Hope For the Best: Texas A&M edition

Visor Nation, stand up! Are these two guys Saban's equivalent of Kryptonite? - Scott Halleran

This one y'all, this one is going to be scary. Strap up, because it's going to be a long afternoon in the Land of the Aggie.

"Revenge... is like a rolling stone, which, when a man hath forced up a hill, will return upon him with a greater violence, and break those bones whose sinews gave it motion." - Jeremy Taylor, 17th century British theologian and political prisoner

Revenge: that sweet intoxicating liquor that has led many a man to ultimate demise by his own hand. Revenge is surely on the minds of those across the Crimson Tide fan base this day, even if the players and coaches themselves put off the notion as so much mental clutter. For almost a year, we have had our thirst for vengeance go unslaked, unmitigated, as the loss to Texas A&M in 2012 was the only mark on what would otherwise have been Alabama's second unblemished season in a mere four year span.

Despite winning the BCS Championship and exorcising the past demons of Notre Dame, for much of the time since our last defeat, we've been the nation of Israel, wandering the desert under the guarantee of one day reaching the Promised Land and throwing off the yoke of that defeat. Nick Saban is our Moses; his Process, our Commandments. He has led us back to where we are: we've crossed the Sinai and strode across the Plains of Moab. Now, we stand atop Mount Nebo, looking over a college landscape which we have come to dominate thoroughly...save for that one failing moment, or amalgam of failing moments, on November 10, 2012.

The time has come. We are approximately 24 hours away from our day of reckoning, the Crimson Tide's rebound match with Johnny Manziel, Coach Kevin Sumlin and the Texas A&M Aggies. One game into this season, we've learned that we are not the same team that took the field last year for that contest. Stronger in some respects, weaker in others. But for those who've walked the desert low these last 10 months, the only thing that matters now is vengeance.

From high atop a perch above the rest of college football, our team strikes fear into the hearts of opponents unfortunate enough to make the Tide's acquaintance. Bama has become the dreaded Eye of Sauron, the ultimate monotonous mechanical Evil Empire in the eyes of most fan bases, looking down from on high while the masses cower like hobbits in the shadows. There is brave talk, but more times than not, the results are a foregone conclusion when playing Alabama. Virginia Tech did their best to create the impression of being undaunted, but alas, their ruse was less than believable as even the Hokies knew their fate was ultimately sealed before kickoff.

But in this week's opponent...there is no fear to be detected. Their fans speak loudly and make bold, Texas-sized predictions, whether warranted or delusional. Their coach handles himself with the nouveau riche air of a man who has earned the pedigree of a champion. The quarterback...Good Lord, the quarterback apparently has no fear, either through bravery or stupidity or a combination of both. These Aggi are not our typical opponent, they are not our traditional SEC cannon fodder. They are a precision instrument of offensive execution. They are to offense what Bama is to defense. They hold themselves as if they've already accomplished that upon which they've set their sights, and they carry the unjustified swagger of a team that thinks its rightful place is at the top of the heap.

No, fear is not present in these Aggi, at least not in a forward-facing fashion. Somewhere in his darkest night, in a rare moment of clarity between malted hops and Scooby Doo costumes, maybe Johnny Football does indeed timidly graze against fear induced by the thought of a revenge-motivated Alabama defense. Maybe he has nightmares of a snorting C.J. Mosely tracking him down and brutalizing him. But if he does, he keeps those fears buried deep within his ever-protruding, self-aggrandizing breast. His smirk and arrogance cover any whiff of fear, and in his mind, he belongs in the same sentence with the best of all time.

Vengeance. Fear. Swagger. These are the memes of this contest. But despite this emotional content, there will be a game, bound by rules and the limits of human physical exertion, played on Kyle Field. Let's check our emotional baggage for the moment, and look at this game in more depth. We won't get into the X and O's so much, as that ground has already been tread by my RBR brethren. But let's focus on game dynamics, those trends which can hint at the multiple possible outcomes of this contest.

First, let's look at the things from which we draw our confidence.

  • We are led by Our Dark Lord, who has an amazing record of distributing revenge to those who have previously bested him. Thus far in his career at Alabama, Saban has gone 7-1 in "revenge" games, or games in which he lost the previous meeting. At LSU, his revenge game record was 8-1. That is an astounding quotient of success which points to the ability of Saban and his staff to diagnose the prior failings of his team, correct them through game-planning or personnel adaptations, and finally, to execute the plan flawlessly.
  • Alabama, under Saban, has traditionally played well on the road. In multiple interviews, Saban has talked about his team's amazing road record, attributing it to the increased focus of his team while traveling. The players are generally cloistered away from the demands of friends, family and girlfriends, factors that all contribute to game day clutter when the Tide plays at home. Saban, a creature of routine and schedule, said that it's easier to keep everyone on task when traveling because there is a specific itinerary, and the road environment gives him his best chance of controlling the flock and eliminating the ever-present demon of mental clutter.
  • Alabama is not the top ranked team in the nation without justification, as the Tide has what again projects to be one of the nation's top defenses, and an offense brimming with talent and experience. Other than the offensive line newcomers, the offensive unit has achieved historical numbers over the last few years, and there's no reason to believe the same won't ultimately prove true for this year's unit.

As strongly as we are positioned for another title run, it could all come crashing down in a matter of moments at the hands of one Johnny Football, much as it did in the previous meeting between the two teams. Make no mistake, this game represents the collision of philosophies, on football and on life. Sumlin is the anti-Saban: a young, hip coach, an offensive mastermind, a man who is willing to entertain the tomfoolery of one "20-year-old college kid" for the promise of production and a chance at the championship. Where Saban is a grinder, Sumlin is about explosiveness. And JFF is the anti-AJ: he is chaos and flashiness where AJ is order and game-management. He is the Joker to AJ's Dark Knight. Bama is defense, aTm is offense. Bama is hard work, discipline and blue collar: the Aggies are fun-loving, Hollywood, playboys of the football landscape. The two teams couldn't be more different, but you don't need me to tell you that.

It's not so much the X's and O's that form the basis of my current concern. On that front, Alabama could, and probably should, win handily. It's the "what if's" that bother me, as Texas A&M at this point is as unpredictable as a wounded cougar: they may ultimately bleed out this season, but not before they rip our dreams to shreds. In specific, here are the things which should rightfully cause anxiety...

  • Our offensive line proved in Week 1 that they, as was expected, are not the dominant unit we've enjoyed over the last two seasons. This line does not have the cohesive, "one heart, one mind" quality that last year's unit projected, as we've discussed multiple times. At least not at this point in their tenure. This is probably our biggest question mark, because as we saw against Virginia Tech, when the O line struggles, the entire offense struggles. Either we must assert our will at the point of attack, or alter our scheme to accommodate the change in personnel across the line. Is two weeks enough of a span for either of those things to transpire? We will only find out through trial by fire. The firing squad awaits on Kyle Field, as the line will be expected to make its most dramatic improvement before a national audience with national title aspirations hanging in the balance. Will they falter or will they flourish in this crucible? Only time will tell.
  • Mental clutter is a lurking demon, and there may not be a game this season that will have more potential focus-distracting obstacles than this one. The litany of side stories is almost nauseating: last season's game, revenge, JFF's on the field performance, JFF's off the field antics, an injury to a key defensive player for Alabama in Tomlinson, questions along the Bama offensive line, a lack of veteran tailback depth, a #1 ranking, the chance to three-peat as BCS champions, a chance to seize hold of the SEC West race and a spot in the SECCG... and of course, the recently introduced elephant in the room, the potential NCAA response to allegations that a recent former Tide player accepted inappropriate benefits during two of Alabama's title runs. We sometimes forget that, despite their on-field excellence and usually calm and polished public demeanor, these are still 18-to-22 year olds we are talking about. They are prone to these pressures, despite anything Dr. Kevin Elko and ODL could do to stave off distraction. They are only human, and are prone to the foibles of being such. This game will require an intense, laser-like focus. Can these young men, and their coaches, for that matter, be reasonably expected to tune out all else when the ball is kicked Saturday?
  • Doubt is a powerful weapon that is wielded behind the scenes, within the mind of the beholder. One can publicly present a stoic, concrete edifice when dealing with one's own failings. Doubt, however minute, can linger. Does doubt haunt the Tide after the anti-heroics of Manziel last year? In much the same way that $cam seemed charmed, wiggling out of mistakes and damning situations, JFF has been just as greasy, both on the field and off. When one appears to be superhuman, those who oppose him begin to doubt that they can muster what it takes to stop him. Doubt is like a potent, creeping neurotoxin: one need not consume but a drop for all hope to be lost and the body left ravaged and irreparable. Again, I repeat, these are young men, unchallenged in so many of life's tests. Do they have the fortitude and confidence to face off with their fleet-footed demon, the David that beheaded their Goliath, with a relentless determination to succeed?
  • Has Saban finally met his match in Sumlin? Many have tried, and many have failed. The greatest offensive minds of our time have been slain by Saban's defenses. Meyer, Mullen, Spurrier, Petrino...these men have all fallen before the bludgeon of Saban's defense. But unlike these other masters of the offensive arts, has Sumlin figured out how to exploit Saban's defensive genius? We don't have the on-the-field evidence to prove that yet, but last year's performance could be a glimpse of things to come. Go back and watch the game. Forget the narrative that Alabama won the second half, and that we shut JFF down completely after the first quarter. Though we played better, we still allowed soul-crushing big plays, which have come to be the Sumlin/ Manziel calling card. Even when preventing aTm scores, Bama let them extend drives, which kept the UA offense from evening the score. Sumlin seemed to anticipate Saban's every adjustment, and even when he couldn't conquer it in the moment, he at least neutralized the strength of Bama's vaunted D. Read the Smart Football article posted here a few days ago. The way that Sumlin and then-OC Kliff Kingsbury studied Saban's tendencies and exploited every possible weakness reminds me of...well, reminds me of the way ODL prepares for an opponent. The aTm in-game adjustments to the Tide's adjustments were solid, and actually, can be credited with winning them the game. In other words, Sumlin beat Saban at his own game and felled him with his own weapon of choice: preparation. As much as we would like to think of Saban cloistered away in his underground lair all off-season, laughing through his teeth while devising a maniacal "Destroy JFF" defensive scheme, maybe Sumlin just has Saban's number. Maybe Sumlin's offense is the kryptonite to Saban's Superman defense. Again, time will tell.
  • So you think Alabama will manhandle the aTm defense? Did you see the Bama- VT game? You may buy the narrative that aTm's defensive line is not nearly as talented as the one VT fielded. But what would lead you to the assumption that we'll fair much better? We have one game's worth of tape on this offensive line. And it was not very flattering, for the most part. Truth told, we really don't know what to expect out of the Bama line, and anyone who tells you he or she is 100% sure the line will be better is not being honest. We all couch that doubt deep within our psyches, at least those who understand the dynamics of the game. I'm not saying it's a probability, but it's more of a possibility than many of us are willing to admit.
  • Also, the return of suspended aTm defenders could make more of an impact than anticipated. Yes, the Aggies aren't terribly stout on defense to begin with, and yes, they are banged up. However, do the Aggies have enough to stop Alabama if the O line continues to struggle? They have SEC caliber talent, and so the answer is a resounding yes. No one thought aTm's defense would be able to contain the Alabama offensive attack last year, and unfortunately, we all know how that ended up. As bammer has pointed out many times this week, the return of veteran, experienced starters on the Aggie defense will change the complexion of their scheme. Their run defense will be more stout than it was in their two previous contests. Maybe Rice and Sam Houston State had success because of these missing players, and we must take that into consideration. As a matter of fact, it's not just a point to ponder, but something upon which we can count: the defense that played the first two games for aTm is not the defense Bama will face Saturday. They represent yet another card in a deck of wild cards, and truthfully, we don't know exactly what kind of hand Texas A&M holds defensively.
  • Finally, JFF is a weapon, not a liability. As much as we'd like to see him crack under the pressure and increased spotlight, he's not likely to do that. Those of his ilk thrive with a chip on the shoulder, playing the bad boy "he hate me" role to the fullest extent. He is a patron saint of that renegade streak that some of the game's most successful quarterbacks possess. Is he an insolent, excuse-making, bong-toking child? Probably so. But he is one that can run and pass with equal deftness. He offers the Aggie offensive coaches the same "pick your poison" mindset that that "big QB from Georgia" offered Gus Malzahn while at the Barn in 2010. You can stop the pass, and you can stop the run. But can you effectively do both? Saban may use the Rip/ Liz tactic mentioned this week to defend JFF, a scheme that's worked in the past on mobile, elusive quarterbacks who can throw with accuracy. But there's the JFF factor in this case: half luck, half talent, and half some sort of Texican black magic that allows the cat to end up on his feet and out of the briar patch, come what may. Can Alabama hit him squarely, or cage him in? If they do, JFF may still be able to shred our secondary. He is the biggest wild card of them all, and last year, he nearly dealt us out of the championship with his ability to keep a defense on its heels.

We like to think we have the advantage in this game. And we probably do, logistically speaking. But aTm has more than a puncher's chance because they match up favorably with Alabama in so many ways. They can score so many points in so little time. The battle between the Alabama offense and the aTm defense will likely be a mismatch in our favor, but on the other side of the ball, it will undoubtedly be "good on good." And right now, we know more about the Aggie offense than we do about our own defense. That should be cause for concern to anyone who follows the Crimson Tide football program as we head west for the Showdown at the Collie graveyard known as Kyle Field.

When the teams take the field on Saturday, nothing else will matter but what transpires between those grid marks. All trolling and trash talk will cease to be relevant. Will Alabama let vengeance be the fuel to their competitive fire, powering them over the finish line for the win? Or, as mentioned in the quote above, will revenge roll back on the Tide like a stone, crushing our collective hopes for a three-peat?

Only time will tell...hope for the best.

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