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.
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.