Sunday September 25th, 2016

No. 10 Texas A&M’s 45–24 win over No. 17 Arkansas at AT&T Stadium on Saturday night had just about everything. There were turnovers (five total), big plays (including seven that went for over 40 yards), notable injuries (Myles Garrett and Austin Allen went down and returned, while Ricky Seals-Jones was forced to leave the game) and bone-rattling physicality from both sides.

On that last note, it was fitting that the game-sealing play came on a crushing sack of Allen by A&M defensive end Daeshon Hall, resulting in a fumble that the Aggies recovered. Three plays later, they punched it in for a touchdown to go up 38–17 with 10:25 left in the game, an insurmountable margin for the slow and methodical Razorbacks.

Here are three thoughts on Texas A&M’s win:

1. Texas A&M’s defense is for real and it stood tall when it mattered

For all the inconsistency Texas A&M has struggled through in the post-Johnny Manziel era, and even when Johnny Football was still residing in College Station, there’s been one thing you could generally count on from the Aggies under Kevin Sumlin: The defense wouldn’t be up to snuff. It wasn’t a huge of a problem when Sumlin’s offense was putting up eye-popping numbers, but it was the program’s clear weakness. That was only more glaring the past couple years as the offense struggled to find its footing.

Sumlin hired defensive coordinator John Chavis last season to fix it, and he’s done just that. After modest improvement his first year, Chavis, not least because of the gobs of talent he has to work with, has the defense where it needs to be. Garrett is an unstoppable force (provided he’s healthy, which is a concern after injuring his ankle Saturday), and the combination of him and Hall is proving a nightmare for opposing offenses. The rest of the front seven has been stout as well, and though the cornerbacks are probably the unit’s weak link, they improved over the course of Saturday’s game.

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Indeed, the entire defense showed well, and this was epitomized by two goal-line stands. In the second quarter, thanks to two A&M penalties, Arkansas had seven plays to get the ball in the end zone but couldn’t do it, finally settling for a field goal. And late in the third quarter, with the game still in the balance at 17–17, the Aggies stuffed the Razorbacks on four straight runs to turn them over on downs.

With momentum in hand, it’s no coincidence Texas A&M began to separate on its very next drive. This defense wouldn’t have been capable of those stands, or this type of overall play, in past years of the Sumlin era. The fact that the unit is now a strength—and that it can stop spread offenses and a power attack like Arkansas’s—raises the ceiling of the Aggies’ program.

Richard W. Rodriguez/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

2. Take a bow, Austin Allen

No, it didn’t end up being a close game at the end, but the final score belies just how impressive Allen was for much of the night. The Arkansas offensive line did a decent job protecting him at the beginning of the game, but Allen soon had to deal with a barrage of pressure as Garrett and Co. began to take over. Yet the redshirt junior showed tremendous toughness in the face of that pressure all night. He took a ton of hard hits but rarely lost his composure, often standing tall and making sure he got his throw out even when he knew he was about to get leveled.

Allen earned the respect of everyone watching when he was forced from the game after the first A&M goal-line stand with what was termed a bruised chest muscle. Despite being short of breath and clearly in extreme discomfort after taking a huge hit, Allen was able to re-enter and play the entire rest of the game, fighting through what had to be plenty of pain.

Besides the toughness, Allen again showed he’s a talented thrower, finishing with 371 passing yards, two touchdown and no interceptions. Time and again, he connected for long gains downfield and converted key third downs. Arkansas’s offense isn’t quite where it needs to be, but Bret Bielema has to be happy knowing his first-year starter is already an asset and has room to grow even more.

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3. Kevin Sumlin’s job is probably safe, and Texas A&M is a big threat in the SEC West

You never want to read too much into a team’s fortunes four weeks into the season, and the Aggies could very well collapse—as they did each of the past two years after opening 5–0—but that seems unlikely at this point. They’ve proven with their wins over UCLA, Auburn (on the road) and now Arkansas (on a neutral field) that they’ve got more fortitude than they’ve had the past few years. The defense is legit, as mentioned above, and the offense has shown improvement, though Trevor Knight needs to be more consistent. Meanwhile, LSU is much less of a threat than it appeared to be before the season, and the Aggies will be favored in home games against Tennessee and Ole Miss.

That just leaves Alabama. Can A&M legitimately challenge the top-ranked Crimson Tide for the SEC West? At this point, you have to say it’s at least a possibility, and that’s all you can really ask for when it comes to Alabama. (Plus, there’s precedent for the Aggies winning in Tuscaloosa.) But even if Texas A&M can’t dethrone the Tide, there’s plenty of other wins left on the schedule, and the program certainly seems headed in the right direction. Given the uncertainty that reigned before the season, that’s excellent news for Sumlin, who has climbed off of the hot seat for now.

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