The center of the college football universe is in College Station this weekend, as the two-time defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide seek some redemption as they take on the Texas A&M Aggies and their larger-than-life Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in an SEC West showdown.
Nick Saban's top-ranked Crimson Tide had just one blemish on their 2012 record as the team claimed its third national title in the last four years. The loss came at home to Texas A&M (29-24) in a game that spring-boarded Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel to the front of the Heisman race. Alabama opened defense of its recent national title two weeks ago and looked strong in a 35-10 win over of Virginia Tech in Atlanta.
A week off this early can affect a team in a number of ways, something Saban addressed at his weekly press conference.
"Our team is in a little bit of an unusual circumstance to have one game, a bye week, which I think we had a good week, but now we have a big challenge on the road. I think the most important things in games like these (are that) people can stay focused and disciplined to do simple, fundamental things correctly. We have to be our team, playing our game, taking care of our business. Everybody has to do their job."
Kevin Sumlin has had his hands full with Manziel's off the field antics since he won the Heisman, but on the field, Sumlin's sixth-ranked Aggies have certainly looked the part of an SEC contender as they have run up the score on both Rice (52-31) and most recently Sam Houston State (65-28).
This marks a rare Top 10 matchup at Kyle Field, just the fourth all-time. Overall, Alabama holds a 3-2 series edge, but dropped a five-point decision in Tuscaloosa a year ago in the first meeting between these two squads since 1988.
Alabama won the season opener against Virginia Tech and on the surface it looked like an easy win. However, if not for wide receiver Christian Jones, the game would have been a whole lot closer. Jones accounted for 256 all- purpose yards and three touchdowns, one on a kickoff return, one on a punt return and one receiving. Overall, Alabama showed very little offensively, managing a mere 206 yards of total offense in the game.
Still, this is a team with plenty of talent on the offensive side of the football, led by veteran quarterback A.J. McCarron. The senior signal caller had an ugly 2013 debut though, completing just 10-of-23 passes, for 110 yards with one TD and one interception. Talented tailback T.J. Yeldon (75 yards, one TD) was also held in check by the Hokies, as UA finished with a meager 96 yards on the ground.
Still, with a dominant offensive line and skilled players like McCarron, Yeldon, Jones and top wideout Amari Cooper on the field, Saban will make the necessary adjustments to get this unit clicking on all cylinders.
A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is particularly impressed with Alabama's front line.
"Coach Saban is going to do what Coach Saban does," said Snyder. "They've won a lot of games doing it. Why change? There's not a dramatic drop off between last year's team and this year's team. Their left tackle is still really good. Their right guard is still really good. They got their feet wet from the first game and now they've had a couple weeks to prepare."
While the offense had a disappointing showing in the season opener, Alabama's defense continued to play at a top-notch level. The Crimson Tide held the Hokies to just 212 yards of offense, including an anemic 59 yards passing.
Despite the loss of several high profile defensive players to the NFL over the last couple of seasons, Alabama is still chock-full of defensive talent.
It starts in linebacking corps with Butkus Award candidate and All-American C.J. Mosley at linebacker. The 6-2, 235-pound senior had seven stops in the season opener, topped only by senior end Ed Stinson (6-4, 292), who finished with eight tackles, with one TFL and a half a sack. Other defenders of note include junior safeties HaHa Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri and junior middle linebacker Trey DePriest.
Despite the headaches that Manziel may cause Sumlin off the field, on the field, the All-American delivers those headaches to opposing defensive coordinators. The Aggies are already humming at mid-season form, although a lot of the stats have to be put into perspective due to a lack of competition to this point. Through two games, A&M is averaging 58.5 ppg, getting it done on an even 600.0 yards of total offensive per outing. The run game nets a healthy 208.0 per game, but it is Manziel's passing that has been highlighted more thus far, with the team averaging 392.0 yards per game through the air.
Manziel sat out the first half against Rice (suspension) and was benched late, but has certainly made up for lost time, completing 70 percent of his throws, for 520 yards and six touchdowns. Mike Evans is far and away Manziel's top target in the early going, as the 6-foot-5 sophomore has reeled in 13 balls, for 239 yards and two TDs.
Manziel is always a threat to move the chains with his legs, but the team does have a potent one-two punch in the backfield with tailbacks Ben Malena (7.1 ypc, two TDs) and Tra Carson (5.5 ypc, four TDs).
Still, this team will only go as far as Manziel will take it. How he handles the pressure will determine A&M's season.
"I think he does a good job of that every week," said Sumlin. "The intensity and emotion that he plays with is part of his game. I don't think that anybody around college football that watches him play denies that. As I've said before, our job and his job is to channel that type of emotion into a positive way of doing things. For the most part he does that. That's what separates him from a lot of people is how he plays the game and the emotion and intensity he plays the game particularly at that position which you don't see a lot."
The Aggie defense has shown some signs of weakness in the first two games, although those deficiencies have been masked by the offensive output. Texas A&M is giving up 29.5 ppg thus far and has really struggled against the run, giving up 273.0 yards per game, on almost six yards per carry (5.9). That is of particular concern considering Alabama has utilized a dominant run game under Saban over the years. Over the first two games, A&M has recorded 18 TFL, three sacks and forced four turnovers (all interceptions).
Junior safety Howard Matthews has been all over the field, leading the team with 17 total tackles. Fellow junior safety Clay Honeycutt is second with 14 stops and has one of the team's four interceptions.