Quarterbacks Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and AJ McCarron of Alabama get top billing in Saturday's marquee college football showdown. However, many of the plays, both big and small, that will determine the outcome of the game will be made by the other skill-position players.
Texas A&M is loaded at running back and wide receiver, while Alabama maintains a tight circle of skill guys, but the talent level of the key contributors is second to none.
At running back, Alabama starts T.J. Yeldon, a coaches' selection for Preseason First-Team All-SEC, who is expected to do most of the heavy lifting. Coming off a 1,100-yard season, Yeldon rushed for 75 yards on 17 carries in the Crimson Tide's season-opening win over Virginia Tech, a game in which, despite his 4.4 yards per carry average, consistent yardage was tough to come by.
A&M counters with Ben Malena and Tra Carson. Malena was the second-leading rusher for the Aggies a season ago with 808 yards, and he has picked up where he left off, rushing for 173 yards on 22 carries in the Aggies' first two games, setting the pace for the A&M ground game. Paired with the speedy Malena is Carson, a 230-pound Oregon transfer, who can bang in the middle and still get loose at the second level.
'Bama and the Aggies both want to run the football, and both have solid contributors at running back. For Alabama, establishing the run has to be Job No. 1, given the team does not possess a quarterback who can kick-start the offense on his own.
Last year, the Tide ran for just 122 yards on 31 carries against Texas A&M, the team's season low in SEC play. Add to that the poor showing in the opener against Virginia Tech, and the run game—something that's been Alabama's strong suit on their successful run of dominance—has to find its stride.
That means Yeldon is going to have to have a consistent impact for Alabama's offense to flow. The Tide likes to build play action off the run game, use run sets to keep a defense in base personnel to throw the ball and run to the interior to wear down the opponent.
As far as skill players go, Yeldon is the most critical player, for either team, in this game. The expectations are big for Yeldon this year, and Saturday will be the first major test to see if he steps up. If A&M can stop Yeldon, then they can pin their ears back and make McCarron uncomfortable. If Yeldon gets going early, Alabama can put the pressure on A&M with its offense.
On the flip side, Malena and Carson will put the pressure on an Alabama defense that is most certainly geared to stop Manziel. Malena's a slippery player who gets into (and out of) breaks quickly, can hide behind linemen and explode through seams to pick up big yardage.
Carson will throw some of the Tide's physical play back at their defense. Alabama is going to chase Manziel and Malena all over the field, and then Carson's going to make Tide defenders adjust their approach as he comes downhill at them. Forcing Alabama to chase for part of the drive, then take on a back like Carson head-on is going to be part of the Aggies' game plan.
For A&M, the beauty of Carson will be the Aggies' ability to keep Alabama in its nickel and dime packages with four-receiver sets by only substituting Carson for Malena on the fly. Texas A&M will not have to change its play calls or formations; they will simply bring a downhill runner in the game while the Tide keep extra defensive backs on the field.
The Carson-Malena element is merely another interesting aspect of this chess match.
While Yeldon might catch a pass or two, the real impact back in the passing game will be Malena. With Alabama game-planning to keep Manziel in the pocket and play coverage downfield, Malena is going to be a tertiary read for the reigning Heisman winner.
This A&M offense is built to get the running backs the ball in space, and Malena, with his shiftiness, will be a tough open-field tackle for the safety or linebacker tasked with getting out into the flat or tracking him through the shallow middle.
Malena's impact in the passing game will only come to fruition when the Aggies' other weapons through the air are covered by the Tide. After losing Ryan Swope, Texas A&M has answered the bell, in a big way, at the receiver position. Mike Evans is the go-to guy, but Ricky Seals-Jones, Sabian Holmes, Malcome Kennedy, Derel Walker and LaQuvionte Gonzalez will likely make appearances on Saturday as well.
The beauty of A&M's offense is that, even with all of the success of Manziel as a dual-threat quarterback, this is still an Air Raid attack. It still uses the same concepts and route combinations that Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen employed at Houston to make Case Keenum a record-breaker. It still uses the same reads and spacing that Holgorsen used to help Geno Smith put up huge numbers at West Virginia.
Point being, this group of receivers is going to force Alabama to cover them all over the field because that is what the offense is designed to do. With Evans and Seals-Jones, the Aggies have receivers with legitimate matchup issues, as both guys tower over the defensive backs for the Tide. That means the receivers are not only able to get open through spacing, route combinations and route-running, but even when covered well, they remain open targets for Manziel.
If Manziel stays in the pocket the way Alabama's coaches want, the quarterback will be forced to show that he has grown from a season ago. That means getting deep into his reads and progressions to hit not just his primary targets, but the secondary and tertiary receivers as they become open.
With Alabama, Amari Cooper is the centerpiece of the passing game. Kevin Norwood is back, as is Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White, but Christion Jones is the next big skill player for the Tide. Cooper is a guy who showed a season ago he can take the top off the defense and turn a short play into a big gainer.
Much like the run game has to get going to help create more openings in the pass game, Cooper has to get going to create more space in the passing game for his fellow receivers to find success.
That's Cooper over the top. That's Cooper in the screen game. That's Cooper with the back-shoulder fade, all things to help force Texas A&M to be more wary of Cooper and allow other receivers to get open both underneath and downfield.
Jones also has the ability to have a major impact in this game, especially as a return man. The junior already has two return touchdowns this season, and he will be looking for more against the Aggies. Jones' impact will be one to watch because it can show itself in two completely different ways.
A&M's coverage teams will be put to the test, and if Jones can get another big return, that impact will be quite tangible for the Crimson Tide. However, after seeing Jones' Week 1 performance, the Aggies may opt to kick away from the return man, and that could mean improved field position—especially in the punt game—for Alabama.
Kicking away is an inexact science that revolves around punting out of bounds, sky punts and sky kicks. Punting out of bounds is not easy, and teams run the risk of shanked punts off the side of the foot or punts that stay in the field and end up returned.
Both sky punts and sky kicks are, in the pursuit of hang time, shorter ventures than true punts or kicks. A high punt can yield a fair catch and a coverage team that is breathing in the face of a returner, at the sacrifice of yardage on the back end or a bounce that adds to the distance. With a sky kick, teams can get a fair catch or a possible mishandling from an inexperienced returner, but the kick travels a shorter distance.
Which team will have skill players play a bigger role Saturday?
For a team whose coach's heart lies on the defensive side and with a ball-controlling offense, the hidden yardage of a team kicking away from Jones will be an advantage few casual viewers notice, but an impact that contributes to Alabama achieving its goal.
Some unsung heroes from the skill ranks may rise up in this game as well. Look for Brandon Williams and Trey Williams to get touches on the ground for the Aggies, while freshman Altee Tenpenny will likely spell Yeldon for the Tide. O.J. Howard, a freshman tight end who got limited reps against Virginia Tech, might make his big debut as a pass catcher against an A&M defense that has not seen a dynamic threat at that position out of Alabama.
Skill-position players are going to make some of the biggest plays of this game. While A&M has more bodies, the Tide's skill players will help set the tone for both offenses. If Yeldon gets going on the ground, he could be Alabama's best weapon to limit the impact of Texas A&M's plethora of skill players.
However, should A&M get Evans, Seals-Jones, Malena and Carson going, along with Manziel, it will be a long day for the Tide.