Two teams enter Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday afternoon with the same mindset, yet on different paths. For one, national title hopes hang in the balance of each snap, coming off a thriller in Baton Rouge, La. The other has gained the respect of the SEC already but is hungry for more.
Chandler Smith, sports editor for The Battalion student newspaper at Texas A&M, said the hype surrounding the game is the largest he’s ever seen.
“There’s a lot of buzz about it right now,” he said. “This is our last big game, and it’s very similar to the LSU and Florida game because A&M has a ton of momentum coming into this game, and I think everyone has bought into this team and coaching staff.”
Many did not expect to see Texas A&M come right out of the gates after joining the SEC this season. In fact many had the Aggies struggling, while new member Missouri was supposed to be an offensive forced to be reckoned with.
“Mike Sherman had a more pro-style offense while he was here,” Smith said. “People would call this offense an Air Raid and it’s similar to what is run at West Virginia. I think our offensive coordinators and coaching staff have done a great job in the first year.”
But first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin’s commitment to his redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel has proven to pay dividends, and both the program and its quarterback has risen to prominent status on a national level.
“What the staff has done well is to adjust to Johnny Mainzell,” Smith said. “They are adjusting as much as he is and just like any spread offense, it is predicated on spreading out the offense and getting the ball to as many play makers as possible.”
Many Tide faithful have become immune to the danger of dual-threat quarterbacks ever since former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was shut down in the 2009 SEC Championship en-route to a national title that year. While the defense has become faster and stronger throughout the years under Nick Saban, it doesn’t necessarily mean Manziel could not shock the world.
Many, including AggieYell.com publisher Jeff Tarpley, in a Nov. 6 post, said the Aggie offense can move the ball if properly led by Manziel:
“Thus, no matter how well you run the ball, you are going to get shots down the field at Alabama and you’ve got to take advantage of them. A&M is well-equipped to do this in three ways. First, A&M’s offensive line has progressed during the season and tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are getting better in pass pro. Second, quarterback Johnny Manziel is an atypical SEC quarterback. He’s mobile, has great vision, and can extend plays which gives him a better chance to hit people down the field. Three, outside receiver Mike Evans is dangerous after the catch and can generate those types of gains if the first tackler misses him.”
Smith continued his praise for Manziel.
“He’s a special player,” Smith said. “He has put up similar numbers to Tebow and can turn a broken play into a touchdown like he did against Arkansas this year.”
While only listed at just over six feet, the Kerville, Texas, native has reminded some of Tebow in his prime. But Tide head coach Nick Saban himself said that the young quarterback reminded him of former Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.
Smith said Manziel’s success has to be due in part to a severely underrated pass protection up front.
“It is ironic that A&M came into the league and how are they’ve been able to transition into the strong offensive line that they are,” he said. “I don’t think Alabama has faced an offensive line as talented as A&M’s. They have fantastic tackles guarding Manziel.”
The stout A&M offensive line led by junior Luke Joeckel has allowed the true freshman to make plays with his feet and given him time to look downfield. But that is where Smith said Alabama’s defense can take advantage by applying pressure.
“If Manziel isn’t able to see the play right away that is where Alabama can take advantage because they close so well,” he said. “This is by far the best defense this offensive line has faced this far. The closest thing they’ve faced was LSU and Florida but trio of Alabama’s linebackers will pose a major challenge.”
Despite coming from a conference often known for its lack of defense, A&M has been able to keep SEC opponents at bay.
“I think the success of the defense has been overlooked, especially on the line of scrimmage,” Smith said. “They really did win the line of scrimmage against Florida and LSU. You look at a player like defensive end Damontre Moore who is a top NFL prospect, it always helps to have an elite pass rusher.”
But while the Aggie defense seems to have turned a corner, Smith said they can be easily exposed against a surprisingly hot Alabama offense.
“Alabama poses much more of a challenge because they have a quarterback that can throw prolifically, and they have a running back that can burn you too,” he said. “It’s really tough because Alabama is so balanced. One thing I think Alabama can do to expose A&M is in the secondary because we will have to use schemes to mask weaknesses on defense to shut down McCarron.”
Smith said it will be tough for the SEC’s most explosive offense to move the ball on the nation’s most efficient defense, and that may be key to the Tide’s success, which he predicts to be a close one.
“Look for an early game plan for A&M to strike early as they’ve done all year,” he said. “But in the end, I have Alabama 24-20 in a close game.”