Alabama at A&M Preview
If the oft-mentioned college football landscape were a physical biome, it would be a post-apocalyptic desert because it is a harsh place where warring tribes battle for limited resources like extras in a Mad Max movie. At this point in the season, there are a lot of good-looking football teams with loyal fan bases who are beginning to whisper to one another that this might be their year. But the desert is where good-looking things go to die, and we are entering the stretch of the season where pretenders are weeded out with fervor and the playoff field begins to actually take form.
Every year college football reminds us how little we actually know about sports, specifically those that hinge on the performance of 18-23 year-old males. Four teams who were listed in the top 10 in the preseason polls – Auburn, Georgia, Oregon, and USC – have fallen out of the rankings altogether, their playoffs hopes seemingly already dashed before the end of October with two losses apiece while early season surprises like Utah, Florida, Michigan and Northwestern have done enough to at least enter into the playoff conversation. Nobody knows what’s going to happen until the games are played and that is why we tune in to watch the chaos. No one is going to win the national championship in October, but there is still a lot on the line.
The stakes may be the highest this weekend in College Station where No. 9 Texas A&M hosts No. 10 Alabama. It’s an important game for two teams who are vying for the SEC west crown and still believe that they have a legitimate chance to throw their names into the college football playoff hat. It is a game that has set up nicely to be the first true premier matchup played in the shiny new Kyle Field, and it’s a game that Aggie faithful have had circled on their calendars since the schedule was released. It could be the game of the year, or another lopsided matchup between a team destined for title and just another run of the mill pretender. Until the game kicks off at 2:30 PM central time in College Station, all we can do is speculate so let’s feed the media hype storm by breaking down the most prominent storylines.
A&M and Alabama have always been strangely intertwined in that former Texas A&M head football coaches are responsible for 7 of Alabama’s 11 official national football championships (six from Bear Bryant and another from his protégé Gene Stallings). Still, they have only recently become acquainted with one another as conference foes.
Their first matchup, in 2012, served as Johnny Manziel’s marquee Heisman moment. Manziel and the Aggies took down the consensus No. 1 and eventually national champion Crimson Tide with timely defense and the old “run into a lineman, lose the ball in the air, recover your own fumble before it hits the turf, spin around and hit your open receiver in the back of the endzone” play (it’s a wonder more teams don’t run that). Deshazor Everett sealed the victory with an interception in the final moments and just like that, Alabama’s chance at a perfect season disappeared just like Manti Teo’s fake dead girlfriend.
Since then, however, it’s been all Alabama with the Tide taking a close one on the road in College Station in 2013, and then completely dismantling the Aggies in their return trip to Tuscaloosa last year.
A college football rivalry is a fragile thing that is difficult to nurture. Sure, there are plenty of teams who don’t like each other very much, but there are few true rivals. A&M is trying to find a way to crawl their way to the top in their new conference home, and the only way to do that is by making enemies of the big dogs at the top. A win this year by the young Aggies would even the scales and go a long way in earning them some mutual respect with Nick Saban’s Bama squad. A loss could set them up to be just another whipping boy on the Crimson Tide’s schedule for years to come.
We’ve already talked a little bit about what’s at stake for both teams. But there is also an element of public perception here. Obviously it is never in one’s interest to lose to a divisional rival, much less one with whom you share pipeline recruiting states. Games like this go a long way in determining who takes home the top recruits on national signing day. Coach Kevin Sumlin can paint last year’s blow-out as an anomaly, but another lopsided loss at home with super recruit Tate Martell and company watching from the stands is going to be a tough sell for anyone.
Texas A&M is also fighting to show that they really do belong in the SEC West. After a surprise breakout year in their SEC debut, the program has struggled to take that elusive “next step.” Sure, the Aggies are 5-0 and carry a top 10 ranking, but they completely unraveled last season after an almost identical start. The truth is that A&M hasn’t really faced top-notch competition yet this year. They needed overtime to take down an Arkansas team that now has four losses, two at the hands of Texas Tech and Toledo, and their season opener against Arizona State sure looks less impressive now that the Sun Devils have struggled through much of their early season slate. All eyes will be on College Station this Saturday, and it’s time for Sumlin’s squad to prove what kind of team they really are this season.
For Alabama, this game is about survival – pure and simple. Like the New England Patriots, the Tide is an emotionless football machine designed to win football games at a prodigious rate and produce the most boring press conferences possible. After an early season upset at the hands of Ole Miss, Bama is facing the slimmest margin of error they’ve faced in recent memory. How will Saban’s army look after a tough-fought victory against the aforementioned Razorbacks? Is the overwhelming pressure to perform finally taking its toll on the program and the players that wear the crimson and white? Has the monolithic Bama football dynasty finally fell to the point where they have become painfully self-aware of their own mortality? Or are they just a wounded lion laying in wait on the Serengeti primed to pounce on and destroy any and everything foolish enough to cross their path? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, and neither do you. They’re just fun to ask.
At the end of the day, football is a game of matchups. The best team doesn’t always win. Instead, the victor is the team most equipped to defeat their opponent on that specific day. That may seem like overly vague, noncommittal nonsense but all it really means is that every team has weaknesses and some teams are just more equipped to take advantage of their opponent’s weakness than others.
For example, over the past two seasons, few teams in the country have been as bad as A&M at stopping the run. Sure, they have shown marked improvement under new DC John Chavis but they still struggled mightily against the only power running team they’ve faced this year, Arkansas. This is a problem because few teams run the ball as well as Alabama.
Granted, Alabama is currently only ranked 49th in the country in rushing offense at 188.8 yards a game. But they’re still averaging 4.6 yards a carry, enough to wear down an A&M defensive unit that is only 85th in the country in run defense. If A&M is unable to control the line of scrimmage and limit the amount of yardage they give up on early downs, then Alabama will be able to control the clock and neutralize this Aggies team’s two biggest strengths – their dominate pass rush and their explosive offense.
The good news for the Aggies is that Alabama’s quarterback situation has been shaky at times this year. Current starter Jake Coker has proven himself as at least adequate by coming up big in the second half of games, but he has struggled at times with his accuracy and decision-making under pressure. If A&M is able to force Coker and Co. into obvious passing downs then the Aggies will be able to release real life kamikaze kraken sack monsters Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall on the edges to cause the kind of wonton pass rushing mayhem that would make even the most experienced signal caller knock-kneed.
On the other side of the ball, it’s really strength versus strength as the Christian Kirk/Kyle Allen led Aggie offense face off against an Alabama defense that has held opponents under 17 points in five of their six games this season. It’ll be interesting to see what the Aggies can do against an elite defensive unit and to find out whether or not it was just a fluke that Ole Miss was able to put up 43 points on the Tide back in September.