By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 15, 2013
If last year’s Alabama-Texas A&M caused jaws to drop at the sight of Johnny Manziel, Saturday’s game against the Aggies are going to result in a lot of Monday-morning business for dentists and orthodontists across the South.
Prior to this season, the debate over Manziel focused on whether he was the best spread quarterback of the last decade, or maybe the best spread quarterback of all time. Those discussions are in the past. Manziel is in the discussion for best college football player of all time, at any position. He’s a hands-down lock for the title of best quarterback ever.
Think about the names he has displaced. Manning, Tebow, Namath, Unitas, pick whatever name you like. They’re all in Johnny Manziel’s rear-view mirror.
You don’t have to like the guy. You don’t have to buy his story that he signed bushels of autographs out of the goodness of his Sharpie. You do have to respect his ability, even if you don’t respect him.
Alabama brought the country’s best pass efficiency defense into College Station. Although Alabama’s ranking was based on just one game, Alabama has continuously put out top-10 efficiency defenses under Nick Saban. A strong Alabama pass defense is about as much of a surprise as is the revelation that the ocean is damp.
Manziel absolutely carved it up. Senior cornerback John Fulton, who almost singlehandedly shut down the Aggies’ outside passing game in the second half of the 2012 contest, was made to look like a freshman walk-on. Cyrus Jones gave it a valiant effort, but in the end found himself the victim of a 95-yard touchdown pass, among others. Manziel didn’t have quite the success he had in 2012 scrambling with the ball, but he had more than enough to break almost every meaningful defensive record contained in the Alabama media guide.
Fortunately for Alabama, Texas A&M’s defense was as bad as its offense was good. Alabama gave up more yards than it ever had in the past, and still won. The Crimson Tide has never given up 42 points and won a game, ever. You have to go back to the Archie Manning days at Ole Miss to find numbers like these in a game Alabama still won. It makes no sense whatsoever that Alabama could hold on to win this game — much less be driving for a 21-point lead before T.J. Yeldon’s costly fumble — no matter how good Manziel is.
Most people expect Manziel to leave for the NFL after this season. If he does so before the Texas A&M coaching staff has a chance to bolster its defensive roster, the Aggies will be fortunate to have a winning season in 2014.
Because Johnny Manziel is that important. His downfield vision is good enough to do double-duty as an ultrasound machine in a cancer lab. His scrambling ability and plain-old good balance trumps any dual-threat quarterback to ever play the game. Cam Newton and Tim Tebow were tanks with speed; Manziel is a creation so unique there exists no fitting allegory. He seems to be made of rubber, with the arm strength of a Major League Baseball closer and the accuracy of a Marine sharpshooter.
He also has leadership abilities in overabundance, and confidence one can’t measure. All of that added up to Texas A&M coming within 7 points of Alabama despite the fact that Alabama beat the Aggies around the field like the still-a-Big-12-team-at-heart that they are.
Alabama’s A.J. McCarron actually had superior Total Quarterback Ranking numbers once the game was over, but McCarron on his best day – and, start to finish, this game was probably his best as a Crimson Tider – is still looking up at Manziel. Manziel made two errant throws in this game, and paid maximum penalty for both. Cyrus Jones’ interception in the end zone was on Manziel, but Vinnie Sunseri’s pick-six came as the result of a tipped ball that, while it probably never should have been thrown in the first place, speaks more to Sunseri’s ability to do something with the ball after the interception than it did about Manziel’s mistake.
Alabama was playing just its second game, and while it’s unfair to project this team’s championship aspirations off a limited body of work, that’s what the Five Point Breakdown is all about.
- We all might have been snookered. This is in reference to the hand-wringing over Alabama’s performance in the running game against Virginia Tech. Alabama came with a much more complex game plan this week, and mixed up looks and sets to help the running backs find favorable matchups. There are three explanations for this, and all could be true at the same time: Texas A&M isn’t as good defensively as Virginia Tech (definitely true), Alabama simply worked out some kinks from the first game to the second (also plausible), or the Tide hid a large part of its plan away from prying Texas A&M eyes (easily believable). Only time will give an answer to this question, but things are looking much more positive than they were two weeks ago.
- Back end of the defense needs work. The injury to Deion Belue didn’t help matters, either. While Belue may miss Colorado State for precautionary purposes, Manziel was able to easily exploit the boundary cornerback position, no matter who was playing there. Geno Smith didn’t get much time on the field – meaning that, unless he’s still being disciplined for his arrest in August, he isn’t challenging for playing time at corner. Jones had his good moments and bad moments, and Fulton was better than the results showed, but neither played well enough to lock down the spot. There are several teams left on the schedule with large, physical receivers who can cause similar mismatch problems to the one Mike Evans presented for Texas A&M. Alabama might have to go back to the drawing board to find a solution.
- Offensive gameplan was masterful. Playcalling takes too much of the blame when players don’t execute, and doesn’t get enough of the credit otherwise. Alabama’s offense was at times its best defense Saturday, with several sustained drives that kept Manziel and his offensive teammates sidelined. Presuming Texas A&M’s defensive line isn’t completely horrific – and unfortunately, the prospect of that very thing is certainly up for discussion – Alabama developed offensive balance out of the gate and maintained it throughout the contest. For the entirety of the second and third quarters, and arguably the fourth quarter as well, Alabama was never the least bit predictable. It certainly helps playcalling when the offensive line is establishing a new line of scrimmage 5 yards upfield on every snap, but the plan itself was one of Doug Nussmeier’s best since arriving at Alabama. Alabama’s commitment to first-down passing early in the game kept running lanes open throughout, and the call on the Kenny Bell touchdown against swap coverage was the perfect call at the perfect moment. Devotees of the running game might want Alabama to just line it up and smash it 60 times a game, but Alabama has to throw effectively to win, and did just that.
- Wide receiver group sees some rising, others falling. Amari Cooper’s sophomore season continues to be somewhat mysterious. After catching a few short passes against Virginia Tech, Cooper caught just two balls against Texas A&M and added a couple of drops to his season total. Fortunately, DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood picked up the slack, and O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler continue to develop at tight end. Howard, in particular, showed why he so coveted in recruiting and his catch on a seam route late in the game was probably the biggest non-scoring play of the day for the Alabama offense. Norwood was hurt in the game, however, appearing to tweak an ankle. Alabama will probably sit him against Colorado State, but he’ll be needed the rest of the way. It’s not clear what Cooper’s current issue is, but with his talent, all smart bets are on him breaking out of his minor slump sooner rather than later.
- Not all of Bama’s stars have been the expected “stars.” Vinnie Sunseri obviously tops this list. Including the 2013 A-Day game, Sunseri has returned interceptions for touchdowns in three straight games at this point. Due to his struggles against some HUNH offenses in 2012, many fans had Sunseri on a countdown clock, waiting to see how long it would take Landon Collins to grab his job. Collins himself has played well in two games, but Jarrick Williams might be the biggest surprise in the secondary. True freshman A’Shawn Robinson has been the rare defensive lineman that could make an impact in this first season. Jalston Fowler has been a solid contributor, and for Kenyan Drake to go from suspended to getting key carries late in the game against Texas A&M is a bit of a surprise. But not all surprises so far have been of the positive variety. In addition to Cooper and the boundary corner group, E Adrian Hubbard has mostly been a man lost in the shuffle. Both Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall have been more impactful at that position so far. The offensive line threatened to be listed en masse under this header following Virginia Tech, but the Texas A&M performance got all of them off the hook. Then there is the yearly list of names of spring contributors who have yet to carry over their position on the spring depth chart to the fall (TE Harrison Jones, CB Geno Smith).