Alabama-Texas A&M: Five Things to Watch
There are story lines a plenty for Saturday's showdown between Alabama and Texas A&M. Texas A&M's dizzying home-field advantage and the the hoopla surrounding Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel off the field will be on full display. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin will have some new offensive wrinkles to confuse Alabama's defense, and Nick Saban will surely have some in-game adjustments. Yes, Texas A&M's up-tempo offense and Alabama's old school schemes present the ultimate clash of styles. And yes, Alabama is 7-1 in "revenge" games under Saban while their last four losses have come to mobile quarterbacks (Manziel, Cam Newton, Jordan Jefferson). But here are five things to look for while watching the game that may reveal which team comes out on top.
1. Alabama on first down and Texas A&M on third down
Alabama will not want to look up into the dizzying Kyle Field stands. And they surely will hope they do not see co-eds making out, because that will be a sign that the Aggies have scored. With an offensive line that has not played much together, Alabama cannot afford to find itself in third-and-long situations in a hostile environment, which is why winning the battle on first down may determine the outcome of the game for Alabama.
On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama's defense will be tested on third down. Last year, Manziel converted nine of 13 third-downs against Alabama, the best performance against Alabama in a decade. Alabama's defense will want to get off the field on the third down, and every first down Manziel picks up will make Alabama physically--and mentally--exhausted.
2. Alabama's bye week
Last year, Alabama got blitzed by Texas A&M in the first quarter because they were emotionally and physically drained from what was a de facto national title game the week before in Death Valley--at night--when A.J. McCarron hit T.J. Yeldon on a screen pass to give Alabama a dramatic come-from-behind victory. Alabama could have used a bye week last year before playing the Aggies--and may have won the game had they had one. This year, though, Alabama's bye week after its season-opening win against Virginia Tech may hurt the Tide, as Alabama could have used live game action to better gel on offense and play another game in real game speed before playing against a quarterback in Manziel that has his own speed.
2. Importance of Kliff Kingsbury and Jeff Stoutland
The game may well be decide whether Texas A&M will miss former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who is now the head coach at Texas Tech, more than Alabama will miss former offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, whom Chip Kelly brought to the Philadelphia Eagles. Look for how Alabama's offensive line plays on the road and the adjustments Texas A&M's offense makes to counter a fierce Alabama defense.
3. Alabama running game
Last year, though Alabama had a dynamic one-two punch of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, A.J. McCarron tried to air the ball out in the first quarter, which caused early three-and-outs that left a defense that was already gassed from the previous week's victory against LSU little time to rest. McCarron has weapons galore at wide receiver and an offensive coordinator who is itching to air it out. Couple that with an offensive line that has yet to gel--and freshman phenom running backs in Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny that seem like they have no developed as quickly as a T.J. Yeldon or Trent Richardson--and Alabama may be tempted again to partake in a Texas-sized shootout. But Texas A&M, as they were last year, remain vulnerable to the run, and Yeldon and either Henry or Tenpenny may put up monster numbers if Alabama commits to the run like they did even when they trailed against Georgia in the SEC title game. Even more importantly, the running game will be critical, especially if Alabama has a lead, to take time of the clock to keep Manziel on the bench, which may be the best defense against him.
4. Johnny Being Johnny... may be better for Alabama
On Texas A&M's side of the ball, it will be tempting to let "Johnny be Johnny" and play "yard ball." In the first quarter of last year's game, Manziel ran circles around Alabama's defense, and Manziel operates best when there is chaos. But Alabama has been practicing to contain--as best as any team can--Manziel and will have a game plan in place for him. Texas A&M's best chance to punish Alabama may be if Manziel drops back in the pocket and airs the ball deep against an Alabama secondary that may be undersized compared to the Aggie receivers. Alabama's secondary is vulnerable to giving up some big plays, and Manziel exploited Alabama's secondary to push the Aggies past Alabama in the fourth quarter of last year's game. Manziel has a new receiving corps, but they will have plenty of one-on-one match-ups as Alabama will likely use eight players to try to contain Manziel.
X-Factor: Alabama tight ends
Texas A&M will surely have schemes in place for Alabama's talented wide receivers and running backs, but the key to the game may be whether one of Alabama's talented trio of tight ends breaks out in this game. Look out to see whether O.J. Howard can make a splash.