Kentucky will take their unblemished record on the road for the second time this season on Saturday to take on Texas A&M down in Aggieland. This will be the first meeting between the programs since A&M joined the league in 2012 and there figures to be many members of the Big Blue Nation in attendance at Kyle Field.
Nuts & Bolts
The Aggies just made Jimbo Fisher a very rich man this offseason with a $75 million guaranteed contract over 10 years. The former offensive coordinator under Nick Saban went 83-23 in eight seasons at Florida State, but during in 2017 it was clear that a change was needed for both parties . After three ACC titles and a national championship, Fisher made his long awaited return to the SEC.
He inherits a program that is starving for national prominence. The Aggies have largely underachieved throughout their program’s history. A&M has only won one conference championship since 1994 and vastly underachieved in the Big XII. To get out of the large bunt orange shadow of their fierce rival Texas, the Aggies jumped at the opportunity to be apart of the SEC expansion.
In their first season under a new head coach with a brand new high flying offense, the Aggies unleashed Johnny Football on the college football world and ripped off an 11-win season. The A&M brand was riding high but it has been mostly rocky times since then. Beginning in 2013, the Aggies are just 24-26 in SEC play and they’ve quickly settled into the middle tier of the conference. But with their big name coach and big money boosters, the expectations and stakes have been raised in College Station. Need proof? Just look at the renovations that have been made to Kyle Field.
This will be only the third meeting between the two programs. Under Bear Bryant, UK went to College Station in 1952 to pick up a 10-7 road win. The following year, the Aggies would return the favor with a 7-6 triumph in Lexington.
Out in the desert, Texas A&M is currently a 5.5 point favorite with a total of 50.5. That’s a projected final score of 28-22.5. In their last nine road games against Power Five competition, Kentucky is 6-2-1 against the spread with five straight up wins. Since 2013, A&M is 2-7-2 against the spread as an SEC home favorite. In his last eight games as a favorite against Power Five competition, Jimbo Fisher is 1-5-2 against the spread with three upset losses. The Aggies are just 4-10 in SEC home games since 2014.
After five games, Texas A&M enters October averaging 36 points per game and 6.7 yards per play. Both are in the top five of the SEC. In a somewhat surprise move, Jimbo Fisher went with true sophomore Kellen Mond to run his offense behind center and that seemed to payoff with his spectacular second half performance against Clemson.
In that losing effort, the sophomore tossed for 430 yards and three touchdowns on a 10.8 yards per attempt average. It seemed like the San Antonio native was going to become one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC but that hasn’t been the case in the last three games.
Since facing a Clemson defense that currently ranks 60th in pass efficiency, Mond has taken a significant dip. In the last 12 quarters of action, the young quarterback is only completing 59% of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions. He is coming off his worst performance of the season in the narrow win over Arkansas. Mond threw two interceptions and was sacked three times in Jimbo Fisher’s first SEC victory.
He is a true dual-threat who can beat you with his legs but Jimbo Fisher does not love to use designed quarterback runs (only 7.6 carries per game). He saves that for his running backs and he inherited a very good one.
Trayveon Williams is currently Benny Snell’s biggest competition to the SEC rushing title. The junior from Houston is only 36 yards behind Snell and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He picked up 240 of his 582 yards (41.2%) in the season opening win over FCS Northwestern State but his game is no fluke. In his career, Williams has five career 100-yard games against SEC competition.
The Aggies entered this season with some major questions at receiver and were going to be heavily leaning on sophomore Jhamon Ausbon. The former top 100 recruit emerged as Mond’s favorite target and has 15 grabs for 221 yards on the season. However, he left the Arkansas win with a broken foot and will be out indefinitely. With his loss, this passing game will be focusing on a trio of sophomores. Camron Buckley, Quartney Davis, and Kendrick Rogers each have at least 12 receptions and over 150 receiving yards. All three of these players have a higher catch rate than Ausbon and the passing game could become more efficient without the Aggies force feeding it to the former blue-chipper. However, the most dangerous player in this receiving corps is at tight end.
After never truly utilizing the position under Kevin Sumlin, Jimbo Fisher went out and scooped a junior college prospect. Jace Sternberger, a former Kansas Jayhawk, has 17 receptions for 256 yards and four touchdowns on the year. He has been one of the most productive tight ends in college football and will provide an element the UK defense has not seen yet.
Up front, the Aggies are doing a very good creating running lanes for both Kellen Mond and Trayveon Williams. As a team, A&M is averaging 232.2 rushing yards per game, 5.5 yards per carry with 12 rushing touchdowns. Pass protection has been a different animal. The Aggies are allowing sacks 10.8% of their pass plays. This ranks 121st in the FBS and is a huge concern when facing Josh Allen. Erik McCoy is one of the best centers in the SEC.
When A&M brought Jimbo Fisher to the Lonestar State, the first order of business was to find a top notch defensive coordinator. Under Mark Stoops and Jeremy Pruitt, Florida State fielded some of the best defenses in college football but that went out the window in Fisher’s final four seasons in Tallahassee. After striking out on LSU’s Dave Aranda, Fisher pulled off a coup by plucking Mike Elko out of Notre Dame.
Elko led salty defenses at Wake Forest before landing at Notre Dame in 2017. The Irish made huge improvements in his only season that would be capped off with a big Citrus Bowl win over LSU. The Irish were in the playoff hunt thanks in part to their defense. Elko’s first group at A&M is playing with some swagger.
The Aggies employ a four down front and they have an impressive group of defensive ends in seniors Landis Durham and Kingsley Keke. Durham is the group’s best pass rusher and is off to a slow start in 2018 after recording 10.5 sacks last season.
Keke is outstanding against the run and at 305 pounds will be a difficult matchup for Kentucky’s tackles. There aren’t slouches inside, though. Daylon Mack and Justin Madubuike have combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and provide some beef. The backups are young but there is depth available for the Aggies. This is a solid group.
If you look around the college football landscape, you would be hard pressed to find a better run stopping linebacker duo than Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson. The two linebackers each check in at over 240 pounds and are the biggest reason why the Aggies are only giving up 3.3 yards per carry. Alaka leads the team in run stuffs and tackles while Dodson was one of the most productive linebackers in the SEC last fall. This is an impressive duo.
In the secondary is where the real questions are. The Aggies are allowing over nine yards per pass attempt and are just ninth in the SEC in passes defended (interceptions and pass break-ups). Getting pressure has been a big concern for the Aggies because they have struggled to provide a consistent pass rush. Safety Donovan Wilson is this group’s best player but to help out against the run, Elko will use safety/nickel Deshawn Capers-Smith in run support.
The Aggies have been outstanding against the run but they are leaving their pass defense out to dry. If Kentucky can hit on some throws early it could really open up some lanes in the running game.
Special Teams Breakdown
For the second week in a row, Kentucky will be facing an opponent with a clear on paper advantage in special teams. The Wildcats outplayed South Carolina but Texas A&M’s unit will be a much different challenge.
Branden Mann has been one of the best punters in the SEC to this point in the season and the junior has a huge leg. Mann is averaging over 56 yards per punt and is a huge field position weapon. The Aggies are in the top 10 in defensive field position (average start at opponents’ own 24.9) but the huge leg has outkicked his coverage at times. A&M is giving up some returns.
Mann’s big leg is dominant on kickoffs with touchbacks coming in at a 74.3% clip. On the other side, the Aggies haven’t been getting much in the return department and that’s not great. There will be opportunities for UK to pin A&M deep on both kickoffs and punts.
Keys to Victory
-For the fourth consecutive conference game, the Wildcats will be facing another strong defense. The Aggies are outstanding against the run and that appears to align with UK’s biggest strength. However, no one gives up big plays at a higher rate (130th in explosiveness per S&P+) than Texas A&M. Big play opportunities will be there for Terry Wilson. A&M will get their fair share of three-and-outs but splash plays are there for the taking. This is a good spot to break out some gadget plays.
-Ball security has been a major issue for both ballclubs to this point in the season. On the year, Kentucky has lost the ball eight times while A&M has lost it seven times. The biggest difference has been that the Kentucky defense has been able to produce takeaways. Kentucky has forced seven turnovers in just three SEC games while the Aggies have only came away with just two all season. Ball security is always an issue on the road but it’s even more so on Saturday going against a team that has only forced one fumble in five games. Kentucky has won 10 games in a row when they force at least two turnovers.
-Kentucky has one of the best big play defenses in the country to this point in the season. The Wildcats have only given up 13 plays of 20+yards this season but will face a big challenge on Saturday. Trayveon Williams is a big play back and is a threat to take it to the house whenever he gets a touch. If UK can keep Williams in check the ground defense should do its job and make A&M one dimensional. Do that and then the pass rush should have its way with a leaky A&M offensive line.
-A&M’s third down defense has been dominant this season but this is mostly due to the work they do on first and second down. Opponents, on average, are needing 9.3 yards on third down to move the chains and this ranks among the top of the FBS. Kentucky’s offense must stay on schedule and pick up as many first downs as early as possible. The Aggies get off the field on third down and the Wildcats will be in trouble if they consistently find themselves in third and longs.
Here’s an an interesting factoid…Texas A&M has no cheerleaders. The Aggies have Yell Leaders who have been around since the early 1900s and help get the student section going. Their stadium is “Home of the 12th Man” and the Aggies are known for having one of the best home field advantages in the sport. If you’re in town on Friday night, go check out the yell practice.