It's Not Too Early for Nick Saban to Think About How to Stop Johnny Manziel
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
November 10, 2012—the day that almost ended the Alabama dynasty.
That was the day that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel sliced and diced his way to a dramatic 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa, essentially clinching the Heisman Trophy and putting Alabama's hopes of repeating as BCS national champions on hold.
But pain is only temporary, and thanks to wins by Baylor over then-No. 1 Kansas State and Stanford over then-No. 2 Oregon, Alabama found itself in Miami Gardens in mid-January to play for the crystal football.
Despite the fact that Alabama achieved its ultimate goal in 2012, knocking off the Aggies will be at the forefront of the minds of Nick Saban and staff this offseason.
That's easier said than done.
In addition to Manziel, head coach Kevin Sumlin will return a 1,000-yard receiver in Mike Evans, All-American left tackle Jake Matthews and a running back corps led by Ben Malena that rivals the group in Tuscaloosa.
With Alabama having a bye before the Week 3 showdown and the Aggies enjoying two tune-ups to start the season, this matchup will have that "Game of the Century" feel in College Station.
So, just how will Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart slow down the Manziel express?
Well, the fact that the game won't come immediately after another big game is a big help for Alabama.
Last season, the matchup with the Aggies came immediately after the Crimson Tide's 21-17 win at LSU—a game in which T.J. Yeldon scored the game-winning touchdown on a screen pass with 51 seconds left.
Saban has a 24-hour rule for celebrating victories, but getting young college men to focus on the next opponent after a dramatic win like that is no easy task.
From an X's and O's standpoint, the easy answer to slow down Manziel is to prevent the big plays. That's what haunted Alabama in last season's meeting, especially in the first half.
Take a look at the first play of the highlights above.
It was linebacker C.J. Mosley's (No. 32 in crimson) job to spy Manziel, but the consensus All-American bit on Manziel's pump fake and was way out of position to make a play when he took off up the middle on the designed run.
That's not a knock against Mosley. For all of the talk surrounding Manziel's SEC-best 1,410 rushing yards a year ago, he did pass for 3,706 and 29 touchdowns. Not too bad—you know, if you like freakishly talented dual-threat quarterbacks. It's pick your poison with Manziel, and it's almost impossible to defend him for a full 60 minutes.
Opposing defenses have to make Manziel react to them, not the other way around.
LSU showed America how when it topped the Aggies on Oct. 20.
The Tiger defensive line is the reason LSU won this game. Defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery kept Manziel in the pocket, and the defensive tackles—led by Bennie Logan—got enough push to make Manziel uncomfortable throwing the ball.
That was directly responsible for two of Manziel's three interceptions that afternoon, both of which LSU converted for touchdowns on the ensuing drive.
Alabama has the defensive talent to do that as well, but it didn't in the first half of its matchup with Texas A&M last season. By the time the Crimson Tide adjusted, it was too late.
For Texas A&M, it will be all about capitalizing on the situation.
With games versus Rice and Sam Houston State prior to the game with the Tide, the Aggies have the chance to hide some parts of their 2013 offense before the Tide rolls into town.
Plans are already in the works for Manziel to make a repeat trip to quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. this offseason for a tune up according to MySanAntonio.com, and Week 3 is the perfect time to unleash Manziel 2.0—especially considering the circumstances.
In addition to the 6'5" Evans, 6'4" JaQuay Williams enrolled this spring and will be joined by 6'5" Ricky Seals-Jones and 6'3" Kyrion Parker at wide receiver this fall. That's a lot of height, and it will be going up against a secondary that is looking to replace All-American Dee Milliner.
Deion Belue started opposite Milliner for Alabama last season, but he was far from a lockdown corner. Geno Smith and John Fulton saw the field at times at corner, but all three of those players are 6'0" or smaller.
Who will win on Sept. 14?
Whoever emerges at cornerback for Alabama, the Aggies will have a decided size advantage in the matchup. Saban better find his playmakers in a hurry, because his team is going to be tested by this talented group of wide receivers.
Could Manziel flip the script and go after Alabama's defensive backs in the rematch? It wouldn't be the most surprising game plan in the world, especially since he's clearly making an effort this offseason to become a more polished passer.
Both teams will likely find their way into the preseason Top Five to start the season. Unless Alabama stumbles against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, it will likely be a battle of unbeatens when toe meets leather on Sept. 14 in College Station.
This go-round, the loser will not only be behind eight-ball in the SEC West race early in the season, but it will have very little margin for error in the BCS National Championship race for the majority of the season.
Should be fun.
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