Baton Rouge, LA (SportsNetwork.com) - Having recently recorded the 700th win in program history, the ninth-ranked Texas A&M Aggies hit the road to tangle with the 18th-ranked LSU Tigers in a SEC Western Division matchup.
It's the first meeting between the two schools in Baton Rouge since 1994, and LSU owns a 28-20-3 advantage in the all-time series. Last year, the Tigers beat the Aggies in College Station, 24-19, in the first meeting between the two as conference foes.
Both teams are coming off byes, with Texas A&M's last outing resulting in a wild 51-41 victory over visiting Mississippi State. It was the Aggies' third straight win following their second conference loss of the season vs. Auburn (45-41) on Oct. 19. It also concluded what had been a four-game homestand, as the team will play its final two regular season bouts on the road, both against ranked opponents (LSU and Missouri).
LSU took a break in the action last weekend on the heels of a 38-17 loss at top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 9. It was the Tigers' second setback in the last three games, and it dropped them to an even 3-3 in SEC play. LSU closes out the regular season with a pair of home games (Texas A&M and Arkansas).
While neither club can reach the SEC Championship Game, dramatically improving their postseason destination is a distinct possibility, particularly for the Aggies who sit 12th in this week's BCS rankings.
Under the direction of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, the Aggies lead the SEC and rank third nationally in total offense (578.0 ypg), while checking in at the No. 5 position in scoring (49.2 ppg). Manziel has been his usual dominant self in completing 73 percent of his passes for 3,313 yards, 31 TDs and 11 interceptions. He also spearheads the team's rushing attack with 611 yards and eight scores, while Ben Malena has found the end zone nine times on only 98 carries. Mike Evans (57 rec., 1,263 yards, 12 TDs) is one of the nation's top big-play receivers, as evidenced by the fact that he only has two more catches than teammate Malcome Kennedy (55 rec., 606 yards, seven TDs), but more than twice the number of yards and five additional scores.
Texas A&M's defensive effort, or lack thereof, is the primary reason the team has stumbled in the games it has, as foes are averaging 30.9 ppg, which ranks the unit 12th in the 14-team conference, and 454.4 ypg, which has it dead last. The Aggies are being beaten for more than 210 ypg on the ground, and nearly 244 ypg through the air, and a lack of impact plays (eight forced fumbles, only five recovered) has compounded the issue. Howard Matthews has 73 tackles to his credit, and he also leads the club with three picks. No one has more than three sacks, the team logging a total of 17 QB takedowns on the year.
Manziel spoke after the Mississippi State win about whether or not he gave any thought to the fact that it may have been his last game in front of the A&M faithful.
"Not one bit. I'm just focusing on getting us to a BCS berth, in the best bowl game we can get to. That's my only focus right now."
LSU's offense hasn't been quite as potent as Texas A&M's, but the Tigers still manage to generate their share of excitement, particularly with regard to the pass (275.6 ypg, fourth in the SEC). As a result, LSU ranks fifth in the conference and 20th in the country with a scoring average of 37.9 ppg. While not on the same level as Manziel, Zach Mettenberger has had a solid season in hitting 65.7 percent of his passes for 2,733 yards, 20 TDs and seven interceptions. His favorite targets are talented receivers Jarvis Landry (63 rec., 972 yards, eight TDs) and Odell Beckham, Jr. (51 rec., 1,051 yards, eight TDs). Jeremy Hill (141 carries, 964 yards, 13 TDs) handles the bulk of the work out the backfield, and he needs just 36 yards to reach 1,000 for the season. LSU leads the nation in third-down conversion percentage (.576), which is also the highest percentage in school history.
Beckham, Jr., along with A&M's Evans, is one of the 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, and he is just 31 yards shy of setting a new single-season school record for all-purpose yards, currently held by Domanick Davis (2,120 in 2002). He currently ranks second nationally in all-purpose yards with 209.0 per game, and he is close to the SEC's single-season record, needing only 307 yards in the next two games to surpass Kentucky's Randall Cobb (2,396 yards, 2010).
While not as dominant as in recent years, the LSU defense has done enough most weeks to keep the team competitive. Opponents are scoring just 23.5 ppg behind typical outputs of 152.9 ypg rushing and 200.8 ypg passing. The unit has bent a bit more against the better teams it has faced this season, as it allowed 27 points to TCU, 44 to Georgia, 27 to Ole Miss and 38 to Alabama. The Tigers typically start a game strong, yielding a total of 45 points in the first quarter (4.5 ppg). Lamin Barrow paces the team with 73 tackles, but like their counterpart in this contest, the Tigers haven't made a ton of big plays on defense (12 takeaways).
Mettenberger was asked after the Alabama game whether or not he felt LSU was on the same level with the two-time defending national champs.
"I believe so. You could look at the score and think one thing, but if you watched the game you would know that if we didn't turn the ball over and made some smarter decisions in the third and fourth quarters, it would be a ball game."
He continued, "We weren't going to back down from Alabama. We had a good game plan going, but we just weren't able to execute it."