Alabama vs. Texas A&M 2013: Revenge, middle fingers, and a tactician's dream

Stacy Revere

In the game we've talked about all offseason, two of the strongest units in the country last year (Alabama's offensive line, Texas A&M's offense, period) face the burden of proof in College Station.

Alabama fans have long memories. When your team doesn't lose very frequently, you can hold on to individual losses and wait out your shot at revenge.

And when you're Alabama, you are usually successful in your revenge attempts. Tennessee handed Bear Bryant his only loss in 1960, and the Tide whipped the Vols, 34-3, in 1961. Georgia Tech took down the Tide by one point in 1962 (again the Tide's only loss), and Alabama beat the Rambling Wreck by 16 in 1963. And so on for the next 50 years.

The Tide don't always get immediate shots at retribution, however. For every LSU (Alabama lost in the ninth game of the 2011 season and got revenge in the 13th), there's a Notre Dame (the Irish won five of six versus Alabama, with the last win coming in 1987, and the Tide had to wait until the 2012 title game for revenge) or a Texas (the 'Horns won three in a row against Bryant, with the last one coming on New Year's Day 1981, before 'Bama got another shot in the 2009 title game). And in the aftermath of both title-game whippings, Tide fans celebrated not only BCS titles, but long-sought vengeance.

To defeat Alabama is to insult Alabama. And Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M had the audacity to do just that on November 10, 2012. Five games and a long offseason later, a chance to right wrongs approaches.

Just sit back and enjoy this one. The most recent Game of the Century of the Month is one we've talked about all off-season. The repercussions of Alabama's Saturday trip to Texas A&M are minimal, all things considered. The loser could have plenty of opportunities to get back into the SEC and national title races. The winner will face plenty of land mines in its attempt to stay in front. (Or, to put it another way, the winner of this one gets all of the 1-0 in conference play.) It is obviously important, but it is mostly a spectacle, the culmination of months of talk and the intersection of too many story lines to count.

Is the Alabama offensive line ready?

It's an odd question to ask considering Alabama's line was "one of the greatest ever?" dominant last season. But following the departures of three All-Americans -- center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack, tackle D.J. Fluker -- there was reason to doubt the line a bit in the offseason.

There's a chance you might be able to follow the stop-the-run script a bit easier in 2013. (Not easy, mind you, but easier.) Leading rusher Eddie Lacy is gone, as are three All-American linemen.

Yes, the new starters are potentially going to be just fine -- especially sophomore back T.J. Yeldon (hold onto the ball, T.J.) -- but the line was historically strong last year, and there's no guarantee it will be as good. Alabama has a new offensive line coach (former FIU head coach Mario Cristobal), and as strange as it sounds, Alabama hasn't recruited at quite as high a level at OL as it has in other units. Yes, former all-world recruit Cyrus Kouandjio is still in the mix, and yes, All-American Chance Warmack was, like a few of this year's probable starters, only a three-star recruit.

Still, if you're looking for cracks in Alabama's armor, it is at least feasible that the offensive line will be a little bit glitchy after its near-perfection last year. Lacy and Yeldon were almost never touched in the backfield and didn't have to make their first move until past the line of scrimmage. Those are luxuries Yeldon and company won't always have this time around.

Those are luxuries Yeldon very much did not enjoy two weeks ago. Granted, it was one game, and it came against a potentially elite Virginia Tech defense, but the Alabama line was a disaster in Atlanta. In 2012, Alabama's Stuff Rate (the percentage of run plays stopped behind the line) was 12.6 percent, the second-lowest average in the country; against Virginia Tech, it was 35.3 percent. Twelve of Alabama's 34 run attempts ended in the backfield. T.J. Yeldon found room to run on the outside -- his six carries to to the edge of the defense gained 53 yards -- but he found almost nothing between the tackles, gaining just 22 yards in 11 carries. One of his edge runs was an improvisation after he found no room in the middle.

This had repercussions. Not only was Alabama facing more second- or third-and-longs than it was accustomed to facing, but the ground failures completely hindered the Tide's deadly play-action game. On play-action passes on August 31, quarterback A.J. McCarron was just 2-for-6 for nine yards and was sacked twice for 12 yards. That's eight play-action attempts and a net gain of negative-three yards. Remember all of those pretty bombs to Amari Cooper last year? They're harder to pull off on third-and-long, and they're impossible to pull off if McCarron is on his back.

Again, Virginia Tech's defense could be the strongest or second-strongest team Alabama faces all year. And Nick Saban, Cristobal, and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have now had two weeks of practice to mend some of the holes that appeared (and Saban's typically pretty good at mending). But these numbers were really, really bad. And now Alabama faces an A&M defense that welcomes back two of its best front-seven members (end Gavin Stansbury, weakside linebacker Steven Jenkins) from suspensions. A&M's defensive Stuff Rate against Rice and Sam Houston (18 percent) was decent without Stansbury and Jenkins, and the odds are good that A&M will have a chance to make some plays.

As strange as it feels to say, this matchup really does have a "movable force versus resistible object" feel to it. When A&M isn't making plays in the backfield, it's allowing them. Through two weeks, the Aggies rank 109th in defensive Success Rate, 103rd in Points Per Play, and an incredible 123rd in Rushing S&P, and while Rice and Sam Houston both have good ground games, they're not that good. Granted, the biggest trenches-related Alabama story line at the moment has nothing to do with Virginia Tech or Texas A&M, but as it pertains to Saturday, the winner of this battle -- Alabama's front five versus A&M's front seven -- will determine whether the Tide can score enough points to win this game.

The Law of 3, the second time around

We've spent a lot of time talking about how the Alabama defense will handle Manziel, and justifiably so. It's a fascinating matchup. A&M has more weapons and a higher capability for threatening Alabama than just about anybody in the country.

[O]ffenses have been changing, so Saban must change with them. Saban's 3-4 was designed as a run-stuffing defense for traditional attacks, but teams like Texas A&M are far more likely to spread the field. "When we play a two-back team, we are in a 3-4 defense. Georgia and LSU are two-back offenses," said Smart. "If a team is a one-back offense with three or four wide receivers in the set, we match their personnel and play nickel or dime. When we play nickel or dime, we play very little 3-4 defense out of it; we are in the 4-3 front."

And, when facing one of these spread attacks, Saban likes to adjust his pass coverages as well. As he explained a few years ago, "when you're playing a passing team, you always have a better chance with split safeties," meaning coverages with two deep safeties. Against spread offenses, the blueprint has thus been straightforward: four down linemen, two deep safeties, and his corners rolled up on the outside receivers. With this mixture, Saban's defenses have suffocated team after team: the attacking four-man line pressuring the quarterback, the cornerbacks rolled up to take away the quick screens, and a two-deep safety look from which Alabama can mix and match coverages to confuse the quarterback.

And the run? Against teams like Texas, Alabama has been able to stuff it by giving its defensive linemen and inside linebackers responsibility for extra gaps based on the offense's blocking schemes.

This tried and true scheme is what Alabama began the game with against Texas A&M last season, ostensibly a Big 12 spread team that was about to learn what big-league SEC football was all about. Alabama's defense didn't work.

The thing is, though, that it did start to work after a while.

There was evidently no way to prepare for an offense led by a quarterback who was half-Doug Flutie, half-Steve Austin, escaping an enclosed pocket, throwing a touchdown pass, and strolling to the end zone with middle fingers in the air. You had to experience it yourself before you could fully grasp how to deal with it. It's rare that you see a sustained element of surprise all season long, but that's exactly what Texas A&M pulled off last season. And no matter the opponent, the Aggies were almost untouchable in the first three drives of games in 2012, especially in conference play.

2012 SEC Opponent 2012 Def. F/+ Rank A&M yards/play (first 3 drives) A&M yards/play (after)
Alabama 1 6.9 4.6
Florida 2 5.8 2.9
LSU 6 5.0 4.1
Ole Miss 34 8.2 6.9
Missouri 41 9.0 6.0
Mississippi State 54 8.0 6.4
Arkansas 72 8.6 8.6
Auburn 95 7.7 8.1

In its first three drives against Florida, LSU, and Alabama, Texas A&M scored a combined 46 points and averaged 5.8 yards per play. In all drives thereafter, the Aggies averaged 4.0 and scored 19 points. Bad defenses (like Arkansas' and Auburn's) never had an answer, decent defenses (like Ole Miss', Missouri's and Mississippi State's) slowed things down a little bit after a while, and great defenses locked A&M down to a solid degree once they got up to speed.

This begs an interesting question: What happens the second time around? With an entire offseason to prepare, and with basically three quarters (the second through fourth) of relative success to call upon, how will a great defense like Alabama's fare against A&M in 2013?

Whereas LSU adjusted for Manziel and A&M by easing up on the aggressiveness, forming an umbrella, swarming to the ball, and daring Manziel to take chances, it seems Alabama tightened things up by doing the opposite. When A&M was jumping out to a 20-0 lead against the Tide, the Aggies attempted 14 passes; on four of them (29 percent), Alabama brought more than four pass rushers. Those four plays resulted in three short passes (two screens) for nine yards and a Manziel scramble for 32.

As the game progressed, however, A&M called more pass plays. The running game never really had a chance (Ben Malena and Christine Michael carried 26 times for just 77 yards), and the pass gave the Aggies a better chance of maintaining their lead. In the 31 pass attempts that came after those first three drives, the Tide brought more than four rushers 15 times (48 percent). The result: three scrambles for eight yards, two sacks for a loss of 13, and 6-for-10 passing for 24 yards. That's 15 plays, 19 yards.

Of course, as you know, the Aggies rallied. After gaining 54 yards in 20 plays and letting Alabama get to within 20-17, A&M began to move the ball again. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Taylor Bertolet kicked a 29-yard field goal to cap a 16-play, 63-yard drive. Then, A&M drove 51 yards in seven plays to set up a missed field goal. Following a crippling fumble by T.J. Yeldon, Manziel found Ryan Swope 30 yards downfield on play-action, and Swope gained 14 yards after the catch. Then Manziel threw the most perfect wobbly pass of his life, connecting over Malcome Kennedy's front shoulder for a 24-yard, and eventual game-winning, touchdown.

A&M only had three gains of longer than 15 yards after those first three drives, but two of them came back-to-back, when Alabama was on its heels.

(On A&M's final real drive, sans the kneel-downs at the end, Alabama had just cut the lead to 29-24 and brought heat on three straight plays, which resulted in an incomplete pass, a five-yard scramble, and a sack against an Aggie offense less willing to take chances.)

As Chris B. Brown put it in the piece linked above, "In the second half, Alabama clamps down, challenges the Aggie receivers, challenges the Aggie run game, and, most of all, challenges Manziel. And Alabama gets back in the game, so it works, until it doesn't." We can talk about all the time defenses, especially Alabama's, have had to come up with a plan to handle Manziel and company, but it's possible that A&M has already found the response to that plan. And they, too, have had an offseason to prepare.

So what does Alabama do now? Are we going to see more of an aggressive approach from the start, rushing five in expected pass situations and trusting its speed to once again handle the Aggie running game? And if Bama is bringing more heat, do we see A&M pretty quickly respond with shots downfield against a reasonably untested Alabama secondary that no longer features cornerback Dee Milliner (but does still have safeties Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and Vinnie Sunseri)? And if that's the plan of attack, can A&M succeed enough at it? Or will the Aggies have to rely on a dink-and-dunk game that Alabama tends to destroy after a while?

We often compare football to a chess match, and for good reason: It basically is, only with pieces that don't do what they're supposed to sometimes. But the analogy is never more apt than when it comes to Kevin Sumlin's version of the Air Raid, run by the most electrifying player in college football, taking on a Nick Saban defense. This is a new puzzle for Saban to solve; we'll see if he can do it. And at the same time, Sumlin, Manziel, and the A&M offense have to prove that they can move the ball equally well without the element of surprise. We've focused mostly on what Saban will do, but this game will be determined as much by what A&M does in response.

When Alabama and LSU faced off for the 2012 national title in a rematch of an early-November classic, we basically knew what to expect: defense and field goals. We knew each team's strengths and weaknesses, and we knew all of the main players involved. This time around, there are so many unknowns, from the tactics at play when A&M has the ball (not to mention the new players involved in A&M's attack this time around) to the new starters who will help decide the trench battle when Alabama has the ball. Previously proven entities -- Alabama's offensive line, A&M's offense -- face a burden of proof that didn't exist last year.

Alabama won its last big rematch. What happens this time? Again, the stakes aren't quite as high for this one, simply because it's so early in the year. But you couldn't ask for a more intriguing mid-September battle than this.

More from SB Nation:

Solving Johnny Manziel: Chris "Smart Football" Brown on Bama-A&M

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