Last year, the FBS time of possession rankings was a Who’s Who of ball hoggers in major college football. Among the top seven, you had all three service academies, triple option mainstays Georgias Tech and Southern, plus Big Ten plodders Wisconsin and Michigan State.
A new program has emerged through the first weeks of 2018, though. After ranking 86th a year ago, Texas A&M has shot all the way up to third this year. Where the 2017 Aggies held the ball for 29:11 per game, this year’s bunch now keeps its offense on the field for nearly 36:40 of every 60 minutes.
This, of course, is all part of the plan.
Jimbo Fisher has jolted Texas A&M away from Kevin Sumlin’s up-tempo spread to a multifaceted, pro-style attack. This year’s Aggies run the ball three times more per game than last year’s bunch, but those runs account for nearly 50 more yards per game (from 155.62 to 204.29). Last year, the tight end position accounted for seven of the team’s 253 receptions all year. This year, Fisher brought in junior college tight end transfer Jace Sternberger, and he’s drawn midseason All-American honors while leading the team with 29 grabs for 496 yards and six touchdowns.
In 2017, tight ends caught 2.77 percent of all Aggie passes. This year, the same position now accounts for 20.95 percent of all completions.
But it’s about more than just how Fisher chooses to matriculate the ball down the field.
An offense that holds the ball so long has benefits that cascade throughout the rest of the team and the season.
The 2017 Aggie defense was on the field for 72.5 plays per game. That was 100th fewest nationally.
The 2018 Aggie defense? 54.4 plays per game. That’s 17th fewest nationally.
A game-by-game look shows, after the opener against FCS Northwestern State, how eerily consistent the Aggie offense has been in terms of total plays run.
|Texas A&M||96||Northwestern State||48|
|Texas A&M||77||South Carolina||53|
* The Kentucky game went to overtime; A&M ran 71 plays in regulation.
The Aggie offense’s successful ball hogging has had an interesting benefit for Mike Elko’s defense. The 2017 A&M defense was actually better than this year’s unit on a per play basis (5.63 in 2017; 5.94 in 2018). But it hasn’t mattered, because the Aggies are now defending 18 fewer plays per game, which means A&M’s total defense average has improved significantly, from 408.5 yards per game in 2017 to 323.3 this year.
As a result, Fisher’s staff has lopped 10 points per game off A&M’s scoring defense average, from 30.7 to 20.6.
But wait, there’s more!
A&M fired Sumlin largely because his teams fell apart in the second half of almost every season, especially once Johnny Manziel left. The 2014 A&M team started 5-0 and rose to No. 6 in the polls; they finished 8-5 and unranked.
A year later was almost the same story: A 5-0 start and No. 9 ranking turned into an unranked 8-5 finish.
In 2016, A&M started 6-0 and No. 6; they finished 8-5 and unranked.
2017? A 4-1 start wilted into a 7-5 finish before Sumlin was fired after the regular season.
There were a number of reasons for those repeated collapses, but chief among them was the defense was simply worn out by the time November arrived. Nowhere was this more evident than the LSU game. The Aggies are 0-6 against the Tigers since joining the SEC; five of those games came in November, and the last four on Thanksgiving weekend. Here are LSU’s rushing totals in those five games:
2013: 55 carries for 324 yards and 2 TDs
2014: 57 carries for 384 yards and 1 TD
2015: 47 carries for 244 yards and 2 TDs
2016: 46 carries for 298 yards and 5 TDs
2017: 56 carries for 250 yards and 2 TDs
The LSU game plan has always been the same because it’s always worked: run straight at an undermanned, injured and exhausted A&M front.
In 2018, Texas A&M won’t have that problem.
Where last year’s team defended 846 plays over its 12-game regular season, this year’s team is on pace to defend only 653. That’s not only 18 fewer plays per game, it’s nearly 200 fewer plays per season.
Over the course of a 12-game season, the 2018 Aggie defense is essentially only playing nine games when compared to previous seasons.
Again, this is all part of the plan.
That doesn’t mean it’s foolproof, though.
There’s nothing revolutionary about this tactic. There isn’t supposed to be. If the other team doesn’t have the ball, they can’t score and if they can’t score, they can’t win. That’s kindergarten math by football standards.
This strategy works for the 2018 Aggies because he’s re-tooling a roster of players recruited to out-run the plodding SEC West. The equation has changed, specifically in Tuscaloosa. In their Sept. 22 game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Aggies ran 11 more plays and held the ball for five more minutes, but it didn’t matter because Alabama’s 61 plays went for three yards a pop more than Texas A&M’s 72 plays, 8.6 to 5.5. The Tide out-gained the Aggies 524-393 and out-scored them 45-23.
As Fisher stocks the A&M roster with more of his type of recruits, it would benefit the Aggies to speed things up.
At Florida State, a common critique of Fisher was that his deliberate place diluted the Seminoles’ talent advantage. In theory, if you have the more talented team you want to run as many plays as possible, thus giving more opportunity for your superiorly talented players to separate from their less-talented opponents. The reverse is also true, in theory. To use an extreme example: a Division II team would have a much better chance to hang with Alabama over a 6-minute game than the standard 60 minutes.
But that’s a problem for another season.
In 2018, Jimbo is maximizing his team’s chance to win by controlling the ball and keeping his defense off the field as much as possible. It’s worked so far. The Aggies are 5-2 and ranked No. 17 in the AP poll.
Of course, the first half of the season was never the problem.
A&M’s final five games offers interesting mix of five winnable games and five losable games:
at No. 22 Mississippi State
vs. Ole Miss
vs. No. 5 LSU
We know how a Kevin Sumlin team would probably do against this slate. The Aggies would probably be 7-5 or 8-4 and play in mid-tier bowl game.
But this year’s team has a great shot to wind up at 9-3 or 10-2. Now you’re talking about a top-10 or top-15 ranking and a New Year’s Day bowl game — maybe even a Sugar Bowl reunion with Texas.
And the Jimbo Effect is a big reason why.