Given the hype that preceded Saturday's showdown between Alabama and Texas A&M, there are plenty of intriguing subplots that remain in the aftermath of the Tide’s thrilling 49-42 victory.
The Tide have long been a team whose DNA is defined by its bone-crunching, physically imposing defense. After surrendering 628 yards of total offense to the Aggies, does the Tide’s defense have issues, or is Johnny Manziel’s wizardry simply kryptonite to Nick Saban’s system?
Texas A&M gained the most yards (628) ever allowed by Alabama.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) September 15, 2013
In this case, both may be true.
Before Saturday's game, if someone told Saban that his defense would allow the Aggies to post those eye-popping numbers, his facial expression would instantly match the hue of his team’s famed moniker. Also, mostly everyone would assume that the Tide would be 1-1 heading into next weekend’s matchup against Colorado State.
Instead, it was Alabama's offense that saved the day in College Station.
How were Manziel and the Aggies' offense able to pile up yardage totals that nearly tripled the 212 yards the defense gave up against Virginia Tech in the season opener?
For starters, the Aggies' offensive line and wide receiver units won their individual battles against the Tide's defense.
True freshman defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson—a Texas native—accomplished the nearly impossible feat of recording the Tide’s only sack of Manziel in the second quarter. Many of his teammates tried and failed, with defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan probably still wondering how the elusive 6’1”, 210-pound Heisman Trophy winner shook free on a play that defies gravity, logic and sound football principles.
While Alabama’s scheme has never relied on leading the country in sacks, it does strive to generate pressure on the quarterback and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.
The Tide’s goal coming into the game was to make Manziel make plays from the pocket and limit his damage as a runner. Johnny Football accounted for 562 yards of total offense and made numerous plays with his arm and legs, with little pressure to speak of from the Tide’s front seven.
From the opening series, the secondary was exposed. Alabama's corners simply couldn't match up against Texas A&M's deep and talented collection of receivers. That statement was true before senior Deion Belue left midway through the game with an injured toe.
This game is fun. Not fun: Alabama's secondary meetings this week.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) September 14, 2013
For example, Alabama’s secondary traditionally excels at not allowing the big play. Mike Evans—who went off by racking up seven catches for 279 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown reception—had four catches of more than 30 yards in the first quarter.
Given corner John Fulton’s struggles on Saturday, the game in two weeks against No. 21 Ole Miss—which also runs an up-tempo spread offense—suddenly appears more problematic than most observers envisioned entering the season.
The good news for Tide fans is that there isn’t a team left on the schedule, including the Rebels, that comes close to matching the firepower of the Aggies' offense. More importantly, the defense will not face another quarterback who can compare to Manziel and his ability to beat defenses in a myriad of ways.
However, for the first time since Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa, his defense has areas that are clearly cause for concern.
Time will tell if those issues are due to a drop-off in talent, inexperience or if the Tide was merely the latest defense to be victimized by Manziel’s brilliance.