We are into Week 6 of the college football season, and conference play is heating up. One matchup that holds importance nearly halfway into the season: The Alabama Crimson Tide travels to College Station to face the Texas A&M Aggies and the 12th Man. Both squads are 4-1 overall and 2-0 in conference play, so the winner will have the inside track in the SEC West. Here’s a look at what could determine the outcome of the game.
Special teams could come into play
Looking at quarterback play and defense is the obvious first look at any football matchup. However, punt returns caught my attention. Special teams can often be overlooked, and it could certainly play a role in the outcome this weekend between Alabama and A&M.
Bama punt returner Kool-Aid McKinstry isn’t producing quite like he did last year. In the 2022 season, McKinstry generated 332 yards off 23 attempts. So far, McKinstry has eight returns for 55 yards and 33 of those yards came off one play. He also muffed a punt.
Why does this matter? More field to get through. The average starting field position for the Alabama offense is its own 33-yard line. That does not bode well when facing an Aggies defense that’s forced the third-most punts in the FBS.
On the flip side, Aggies fifth-year senior WR Ainias Smith leads both the SEC and all of FBS in punt return yards and yards per game. Coming off earning the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week award for his performance against Arkansas, Smith’s breakaway speed has given the Aggies a starting field position average at its own 47-yard line. When both defenses are strong, starting field position can make or break the offense.
Assuming the Aggies generate solid field position, then red zone defense will be even more crucial for the Crimson Tide. A&M is tied for ninth in red-zone scores, with 15 of 22 scores as touchdowns, nine coming from passing plays. Nick Saban’s defense has been pretty stout, allowing only five passing touchdowns this season. However, three of those were from inside the red zone, with zero forced interceptions. Aggies quarterback Max Johnson is in as starter for the injured Conner Weigman. He’s at least familiar with the red-zone playbook, as three of his six touchdown passes have come from inside the 20-yard line.
Alabama’s offense has been less efficient from inside the red zone, generating nearly as many field goals (7) as touchdown scores (9). All nine scores from inside the 20-yard line have been rushing touchdowns, with quarterback Jalen Milroe accounting for two of those. This could be the X-factor. We’ll really get to see how good of a defense Aggies have with second-year defensive coordinator DJ Durkin. A&M has only allowed one rushing touchdown in five games.
That alone is impressive. In the last two games, the Aggies have played two heavy rushing offenses with mobile quarterbacks in Auburn and Arkansas, and they held both offenses to zero rushing scores. Zero. The Aggies are daring mobile quarterbacks to beat them through the air. Milroe does have six passing touchdowns, though three came against Middle Tennessee in Week 1.
My concern: two of those six were bombs against Texas — a 49-yard pass late in the third quarter and a 39-yard pass early in the fourth, when Texas had things wrapped up.
The Aggies have the edge in multiple spots against Alabama. My betting suggestion, with the Crimson Tide 3-8 against the spread as a road favorite, is to grab the points (+3) and the +130 moneyline with Texas A&M.