One week removed from a comeback for the ages, a wounded Alabama team must rebound quickly in order to avoid stumbling to a surprisingly dangerous Texas A&M.
While many Alabama followers would prefer to continue basking in the aftermath of the Tide's shocking comeback in Baton Rouge, the SEC grind continues forward unconcerned, and this weekend brings another top opponent into the confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
One year ago, Texas A&M finished 7-6 and fired head coach Mike Sherman, while losing star quarterback Ryan Tannehill to the NFL. Nevertheless, despite the offseason turnover, A&M has improved dramatically upon making the transition to the SEC under first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, and sit at 7-2 and ranked in the top fifteen nationally after thrashing Arkansas, Auburn, and Mississippi State, while losing heartbreakers in the final seconds to both LSU and Florida. A month of football obviously remains, but by all objective accounts this is the best A&M team since the height of the R.C. Slocum era, and nothing would announce Sumlin and the Aggies' SEC arrival quite like taking down the top-ranked Tide in Tuscaloosa.
Coming into the season, the biggest question mark for the Aggies was the play at quarterback, where first-year freshman starter Johnny Manziel was an unknown despite having a strong fall camp, and the fear was that the rest of the offense -- which was and is filled with quality players across the board -- would be sandbagged by poor play at the quarterback position. Manziel, however, has not only assuaged all fears, but he has in fact been an outright star and has became nothing short of a campus legend in the past nine weeks.
Manziel has been an absolutely maddening player for opposing defenses and his raw numbers appear to have been lifted directly from a video game stat line, averaging 383 yards of total offense per game while adding 31 touchdowns. A true dual-threat who can legitimately beat defenses through the air and on the ground, Manziel has been exceptional at extending plays, and has shown to need only minimally effective pass protection to be productive. His running ability is such that he has been sacked 17 times on the season, and yet still is the leading rusher in the SEC, ahead of all of the conference's numerous standout tailbacks. Perhaps most impressively, he has shown the calm tranquility in the face of adversity in ways that you simply do not routinely see from freshmen.
Meanwhile, with Manziel being a difference-maker, the remainder of the offense has performed as expected and has generally flourished in Kevin Sumlin's spread passing attack. The offensive line is one of the best in the conference, where tackles Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel will both have long careers playing on Sunday, and senior center Patrick Lewis largely provides exactly what you want at the position. The wide receiver corps is arguably the best in the conference, where there is tremendous size, athleticism, and depth throughout the rotation. Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu were known quantities, but the the strong play of freshmen receivers Mike Evans and Thomas Johnson -- who have combined for 83 catches, 919 receiving yards, and three touchdowns on the season -- have made this unit outright lethal. The tailbacks aren't the focal point of the passing game-driven spread attack, but even they have been successful, with Christine Michael and Ben Malena averaging over 5.5 yards per carry while reaching the end zone fourteen times.
In his midweek press conference, Nick Saban called the A&M offense the best in the SEC, and it's hard to dispute that contention given the on-paper prowess and the on-field production to date. The Aggies are near the very top nationally in nearly every single major offensive category, and have simply devoured the struggling defenses it has run across. The A&M offense was less successful, as one would expect, against Florida and LSU, but even in those games they largely got their own, and regardless of defensive strength the offense is likely going to score a decent number of points.
Meanwhile, if Manziel has been the revelation, the Texas A&M defense has been a bit of a surprise in its own right. A lack of raw talent has never particularly been an issue with this defense, but nevertheless the unit as a whole has struggled badly in recent years, and coming into the season, the fears were that porous play would only continue upon making the transition to the SEC. Aside from a mid-season swoon against Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech, however, where the Aggies inexplicably combined to give up 84 points and almost 1,100 yards of total offense, the Aggie defense has been largely respectable.
On the defensive side of the ball, the leader of the A&M defense is junior combo end / linebacker Damontre Moore, who has been the most disruptive defender in the conference. To date, Moore has posted 69 tackles, 19 TFLs, and 11.5 sacks, and has made himself a recurring nightmare for SEC offensive coordinators, who have generally been at a loss for ways to even find ways to limit him. At 6'4 and 250 pounds, Moore figures to follow in the footsteps of former Texas A&M defensive end Von Miller, and will almost certainly be a first round selection in the upcoming NFL Draft. The remainder of the A&M defensive front seven is more solid than spectacular -- though it does have some quality players in the linebacker corps with Jonathan Stewart, Sean Porter, and Steven Jenkins -- but with a legitimate star in Moore the group as a whole has largely outperformed all reasonable expectations.
The Achilles heel for the A&M defense, however, has been the Aggie defensive backfield, which has generally been as bad as feared. Starting cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and Dustin Harris look the part, but neither have been particularly effective, and safety play has been little better, with Howard Matthews being a liability in pass coverage and Steven Terrell being very undersized by safety standards. Turnovers have been relatively few and far between, and while pass efficiency defense has been somewhat acceptable, but the unit as a whole has consistently given up a lot of yards.
Alabama, of course, comes in at 9-0 and number one in the country, and with a win tomorrow, 'Bama will all but certainly play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game with the opportunity to reach the BCS National Championship Game with a win in Atlanta. 'Bama, however, is coming off its worst performance of the year, both offensively and defensively, and as expected given the slugfest against LSU, is battling injuries on numerous fronts, and in particular on the offensive side of the football.
After struggling so badly against Zach Mettenberger and the LSU passing attack, Alabama looks to make a fundamental defensive shift tomorrow afternoon, where it is expected that the Tide will largely ditch its four safety look and instead insert cornerback John Fulton for Nick Perry. Consider that both a necessity in terms of getting more athleticism on the field to defend the dangerous A&M spread offense, and an admission that the staff does not believe the defensive struggles in Baton Rouge were simply a one-time affair. A&M may not have two outright stars on the outside like, say, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, but they do have a highly effective spread with numerous standout contributors at the skill positions, and the 'Bama defensive backfield will be heavily tested tomorrow afternoon regardless of the specific personnel package utilized.
The defensive line and the front seven, on the other hand, will simply have to find a way to contain the dangerous Manziel, while limiting the Aggie tailbacks. Containing the pocket will largely be the name of the game against Manziel, not rushing the passer, and discipline at the point of attack will be a priority. Much of the same strategy that was employed against Denard Robinson tomorrow, but obviously the A&M passing game will not languish the same way that the Michigan aerial attack did two months ago should the 'Bama defensive line keep contain at the point of attack.
Manziel, in particular, is a major concern for the 'Bama defensive coaching staff, and historically under Saban it has been such true dual-threat quarterbacks who have given Alabama such fits defensively (namely, in reverse chronological order, Jordan Jefferson, Cam Newton, Stephen Garcia, Brian Johnson, and Tim Tebow). The true dual-threats place maximum stress on the defense, and, unlike with a runner like Robinson or Tyrod Taylor, even if 'Bama can contain the pocket tomorrow afternoon, the defensive backfield must nevertheless find a way to hold up in coverage because Manziel has the ability to pick apart a secondary even if he is not allowed to break the pocket and extend the play.
For better or for worse, in all likelihood the A&M offense will find a way to score its fair share of points, and if 'Bama is to navigate a path to victory the Alabama offense will have to find a way to exploit the relative weaknesses of the Texas A&M defense.
Having said that, though, this is where injuries become such a great concern for the Tide, particularly at the skill positions. Amari Cooper effectively missed the entire LSU game with an ankle sprain, and while he will play this weekend, the extent of his participation and his overall effectiveness remain in question. Likewise, Kenny Bell suffered a heel injury against LSU, and was limping even as of Wednesday. Eddie Lacy, too, is suffering from a sprained ankle, which relegated him to the sideline in the final drive in Baton Rouge, and his carries figure to be limited tomorrow afternoon. As such, given the foregoing, players like T.J. Yeldon, Christion Jones, and Kevin Norwood will all be forced to shoulder greater responsibilities, and heretofore back-up players such as Marvin Shinn, Cyrus Jones, and Kenyan Drake could possibly be called upon to make an impact in meaningful situations.
The easiest way to take advantage of the Texas A&M defense is in the passing game, but AJ McCarron played very poorly against LSU, and he will go against the Aggies with a receiver corps limited by injuries, so he may have to rebound quickly and play some of his best football to move the 'Bama offense. Likewise, Alabama offensive tackles D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio played their best football of the season last weekend against Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, but will be tested heavily again this weekend and the passing game cannot be expected to flourish if Damontre Moore is causing havoc in the backfield. Perhaps the running game can control at the point of attack -- and to be sure Alabama will be looking to shorten the game and control time of possession by moving the football on the ground -- but true freshman T.J. Yeldon could have the heaviest workload of his young career.
All in all, it's another week and another SEC showdown for Alabama. The Aggies may not be quite as good as LSU, but they are very close and the Tide's numerous injuries could make this an even more difficult game. Even more of a concern, the match-up with the A&M offense is a a tough one, and it comes at a time when the 'Bama defense is somewhat reeling and looking to experiment with different base personnel packages. No two ways about it, by all objective accounts this appears to be a very difficult game for the Tide, and given that A&M took Florida and LSU to the final minutes, there is no reason to expect that they won't do the same with Alabama, but such are the realities for the Tide. National championships weren't mean to come easy, and if 'Bama is going to defend its crown it will simply have to find a way to yet again prevail in close games against a top opponent.
Hope for the best.