That was exhausting.
A few initial impressions from Bama's thrilling win in College Station:
Folks, after much hand-wringing over the past couple of weeks, we might just have an offense after all. Following a generally poor showing against a game Virginia Tech squad, the big uglies showed up and showed out in this one. AJ said it best when he commented after the game that his jersey never came close to getting dirty. He had basically all day to throw the ball, and was generally on-time and accurate after persevering through what appeared to be some butterflies early. Indeed, the passing game was something to behold, as AJ connected with no less than ten different receivers en route to a 334 yard, four TD performance and, perhaps most importantly, no INTs. DeAndrew White was the leading receiver with four catches for 82 yards and a TD, but most encouraging was the coming out party for one OJ Howard. Young OJ lived up to his billing in this one, catching three balls for 68 yards and looking like an utter nightmare as a vertical threat from the TE position that SEC defenses will have to deal with for the foreseeable future. The run game was nothing short of devastating as TJ Yeldon carried it 25 times for 149 yards, with Jalston Fowler and Kenyan Drake spelling TJ more than admirably. From an offensive perspective this game would have to rival last year's tilt with Notre Dame as the most dominating in recent memory. Time will tell how much of this success can be attributed to the efficiency of the offense vs. the ineptitude of an A&M defense that managed to somehow perform below expectations that aren't that high to begin with given the overall lack of talent on the depth chart.
Unfortunately, any objective fan watching this one has to have serious reservations about the defense. It was obvious from the jump that little progress had been made toward corralling Johnny Manziel. The final stats suggest that, if anything, Manziel and the Aggies' coaching staff learned more about Saban's defense than Saban and Smart did about him. At the final bell, Manziel had amassed a cool 562 of the 628 total yards gained by the Aggies, an appalling total against a Saban defense and believed to be the most ever surrendered by Alabama. The bulk of these yards went to WR Mike Evans, who caught seven passes for an absurd 279 yards. Yes, folks, that is basically 40 yards a catch, an absolutely mind-blowing number that would be difficult to match on a video game. None of the several DBs who tried to cover Evans seemed to have any success whatsoever, and outside of a ball bouncing off Jarrick Williams's helmet, ultimately resulting in Vinnie Sunseri's fabulous pick-six, the pass coverage was subpar most of the day. Saban intimated several times that there were multiple mental breakdowns on this side of the ball, and one would have to assume that most of those came from the secondary. The defense did acquit itself fairly well in the run game, holding the Aggie RBs under four yards per carry, though Manziel had some success with his legs as well, earning 98 yards on 14 carries himself. To be sure, this performance was atypical of a Saban coached defense and does not portend well against an upstart Ole Miss bunch in a couple weeks, an LSU squad that seems to have found a passing game, and a potential rematch in Atlanta against Aaron Murray and the formidable UGA attack.
We have potentially devastating news on the injury front, as Deion Belue spent the entire second half in street clothes with a boot on his foot, protecting a toe injury of unknown severity. If the diagnosis is turf-toe Belue could be out for several weeks and, like Eddie Lacy in 2011, could be plagued for the balance of the season. To be sure, the depth at CB is questionable at best. John Fulton in particular was an absolute disaster in pass coverage all afternoon. Unfortunately he has done nothing at this point to suggest that he can be a viable contributor on a contending SEC defense. Saban mentioned after the game that some other players may have to step up and play a role at certain positions, and anyone paying attention would have to assume that the CB position would offer the most opportunity for a young player to step in and make an impact. I'm guessing we see Maurice Smith and Johnathan Cook eased into the lineup in some fashion over the next few weeks. We'll obviously be rooting for them to do well, but as we learned in 2010, having multiple freshmen get significant action in the secondary can be a nerve-wracking proposition. You can bet that fixing the secondary will be priority one on Saban's agenda. The team was also uncharacteristically undisciplined, racking up 12 penalties for 104 yards, LT Cyrus Kouandjio leading the way with three false-start penalties. This is an area that will have to be cleaned up if the Tide are to have a chance at running the table. TJ Yeldon had a late fumble that could have been disastrous, an issue that has plagued him a bit in his career, and Saban can't be happy with the team starting slowly against the Aggies for a second consecutive year. Spotting the best teams on the schedule a couple of TDs is not a recipe for sustained success. Special teams were sound with Cade Foster converting all of his kicks, Mandell punting well, and coverage units successfully containing the Aggies' returners.
Defensive problems notwithstanding you have to feel relief any time you go on the road in the SEC and knock off a top ten team, particularly one with Johnny Manziel at QB. Outside of Belue the team seems to have emerged from this one relatively healthy and should be able to iron out some issues against a struggling Colorado State team next weekend before Ole Miss and their version of the HUNH that drove the defense crazy today comes rolling into Tuscaloosa. Perhaps most puzzling for Bama fans is that we still don't know much about this team. As Jerry Hinnen at CBSSports puts it:
The good is that if the defense from Saturday ever shows up the same week as the offense from Week 1, the Tide could be vulnerable to several teams on its remaining schedule (weak as it is). The bad is that if the offense that edged A&M shows up with the defense that smothered Virginia Tech, there might not be a team in the country capable of staying with them.
I think that pretty well sums it up. Watching this team progress will likely be simultaneously maddening and exhiliarating as they show flashes of the abundance of raw talent on the roster while suffering through the inevitable growing pains resulting from the significant turnover we've seen in the past few seasons. If everything breaks right we might just be back in Pasadena in search of a fourth BCS title in five seasons, but there is plenty of work to do if this goal is to be achieved. Enjoy this one and look forward to a more relaxing Saturday next week.