Alabama vs. Texas A&M: Tide's Ability to Halt Aggies Offense Will Define Contest
Outside of the #HotSportsTakes on alleged NCAA violations and Manziel Cam and bemusing talk of revenge, there will be an actual football game in College Station on Saturday afternoon.
It will involve the sixth-ranked Texas A&M Aggies and the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Johnny Manziel will be there, as will A.J. McCarron. I'm betting Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban will show up too.
This, as you might have heard or something, isn't a small deal in college football circles. Ten months ago to the day of this publication, the Aggies and Tide played before a packed house at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Manziel and McCarron were there; Sumlin and Saban the same as always.
And Sumlin's boys, in a display that left Alabama fans slack-jawed, beat the snot out of Saban's. Texas A&M started the contest with a 20-point first quarter, survived the eventual national champions' inevitable comeback and came away with landscape-altering 29-24 win.
It also christened one of the finest freshman seasons in college football history. Manziel at the time was known lovingly as Johnny Football, the All-American kid who said his prayers, ate his vitamins and kicked butt—because he wouldn't dare say the other word—on Saturdays. He accounted for 345 total yards and two touchdowns, avoiding turnovers and carving up a defense that would embarrass undefeated Notre Dame two months later; it was the game that gave Manziel his shiny bronze trophy.
The past eight or so months have scrubbed away Manziel's golden-boy persona. He's as reviled across the nation as he is loved in College Station. Folks hate his ever-increasing brashness and questionable off-the-field antics with such fervor you'd swear we were a nation of people who grew up working in sweatshops, worked hard for our buck to put our way through college and never once did something morally ambiguous.
None of that piety matters Saturday. The question presented to Saban and his Alabama defense has nothing to do with autographs, NBA courtside seats and the most-discussed celebrations since Joe Horn gave free advertisement to his wireless carrier.
In fact, it's the same question Saban faced last year: Can he find a way to stop Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M offense?
Last night, what could have been the dawning of an offensive revolution in the NFL sprung up in our nation's capital. Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles offense marched up and down the field on a Washington Redskins defense whose only recourse was to suddenly come down with a rash of "calf injuries" and "cramps."
The takeaway for anyone watching at home was clear: Either Kelly sabotaged the Redskins' Gatorade jugs with Pabst Blue Ribbon in pregame, causing cramping, or Washington was milking its injuries to slow the game down. It couldn't handle the speed.
What's been swept under the rug a bit is that we were inches away from Kelly's name being substituted out for Sumlin's this week. The Eagles offered Sumlin their head coaching position, though it was likely after Kelly said no initially.
It doesn't matter, at least in practicality.
At the center of Manziel's rise and the Kelly-Sumlin duo being offered a trip to the City of Brotherly Love was something you might have heard about a time or two this offseason: a high-powered, fast-paced, read-option-based offense.
While the stylings of Kelly are relatively new around the NFL, they've become old hat in college football. Rich Rodriguez has been running a version of the read-option since the early 1990s, when he was a coach at NAIA school Glenville State. Football coaches being the slow evolvers that they are, the proliferation of the read-option, spread style was slow but took off like wildfire when major programs realized its lethality.
We now live in an era where top innovations are coming from the collegiate game. College coaches are light-years ahead on this front. Even the SEC, which competes every year with the Big Ten for slowest-moving conference on the evolutionary scale, has been dealing with the spread and read-option for years.
Saban and his defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, have been around the block. The calls that Saban and his staff come up with on a weekly basis are almost always theoretically perfect. He's been defending a version of the spread dating all the way back to his NFL days; there's almost nothing he hasn't seen or stopped to be done on a football field at this juncture.
Only this time, on the other sideline stands a man who is arguably as innovative and intelligent on offense as Saban on defense. There is no doubt in my mind that Sumlin would have been applying the same principles as Kelly last night. The Washington defenders would have been gasping for the same air. Michael Vick would have been beginning his ninth life as a viable NFL quarterback.
Saban is also facing perhaps the most dangerous quarterback he's seen at Alabama in Manziel. Say what you will about the kid's attitude problem and pervasive petulance, but he seems to have left the rubble of his offseason and come back an even better player. Manziel has been near-perfect in his first two games in Cupcake Land, tossing a touchdown per quarter in two dominant wins.
After a bumpy road to start his season, the Aggies offense was humming last Saturday. The packaged plays, the hot-read screens, everything that Texas A&M used to defeat Alabama last season was there, running as smooth as last November. Saban has a habit of figuring these things out eventually—just ask Tim Tebow how he felt after the 2009 SEC Championship Game.
Seriously, do it. I've heard he has some time on his hands.
Manziel, like Tebow before him, has problems with mechanics. His first-round pedigree is dubious at best. Saban defeated Urban Meyer and Tebow in that 2009 contest by forcing 35 pass attempts and essentially eliminating the running back from the equation. Left to his devices as a passer, Tebow generated 13 points and some empty rushing yards.
You could say the Tide might do the same Saturday. But when you compare the accuracy and mechanics of the two players, Manziel looks like Peyton Manning. Manziel has actually done a majority of his work this season with his arm; he won't nearly be as easily broken.
If you ask People Who Know Things about the read-option, you'll know it's here to stay. Whether it's a revolution that all teams will use consistently the way the shotgun formation once was or will merely be a wrinkle thrown in every once in a while, the offense is too effective to fade into oblivion.
But fading it into that secondary role will be up to the defensive gurus of the world; the Nick Sabans of the world. Those same People Who Know Things are the ones who peg Saban as the likeliest person to begin its demise. He'll put in the work, have the know-how and the athletes to pull it off.
That popping of the balloon on the offensive revolution could start Saturday. The Tide return seven starters from last season's defense, including at critical spots in the secondary and linebacking corps. That's where Sumlin and Manziel hurt Alabama most last season, by taking advantage of their inexperience over the middle, particularly in nickel situations.
The major players are back this season for both sides. McCarron leads an Alabama offense that should find plenty of success; the only thing more questionable than Manziel's decision-making is the Aggies defense. Manziel returns, just as talented and with a supporting cast just as strong as a year prior.
Sumlin and Saban, two wizards of their opposing crafts, will be there. Now all that's left is figuring out which innovator will walk out on top.
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