Ultimate Guide to Alabama vs. Texas A&M

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterSeptember 13, 2013

Ultimate Guide to Alabama vs. Texas A&M

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    Gig 'em versus Roll Tide. Manziel versus McCarron. Saban versus Sumlin.

    It is about revenge. It is about the SEC championship. It is about the SEC West.

    This Saturday will feature a game that folks have been waiting to watch since the season started. College football's biggest name against the sport's biggest program. A fast-rising coach against winners of three of the last four national titles.

    It is an early season matchup between two Top 10 teams, and the nation will have a front-row seat for the second installment of what looks to be a budding rivalry. Mobile quarterbacks have been a bugaboo for Nick Saban's disciplined defense, and this game against Johnny Manziel has been on his mind since last year's loss.

    'Bama versus A&M is a big game—not just in the SEC, but on the national scale. The winner of this game has a leg up on a title shot, and the loser will need assistance to reach that goal. To help prepare you for this epic showdown, Bleacher Report previews the game from all angles.


    Game will be played in the home of the Texas A&M Aggies, and CBS will kick off its coverage at 3:30 p.m. ET.

AJ McCarron Versus Johnny Manziel

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    AJ McCarron has struggled to start the season, while Johnny Manziel has been lights-out since sitting out the first half against Rice. Sure, McCarron opened against Virginia Tech, and Manziel has faced Rice and Sam Houston State. But Saturday, both quarterbacks get to show their mettle in their SEC opener.

    Although McCarron and Manziel will not be battling each other directly, the meeting between the two friends will hinge on the quarterback play. This extensive breakdown of Manziel and McCarron's ability to control safeties highlights a very critical element to both passing games.

    McCarron is going to have to use the running game and his own QB prowess to get big plays in play-action, while Manziel will use the run game—and his own legs—to do the same. Two of McCarron's three interceptions in 2012 came in the game against A&M, and the Alabama quarterback is certainly looking for redemption.

    For Manziel, this game is about continuing to elevate the Aggies program. He's already got them a Heisman and helped secure a stadium expansion. Now he and his teammates are eyeballing a title.

Can Johnny Football Be Johnny Heisman, Again?

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    Where Manziel is concerned, the reigning Heisman winner is again playing great football. For the A&M faithful, they are hoping that same success continues against an Alabama team that has been focused on this ballgame for a long time.

    On the national level, this is the game where Johnny Manziel can push himself to be the clear leader for the Heisman Trophy. Prior to this game, Manziel beating up on Sam Houston State and Rice was expected; if the sophomore can keep things going against the Tide, it will be clear he is still the real deal.

    For Heisman voters, beating Alabama is about more than just the SEC West and the title chase. It is about him continuing to do the things that got him on the national stage a season ago. It is also about him proving that on the field there are none better, despite how voters want to hold his offseason against him.

How Can Alabama Stop Johnny Manziel?

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    Alabama does not want Johnny Manziel to be Johnny Football against them on Saturday. They want to avoid the first-quarter explosion that ultimately sank the Tide in 2012, and force Manziel to stay in the pocket and beat them with just his arm.

    While Manziel has certainly improved as a passer, the Tide are far more comfortable playing coverage against a stationary target than they are battling a quarterback running all over the field. For that reason, expect Nick Saban and Kirby Smart to try to keep Manziel in the pocket.

    As everyone else worries about the "spy" technique, the real issue to watch will be linebackers and defensive ends rushing the quarterback. Look for a more controlled rush out of Alabama in an effort to squeeze the pocket down—not just rattle the passer and leave seams for Manziel to exploit.

    This chess match between 'Bama's defense and A&M's offense has been 10 months in the making. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top in this regard.

    Speaking to the media this week, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin pointed to Manziel's improvement, via Paul Myerberg of USA Today.

    I think anybody who's watched the first two games and the last six games last season will see he's gotten better. He worked on a lot of things in the offseason, trying to shore up his weaknesses, his mechanics, his overall knowledge of the offense, thinking conceptually. I think his overall knowledge of the offense has helped him be able to go through progressions, ultimately making him a better quarterback.

    Saban echoed these words, via the Myerberg report: 

    He has great athleticism and is really an instinctive guy, and he has a really good understanding of that they need to do. The biggest thing is he's become a really good passer in addition to all of the other attributes he has.

Skill Players Will Be a Major Factor in Who Wins This Game

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    Behind the high-profile quarterbacks are the real difference-makers to watch: the skill players. Both sides have quality athletes, and the impact these athletes have on the game will not be missed on Saturday, as this skill-position preview details.

    Where Texas A&M is concerned, the real issue is there will only be one football to split between Manziel, running backs Ben Malena and Tra Carson, and all of the wide receivers. Mike Evans and Ricky Seals-Jones on the edge, plus the plethora of other speedy bodies, are going to give the Tide's secondary legitimate problems.

    On the Alabama side, the list of impact skill players is not as lengthy, but T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper and Christion Jones are forces to be reckoned with. Yeldon has to get going on the ground to open up things for Alabama and the pass game. Jones' impact as a wide receiver will be second to his ability to give Alabama good field position and possibly take one to the house in the return game. 

    Malena said earlier this week that the Aggies have to correct a few things, according to Bleacher Report's James Sullivan

    I think we're doing a very good job of taking strides to get to Atlanta. We corrected some mistakes we made from Week 1 to Week 2 but we're going to need to correct some more stuff, especially going into this game because Alabama can take advantage of a single mistake.


The Trenches Still Matter the Most

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    Everyone is going to talk about the quarterbacks and the skill players, but the battle up front is going to go a long way toward deciding who wins. Texas A&M's offensive line has some future NFL players who will give Manziel time, especially against an Alabama front seven determined to keep Johnny Football in the pocket.

    Meanwhile, for Alabama, after a poor showing against Virginia Tech, the offensive line will be tested on Saturday. The Virginia Tech game showed what a team with a plan could do to the Tide's new-look offensive line, and A&M will likely borrow some of those same elements.

    Getting T.J. Yeldon going early is a must for Alabama, and that starts with the guys in the trenches. Watch for Texas A&M to push to confuse the Tide's offensive line and try to create opportunities to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. If the Aggies can disrupt behind the line, they can certainly slow down Alabama's attack.

    The Alabama offensive line has a chip on its shoulder, according to senior offensive guard Anthony Steen, via Andrew Gribble of al.com:

    "After Virginia Tech everybody is talking about being disappointed in us, and we’ve got a chip on our shoulder like AJ said," Steen said. "We’re ready to get out there and try to prove something."

    Bleacher Report's James Sullivan spoke with Nick Saban, and the Alabama head coach said that the Aggies are a good team defensively, but have made a few mistakes. 

    Defensively, I know some people have questions. To me, they played well defensively. They're physical, they're tough, they play hard. They've given up a few big plays early in the season probably due to mental errors or whatever.

What to Expect as the Game Starts

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    For Texas A&M, Brandon Oliver shows how he would script the Aggies' opening drive. He expects plenty of draws, some play action and zone-read in an effort to play Alabama's desire to stop the run first against the Tide. With weapons like Manziel, Malena, Seals-Jones and Evans, the Aggies are in good shape when it comes to taking the fight to Alabama.

    Here, you can find the way Alabama might script its opening drive. Look for personnel groupings to play as big a role as the play call itself, as Alabama has to force the run while helping its offensive line and quarterback out by clearing out the box and using a little tempo. If the Tide can get all its playmakers involved early and instill some confidence in its offensive line, that will go a long way toward success for the 60-minute affair.

    Both teams want to get out to a hot start. A&M is hoping to continue its offensive success, while Alabama is looking to jump-start an offense that struggled mightily in its first contest. They both will have to be ready for everything on defense, as points will come from both big plays and solid drives.

Will Johnny Manziel and the Aggies Take Down Alabama Again?

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    There are plenty of moving parts in this ballgame. The Aggies offense will be pushing to exploit weaknesses in Alabama's defense. The Alabama offense will be looking to get jump-started against an A&M defense that has plenty to prove. The Heisman winner will be looking to keep things going against the two-time defending national champion.

    College Station is going to be rocking. Kyle Field will certainly be swaying.

    With all that in mind, who wins this game? Is it the four-time national championship-winning coach who has built an empire in Tuscaloosa? Is it the energetic coach who has resurrected the Aggies program? Will it be the classic dropback quarterback, or the football phenom who is as unpredictable off the field as he is on it?

    Alabama and Texas A&M: Which team do you pick?