Alabama game a measuring stick for Texas A&M's legitimacy as a rushing power

David Pollack's Next Generation: Aggies should rely on freshman (0:41)

Texas A&M freshman RB Trayveon Williams is averaging 8.6 yards per carry this season. ESPN college football analyst David Pollack says the Aggies need Williams' efficiency to continue to upset the top-ranked Tide. (0:41)

If in August you had presented Kevin Sumlin with the opportunity for his Texas A&M running game to occupy the spot in the national rankings, Sumlin would have accepted that deal 100 out of 100 times.

Back then, A&M's coach frequently discussed his hopes for running the ball more effectively after the Aggies' rushing attack had tumbled into mediocrity in the post-Johnny Manziel era.

So far, so good.

While nobody will confuse first-year Aggies quarterback Trevor Knight with former Heisman Trophy winner Manziel, the Oklahoma transfer's addition to the lineup has helped the Aggies once again rank among the nation's top rushing teams.

The Aggies (6-0, 4-0 SEC) have a lot to be excited about, as their improvement on the ground has been one of the feel-good storylines of their outstanding start to the season. They boast the SEC's top rushing offense (274.3 yards per game) and also lead the league in yards per carry (6.8). That's an improvement of more than 100 yard per game and more than two yards per carry better than the Aggies' averages in 2015 (169.1 ypg, 4.35 ypc).

There is no one reason for the Aggies' increased production, but instead a combination of many factors:

  • Knight has expertly operated the Aggies' option running game, helping A&M lead the Power 5 in rushing yards gained on zone-read runs (941 on 112 attempts according to ESPN Stats & Information) while under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

  • Freshman Trayveon Williams went from little-known early enrollee to one of the SEC's most productive backs, leading the conference with 117.3 rushing ypg and averaging a whopping 8.6 ypc.

  • The offensive line has excelled under new position coach Jim Turner, now in his second stint at the school.

Turner's troops are about to face by far their toughest test to date -- and we'll soon learn how much improvement the Aggies have legitimately made. They face Alabama (7-0, 4-0) and its FBS-leading run defense (63.86 ypg) on Saturday in a battle of unbeaten teams.

This will be a major departure from the quality of defenses against whom the Aggies have piled up rushing yards to this point. Out of the five FBS teams they have faced so far, UCLA is the best in the national run defense standings at No. 50 (146.3 ypg allowed). Further, A&M's most recent opponents -- Arkansas (No. 123, 5.57 ypc), South Carolina (111th, 5.16) and Tennessee (117th, 5.22) -- all rank among the nation's worst defenses in yards allowed per rushing attempt.

Meanwhile, there are three teams left on the Aggies' schedule -- Alabama, Mississippi State (No. 37, 136.2 ypg) and LSU (11th, 103.7) -- that currently rank ahead of the best run defenses A&M has faced to date.

Therein lies the problem in attempting to evaluate how much the Aggies have actually improved on the ground.

On one hand, they rushed for 336 yards on zone-read runs in their last game, an overtime shootout against Tennessee. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that was the highest zone-read rushing total by any Power 5 team in the last five years, but the achievement stood for just one week. In last Saturday's 49-10 loss to Alabama, Tennessee's injury-riddled defense surrendered even more yards, 354, to the Crimson Tide on zone-read runs.

That doesn't discount A&M's accomplishment, it simply creates uncertainty over how much the performance against Tennessee means. In the same vein, the season will hardly be over if the Aggies struggle to move the ball on the ground against Alabama's fearsome front seven. This will just be a better test of where the Aggies actually rank among the nation's best rushing attacks.

By this point, the Aggies have had their way running the ball in nearly every game. If they can keep it up on Saturday and beyond as the level of difficulty increases, nobody will be able to dispute their spot near the top of the national rushing rankings. We're not to that point yet, though.