ARLINGTON, Texas — With a month of football in the books, it’s clear who has established itself as the top challenger to Alabama in the SEC West.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Texas AM.
Before you dismiss the No. 10 Aggies’ 4-0 start as fool’s gold — armed with a pair of 5-0 starts in 2014 and 2015 that fizzled into back-to-back 8-5 seasons as evidence — take a look at how different these Aggies are:
Elite defense. Strong running game. Strong veteran presence. Senior quarterback.
Most of those things were missing the last two times the Aggies shot out of the gate so quickly. In 2014, the Aggies still had a mediocre defense. In 2015, it was better but still not quite to the standard of new defensive coordinator John Chavis. The last two teams were filled with freshmen and sophomores on the depth chart, part of Kevin Sumlin’s recruiting classes that were expected to pay immediate dividends. The freshman/sophomore theme trickled all the way to the quarterback, where the Aggies did not have a full-time starter that was a junior or senior in the Sumlin era until this season.
The calling card for the 2016 Aggies — who defeated No. 17 Arkansas 45-24 on Saturday at ATT Stadium — is a bona fide elite defense. Some might even call it “Wrecking Crew”-esque.
Take the unit’s performance versus Arkansas’ run game on Saturday as proof: The last two seasons these teams met — both AM overtime wins — Arkansas ran up and down the field, with the Aggies’ defensive front not being able to do much about it. In 2014, the Razorbacks ran for 285 yards, averaging 6 yards per carry. In 2015, they ran for 232 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
On Saturday night? The Aggies held the Razorbacks to a mere 120 rushing yards and a pedestrian 3 yards per carry.
The biggest sign of progress for the AM defense was the way it defended the Razorbacks at the goal line. On two separate series, the Razorbacks ran multiple plays inside the Texas AM 10-yard line, only to be shut out of the end zone both times.
On the first such series, in the middle of the second quarter, the Hogs ran six plays inside the 10 (the drive was extended by a pass interference by Texas AM cornerback Nick Harvey in the end zone) but had to settle for a field goal.
The next time, late in the third quarter of a 17-17 ballgame, the Razorbacks had first-and-goal at the 2. Even with All-American defensive end Myles Garrett limping with a heavily taped ankle that was injured earlier on the drive, the Aggies stuffed a Rawleigh Williams III run, two Austin Allen quarterback sneaks and an end around to Keon Hatcher to result in a turnover on downs.
On yet another occasion — the drive after Arkansas had to settle for that second-quarter field goal — Williams busted through the line for what was destined to be an 9-yard touchdown on first-and-goal, but instead, Texas AM safety Armani Watts ripped the ball from Williams at the 1 and recovered it, killing the Hogs’ scoring chance.
There are still flaws on this Texas AM team. Quarterback Trevor Knight has to be more accurate than he has been this season. He was completing 52 percent of his passes going into Saturday night’s game and wasn’t much different in that regard — 12 for 22 passing, for a 54.5 percent completion rate. Meanwhile, what Knight lacked in connecting with his receivers, he made up for with his legs, as the Razorbacks twice left the middle of the field open for Knight to sprint through for a pair of 40-plus-yard touchdown runs. Knight finished with an eye-popping 157 rushing yards on 10 carries, but obviously Alabama or LSU isn’t going to allow Knight to run quite so wild.
Redshirt freshman center Erik McCoy had some high snaps, one of which might have contributed to a fumble on an exchange between Knight and Trayveon Williams inside the Arkansas 5-yard line. The cornerback play also could still stand to improve. And Texas AM turned the ball over twice. These Aggies are far from perfect.
Oh, and Garrett’s injury is worth keeping an eye on. He is by far the Aggies’ best player, and they will have to hope that the ankle issue doesn’t linger in the coming weeks; he was limping around significantly in the second half.
But they have a running game (366 rushing yards on Saturday; an impressive 9.9 yards per tote), they can stop the run and they can pressure the passer on defense. When it comes to challenging for SEC West supremacy, that’s a pretty good start.