Nick Saban's defense will get a good look at what it would be like to match up with Oregon by facing a similar, high-powered offense this weekend against Texas A&M.
One of the most intriguing subplots in top-ranked Alabama’s game this weekend against Texas A&M is the matchup of the Aggies high-octane offense against the Tide’s bone-crunching defense.
The chess match between Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban—two of the top minds in the college game, with the former lauded for his offensive acumen and the latter being a noted defensive guru—should provide Alabama with a glimpse of the future should it go on to meet Oregon in the BCS National Championship Game.
While I will never profess to understand the BCS standings, one glance at the latest bowl projections from outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN shows an impending culture-clashing showdown between the Tide and the Ducks that most fans across the country are clamoring for.
Considering that the Ducks and the Aggies rank fourth and fifth nationally in total offense (with less than two yards separating their averages per game), this weekend will provide the Tide’s defense to see how they measure up to the no-huddle style employed by both Texas A&M and Oregon.
What are the similarities between the two of the nation’s top offenses, and how do they project against Alabama’s defense?
Here are five ways that the battle with Texas A&M’s offense would prepare Alabama for a potential showdown with Oregon.
Both the Aggies and the Ducks have new, but exciting faces that have emerged as two of the nation’s most dynamic trigger-men.
Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota are only redshirt freshmen, but both players have burst onto the national scene as playmakers that can beat you with their arms and legs.
Manziel is a bigger part of his team’s attack, accounting for nearly 400 yards of total offense per game—and is a better passer than Michigan’s Denard Robinson (whom the Tide shut down in the season opener).
But being that both players are central to the success of their respective offenses, the Tide will get a good idea of what to look for should they face Mariota down the road.
Alabama’s defensive keys: Against dual-threat quarterbacks, Alabama’s scheme tries to keep them confined in the pocket by clogging up the running lanes and keeping containment on the edges.
Oregon’s offense is lauded for the pace with which it overwhelms opponents—specifically, its ability to run an astounding number of plays in succession.
The tempo is critical for Chip Kelly’s club in wearing down teams and limiting a defense’s opportunities to substitute in the middle of drives.
Judging by the fact that the Ducks have run only seven more plays than the Aggies this season (739-732), this weekend will provide a significant test for the Tide’s ability to scheme against this type of attack while testing its depth on defense.
Alabama’s defensive keys: Defenses can’t get tired if they don’t allow long drives. The Tide is deep and talented enough to rotate enough players in series instead of between plays. Winning first down and forcing timely three-and-outs would help stunt A&M’s offense.
One of the most overlooked factors in the success of no-huddle offenses is the endurance of the offensive lines on those types of teams.
In the case of both Oregon and Texas A&M, each club has a front wall that is able to pass block and get to the second level in the running game with equal effectiveness in both phases.
The Aggies’ offensive line unit is bigger than the Ducks line by an average of 18 pounds per man, which may help them pose more of a challenge to the Tide’s defensive front.
The few teams that have been successful against Alabama in recent years have met the challenge of matching them in the trenches, and that would probably be the Tide’s biggest advantage should they face Oregon in the postseason.
Alabama’s defensive keys: Simply put, few teams can match Alabama’s size, speed, strength and depth in the trenches. The Tide should be able to wear down both the Aggies and the Ducks in a four-quarter game.
Both Texas A&M and Oregon have a variety of weapons to choose from in the skill positions.
While the Ducks’ tandem of De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner help give the Ducks the advantage in comparison with the Aggies’ running backs, A&M’s receiver group is more versatile of the two.
The Tide will have to deal with A&M’s pass-catching combo of Mike Evans and Ryan Swope—who form one of the SEC’s better receiving duos.
While the Aggies and the Ducks have different strengths, they both rely on identifying and taking advantage of individual matchups to create big plays in open space.
Alabama’s defensive keys: The key for the Tide is to be sound in its tackling fundamentals, maintain discipline and swarm to the ball without missing tackles in space.
Both Chip Kelly and Kevin Sumlin have enjoyed rapid ascents up the coaching ranks due to the wildly successful offensive systems each have put in place in their respective coaching stops.
Sumlin’s club—while remaining competitive and losing by one possession in each of its two losses—was less effective in home defeats against two of the SEC’s tougher defenses in LSU and Florida.
Since taking over the Ducks program in 2009, Kelly’s 43-6 record is second only to Saban’s 45-4 mark in that span amongst coaches at BCS schools—but he is 0-2 against SEC schools.
The Ducks have improved every year, and nationally there is no doubting that this is potentially the juiciest possible matchup in the BCS National Championship Game.
Considering Saban’s comments earlier this season on the proliferation of no-huddle offenses, matching wits against Sumlin’s offense—which averages 81 snaps per game—will be a barometer for how his defense could potentially do against Kelly’s attack (h/t, Andrew Gribble, al.com).
Alabama’s defensive keys: If there is one defensive coach you want on the sidelines to combat these high-flying offenses, it is clearly an innovator like Saban. The brilliance of his schemes lie in his defense’s ability to quickly adapt to whatever an offense throws at them. Expect Alabama’s defense to be up to the challenge of slowing down the Aggies this weekend.