The next time a coach accuses the media of hype, consider this sentence from Alabama Coach Nick Saban during Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference teleconference: “Texas A&M has an outstanding team, one of the best offensive teams probably in college football, maybe in the history of college football in term’s of their quarterback’s ability to make plays and the great job of executing they do.”
It is a big game. When Scout.com publishers were asked last summer to select the conference game of the year for 2013, the Alabama at Texas A&M game was number one with 35 per cent of the vote. (Second biggest was LSU at Alabama.)
That big Tde-Aggies game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday at Kyle Field in College Station with CBS televising the game.
The word from Aggieland is that this match up of number one ranked Alabama against number six Texas A&M – this match up of Bama’s Nick Saban against Johnny Manziel and his Heisman Trophy – this match up of the Crimson Tide with back-to-back national championships against the only team to defeat Alabama in 2012 – is the biggest game ever at Texas A&M.
Well, it’s probably not the biggest game in Alabama history. Too many national championships to put it in that category, but at the end of the season it could prove to be the biggest game of this year. Or not.
But there is no logical reason to expect the Crimson Tide’s historic big game experience to help Saturday. Saban said, “I don't know that it's an advantage or disadvantage. I think the advantage or disadvantage lies with what our players think. What kind of identity do they want to create? What kind of purpose do they have? What kind of togetherness do they have? What kind of resiliency do they have. A lot of these things have not been tested with our team after one game. That's more the issue is this team. Nothing that's happened in the past is going to help this team play well in this game.”
Saban sees it as “obviously the greatest challenge our team has had this year, having played one game and not really having established a true identity as a team.” That is obvious. Alabama has played one game, winning by an impressive margin, 35-10 over Virginia Tech, albeit not in impressive fashion.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M, even with a handful of players missing playing time for various misdemeanors, has romped to victories over Rice (52-31) and Sam Houston State (55-28).
Saban said, “They're a very well coached team. It's a challenging environment for our players to be able to go over and have the kind of discipline to execute and focus on the kind of fundamental things that are going to affect the outcome of the game.
“We have a lot of respect for their players and also have seen some of the players who haven't played play before and have a tremendous amount of respect for them.
We don't really feel like they'll change defenses. The scheme will be the same, the players will be better. It's going to be a challenge for us because they've got a really good defensive package and they've got a lot of different ways to pressure. Drop eight guys. Do multiples of things that make it difficult for you to be consistent on offense.
We definitely need to do a little better job than we did last year, especially early in the game, of attacking their defense because they did a really good job against us a year ago.”
The players “who haven’t played before” is a reference to the suspended Aggies. Cornerback De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury return this week after missing the first two games serving suspensions for violating team rules. Cornerback Deshazor Everett was suspended for the first half for a targeting penalty last week, but returned after halftime and had an interception.
But the formerly suspended player most in the spotlight is Johnny Manziel, the talented quarterback who was suspended for the first half of the first game for signing thousands of autographs and not getting a thing for doing so...as Texas A&M and the NCAA determined.
Regardless of what off-the-field judgment issues Manziel may have, the third year sophomore is quite the man on the field.
Saban said, “Throughout the season last year, he played better and better and better in every game. I think that he became a passer. He got more and more confident. Their team got more and more confident in his ability to effectively throw the ball, which he has just continued to improve in.
“He has great athleticism. He's a very instinctive guy. He does a really good job of executing their offense. He has a really good understanding of what they need to do and how to take what the defense gives.
“To me, the biggest thing is, he's become a really, really good passer to go with all the other attributes that he has. And his ability to extend plays is really difficult for a defense to athletically match up and get him on the ground or affect him in the pocket and then cover people down the field when he does scramble or run.”
Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin agreed with Saban’s assessment of Manziel. “Anybody who's watched the first two games or watched the last six games from last year has seen him evolve,” Sumlin said. “He's gotten better. I think he's worked on a lot of different things in the off-season trying to shore up some of his weaknesses and really work on his mechanics, his overall knowledge of the offense, thinking conceptually instead of figuratively just with plays. I think his overall knowledge of the offense has helped him be able to go through progressions. Consequently, I think it's making him a better quarterback.”
Sumlin likes the home field advantage of Kyle Field. “I've been out of both locker rooms at Kyle Field as a visiting coach and as a coach here at home,” he said. “I've said before it's one of the best places to play in the country if you're the home team and one of the hardest places to play in the country if you're the visiting team.”
Asked what differences he saw in Alabama this year from last year, Sumlin said, “I think there's a difference between both teams. The first thing that jumps out watching the game is there's going to be a lot of people playing in this game Saturday that aren't on that tape from last year on both sides.
“Without going into schematic type things, personnel is different. This is a very, very different game than it was last year from a personnel standpoint based on the number of players that will not be on the field [this year] for both teams.”