Missouri and Texas A&M experienced their inaugural seasons with the Southeastern Conference in completely opposite ways, as the Tigers watched the Aggies prance its way to an 11-2 record and a Heisman Trophy, all while going bowless behind a disappointing 5-6 year.
Year two, however, has provided a role reversal for Mizzou, as it proved its ability to overcome the steep learning curve behind its strong-willed defense and 11-1 record and SEC East title. The Aggies, though, found out just how volatile the conference could be, falling to a dismal 8-4 while displaying one of the worst defensive seasons since their days in the Big 12.
Looking forward, the A&M defense requires a quick turnaround in order for the Aggies to find success again in the SEC, and Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel provided the ideal blueprint for such a feat.
First, a statistical comparison of the two units:
|(SEC Rank/National Rank)||Missouri||Texas A&M|
|Scoring Defense||19.4 ppg (2/14)||30.9 ppg (13/86)|
|Rush Defense||119.1 ypg (2/14)||221.3 ypg (14/108)|
|Sacks||37 (1/6)||20 (10/85)|
|Tackles for Loss||96 (1/9)||64 (12/93)|
|Interceptions||18 (1/9)||15 (4/24)|
|Turnover Margin||+15 (1/5)||-1 (10/68)|
As you may have noticed, the Tigers positioned themselves well in almost every major category—both nationally and league-wide—while A&M failed to impress across the board, falling especially short in rush defense, sacks, total defense and turnover margin.
Non-coincidentally, these are the categories that reveal the keys in Mizzou's strategy.
First, notice the differentiation in the rush defense, as the Tigers were able to garner a division-best ranking with 119.1 yards per game while A&M gave up a league-worst 221.3 yards per game. Second, disregard anything and everything you may have heard about the SEC transforming into a pass-first league, including from myself.
The conference was formed, and has recently thrived, on the ground-and-pound system of approach. When all else fails, SEC squads turn to their ever-reliable rushing attacks, wearing down opposing defenses behind physical offensive lines and punishing running backs.
Quarterbacks such as Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron and Nick Marshall may have earned glamourous roles on their respective football teams, but workhorses like Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon and Tre Mason have been the keys to the success of those squads.
The Mizzou defense tapped in on that early and was able to shut down opposing ground games in key situations throughout the year.
Next, Missouri was able to lead the league in sacks as well, a majority of credit which falls on the shoulders of defensive ends Michael Sam (10.5), Markus Golden (6.5) and Kony Ealy (6.5). And while A&M has the talent to compete with Mizzou's three ends, none of it has developed yet.
The key takeaway, though, was the Tigers' insistence on forcing offenses into uncomfortable situations; first, shutting down the run game, and second, pressuring opposing quarterbacks relentlessly.
Finally, the Tigers' turnover margin of plus-15, which is also the result of a careful offense, sheds light on the result of a well-schemed gameplan. The defense's opportunistic nature (leads the conference interceptions) gave the offense multiple more chances at scoring and ultimately kept the defense off the field. The Aggies place no significance in time of possession, which has forced its own defense into extended time on the field, ending in a exhausted unit incapable of slowing down opposing offenses in crunch time.
From both a recruiting and talent perspective, A&M owns the correct base for building a devastating defensive unit, but creating the ideal gameplan using Missouri's methodology should be a high priority on this A&M coaching staff's to-do list.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand