Friday, January 4, 2013

Cotton Bowl 2013

Alright, boys and girls.  Here we go.


Texas A&M.

Cotton Bowl.

Big XII v. SEC.

The standard bearer v. the team that abandoned the league.

Bragging rights in Texas.

Heisman Trophy Winner.

Student v. Teacher.



All – Of – The – Above.

Other than the national championship game, no game in this 2012-2013 bowl season is bigger. And the storylines are all over the place.

So let’s look at how this could break down, going matchup by matchup and also looking at other contributing factors. Then sit back and enjoy what should be one of the top games of the year.

First, reviewing the seasons for both teams and go over the top-line/big-picture issues that shape the atmosphere around this game.

Oklahoma was the Big XII co-champion along with Kansas State.  K-State took the BCS honors due to their win over OU in conference play, and proceeded to be embarrassed by Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. The only other loss for OU was against Notre Dame – the undefeated Golden Domers who are currently a deserving No. 1 in the nation and in the national title game. This is undoubtedly one of the best teams in the nation and a storied program.

Texas A&M, on the other hand, is a top 25 program, but historically no where near Oklahoma. Most looked at their move to the SEC and snickered. The conventional wisdom was that the Aggies were going to get smoked like good ol’ Texas BBQ in the SEC West.

Well, conventional wisdom – as it usually does - didn’t look at the whole picture, especially the talent the Aggies brought from last season and the coaching pedigree of a certain Kevin Sumlin. The Aggie’s first black head coach has proven to be an amazing hire, and he took a team that had top teams in 2011 on the run for three quarters only to lose and showed them what it means to win the fourth quarter.

And then you have the ultimate X-Factor. Johnny Manziel. “Oh my gracious – How About THAT” indeed. Where did this kid come from? And who knew he would be anything like “Johnny Football”? A shrimp from a small Texas school who wasn’t even recruited by UT at quarterback? And who wasn’t even the top quarterback in the Spring?

Ah, yes. Kerrville Tivy. Welcome to the Big Stage. Your boy did amazing things thanks in large part to an amazing amount of talent, but also because he refused to be second best. Thanks in large part to a summer quarterbacking school, Manziel went from being a scat-back guy who put up incredible numbers in 3A football and transformed him into something the likes of which college football has never seen – a redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy winner. He made great SEC defenses look silly – sometimes more than others, but usually more often than not. And the coup de grace? At then-No. 1 Alabama, Johnny Football showed the heart of a lion, leading the Aggies to an upset of epic proportions – the game that basically won him the Heisman.

All that led to a 10-2 record and national recognition for the Aggies – recognition that has translated into a bonanza of recruiting success and the potential to be a national powerhouse and possibly a national title contender in 2013.

But it took more than that to result in this Aggie team that will play tonight. The other side of the ledger for A&M’s season includes amazingly poor years for teams like Arkansas and Auburn and some luck in games against Louisiana Tech and Old Miss. A few bounces either way – including a motorcycle ride in Arkansas – and this very easily could have been a 7-5 or even a 6-6 year for the Aggies, even with Johnny Football and Kevin Sumlin.

In that vein, back to OU. History means nothing – all that matters is the team you have this year, and in this game.  And this year’s Sooners have their own flaws. They lost to a Kansas State team at home that wasn’t able to hang with the Oregon Ducks – at team that itself lost to a 2-loss Stanford team at home when that game was all that stood between them and the national title game. And the Notre Dame team that also beat the Sooners – in Norman, too – might be the No. 1 team in the nation, but they have their own questions.

That isn’t to say there isn’t talent – each of those teams has gobs of it. But the “where do they rank” isn’t so clear. Each of these teams – you can make arguments either way.

Then you throw in the mix the results of the other SEC and Big XII teams this bowl season. The two teams to defeat the Aggie? Florida and LSU both lost. The Gators, embarrassingly so to a good but not great Big East team. And LSU? Lost to a Clemson side basically because they decided to forego a running game that was their strength when they had all the chips in front of them. Yet UT, Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State have given the Big XII some significant victories.

Lots of broad-stroke angles that come back to this – clear as mud. Anything can happen.

So as we turn to the teams that have been preparing for tonight’s game for a month, let’s briefly touch on this – why this game matters. OU has dominated its main rival – UT – for four years in the Red River grudgefest. Nothing stood in its way for Texas high school football talent until Nov. 10. Then, all of a sudden, you had the upstart Aggies making noise – enough noise that maybe there would be a little of a challenge in the living-rooms of Texas football players. Yes, those Aggies – the ones that had the temerity to leave the Big XII for the SEC.  The team that was not good enough to compete in the Big XII for most of its existence, who left for the conference that had won the last six consecutive national titles. A program that frankly hadn’t registered on OU’s radar screen as anything other than another average conference foe.  That team now was a national player for Texas talent, with the most recent Heisman Trophy winner, the best offensive line in the game, a defense that was able to hang in the SEC and a coaching staff that had out-coached Nick Saban. In his house.

Yes, you read that right. Kevin Sumlin and company out-coached Nick Saban in early November. Nealy to nose? Three turnovers – at least two of which were system turnovers. Flinching on the punt at the end? Across the board, the Aggies were better prepared than the Tide to win that game. (In fairness, ‘Bama had recently played one of the biggest games of the year in Death Valley against the LSU Tigers – another break the Aggies had.)

So that team was stepping up their game to where Stoops and his staff were going to have to deal with the Aggies on the recruiting trail.

And then came Bowl Selection Sunday, the Cotton Bowl got their wish – and now they get to play for it on the field. Make no mistake – this game could decide the fate of Texas high school and college football for the next ten years.  We haven’t seen a potential sea-change this big since Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy for Mack Brown and UT.

Oh, have I mentioned that these two head coaches know each other a bit? That is it’s own article that I’ll leave others to write. Suffice to say, though, after Sumlin led the Aggies to a win over then No. 1 Oklahoma in the early 2000s, he went to work for Stoops at Oklahoma before taking his first head coaching gig at Houston.

So that about sets the scene. Now to the matchups.

Two top-level offenses. Two defenses that have done enough. Special teams that have had their ups and downs (mostly on  A&M’s field goal team….) All playing for a reason. Bring it!

When OU has the ball – running. It hasn’t been the bread and butter of their offense, but it has been strong enough to cause a number of teams big trouble. The Aggies will have to be ready to stop this unit otherwise it will set up an OU passing game that is one of the best in the country. One huge weapon that A&M must be ready for is backup quarterback Blake Bell – the “Belldozer” alignment can hurt you.

When OU has the ball – passing. This could be the game. Does the Aggie pass rush get to Jones, or do the Sooner wide receiving corps – arguably the best in the nation – run rampant through an average A&M secondary for Landry Jones to pick apart? Many think that Jones is the best pure pocket passer in this bowl season and possibly in college football this year, and if he has time to read where his great receivers are open, the TAMU defense could be flat-out embarrassed.

OU Special Teams – Returns. This is another place where you have the potential for game-deciding moments. Both kickoff and punt returns have been top-shelf for the Sooners this year. The OU-UT game broke when this unit struck. On the other hand, the Aggies units defending returns have been up to the task against pretty much every team they have faced.

OU Special Teams – Field Goal/PAT. This unit has been solid and mostly reliable, and the Aggies don’t have a history of being able to disrupt opponents’ kickers.

When the Aggie have the ball – Running. This may be the one place where the pundits have been overlooking an important aspect. The Aggies can flat run the ball, and I’m not talking about Manziel scrambling. It was when the Ags were able to get their running backs into the game plan mid-season that TAMU went from being a good team to a great one. There were specific times where the Aggies were able to run the ball against Alabama – key moments where you had one of the best defenses in the country knowing you were going to run the ball, knowing they had to stop you, and you did it anyway. That is “of significance.” And OU has not shown they can stop that kind of a running game. Their games against Baylor and OSU – the only top 25 running games they faced – was able to gouge them, although not necessarily enough to win.

When the Aggie have the ball – Passing. OU can talk about their knowledge of how to play against this kind of an offense all they want, but they haven’t seen an offensive line like this all season, and they lost to the only other quarterback who was anywhere close to as good as Manziel. And A&M’s receiving corp isn’t as good as OU’s, but it is good enough to make the tough catches over the middle (hello, Westlake alumn Ryan Swope!) and down the sides (Evans, etc.). And in terms of finding the soft spot, Malcome Kennedy always seems to be the open guy that Manziel can find for the third down conversion more often than not.

A&M Special Teams - Returns. Not the strongest part of the Aggie squad, but not a weakness. Solid enough that this won’t hurt the Aggies or be a benefit to OU.

A&M Special Teams - Field Goal/PAT. If it comes down to a field goal late, or a PAT, this might be an area of concern for the College Station boys. Taylor Bertolet has been inconsistent to say the least. He can be serviceable most of the time, but he hasn’t made some kicks that otherwise would have been problematic with a tighter score. For those of you soccer fans out there, interesting note – former FC Dallas player Josh Lambo is Bertolet’s backup, although it isn’t likely he will get an opportunity to perform today.

Back to the x-factor – Johnny Manziel. Some say that there is a Heisman hangover. Most of those winners peaked with the trophy. Manziel has made it clear that winning the Heisman was one accomplishment, and that he has a clear eye towards a continued successful college career. That isn’t a likely concern. What is a possible variable is the motivation of OU to stop all the talk. They certainly will be game-planning and working to stop his success. And Stoops is one coach who can come up with some inventive options.

The key in any game - turnovers. Both teams have shown that they are vulnerable to the interception or fumble. Not that they are prone to it, but that they aren't impervious to it, and that when they've given up the football, it has sometimes been problematic.  They have also both shown the ability to make a team pay for turnovers. In fact, turnovers were a huge part of the Aggie-'Bama game - recall that the Tide QB hadn't thrown a pick in forever, yet threw two that game, both costly, as was the fumble TAMU recovered. OU isn't going to let you get away with turning the ball over either. With two teams as good as this, it may be as simple as that.

Could it be this simple? The Aggies have outscored their opponents in the first quarter 113 to NOTHING in their last 7 games.  Can't imagine if the game follows that script, we know how it will end. I'm betting OU won't go down that way, so it should be interesting to see how the Aggies respond if either (A) they are held out of the endzone some(all?!?!) of the first quarter, or if (B) they get hit in the mouth offensively just as much or more.  But make zero mistake about this - tonight you will see two teams play 100 mph, with all the torque and force they can bring, leaving nothing behind. It is going to be one heck of a game.

Bottom line? Hunger wins out, and I think the Aggies remain the hungrier team – not by much, and this game will turn on small, key moments.  Every moment will matter tonight. But I’m pretty sure the Aggies aren’t done – there is a lot of history the Aggies have an opportunity to put behind them, and all of those in the Aggie Family will be pulling for (and pushing) these boys to perform at their best.

Add to that, none of the Aggies want to let down their new conference, the SEC. Aggies have welcomed the SEC “conference brotherhood” attitude with open arms as it is a very similar attitude to how many Aggies think and feel – inside the family, we’re opponents, but outside the family, we stand together. The things that make A&M unique are welcomed in the SEC rather than laughed at as they were in the SWC and Big XII – because most SEC fan-bases recognize it for what it is, a similar passion for school and team.

And interestingly enough, this game could very well decide whether the SEC has a winning record in this bowl season or not.  That assumes Alabama will win their game against Notre Dame, which is no guarantee, but either way, an A&M win gives the SEC some of the respectability that it is used to – that was absent in recent LSU and Florida losses.

OU has the motivation of staying a storied program….. A&M has the motivation of proving itself as a top tier program and to represent with pride its new brotherhood in the SEC. I think I know which side I think will be more motivated.

To be specific about it in football terms, hunger usually plays out in the running game, and that is one place where the Aggies have an edge. Again, OU has not seen an offensive line like this one, nor a stable of running backs. This is an offensive unit that ran the ball against some tough-as-nails defenses and come in with the confidence that they can get the job done.  Add in the X-factor, and the OU defense will be stuck between a variety of rocks and hard places, and it won’t go over well for them.

On the other hand, the Aggie defense has one job – get to Jones. Get him out of his rhythm.  Unless OU can establish a running game to take the pressure off him, it will be about Jones’ ability to utilize his amazing wide receiver corp that will dictate whether the Sooners can keep up with the Aggies on the scoreboard. Considering the success this defense has had getting to quarterbacks this year, I don’t see that as an easy task for the Sooner offensive line. OU's running game is strong enough that if they go that direction to try to give Jones some space, this could turn into less than a shootout and more of a traditional grind it out game. 

A lot of people say that this game could be a shootout, and they are probably right. Here are two clips of the A&M game v Louisiana Tech - the closest thing the Aggies game to playing a shootout like that. With commentary. Without commentary.

All that being said, it is going to be a heck of a game. Let’s get it on!

If you'd like to see more videos, here are the A&M games by opponent:

SMU - South Carolina St - Arkansas (*) - Ol Miss - La Tech - LSU - Auburn - Miss St - 'Bama - Sam Houston - Missouri

(*) one of my favorites

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