In a matchup between two teams over halfway through disappointing seasons, both have already lost. While "disappointing" certainly has different definitions for each program—national title for Texas A&M, competing in the SEC East for Vanderbilt—each has failed to live up to preseason expectations, and for a game that was circled on the calendar heading into the year, it holds nowhere near the clout anyone anticipated.
After falling to No. 11 Auburn 45-41 last week at Kyle Field, the 16th-ranked Aggies hope to rebound against unranked Vanderbilt, keeping alive distant SEC title hopes despite top-ranked Alabama's current undefeated trajectory.
Meanwhile, the Commodores' victory over previously ranked Georgia last weekend ignited life back into this Vanderbilt program, which had sustained tough losses SEC foes Ole Miss, South Carolina and Missouri. With the Tigers' winning streak looking invincible and the Gamecocks holding up the rear, Vandy may have to put off to next year what they hoped to accomplish this time around—an SEC title appearance.
For Saturday's matchup's need-to-know information, look below:
Time: 12:21 p.m. ET, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013
Location: Kyle Field, College Station, Texas
Radio: Texas A&M Sports Network
Spread: Texas A&M currently stands as an 18.5 point favorite over Vanderbilt, per vegasinsider.com
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand
Shift Offensive Load Off Manziel
As the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel is expected to perform at levels most no one else can, and thus far through the 2013 season, he has been mostly successful. Even in A&M's two losses to Alabama and Auburn, Manziel was unstoppable, showing off his abilities in both the passing and rushing games.
Heading into Vanderbilt, though, head coach Kevin Sumlin and the offensive staff must find a way to shift the pressure off of the redshirt sophomore quarterback, whether that be through a more potent run game or designed play-calling. With Manziel's recent shoulder injury suffered Auburn still fresh, not to mention a minor knee injury sustained on the road against Ole Miss, he isn't exactly 100 percent, and the coaches need to lighten the load in order to keep their staff healthy through the remainder of the season.
Pressure Vanderbilt's Young Starter
Following season starter Austyn Carta-Samuels' injury against Georgia last week, redshirt freshman Patton Robinette was named the head signal-caller for the Commodores for Saturday's matchup with A&M. Only having completed 13 passes on 20 attempts for the season, Robinette isn't exactly experienced and the Aggie defense must take advantage of the lack of knowledge under center early and often.
Turnover Margin/Third Down Conversions
After each game so far this season, Sumlin has preached his loyalty to two statistics: turnover margin and third down conversions. On a very consistent basis, the Aggies pull out victories when bettering their opponent in both categories but fall into uncertainty when they lead in just one or neither area. Against Vanderbilt, the same will be true, especially for an A&M squad that dropped the ball in both sectors last week.
Use Auburn's Model
Gus Malzahn and the Tiger coaching staff found a way to outwit Kevin Sumlin and A&M on its own home field using two offensive methods: confusion and pure will. Auburn threw what A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said was the most "pops, wheels and overs" (all types of routes) the Aggies will see all season—Vanderbilt needs to make sure that's not true after Saturday.
Secondly, pure will, grit and determination will be key against A&M, as while the Aggies are loaded with talent, Auburn proved last week that an aggressive style of play will work wonders when battling A&M in the trenches.
Auburn's two forced turnovers were a difference-maker for the Tigers down the stretch, and Vanderbilt would be wise to do that same. Protecting the football is just as important to this key as generating takeaways, but finding anyway to slow down Manziel and the Aggie offense will be a victory on Saturday.
As mentioned in the previous slide, redshirt freshman Patton Robinette will be filling in for season-long starter Austyn Carta-Samuels hoping to generate a victory for Vanderbilt on the road. The pressure of Kyle Field's 12th Man, not to mention an extremely talented A&M defense, will serve only to undermine that goal, and it's up to the Commodores' offensive line to shut down any attack on their signal-caller.
WR Mike Evans
Following last week's performance, which included 11 catches for 287 yards and four touchdowns, Evans has surged into some experts' Heisman Watch, as his inhuman play over the course of the season has granted the sophomore some major attention. After his last breakout game in A&M's other loss to Alabama, Evans virtually "disappeared" (by his standards) until his re-breakout against Auburn.
If the trend continues, Evans won't play a major role against the Commodores on Saturday. If not, Vanderbilt could be looking at one of the best wideouts in the country score on its secondary all day long.
QB Johnny Manziel
As the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, there will never be a week Manziel won't make the cut for "Players to Watch." However, this week is special considering his injured shoulder and whether or not the sophomore still has the same zip on the ball as usual.
S Floyd Raven
After a collar bone injury against Sam Houston State and limited time on the field against Ole Miss and Auburn, junior safety Floyd Raven Sr. looks to regain his starting position the A&M secondary on Saturday. Considering one of the SEC's best in Jordan Matthews will be visiting Kyle Field, the Aggies will need all the help they can get covering him, and Raven fits the bill.
WR Jordan Matthews
The stud wideout has continued to generate waves after last season's stellar performance, and considering the A&M defenses' recent struggles, Matthews should find room to create an impact for the Vanderbilt offense Saturday at Kyle Field. Matthews' big play ability gives the Commodores the option to stretch the Aggies vertically, a fact that could provide useful in the both the rushing and passing games.
QB Patton Robinette
The announcement of Robinette's start will serve as a huge storyline throughout this game, especially considering his youth and inexperience. The redshirt freshman will have an opportunity to make a gigantic splash on the college football landscape with an upset over A&M on the road, but the pressure of both the 12th Man and the Aggie defense will hope to prevent that very possibility.
S Kenny Ladler
As the team's leader in tackles and turnovers, Ladler will serve as a key position for Vanderbilt if the Commodores hope to leave College Station with a victory. Generating takeaways along with covering the ever-uncoverable Mike Evans will be the main avenues of his function on Saturday, both difficult tasks.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin spoke during the Aggies' weekly Tuesday press conference on the importance of Vanderbilt on Saturday, noting how the past two weeks against Ole Miss and Auburn have turned the heads of many of his players in regards to attitude.
"The fact that we lost Saturday helps us," Sumlin said. "We lost at home. We're playing in the SEC. Anybody that we play, based on what we've seen the last two weeks, kicking a field goal to win and then losing at home gets our attention. Right now, it’s not necessarily about the opponent, and that’s no disrespect, but it’s about us and what we can do to get better."
According to Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin, though, the fact that A&M and Vanderbilt have never met on the gridiron before serves as a point of interest for both teams.
“We’ve never played one another as institutions, which is interesting,” Franklin said. “[A&M has,] arguably, the most explosive offense in the SEC. A lot more balanced than you may think with the run and the pass. They are big and athletic up front and they have a very good corps of wide receivers.”
As for the situation surrounding Manziel and his shoulder injury, A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said that while the A&M offense is "different" under Manziel, he has confidence in both back-ups at the position.
"We feel confident in both of those guys," McKinney said. "It's a different team when [Manziel’s] out there. It's a different team when those guys are out there. Matt [Joeckel] knows the offense. He’s been in the system for two years. We feel like he can operate it. Kenny [Hill] is very talented. We feel like if he's out there he can make plays for us as well."
Prediction: Texas A&M 49, Vanderbilt 31
Under Robinette, the Vanderbilt offense will sputter on multiple occasions, leaving room for Manziel and A&M to generate points on a consistent basis throughout the game. Overall, the combination of the home crowd and A&M's sheer talent will turn the game in the Aggies' favor, despite a fast start from the Commodores.