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Three and Out: Retooled Texas A&M D helps Aggies take down Arizona State

John Chavis's rebuilt Texas A&M defense helped the Aggies take down No. 15 Arizona State.

Texas A&M took on No. 15 Arizona State on Saturday night at NRG Stadium in one of the more intriguing matchups of college football’s opening weekend. The Aggies led by only three points after three quarters before pulling away to win, 38–17. Here are three quick thoughts on the game:

1. The debut of John Chavis’s retooled defense went well

When the Aggies wooed Chavis away from LSU with a reported three-year, $5 million deal this off-season, the message was clear: They needed to get better on defense quickly and thought the veteran coordinator could help them do it. Chavis brought a strong track record—his Tigers defenses routinely ranked near the top of the SEC—but it remained to be seen whether he could breathe life into an A&M unit that has ranged from mediocre to feckless since Kevin Sumlin arrived in College Station in December 2011.

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The early returns on Chavis’s work are promising. In a game most observers expected to devolve into a defense-optional shootout between two high-octane spread outfits, the Aggies limited the Sun Devils to 17 points and 291 total yards. Texas A&M consistently got pressure on Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici. Sophomore Myles Garrett and junior Daeshon Hall were particularly troublesome for a Sun Devils offensive line breaking in two new tackles (the duo combined for six sacks and three forced fumbles). The Aggies tackled well in space, prevented big plays and stayed disciplined in coverage. More generally, the Aggies just looked better on that side of the ball. It was a stark contrast from the defense’s effort in a 41–38 win over Auburn last year, or the 59–0 massacre at Alabama.

Saturday’s performance would have been encouraging against most teams, but it’s particularly promising given Arizona State’s offensive ceiling. With Bercovici and a host of dangerous playmakers, the Sun Devils could field one of the top offenses in the Pac-12. You wouldn’t have known it by watching them repeatedly fail to move the ball against Texas A&M on Saturday.

2. Maybe we should start worrying about Arizona State’s offense

As impressive as Texas A&M’s defense was in shackling the Sun Devils, let’s consider the other side of the equation. The Sun Devils entered this season needing to replace a number of key contributors from an offense that ranked 27th nationally in Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P Ratings and put up 118 combined points in its last three games. Their top receiver, Jaelen Strong, was drafted by the Texans, and their third leading wideout, Cameron Smith, suffered a knee injury. Arizona State also lost its two starting offensive tackles.

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Still, there was no shortage of optimism this summer about the Sun Devils’ prospects on that side of the ball. Fifth-year senior Mike Bercovici returned at quarterback after showing promise in three starts last season; second-team all-conference nominee D.J. Foster could offset the loss of Strong and Smith with a position switch; and the Sun Devils brought back an intriguing group of tailbacks, including Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Coordinator Mike Norvell had plenty to work with, in other words.

Saturday’s outing suggested we may have taken for granted how difficult it would be for Arizona State to reload. The Sun Devils struggled most of the night with Garrett, Hall and the rest of Texas A&M’s pass rush. Arizona State’s running game mustered only 92 yards on 41 carries (it’s worth noting that Ballage didn’t play due to illness), and Foster couldn’t get free on the outside. It’d be easy to chalk up the Sun Devils’ poor showing to early-season rust, but the game reinforced pre-existing doubts about their offense: Would the new tackles hold up? Would Arizona State get enough playmaking juice from a depleted receiving corps?

It’s far too early to draw sweeping conclusions about a team (or unit)’s performance, but Graham and Norvell have some issues to address before beginning Pac-12 play later this month with a critical game against conference frontrunner USC.

3. In a loaded SEC West, Texas A&M has a chance

A popular debate topic all off-season was whether the Pac-12 South had caught the SEC West as the nation’s toughest division. The Aggies’ win struck a blow on behalf of the SEC West. The team that emerges on top of the division will likely be favored over the East’s champion in the conference title game, and whoever wins that will, in all likelihood, earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. No one needs to start worrying about division standings yet, but Texas A&M’s victory gives credence to its status as contenders.

While the Aggies have played only one game against a team from a different conference, their performance against the Sun Devils suggests their biggest perceived weakness—defense—may not be such a big weakness after all. Texas A&M has more offensive firepower than Sumlin knows what to do with. (How many teams would welcome the “problem” of dividing playing time between two five-star quarterbacks?) And if the defense can build on its showing against the Sun Devils, then the Aggies are a strong bet to compete with Alabama, Auburn and the West’s other top squads for a trip to Atlanta in December.

Texas A&M also benefits from a favorable schedule. The Aggies get a manageable division crossover draw (South Carolina and Vanderbilt), and both the Crimson Tide and Tigers come to College Station. Whether Texas A&M can take advantage will depend on how its defense holds up during conference play, as well as whether an offense with Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray at the controls can reach Manziel-era heights. The former is more important than the latter, but regardless, given the way the Aggies played Saturday, it’s no stretch to suggest winning the division is possible.