With a little over 24 hours to go, excitement is building for the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide’s showdown with the No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. The trash talk is ongoing between the two fanbases, but the time for talking is nearly over as put up or shutup time draws near.
For Alabama, Saturday’s game will be a welcome distraction amid the allegations of former All-American right tackle D.J. Fluker accepting improper benefits according to a Yahoo! Sports report.
And while there is no need to panic about the allegations just yet, they certainly have cast a dark cloud over Tuscaloosa with national championships hanging in the balance.
At least for one college football Saturday, all those allegations will give way to the Crimson Tide taking the field in a huge game that not only holds serious implications in the SEC Championship race, but the national championship race as well.
Earlier this week we broke down the Texas A&M offense and added some thoughts of how Nick Saban and Kirby Smart may be able to slow down reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
Now, we move to the other side of the ball to talk about the Texas A&M defense, which isn’t nearly as concerning to Tide fans as the Aggies offense. While their offense has certainly looked potent in two outings this season, the defense has looked anything but as they have struggled against lesser opponents such as Rice and Sam Houston State.
Through two games, the Aggies have yielded nearly 30 points and close to 450 yards of offense per game. The Owls had the most success of the two, racking up over 500 yards of offense and putting 31 points on the scoreboard.
Neither of those teams are nearly as talented on offense as the Crimson Tide. Alabama brings in an experienced quarterback in AJ McCarron, and many dynamic weapons at the skill-positions including running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Of course, the Texas A&M defense we saw in the first two games isn’t exactly the same one that will line up against the Tide on Saturday afternoon. The Aggies had seven defensive players suspended against Rice, including six starters, and four of those guys also served suspensions during the Sam Houston State game. They are back now, but it will be interesting to see if they show any kind of rust with Saturday being their first live game action since the Cotton Bowl.
One of the key matchups of this game will be how Alabama’s offensive line will fare against Texas A&M’s front seven. The line was much maligned after a poor performance against Virginia Tech in the season opener, and they’ll need to show marked improvement if Alabama has any hope of leaving College Station as winners.
Texas A&M lost its best pass rusher, and best overall defensive player in Damontre Moore, and they have yet to have anyone step up and replace him to this point.
While the Aggies aren’t as strong up front as Virginia Tech, they still provide a strong challenge that will show whether or not the offensive line has taken a step forward over the last two weeks.
Junior defensive end Gavin Stansbury was one of the players who missed the first two games, and he’ll make his 2013 debut against the Tide. This will likely be the first start of his career, but he was a key contributor in A&M’s defensive line rotation a year ago.
Sophomore Julien Obioha would normally start at the other defensive end spot, but his status remains up in the air due to a lingering back injury he suffered last season that caused him to miss the bowl game. If he can’t go, junior Tyrell Taylor or redshirt freshman Tyrone Taylor will start in his stead. It will likely be Tyrell Taylor getting the nod as the Aggies’ rush (Jack) linebacker, but he’ll see plenty of time with his hand in the dirt.
On the inside, senior nose guard Kirby Ennis returned to the starting lineup last week after serving a suspension in the season opener. Sophomore Alonzo Williams will get the nod at defensive tackle.
True freshmen Isaiah Golden and Daeshon Hall saw plenty of playing time in the first two games, and they figure to factor into the game plan as well.
At linebacker, senior Steven Jenkins makes his return to the starting group after serving a two-game suspension. He’s the most experienced of the group, having started 16 games over the last two seasons. He’ll be joined by junior Donnie Baggs, and freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni.
This is the key matchup of the game as Alabama will look to pound the rock for long sustained drives that keep Johnny Manziel on the sidelines. If Alabama can open up running lanes for T.J. Yeldon and company, then they’ll be able to eat up a lot of clock and limit the amount of time Manziel is on the field.
Alabama looks to be sticking with the same group as in the opener with Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, left guard Arie Kouandjio, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Anthony Steen, and right tackle Austin Shepherd, with the hope that the extra week to prepare has given them time to gel as a unit.
Blocking tight ends Brian Vogler and Brandon Greene will also play an important role, and neither of them showed the ability to replace Michael Williams, who was a mauler and practically an extra tackle on the line the last couple of seasons.
It will also be up to the line to keep AJ McCarron upright. He was never comfortable in the pocket in Atlanta, and he was sacked four times for total net loss of 23 yards. With all the pressure in his face, McCarron had one of his worst games as a starter.
Texas A&M’s defensive backfield was thought to be one of the strengths of the team in the offseason, but there is some uncertainty in the unit, specifically at safety.
At cornerback, junior Deshazor Everett is one of the better players in the conference at his position. You might remember Everett as the guy who sealed the deal in Tuscaloosa last season when he intercepted McCarron’s pass in the endzone late in the fourth quarter.
Starting opposite Everett will be sophomore De’Vante Harris, who will be the third Aggies starting defender to make his season debut on Saturday afternoon after serving a two game suspension.
The question mark at safety involves a lack of experience, especially after junior Floyd Raven who was ruled out of Saturday’s game due to a collarbone injury. Junior Clay Honeycutt will start in his place, and he hasn’t seen much action outside of special teams in his two years in College Station.
Junior Howard Matthews will be making his eighth start of his career this weekend. Senior Tony Hurd Jr. is the nickel corner, and he figures to see plenty of playing time with the Crimson Tide likely employing many three and four wide receiver sets to get their many talented receivers onto the field.
While it’s true that this is a different Aggies defense that Alabama will face on Saturday than what was seen in the first two weeks, it’s not like this group was one of the best in the nation a year ago. They are opportunistic, as we saw on a couple occasions last year, but they still ranked 57th in the country in total defense in 2012.
The concerns surrounding Alabama’s offense are warranted, especially after they had just a little over 200 yards of offense against Virginia Tech, but as I’ve noted before, the Hokies, at least on paper, have a far greater defense than the Aggies.
Of course, if Alabama’s offensive line plays like it did against Virginia Tech, it doesn’t really matter who they are going up against; they won’t have much success regardless. If the line comes together and puts in a strong performance, then Alabama should have a lot of success on offense and light up the scoreboard.
If not, however, they will have to rely on their defense to shut down Johnny Manziel, and/or for Christion Jones to catch lightning in a bottle on special teams once again.
Both of which are dangerous propositions.
Follow John on Twitter.