with 67 and 57 receptions respectively on the season.
The Aggies have gotten off to fast starts against their opponents this year, having scored first in every game this season. They've scored on their first possession in 9 of their 11 games this year.
"When your quarterback is playing at a high, high level in that offense, in that spread offense, he makes everything work," explained Missouri Offensive Coordinator David Yost, speaking of Manziel, and the impact that he has on their team.
Coach Pinkel said that Manziel "makes bad plays into good plays".
After ranking among the worst net punting teams in the country a year ago, the Aggies currently rank fourth nationally with a 41.2 average.
On the defensive side of the football, junior DE Damontre Moore 6'4" 250 leads the Aggies in tackles (78), and his 20 TFLs and 12.5 sacks are tops in the SEC.
"Damontre improved as a complete football player," said Coach Sumlin. "He went from a guy who was really just a pass rusher. He would rev it up on third down, and was about sacks. I think his play this year is reflective of how much he has improved this year."
"Damontre Moore is just a great player," said Coach Pinkel. "He's just a really active player. He'll be a high-level NFL player, also. He leads that defense."
The Aggies play a base 4-3-4, but they'll probably play a lot of nickel against the Tigers, and that will likely include a variety of blitzes, especially from the LBs.
Texas A&M has a trio of experienced, productive LBs, including senior Sean Porter 6'2' 230 who has 55 tackles on the season, including 5.5 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks. Senior LB Jonathan Stewart 6'4" 244 has 68 tackles on the season, and junior Steven Jenkins 6'2" 220 has 62 tackles on the season.
The Aggies have made up for inexperience in the secondary with a glut of talented athletes. Senior corner Dustin Harris 6'0" 175 leads the Aggies with 9 PBUs, and sophomore corner Deshazor Everett 6'0" 181 has 6 PBUs and a pair of interceptions.
In talking about the Aggies' Senior Day, Coach Sumlin was quick to point out that the Texas A&M seniors "haven't beaten Missouri in their career."
"We're playing a Missouri team whom this group of seniors have never beaten," emphasized Coach Sumlin.