- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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Whether the opponent was a Southeastern Conference foe or an FCS team, Texas A&M has maintained all season that the most important game of the season is the next one.
This week, that approach rings truer than it has all season long as the Aggies will take on No. 1 Alabama.
"That's the biggest game of the season; it's the next game we have coming up," senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart told reporters after the Aggies' 38-13 win over Mississippi State on Saturday. "This game, it was the biggest game of the season until it's over. But it's over now, so we have to focus on playing Alabama. We know they're a great team and we're going on the road once again, we know they're a great team at home and the crowd gets fired up. They have a great head coach, great defense, great offense so it's going to be a great game and we're all excited for it."
Coming into the season, there would have been many observers willing to dismiss any chances the Aggies would have against the SEC's elite, such as Alabama or LSU.
But the No. 15 Aggies have exceeded expectations, jumping out to a 7-2 start and becoming a factor in the SEC West, where they are currently second (4-2) behind the undefeated Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0 SEC).
Their two losses, however, have come to two of their toughest opponents: Florida and LSU.
Neither loss was decisive. Both were games in which the Aggies led by double digits and were in the game until the final minute. So what can be gleaned from those two games as the Aggies face another high-caliber opponent in the Crimson Tide?
• Fast starts: In both games, the Aggies were strong offensively in the first half. Against Florida, they jumped out to a 17-7 lead midway through the second quarter. Against LSU, the Aggies raced to a 12-0 lead at around the same time. In both cases, the offense was moving the chains and humming along relatively smoothly.
• Good defense: The Texas A&M defense has kept the Aggies within striking distance in both affairs, even when the offense stalled. Against Florida, they yielded just 307 yards and against LSU, the total was 316. There were some big plays allowed in both games but overall, the defense was solid. Against Florida, the Aggies picked up eight sacks.
• Second-half offense: Against Florida, the Aggies were shutout in the second half and punted on each of their six drives in the final two quarters. Against LSU, the Aggies were better, scoring seven, but left points on the board on a couple of occasions. There were two missed field goals, one of which came at the end of a stalled drive that started at the LSU 16 after a big kickoff return. The Aggies also struggled with turnovers against LSU, committing five, including three in the second half.
• Forcing turnovers: The Aggies took care of the ball well in the opener against Florida, not committing any turnovers but they didn't force any either. Against LSU, they also didn't come up with any turnovers and making it tougher on their chances was the fact that the Aggies committed five.
Both the Gators and the Tigers were also able to limit the impact redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel had in the running game. His two lowest single-game rushing totals (60 against Florida, 27 against LSU) came in those games.
While taking that into consideration, the Aggies could be playing at a higher level now than they were when they met either of those two teams. Their most recent win, a dominating double-digit win on the road over what was then a top-15 Mississippi State team, showcased many of the Aggies strengths and improvements.
The defense continues to play at a high level -- the Aggies shut out the Bulldogs in the first half and held them to a mere 85 yards in the first two quarters while the offense built a 24-0 halftime lead.
Manziel appears to be getting better by the week. On Saturday, he was turnover free while going 30-of-36 passing for 311 yards and rushing for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
And the running game as a whole has progressed significantly since the season opener against Florida. The Aggies ran for 134 yards that day; in their last two outings they have produced more than 300 yards in each outing.
In addition, the Aggies have been perfect on the road this year, winning all five games away from Kyle Field. Kevin Sumlin-coached teams have won 11 straight road games, including six at Houston in 2011.
Whether the Aggies can translate some of these improvements or correct some of their mistakes for their showdown with Alabama remains to be seen. But if the Aggies' games against Florida or LSU are any indication, the Aggies will put up a respectable fight.
"We're playing with a lot of confidence now," Sumlin said on Saturday. "In order to be successful on the road and start the way we've started the last couple of weeks, that confidence level has got to be high. Our coaching staff has done a great job of preparation. Our guys understand the plan and it's a tribute to these seniors too, they've really, really pushed this team, particularly in the last couple of weeks, because we are nicked up, we do have injuries, but those guys are playing, they're playing with great effort right now and they're executing, so that's giving us a real chance to be successful."
14hSam Khan Jr.