No. 1 Alabama preps for ‘strongest’ foe in Texas A&M

Sports Xchange

October 03, 2017 at 10:47 pm.

Sep 30, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) looks to pass against the Mississippi Rebels during the first quarter  at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Photo Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 30, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) looks to pass against the Mississippi Rebels during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Photo Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M is unranked and still trying to live down its epic collapse in its season-opener at UCLA.

Coughing up a 44-10 lead and losing 45-44 in Pasadena meant the Aggies immediately dropped off the radar, and not many have noticed that they have won four straight, including Southeastern Conference victories over Arkansas and South Carolina in the past two weeks.

But now Texas A&M steps back into the spotlight in a huge way with a home game Saturday against No. 1 Alabama in College Station, Texas. And Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is plenty aware of the challenge. Good luck catching him napping on an opponent.

“Texas A&M is the strongest team that we’ve played to this point, looking at them from a holistic standpoint,” Saban said Monday. “They’re a very explosive offensive team. They run the ball very effectively and they’ve got really good running backs.”

However, whether it was gamesmanship or a frank evaluation of how college football games can unravel, Saban also brought up the Aggies’ meltdown in the Rose Bowl.

“The team’s ahead 41-10 … and ends up getting beat,” Saban said.

“You’ve got to keep playing. The way college football is right now, people are very prolific at scoring a lot of points. You’ve got to keep scoring on offense, you’ve got to keep moving the ball on offense. … Keep making plays for 60 minutes in the game.”

Alabama (5-0, 2-0) has won four straight versus Texas A&M (4-1, 2-0) after the Aggies defeated the Crimson Tide, 29-24, in their first meeting as SEC opponents in 2012 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Alabama-Texas A&M matchup has been a showdown of top-10 teams in three of the past four meetings.

Most Aggie fans would circle the Crimson Tide coming to town as the biggest game of the season. However, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin attempted to downplay that factor during his weekly press conference.

“(The Aggie players are) going to hear from everybody walking around that this is a different week when reality is it’s not,” Sumlin said. “No matter what happens Saturday, we’re playing football the next week.”

Alabama has beaten Vanderbilt and Ole Miss by a combined 125-3 in the past two weeks, and into the teeth of that defense steps Texas A&M true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond, who has had success running as well as throwing. He passed for 159 yards and ran for a team-high 95 in the win over South Carolina. Running backs Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams added 70 and 56 yards, respectively.

The degree of difficulty jumps up this week against the Crimson Tide’s fearsome front seven — even without defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand, who is out because of an MCL injury suffered last week.

“Better be able to block ’em and people have had a really, really difficult time doing that over the last five weeks,” Sumlin said.

An even bigger concern for the Aggies might be their inconsistent defense that’s tasked with slowing down Alabama’s multi-dimensional offense.

The Crimson Tide rolled up 365 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a 66-3 victory over Mississippi last week. Quarterback Jalen Hurts led Alabama with 101 rushing yards, while still passing for 197 and a pair of touchdowns.

“(Hurts) is really dangerous as a quarterback, but when he puts it down and runs is when good things happen for them and bad things happen for the other team,” Sumlin said.

“Our pass rush has got to continue to be as athletic and as disruptive as it’s been, but we’ve got to be aware that we’re playing a quarterback this week that can escape that pass rush and go for yardage. So we’ve got to be more disciplined in what we’re doing.”

Saban said Hurts is improving his ability to consider his options when he starts to scramble. Hurts is better this season at throwing the ball down the field on extended plays. That could be trouble for a Texas A&M defense that will already be stretched thin by multiple responsibilities.

“This certainly is not the time to relax or be satisfied,” Saban said.

So far, Hurt has leaned on wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who has 24 catches for 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His 24 receptions are four times more than anyone else on the Alabama roster.

Hurts leads the team in rushing with 461 yards, but Alabama always has fresh legs in the backfield with Damien Harris (376 yards), Bo Scarbrough (239) and Najee Harris (199), among others.