Published September 10, 2013
TUSCALOOSA, ALA. – To talk with Alabama players and coach Nick Saban on Monday, you got the feeling they barely know who Johnny Manziel even is.
They lost to him last year? Really? I'm not sure Alabama remembers. No one admitted to watching Texas A&M play Saturday while Alabama had a week off. And if they looked at video of last year's game, that was sort of a fuzzy memory.
"I don't like to spend too much time on one team,'' Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron said. "The off week wasn't about them; it was about us.''
This is a strategy on Saban's part. It's psychological. It's PR. It's even a message sent to Manziel in some ways.
Everyone knows, of course, that Alabama hasn't forgotten anything. And surely the Tide would like to shut up the guy who gets all the attention while they simply go about winning the national championship.
But most of all, this is a good plan on Saban's part. They say Saban is a master at revenge games. He's now 15-2 against teams that beat him the previous time they played.
I'm sure there will be some little changes. Maybe more emphasis on making sure speed is on the field, the way Florida did last year in beating Manziel.
Saban isn't going to give away what those tweaks might be. But if you're waiting for some big showy display, a new formation or something to show Saban's brilliance, I think this approach is actually better.
Maybe this approach actually is his genius. The idea is that Alabama didn't lose to Texas A&M last year because of what Manziel did, but rather because of what Alabama didn't do.
So Saban is using this extra week to get his team to re-commit to its principles.
"The most important thing in games like this is people (staying) focused and disciplined to do the simple, fundamental things correctly,'' he said. "We have to be our team, playing our game, taking care of our business.''
This is exactly how champions think, in all sports, really. The issue is what they did, and what they can do. That way, the responsibility is on them, too.
The best coaches don't roll out brand new gameplans in moments like this, but just double down on who they are.
So Saban wants his players to think about all the little things -- "If you take care of the cents, the dollars can add up,'' he said -- and not stop and stare at all the amazing things Manziel is doing.
When Saban has lost, it has been to teams with freelancing quarterbacks like Manziel.
Saban has talked about getting "fast-twitch'' pass rushers, to get speed up front on defense. He has talked with other coaches about beating the up-tempo, spread offenses.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said that Tide defense has spent the offseason working on preparing against up-tempo offenses.
The truth is, big parts of the country are switching to these offenses because they see them as one chance to take down powerhouse teams like the Tide.
So it's not as if Saban is going to let the times go past him without adapting.
That's not totally disconnected from Manziel. But Saban is pushing the mentality that Alabama is king and the national trend is just, roughly, a fad.
He said that Alabama is adapting to the hurry-up offenses as it sees them more. For a while, it rarely saw them. Last year, he said, Alabama faced them eight or nine times.
They are now the norm.
And the thinking is that Alabama doesn't have to redefine itself with gimmicks and tricky schemes, but rather to re-commit to what it already is.
"He's going to make some plays,'' Saban said when asked specifically about Manziel. "But don't allow him to make plays because of what you did incorrectly on defense. And that's where the discipline part is.
"Have a good discipline down the field to stay matched in your coverage and not start looking at the quarterback. I told our players there's a lot of NFL games on Sunday. You want to watch the quarterback, go watch those games. But if you start watching this guy in our game, you're going to get busted.''
Clinton-Dix told me that that's exactly what Saban has been pushing non-stop. If your assignment is to watch the quarterback, keep watching the quarterback even as Manziel extends a play to 10 seconds. If it's to watch the receiver, keep watching the receiver and forget Manziel.
Last year, Manziel led A&M to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter while Alabama tried to adapt to the speed he was adding to the game.
The Tide started to fixate on him. Clinton-Dix said he would see Manziel scrambling around, changing directions back and forth and think he could get to him.
"Then he hits your guy,'' Clinton-Dix said. "Never take your eyes off your man. The minute you do, he'll pop off the ground and be somewhere else and Johnny Football will throw the ball 40, 50 yards and complete a pass.''
Johnny Football? I'm surprised anyone at Alabama knew that name.