One is a golden-armed quarterback from Alabama with two national titles to his credit. The other is a kid from Texas with a Heisman on his shelf. Neither would mind adding what the other has to his resume.
In this clash between No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, for most people it is quarterbacks AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel who take center stage.
Last year, Manziel's first quarter against the Crimson Tide wowed the nation and put the Aggies in a prime position to win with a 20-point first-quarter lead. The eventual Heisman winner added a late touchdown pass to get his team to 29 points, a number that Bama would never reach.
On the other side, AJ McCarron helped the Tide storm back from the 20-0 deficit. Unfortunately for McCarron, two of his three interceptions in 2012 came against A&M. The first toss went to Aggie defender Sean Porter and helped A&M get to 14-0; the second was the costly fourth-down interception to Deshazor Everett that ultimately sealed Alabama's fate.
For Texas A&M, Manziel is the most important offensive factor. The redshirt sophomore is the Aggies' best player, and everything runs through him. The run-pass duality that Manziel brings to A&M is at an elite level. His ability to open up the offense by forcing teams to respect his running ability is a thing of beauty.
Following an opening drive that saw Manziel pick up 35 yards on three carries and draw a personal foul against Alabama en route to a 7-0 Aggies lead, A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin worked the run threat against the Tide.
Here you see Manziel start to run the option. The safety has eyes on Manziel, thanks to the quarterback's 29-yard scramble on the previous drive. The Alabama defense wants to avoid being gashed in the run game.
Quickly Manziel pulls back, and Bama ends up with an Aggies wide receiver near even with an Alabama safety before the safety can even flip his hips to run. This is what's known in football as an "if he's even, he's leavin'" situation.
Manziel, an accomplished passer, hits his wide-open target for a big 32-yard pickup, ultimately setting up the Aggies' second score of the game.
McCarron does not have that element in his game, but the senior does have a knack for hitting his targets deep while working play-action and looking off safeties to generate similar effects, as demonstrated in the 2012 SEC title game against Georgia.
From the side view, we get Bama in a run set, 12-personnel, with one tight end lined up in the backfield.
A look from the back side shows the deep safety lined up to the left side of the offensive formation, 17 yards off the ball.
McCarron, with the play-action, is able to freeze the linebackers, get set in the pocket and hit Amari Cooper with a strike downfield.
The two most critical elements of this play are not the run fake. They are McCarron's head and his shoulders. That is what helps him ensure single coverage on Cooper and creates the advantage.
Notice how McCarron has his head to the right-middle of the field and, most importantly, his shoulders level.
Quarterback head and shoulder action is what safeties read. Here, the Georgia safety has moved from the left-side 28-yard line to the right-side 22. McCarron's head moves the safety to the right, but it is his flat shoulder action that holds the defender on a shallow drop, instead of gaining depth.
What results is McCarron hitting Cooper for the touchdown, while the safety is too far away to even be a factor in the play. As you see in the video, at the 1:16 mark, when McCarron goes deep, his shoulder goes high to send the ball farther; keeping a flat shoulder levels off the safety.
Both quarterbacks have the ability to manipulate safeties. Manziel can do it with his legs, while McCarron has to do it from the pocket with his head and shoulders. Play-action and quarterback run-action are going to be key elements in Saturday's game.
Alabama's defense is going to be focused on shutting down Manziel. That means eyes focused on the quarterback and defenders trained on stopping him from making a highlight-reel run. That element leads to eyes, like the safety in the pictures above, peeking in the backfield and receivers getting loose.
For Texas A&M, the defensive goal is going to be stopping the run, first and foremost. That attention means more bodies in the box and players coming downhill to play the run. With McCarron's ability to move safeties with his eyes and hold them with his shoulders following a play-action fake, the Tide will have areas of the field to attack.
While both guys can yo-yo safeties and find success in the back end with their respective skill sets, one area to watch will be McCarron under pressure. Against Manziel, Bama will opt for a more controlled rush to keep him in the pocket. For McCarron, a largely stationary target, Texas A&M will push to put pressure on the senior.
Against Virginia Tech, McCarron had his worst game as a starter, going just 10-of-23 for 110 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Hokies cranked up the pressure on McCarron, totaling four sacks and keeping the quarterback under duress.
Texas A&M will likely work to do the same to McCarron, hoping to force the quarterback into throwing interceptions and battling to keep that completion percentage low, especially on third downs. Mario Cristobal, Alabama's offensive line coach, is certainly working with his group to correct the protection issues.
However, as A&M, led by defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, works different fronts and blitzes to confuse Bama's line, it will be on McCarron to show his worth. That means helping make sure his line is working together from a protection standpoint, as well as ensuring his running backs know who they are responsible for as blitzers or potential blitzers.
Most importantly, it means making good decisions under pressure, something he struggled with on opening weekend.
For two guys looking to add to their hardware, this is a chance to walk away with the inside track to the SEC West title and ultimately a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Alabama enters as the favorite, but Manziel walks in as the star. Manziel has started the season hot. McCarron needs to get his feet underneath him in hostile territory.
This is the showdown plenty of folks have been eagerly anticipating. With two quarterbacks who know what they are doing, this should live up to its billing.