What was in play for No. 25 LSU prior to its 16-10 home loss to Florida is still a possibility for No. 22 Texas A&M – a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
On top of that, the Aggies (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) are trying to end a four-game SEC losing streak against the Tigers (6-4, 4-3) when the two teams meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Kyle Field.
To find out more about Texas A&M, we bring you our Pick 6 series – a Q&A with a beat writer covering LSU’s opponent – for another week. Brent Zwerneman, who covers the Aggies for the Houston Chronicle, kindly joined us to answer our questions about Kevin Sumlin’s squad.
1.) Quarterback Jake Hubenak, who has replaced the injured Trevor Knight, notched his first win as a starter against UTSA. How would you assess the job he’s done thus?
Based on his inexperience going into the season and the fact that he was thrust into the starting role while in the middle of SEC West play, I'd say it's been solid. Certainly, there's a lot of ways he can improve, but he is a better pure passer than Trevor Knight. But what has happened is they've lost kind of that running element that Knight brought to the table. But overall Hubenak has been a steady replacement.
His arm strength isn't quite what Trevor Knight's is. I think that might catch up with him against LSU. It certainly didn't against UTSA. But (he’s) a capable replacement. I will say this: A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told us this week that Hubenak kind of has a hurt shoulder, and he kind of played through the pain against UTSA, so that's certainly something for fans to keep an eye out for and for the Tigers defense to keep an eye out for.
2.) Like LSU, Texas A&M is feeling the affects of late-season attrition. Three starters in the secondary did not play against. Offensive linemen Jermaine Elumenor and running back Trayveon Williams exited the UTSA game with injuries. How healthy is this team heading into the LSU game?
They're banged up but just about like every other team is at this point. They lost their starting right guard, Connor Lanfear, against Mississippi State to a season-ending knee injury, and they shifted things around. The offensive line, they just haven't had the depth that they had hoped for. They shifted things but haven't been real good on the offensive line since. It's hard to believe that one guy can cause that much of a disruption, but it has.
In terms of overall in the secondary, couple of those guys were held out for precautionary measures. Armani Watts, the safety, looks like he might be the most hurt of the group, but I would say the other guys are going to return. I think Trayveon Williams is O.K., and Eluemunor is O.K. as well. So, yeah, they're banged up, but probably unlike most other teams at this point in the season as well.
3.) Myles Garrett, who has been dealing with own injury this season, flipped a switch against UTSA, recording 4 ½ sacks and a forced fumble. How much different is the Aggies defense when Garrett looks like his old self?
Huge difference because offenses tend to key in on Garrett when he's healthy and when he's getting off the ball. Kevin Sumlin said this week that Garrett was clocked at 22 miles per hour during practice last week. He said that's receiver/defensive back range. The quote from Sumlin was, "That's ridiculous." Garrett told us that this is the best he's felt in a long time. He's not 100 percent, but he finally has that spring back in his step. What happened is he suffered a high ankle sprain against Arkansas on September 24th and really hasn't been the same since.
Closest he's looked to the healthy Myles Garrett that we saw kind of early in his career – the completely healthy (Garrett) – was against UTSA. That offensive line was having all kinds of trouble containing him because he was just getting off the ball so fast. Once he does that, he's fast in his own right. So, yes, it's huge. When he's out or hobbled, it makes a big difference because then an offense is able to kind of target Aggies linebackers, where they've had struggles this year, and the defensive end without him there as well. So, yeah, huge difference between Myles Garrett being in or out.
It’s become abundantly clear LSU quarterback Danny Etling does not shy away from contact.
4.) LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron pointed to Texas A&M’s turnover margin as a key factor in the Aggies’ defensive success. How much better has John Chavis made this defense?
He made a difference early on. It was pretty apparent in his first year, last year, how much they improved. I think they went something like from, in total defense team, 102nd to 51st, so he literally cut it in half in terms of their numbers. But they have struggled. They don't have the depth that they thought they did in terms of when those kind of front line guys go out like a Myles Garrett or so forth. They've struggled big time against the run once again, which was a huge bugaboo for them last year. I think there were 107th nationally against the run last year, and now they're having their big time problems in that sense again.
They held UTSA to a touchdown, but that's UTSA. No one's going to really kind of look at that and say, 'Hey, this defense is really tearing it up now,' because they've certainly had their struggles over the past month. You look at what Shea Patterson did in his first college action for Ole Miss. He never even played in the college game, and he shredded that defense. So I would say, all in all, the jury is still out. Even though it's been better, it hasn't been as good as maybe some have expected to this point. Even preseason Kevin Sumlin was saying they might have a top-20 defense, maybe even a top-15 defense, and they're nowhere near that at this point. So certainly the jury's out on whether John Chavis is going to get it completely turned around here and that they can call themselves the "Wrecking Crew" again.
5.) The Aggies appear to have at least four legit receiving threats – Josh Reynolds, Christian Kirk, Rickey Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. What makes this group a problem for opposing defenses?
They haven't been as big of a problem as they should have been in my mind and especially a guy like Josh Reynolds. He's tough. He's long and wiry. He's about (6-foot-3), and he has the ability to go up and get the ball and fight for the ball, and to me he's been under used. Christian Kirk looked really good mid-season. He's tailed off a little bit. He's kind of made his biggest market in the punt return game at this point. Speedy Noil is a talent but very inconsistent. They have to kind of stay on him to stay after it – to stay active on his routes and so forth – and the same can be said about Ricky Seals-Jones.
But all in all talent-wise, if you just say in terms of talent, they're tough from top to bottom. The problem has been getting consistency out of all of them, outside of Reynolds and Kirk. (They) are the exceptions there. Those two guys are the leaders of the receiving corps. And the fact that they haven't been very good blockers on the edge as well, they've really struggled with that. So, once again, a talented receiving corps but maybe not as good as what many Aggies had hoped going into the season.
Donte Jackson realizes there’s a certain double standard that comes with playing defensive b…
6.) Perhaps the biggest area of improvement for Texas A&M this season is its rushing attack. What has Williams and Keith Ford brought to the offense this year that it didn’t have last year?
(Trayveon’s) numbers have dropped off of late, and they kind of consider that just kind of hitting that freshman wall because he is a true freshman. He's not even a redshirt freshman. But when they're on and when that line is doing a better job of blocking for them than it has in the past few games, it's a really nice mix for the Aggies of kind of speed and (cutting) ability with Trayveon Williams, whereas Keith Ford is just a guy who is going to plow forward. Big powerful guy who, as Noel Mazzone has said, 'If there's not a hole he's going to try to make a hole.'
You have a really nice combination there of speed and power between those two guys. But on the flip side, the offensive line has really had its struggles the past few games and based on that the rushing numbers have fallen off. Trayveon Williams was able to bust loose for 47-yard touchdown run last week against UTSA, but that's been kind of an aberration of late, compared to early on when he was really breaking some long gains early in the season.
This was already a big week for Donnie Alexander.