It’s only the third week of the college football season, but Saturday afternoon’s Southeastern Conference matchup between the Texas A&M Aggies and Alabama Crimson Tide is already being labeled by some as the game of the year.
Led by Heisman Trophy-winning redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M was the only team to beat the Crimson Tide, who went on to win the national championship, last season. Once again favored to win the national title, No. 1-ranked Alabama will be looking for a different result this year, but to beat Manziel and the Aggies, they’re going to have to do so in College Station, Texas.
This game has huge implications for college football alone, as the winner of the game will not only become the favorite to win the SEC West, but potentially to play for a national championship.
NFL scouts will also be interested in this game. The game features many top NFL draft prospects, including more than a handful of potential first-round picks. It is expected that most teams will be represented in College Station on Saturday, but scouts from all 32 teams will be taking a close look at this game tape before long.
Which prospects and matchups will the scouts be keying in on Saturday? While both of these teams have rosters stacked with NFL talent, there are a number of matchups that will really provide a strong measure of the involved players’ ability.
Texas A&M LT Jake Matthews vs. Alabama OLB Adrian Hubbard (Jr.)
Then a redshirt sophomore, outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard was one of the most impressive players in Alabama’s losing effort last season. He was able to successfully generate pressure on a good number of occasions against Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel, who went on to be the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
This year, he will be looking to do the same against Jake Matthews, who has moved over from right to left tackle following Joeckel’s departure. Matthews, meanwhile, will be looking for a strong performance to put himself in position to follow in Joeckel’s footsteps as a top-five draft selection.
In the following video of last year's game from Draft Breakdown, you can see how Joeckel and Matthews fared. Hubbard, No. 42 for Alabama, matched up most frequently against Joeckel, who was playing left tackle while Matthews was on the right side.
Matthews went up primarily against another sophomore outside linebacker, Xzavier Dickson, in last year’s game and had an up-and-down performance. Dickson is a good NFL prospect in his own right, but is not polished or gifted as Hubbard, who will be Matthews’ first true test this season at left tackle.
Hubbard is a physical 3-4 outside linebacker with fluid athleticism. Most of the trouble he gave Joeckel last year was with his power as a bull-rusher, but he is a solid edge-rusher who stays tight around the edge, while he is a strong run defender who sets the edge well.
Matthews has more strength and power than Joeckel, which should make him more well-equipped to match up with Hubbard (and Dickson) in this year’s game. He is also a more fluid athlete, a player who can sync his quick feet with his upper body to seal off the edge against athletic pass-rushers like Hubbard.
While playing against Hubbard and the Alabama defense will be a chance for Matthews to prove himself as a left tackle prospect, playing against Matthews should also prove to be a good test of Hubbard’s ability.
Hubbard is not a tremendously explosive player. Against the fluid, strong Texas A&M left tackle listed at 6’5” and 305 pounds by Texas A&M’s official athletics website, Hubbard’s technique will need to be at its best for him to win battles against Matthews and bring pressure on Manziel.
Texas A&M RB Ben Malena vs. Alabama LB C.J. Mosley
Senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the star and leader of the Alabama defense, which has no shortage of returning and/or blossoming talent. His status as such was clear even in last year’s loss to Texas A&M, when he led the Crimson Tide with 14 tackles and a sack.
Mosley is a very well-rounded linebacker who has sideline-to-sideline tackling range, is a dangerous blitzer and is effective in pass coverage. With his ability to line up all over the field and make a wide variety of plays, Mosley will present matchup problems for nearly the entire Texas A&M offense.
One A&M draft prospect who will specifically have to match up with Mosley is senior running back Ben Malena, who is looking to give the Aggies a drafted running back for a third consecutive season, following in the footsteps of Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael.
Malena is a good, solid back who takes on contact well and has some shiftiness, but playing against Mosley and the Crimson Tide defense, which features athletic, hard-hitting run-stoppers at all three levels, will be a big test for him. He ran for 50 yards on 14 carries in last year’s game.
Malena was actually able to bounce off contact from Mosley on a couple occasions in last year’s game, but he got dropped by Mosley on a few other occasions.
Saturday will also be a test for Malena in pass protection, as Mosley and the Crimson Tide’s other linebackers can often overwhelm backs with their size and athleticism. An example of this came in the third quarter of last year’s game, when Mosley ran a wide blitz off the left side and trucked straight through a Malena pickup block attempt in the backfield before dropping Manziel for a sack at his own 1-yard line.
Texas A&M WR Mike Evans (RS So.) vs. Alabama CB John Fulton
One of the most entertaining battles in last year’s game was the matchup between Mike Evans and John Fulton. Consistently matched up one-on-one against each other throughout the contest, both players put their physicality on display as each made a number of noticeable wins on plays where the ball was thrown Evans’ way.
Listed at 6’5” and 225 pounds by Texas A&M, Evans used his length and size very well in this battle. On a number of occasions, Evans was able to use his size to post up against Fulton and make a catch through contact, then use his lower-body strength to drive through a tackle attempt and stretch for additional yardage.
But although Evans made a number of big plays in last year’s game, Fulton recovered nicely down the stretch to make a few big plays of his own.
Listed at 6’ and 186 pounds by Alabama, Fulton gives up significant size to Evans. That said, he will likely be matched up with Evans again—though possibly with some more safety help in response to last year’s game—because Fulton can play Evans with physicality, and any cornerback on the Alabama roster would give up size to Evans.
The following example, where Fulton used effective press coverage before breaking up an eight-yard throw to Evans, shows what Fulton needs to do to neutralize Evans’ ability to make plays with his size.
This game will be a crucial test in front of scouts for Fulton. Playing in a starting role as a senior following the departure of first-round pick cornerback Dee Milliner, Fulton is a fringe draft prospect trying to prove himself.
Fulton’s matchup with Evans, which proved challenging last year, will be a telling tale of whether he can match up against the size and athleticism of NFL wideouts on the outside.
Evans, a redshirt sophomore, may be less likely to declare for the NFL draft until 2015, but he could end up going as early as the first two rounds of the 2014 draft should he declare if his stock continues to rise.
Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel (RS So.) vs. Alabama DE Ed Stinson
From concerns about his style of play to his demeanor and off-field behavior, Manziel’s draft stock is very much up in the air at this point.
The momentum of Manziel’s stock has been almost entirely negative since the end of last season as a result of his many questionable offseason decisions, but he will certainly have a chance to get the needle moving in the right direction if he can come up with another great performance against the Crimson Tide.
In leading the Aggies to victory in last season’s matchup, Manziel had a terrific performance, completing 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns while he also ran for 92 yards.
Manziel beat Alabama with both big throws down the field and with big running plays on his own, but one thing was clear from last season’s game tape: If the Crimson Tide are going to slow Manziel down, they must be able to contain the athletic quarterback within the pocket—and finish plays in the backfield—to avoid giving up plays like the one below.
That effort will fall upon the entire Alabama defense to maintain their assignments around the line of scrimmage and win battles against the A&M offensive line, but one player whose effort will be key is that of senior defensive end Ed Stinson.
The athletic, 6’4”, 292-pound defensive end had a solid game last year pushing the pocket and making plays against Manziel to contain him or bring him down at or around the line of scrimmage. He is a rising draft prospect who could be looked at as a Day 2 pick to play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, but how he plays Saturday against a great quarterback and an offensive line with NFL talent will play a key role in how high his draft stock can rise.
Alabama QB A.J. McCarron vs. Texas A&M SS Howard Matthews (Jr.)
The Texas A&M defense does not have nearly as much talent as Alabama’s does and is unlikely to have any players selected in the 2014 NFL draft. One intriguing prospect who could consider declaring early with a strong junior season, however, is strong safety Howard Matthews.
Matthews had a big game in both run support and pass coverage last year, making seven tackles while also breaking up two passes. The 6’2”, 200-pound safety is a physical presence who does a great job of coming up and hitting opponents, but also does a good job making plays on the ball in the air on the back end.
Matthews made a number of big plays in last year’s game against Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron. He landed a big hit on Alabama wideout Kenny Bell to pop what would have been a catch into the air, allowing a teammate to make a play on the ball for an interception. He also knocked down a pass up the seam thrown by McCarron intended for tight end Michael Williams, while he forced another incompletion by hitting McCarron as he threw the ball off a safety blitz.
McCarron, who is trying to establish his own draft stock as one of the top senior quarterbacks in the country, will have to account for Matthews’ game-changing ability in every aspect of the game. The Crimson Tide should be able to make its fair share of plays against the Aggies defense, but Matthews, A&M’s leading tackler, has the skill set to give them trouble.
McCarron himself needs to bounce back from a shaky performance in last year’s game, in which he completed 21 of 34 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown, but also threw two interceptions including one in the end zone that sealed victory for A&M.
McCarron is a smart quarterback whose leadership traits and demeanor are much more favorable than Manziel’s, but although an accurate passer with decent athleticism, McCarron does not have a big arm by NFL standards. In a game where Alabama needs him to be at his best, McCarron must show the ability to fit downfield throws into tight windows for NFL scouts to take him seriously as a potential early-round draft pick.
More Prospects to Watch:
Cyrus Kouandjio, LT, Alabama (Jr.)
A technically-sound left tackle with good feet and better power, the 6’6”, 310-pound Kouandjio will have an easier matchup this year given that last year’s star pass-rusher for the Aggies, Damontre Moore, has moved on to the NFL and the New York Giants.
Cedric Ogbuehi, RT, Texas A&M (Jr.)
Ogbuehi moved outside from right guard to right tackle this season and could follow the line of Joeckel and Matthews and become another top offensive tackle prospect for Texas A&M. He struggled in last year’s game, however, and will need to show that he can hold his own against the players he will face, which are likely to include Dickson and Stinson on Saturday.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Clinton-Dix was a role player last season, but he is a full-time starting safety this year following the departure of Robert Lester. Clinton-Dix is another Alabama player who could give Manziel and the Aggies offense trouble in this game. He is a 6’1”, 208-pound safety with very good range and is a big hitter on the back end.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.