By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 9, 2013
For once, Alabama seemed to have been graced with a manageable schedule. After years of the Crimson Tide suffering through Roy Kramer-era schedules rife with curious off-week placement, unbalanced off-week rotations with opponents and frequent stacking of contender-quality opposition, the 2013 Tide schedule must have looked like a vacation at first glance.
While Ole Miss is an improving team and Auburn should never be automatically checked off due to the nature of the rivalry, Alabama’s three toughest games heading into the year were Virginia Tech, LSU and Texas A&M. The Hokies are already in the rear-view mirror – and the win column. The Tide completely misses the SEC East trinity of Georgia-Florida-South Carolina, at least until the SEC Championship Game.
But questions raised during the Virginia Tech win suddenly make the off-week prior to the Texas A&M matchup – and its early-season placement on the schedule – look more like a hindrance than a help. Alabama’s offensive line bordered on complete failure against the Hokies, never consistently getting into a groove either in terms of run blocking or pass blocking. Meanwhile, the Aggies’ defense is, as expected, not exactly up to standard at the moment – but Texas A&M has had two weeks now to tweak lineups and get the Johnny Manziel circus somewhat under control.
No one knows what Alabama will look like on offense Saturday, but the key to winning is the same now as it ever was: Stop Johnny Manziel from staging a repeat of his performance last November in Tuscaloosa, which led to Alabama’s only loss and effectively delivered the Heisman Trophy to Manziel’s front door – where, presumably, he signed for it.
Texas A&M’s offense is basically the Art Briles-designed offense head coach Kevin Sumlin picked up while head coach at Houston. It’s an up-tempo passing spread, which by itself isn’t exactly special, but in the hands of a player like Manziel can be hard to defend. Few teams defended it in 2012 as well as Alabama, LSU and Florida – and all three of those teams share similar characteristics of size and speed. But when Manziel is in a groove, it’s almost impossible to stop. Alabama counters with its pro-style attack built around multiple tight ends and play-action, but the Tide’s opener against Virginia Tech exposed several weak spots.
Everyone who has an even basic understanding of the sport knows the situation here: A&M’s Johnny Manziel vs. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron. McCarron is the classic pro-style quarterback: tall, strong-armed, accurate and a good field leader. Manziel is the ultimate spread-style quarterback: quick on his feet, accurate and gets better as the play breaks down. McCarron’s first game was not pretty. In addition to the regular early-season rust, McCarron looked more and more rattled as the game went along, in no small part due to the poor play of the Alabama offensive line. While no one expects to see a repeat against the Aggies, McCarron will have to adapt to a less effective offensive line in 2013 than the ones he’s grown accustomed to, at least in the early going. The depth situation favors Texas A&M. Matt Joeckel started the opener after Manziel was suspended for half the game, and he looked comfortable running the Aggies’ base offense. Kenny Hill was first off the bench against Sam Houston State, and looked equally adept. Blake Sims is McCarron’s backup, and while he has talent, no one has ever seen Sims running Bama’s offense outside of blowout situations. As for Manziel himself, it was said in TideFans’ wrapup article last November that Manziel was challenging Doug Flutie for the title of best freestyle quarterback of all time. It already appears, thanks to the games at the end of the 2012 season and the two at the beginning of the 2013 season, that he is beyond Flutie and may very well be the best college quarterback of all time. As good as McCarron is, this category goes solidly to the Aggies. Advantage: Texas A&M
This is where it becomes difficult to compare what one team did versus an opponent with multiple NFL-caliber players on its defense (Alabama) against what another team did against a couple of mid-level, overmatched teams (Texas A&M). Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon had a solid, if unspectacular outing against Virginia Tech that looks more impressive when one considers the offensive line struggles. The big question mark at Alabama is what the depth chart looks like. Kenyan Drake, the presumed backup to Yeldon prior to the year, didn’t dress out, and his status for this week hasn’t been discussed yet by the coaches. Against Virginia Tech, Dee Hart was Yeldon’s backup, followed by true freshmen Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry. Jalston Fowler played mostly H-back, but did get some work at running back as well. Of that group, Hart did the best job blocking for McCarron, but Tenpenny was the best runner of the bunch. Henry looked like what he was, a true freshman playing his first game, while Fowler was understandably tentative in his first game back from major knee surgery. Across the field, Texas A&M brings Ben Malena, probably the gold standard in the SEC for a spread running back right now. While Malena is approximately the size of Alabama’s Hart, he has been very productive thus far, gaining 173 yards on 22 carries (7.9 avg.) and is also a weapon in the passing game. Texas A&M is still developing depth behind him, with Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams getting most of the work. Carson stands out because of his size (6’1”, 220), which makes him bigger than a typical spread back. Even though A&M has the better stats right now, it’s too early in the season to make the call based on numbers, particularly in light of the competition each team has faced. Alabama gets the edge because of Yeldon’s proven body of work, and the better depth situation in Tuscaloosa. Advantage: Alabama
As much as Manziel was a factor in last year’s upset of Alabama, so were receivers Ryan Swope and Mike Evans. Swope has since left College Station, but Evans is back and he is picking up right where he left off. So far he’s caught 13 passes for 239 yards (18.4 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, but it’s his measurements that give Alabama trouble. Evans goes around 6’5” and 230 pounds, and plays even bigger than that. It took Alabama three quarters to figure out a way to neutralize him last year, and he’s only gotten better since then. Depending on whether the Aggies trot out a tight end to start the game, they’ll use either three or four wideouts in the base set. The rest of the lineup isn’t nearly as solid as Evans. True freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, who is basically a clone of Evans, figures to start if he’s healthy. The Darius Hanks-like Sabian Holmes will be the third starter, with Malcome Kennedy, Derel Walker and Ja’Quay Williams rounding out the top group. The Aggies also welcome back Edward Pope from suspension this week. As for as tight ends go, Cameron Clear and Nehemiah Hicks seem mostly like afterthoughts in Sumlin’s offense. Alabama counters with Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones as its top group. Chris Black, Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau add depth. At tight end, Alabama is still trying to develop a reliable rotation from a group that primarily includes Brian Vogler, O.J. Howard, Brandon Greene, Harrison Jones and H-back Jalston Fowler. In a comparison of each team’s top dog, Alabama’s Cooper has the superior body of work in big games. Because of scheme, tight end is a wash at worst for Alabama, and likely an edge due to numbers. That brings the meat of the argument to the second through sixth receivers, and Alabama’s group has proven more and has more experience in big games. This one is close, but the Tide gets it. Advantage: Alabama
Prior to the season, Alabama led A&M in this category, but no more. Alabama has faced tough defensive lines before, and Virginia Tech’s unit was certainly that, but compare the results from games last year against LSU and Notre Dame with what Alabama put on the board against the Hokies. The entire line had problems, with only right guard Anthony Steen seeming to play to a standard. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio had his worst game as a Crimson Tider, while brother Arie Kouandjio was pulled in favor of Kellen Williams at left guard. Neither player blew away the competition, but Williams was more consistent. Kouandjio, though, will start this game. Right tackle Austin Shepherd had problems with footwork and angles on pass blocking, and new center Ryan Kelly spent too much time in the prone position. If Alabama doesn’t already have the problems fixed, Saturday will be a long day. Texas A&M counters with Jake Matthews at left tackle and Cedric Ogbuehi at right tackle, Mike Matthews at center, and Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi at the guards. Alabama might be able to exploit the right side, where Ifedi is a freshman and Ogbuehi is a converted guard, but so far the Aggies have been solid here. Shep Klinke and Garrett Gramling give the Aggies some experience off the bench. We’d chalk up the Virginia Tech game as an anomaly if the problems didn’t look so rooted in the basics. Advantage: Texas A&M
If Alabama is worried about its offensive line, the Aggies are worried about everything on the defensive side of the ball. Both Rice and Sam Houston State put up startling amounts of rushing yardage, and things didn’t get any better when Texas A&M lost a starting safety to injury against SHSU. The Aggies run a 4-3 base, while Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme looked just as formidable as ever against Virginia Tech. Alabama’s defensive ratings are almost guaranteed to take a hit after this game – that No. 1 ranking in pass efficiency defense, for instance, has almost zero chance of remaining intact – but Manziel is quite likely to find the road much bumpier than he did against Rice or Sam Houston State.
Texas A&M will get a boost with the return of end Gavin Stansbury from a suspension, but the Aggies’ best end, Julien Obioha, is listed as questionable for this game with an undisclosed injury. The middle of the line is where the Aggies’ strongest defender, tackle Kirby Ennis, can be found, but the situation around him is fluid. True freshman Hardreck Walker has moved up to challenge Alonzo Williams for playing time. Another freshman, Jay Arnold, is also expected to see time. Isaiah Golden and Daeshon Hall will add depth. Alabama’s line had a strong first game, especially senior end Ed Stinson. Stinson will start opposite Jeoffrey Pagan outside of nosetackle Brandon Ivory. Alabama will, in all likelihood, have to replace Dalvin Tomlinson for part or all of the season. Tomlinson, a co-starter with Pagan, went down in practice with a knee injury and had surgery. At press time, Alabama had not yet announced a prognosis. With Tomlinson out, true freshman Jonathan Allen will move up, along with sophomore LaMichael Fanning. Redshirt freshman Dakota Ball could also see time, along with Jack linebackers Xzavier Dickson and Anthony Orr, both of whom are big enough to move to a down position. Darren Lake, Korren Kirven, Dakota Ball and A’Shawn Robinson will back up Ivory in the middle, and Robinson and Ball could also play end. A troubling stat of note is that, even against Rice and Sam Houston State, Texas A&M manages to rank only 71st in third-down conversions allowed. The return of Stansbury will help, but he has never been a starter before and can’t solve the problem on his own. Advantage: Alabama
The biggest name among those returning from suspension for Texas A&M is linebacker Steven Jenkins, who could be one of the SEC’s best players at the position. In his absence, A&M has gone with a lineup of Donnie Baggs, Tommy Sanders and Tyrell Taylor at the position, with mixed results. Linebacker was already a soft spot for this team in the preseason before Jenkins’ suspension. Tyrone Taylor and Nate Askew add depth. Alabama counters with C.J. Mosley in the middle, flanked by Trey DePriest on the weakside and some combination of Adrian Hubbard, Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson at the outside linebacker spots. This unit opened up with a solid showing against Virginia Tech, although there were still opportunities for improvement. Depth is in good shape, with Tana Patrick and Reuben Foster pushing for time inside and Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee getting time outside. Reggie Ragland is also available. The return of Jenkins shouldn’t be ignored, but Alabama has a big edge here with or without. Advantage: Alabama
The Aggie secondary was a problem spot prior to the season, as observers wondered how the combination of De’Vante Harris and Deshazor Everett would improve at corner, as well as how the new safety duo of Floyd Raven and Howard Matthews would perform. The grades so far are incomplete, thanks to suspensions and injuries. Raven was suspended for the first game, then broke his collarbone in the second. Harris has been gone for both games now. With Raven now hurt, one possibility is for Everett to move to safety, which would put Harris and Tramain Jacobs on the field at cornerback as starters together for the first time. If Everett stays at corner, look for either Toney Hurd or Clay Honeycutt to get the start in Raven’s spot. Whoever starts needs to do better than what the Aggies have experienced the last two seasons. Alabama might also have a change in its starting lineup at corner. Geno Smith returns from a suspension, and John Fulton was pulled in the Virginia Tech game in favor of Cyrus Jones. If Fulton starts again – and it should be noted that it was Fulton’s entry into the 2012 Alabama-Texas A&M game that marked the point beyond which Mike Evans stopped running wild through the Tide defense – he’ll do so next to Deion Belue, who had a fantastic debut against the Hokies. Vinnie Sunseri, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Jarrick Williams figure to get the most work at safety, while Landon Collins and Nick Perry offer depth. Bradley Sylve offers depth at corner. Despite Alabama’s lack of experience at the corner position opposite Belue, this one really isn’t that close. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama doesn’t yet know what it has in Cade Foster as a regular placekicker, but Texas A&M is having a devil of a time putting competent special teams on the field so far in 2013. Bad snaps, missed short kicks and other gaffes have made this unit a liability so far. Taylor Bertolet will start at kicker, and he has the leg to be a weapon, but his accuracy has been found lacking. The Aggies may lead the nation so far in net punting, but Drew Kaser has kicked only four times and the one time he kicked against Sam Houston State, the ball went 31 yards. Alabama’s Cody Mandell is a proven commodity at punter, likely the best in the conference. The return game would seem to favor Alabama given the limited amount of information so far, but the real issue for A&M is Bertolet’s struggles have seemed to carry over from 2012. Still, this one is close, as Foster has yet to be tested under a pressure situation. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Texas A&M in two. Alabama controls both OL-DL matchups, but not by much. At face value – and particularly due to the degree in which Alabama leads the defensive categories – this would seem to spell “blowout.” But things aren’t always what they seem.
Manziel’s ability at quarterback doesn’t come out to a one-to-one comparison. With Manziel on the field, Texas A&M is basically playing with 12 or 13 offensive players against Alabama’s 11. Or that’s what it feels like, anyway.
There are also some other issues simmering below the surface at both schools. Manziel’s offseason was out of control, and the way the Texas A&M administration took an all-in approach to playing him without a believable investigation speaks to a school milking its cash cow for everything he’s worth. Manziel’s subsequent bump of head coach Kevin Sumlin in the opener and on-field taunting in both his first two games is indicative of a player who knows he’s above the law – which, at some point this season, threatens to sow seeds of discontent among his teammates. Whether that happens in A&M’s third game of the year is yet to be seen.
For Alabama, these haven’t been days of wine and roses, either. Attitudes have been rumored to be a problem dating back to the spring, when four players were dismissed from the team after arrests. Geno Smith’s suspension on a DUI case adds to the list, as does a general feeling of entitlement on a team that has already accomplished, perhaps, too much for its own good. Nick Saban is not currently in Sumlin’s position of having to answer to his own quarterback and a school administration serving as the quarterback’s own personal legal defense team, but as the 2010 edition of the Crimson Tide proved, all the talent in the world won’t stand up to a leadership vacuum.
If this game were contained only to the facts on the field, we’d be looking at a close Alabama win. Manziel’s talent makes up for a lot, but the Alabama defense will get its share of stops, while the Aggie defense has yet to show it can keep anything contained, particularly on the ground. What it might come down to – to channel Bill Curry – is focus. Is Alabama “content?” Or is the Crimson Tide still hungry for something to prove? Is Manziel truly as unbeatable as he seems, or is it too much to ask for him to prop up a defense that looks, at this juncture, like one of the worst in the conference?
Whoever wins will have to play much better than has been shown so far in 2013. A similar effort to the one Alabama put forth against Virginia Tech will – not might, will – end in an Alabama loss. Similarly, if Texas A&M doesn’t bring better defensive focus to this game, T.J. Yeldon might run himself into the record books.
Texas A&M 27