Sunday October 25th, 2015

No. 15 Texas A&M’s first game outside of the Lone Star State this season ended in defeat, as the Aggies fell 23–3 to No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday night.

Here are three thoughts on the week’s only matchup between ranked teams:

1. The SEC West isn’t settled yet, but don’t trust either of these teams

At different points of the season, both Texas A&M and Ole Miss have appeared in prime position to win the SEC West, widely regarded as the toughest division in the country. The Rebels seemingly cleared their biggest hurdle when they knocked off Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 19, while the Aggies won their first five games entering a home matchup with the Crimson Tide. As the season moves past its halfway point, neither squad looks likely to earn an invitation to Atlanta for the conference championship game.

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On Saturday Alabama won its fifth consecutive game since being upset by the Rebels, and LSU handled Western Kentucky to remain unbeaten. Those results ensured the Nov. 7 meeting between the Tide and the Tigers will serve as a de-facto SEC West title game. While neither Ole Miss nor Texas A&M is completely out of the running (and the Rebels hold the tiebreaker over Alabama), both squads face difficult paths to hang with the Tide and Tigers. Alabama holds the tiebreaker over Texas A&M, and Ole Miss—which already lost to Florida and Memphis—has not demonstrated the consistency to suggest it can win out.

This was an important win for the Rebels, but for now the road to the SEC West crown seems to run through LSU-Alabama.

2. Kyle Allen struggled again

In Texas A&M’s 28–21 win over Arkansas on Sept. 26, Allen completed 21 of his 28 pass attempts for 358 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. That outing marked the high point of a season in which the sophomore strengthened his reputation as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. During his last two games, however, Allen has looked less like an elite signal-caller at the helm of a high-powered offense than an inexperienced passer second-guessing his own ability.

Allen missed receivers Saturday and couldn’t provide the dynamism the Aggies needed to extend drives against a Rebels defense missing standout defensive back Tony Conner and dominant lineman Robert Nkemdiche. He connected on only 12 of his 34 pass attempts for 88 yards; at one point Allen threw 14 straight passes without a completion.

It didn’t help that Texas A&M failed to establish its running game, finishing with 58 yards on 27 carries. Still, for Texas A&M to operate at peak capacity, it needs its quarterback (whoever that may be) to establish a rhythm with one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the country. That hasn’t happened the last two weeks.

Whether Texas A&M is better served using Kyler Murray—assuming sophomore Jake Hubenak, who entered in the second half, is not the answer—is something coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff may need to address in the coming days. However, it’s hardly clear that the true freshman is a better option at this point: Entering Saturday Murray had completed only 55 percent of his passes with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Texas A&M should benefit from its remaining schedule. Allen and the Aggies’ offense can at least regain some confidence in upcoming matchups against South Carolina, Auburn, Western Carolina and Vanderbilt before the season finale at LSU.

3. Ole Miss deserves credit for bouncing back

At the end of the season, we may look back on Ole Miss’s loss at Memphis and conclude that the Rebels simply were beaten on the road by a really good team with a rising star of a coach (Justin Fuente) and a future NFL quarterback (Paxton Lynch). The Tigers, after all, are undefeated and in contention to earn a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Yet for an SEC team with league and national championship ambitions, the defeat must have felt like another major setback. Two weeks after being blown out at Florida, the Rebels saw their College Football Playoff hopes go up in smoke at the hands of an American Athletic Conference opponent.

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But instead of turning in another subpar performance one week later, Ole Miss crushed a ranked foe with designs on a league title. Most impressively, the Rebels’ “Landshark D” shackled one of the nation’s most explosive offenses despite missing Conner and Nkemdiche. Ole Miss flustered Allen, bottled up the Aggies’ running game and limited Texas A&M to a season-low three points after yielding a combined 75 in the losses to Florida and Memphis.

For Ole Miss, this defensive performance portends a strong finish to the regular season, even though it will face two teams that entered Saturday ranked in the top 15 of Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P + Ratings.

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