Saturday, September 7, 2013

Aggies v. Bearkats - the last warm-up before the Game of the Year

Big entry today – lots of stuff about this Texas A&M team, especially with no update since the demolishing of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl…

As we are on the doorstep of the second game before what will no doubt be one of the key games of the 2013 college football season – September 14, 2013, Texas A&M hosting the Alabama Crimson Tide in a rematch of their epic 2012 battle, a game that was the Tide’s lone blemish on another national championship season.

That game had a series of interesting pre-conditions. ‘Bama had just played their “game of the year” against LSU, beating the Tigers in Death Valley with an amazing comeback victory. The Aggies were upstart success stories in the SEC – but surely not good enough to beat Alabama on their home field.
But in what was the coup de gras of an amazing season for the Aggies, a complete team effort, led by a motivated Johnny Manziel and fueled by a smash-and-grab first quarter, did just that – defeated the undefeatable.  For the Tide’s sake, it did not cost them a shot at the national title, much to the chagrin of many outside the SEC, but it took Oregon losing to Stanford at home and Kansas State being beaten by Baylor to make it happen.

As for the Aggies, they went on to see their redshirt freshman quarterback win the school’s second Heisman Trophy. Combined with a crushing defeat of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, what began as a perfect storm ended with just about a perfect season: filled with success, but just enough room for improvement that there was hope for raising the bar in 2013.
Manziel, the 2013 Offseason and August 31, 2013

Of course, the off-season was anything but simple – the actions and antics of its quarterback led to much ado about nothing in many cases, but much ado about (probably) something in two instances – the Manning Quarterback Camp and autograph-gate. And then you had last week’s game against Rice and the taunting penalty.

So quick thoughts on all that. First, the vast majority of it is stuff I attribute to the rare situation of a *returning* Heisman Trophy winner, who just happens to have the money and brashess to spend it living life to the fullest. All the talk of how he was out on the town at sporting events, etc. – put the can of jealousy down and slowly back away, people.

Second, though… The Manning Camp – that was a professional situation that Manziel let get away from him. That is something that does not reflect well on him or the school. Don’t take the position if you aren’t going to treat it as seriously as you do playing for A&M, please.

Third, the whole autograph thing. I have my opinions on what happened, but like many others, it is just an opinion - with no facts to back it up. I will say this, though – that sure wasn’t an example of avoiding the appearance of impropriety. Here is another place where Manziel could have done himself and the school a huge favor by thinking and making smart decisions.

As for the Rice aftermath, I don’t read as much into things as most seem to be. An ultra-competitive guy was goaded into mouthing off. Clearly, the Rice players (plural) weren’t just standing there holding hands, but at some point, where are his teammates to get him back to the sidelines?

A Current Conclusion on Manziel

I do find myself seeing a lot of irony in people who lauded Michael Jordan for being hyper-competitive and one of the biggest trash talkers in the game ripping Manziel for giving a little lip to a team he was cutting up like tissue paper that had the audacity to try to get under his skin. Not knowing what was said, I have no idea if he went too far. Seeing how Sumlin reacted, my thought is that he did go too far. On the other hand, don’t we think we’re blowing the mistake a bit out of perspective when people are talking about not voting for the guy who was hands-down the best in the game last year because he got a 15-yard taunting penalty?

Oh, there is the issue of autograph-gate. And I can see some people not voting for him because of that, and I don’t entirely blame them. The situation smells like a guy who got away with something that he engineered to get away with from the beginning. It doesn’t sit well with me, especially considering that as Aggies, we have so much going for us in terms of the opportunity to shine in a new spotlight. Why take the risk?

But at the end of the day, the process was followed, and a decision made and agree to and all parties moved on, so that is the end of it. Enough. Back to football.

Reviewing the Rice game and looking at September 7, 2013

And so we look now at Sam Houston. This is a very strong FCS side. Strong enough to make the championship game the last two years. And one that gave the Aggie second unit fits in the second half of last season’s matchup, especially the defense. This will be a strong test – not in the “they might lose” sense, but rather in the “bring your best every play or you will get embarrassed or hurt or both” sense. (Sorry Janice, I can’t say with seriousness that your Bearkats can win… not unless the Aggies just really throw up all over themselves….)

It should prove another good “walk-thru” for the Aggies, and a chance at redemption for a defensive unit that really dropped its shorts the week before against the Owls. Make no mistake, Rice is better than people gave it credit, and when the Aggie defense played the way they did, I was not surprised that they got carved up. And Sam Houston will do the same thing if the A&M defense doesn’t shore up its gaps.

As for the offense, it will also be a good challenge – a final sharpening of the knife, so to speak. I don’t know about you, but personally I was very impressed with the offensive line against the Owls. I mean, we knew going into it that the wide receivers were going to be good and the running backs were arguably the deepest pool of talent in the SEC. But an offensive line that lost the best in the game last year looked like its old 2012 self by the second quarter despite the new faces. Thank you to the Matthews family!

Am I too much of a geek for getting excited about our punter? Goodness-gracious, that kid can drop the ball wherever he wants. What a weapon, especially against a team like Alabama! And certainly, seeing the other parts of the special teams (for the most part) play well was a great sight to see.
But make no mistake – Alabama is going to look to punch the Aggies in the mouth first this time, and it will be up to the defense to take that blow. The nice thing is they have some of their own challenges as evidenced by struggles in their only tune-up for the big game against Virginia Tech, but I am afraid that most of that was due to the strength of Tech’s defense, not Alabama’s weakness. And either way you slice it, the fact is that the Aggie defense is not as strong as Tech’s. The ability to slow Alabama down will be what decides the game, not the ‘Bama defense against Manziel.

And another reason I was glad to see the Aggie success on special teams? The way the Alabama special teams units flat out embarrassed VT’s vaunted unit. For those paying attention, you know that Tech has had a great reputation in that area of the game, and against the Tide, they were shown the door. I will tell you right now, the Aggies are going to need every ounce of success via the special teams units they can get.

The Big Picture

Why is this game so big? Because it is one of a very, very small handful of games that Alabama might lose. And the same can be said of the Aggies. (Eight home games? Really?) The winner of this game very well could win out and play for a national title.

Both A&M and the Tide have games against LSU and Old Miss to worry about before the SEC Championship game, but not much else, although early returns from Auburn and Arkansas indicate that they will not be nearly the pushovers they were last year. The Aggie do have banana-peel games against Vanderbilt and Missouri as well, but at the end of the day, the team strong enough to win on the 14th should be strong enough to win out other than LSU and against the Rebels.

Either way, the 14th is going to be one of the “Christmas for college football geeks” games. Clearly, it is one of a handful of games – along with LSU v both of these teams, as well as SC-Georgia, Stanford-Oregon, the SEC Championship Game, possibly the ACC Championship Game – that will decide who plays for the national title via the Bowl Championship system.

Quick note – do NOT underestimate LSU. Their schedule – along with Florida’s – is atrocious, and that might prevent them from winning the division, but those who think “oh, they lost so many talented players on defense” forget that there is talent galore in that program and more importantly, by the time they have to play the Big Boys, they will have had enough games to learn their craft well enough that they can call themselves LSU defenders with the pride that should accompany the descriptor.

The Bottom Line

There are two things that will control the outcome of this game. The first is as described above – the Aggie defense’s ability to slow and sometimes stop the Alabama defense. The second is if Saban can become the first coach to stop Johnny Football from getting the Important Third Down that he always seems to be able to get.

Seeing how competitive Manziel is – to a fault, in some instances – I just can’t see it. His work to improve what was already a successful passing ability in the offseason, and the clear results you saw in certain moments against Rice, tells me that if Saban tries to do what Sam Montgomery said had to be done to Manziel (make him a pocket passer), his secondary, good as it is, will get eaten up.

As a reminder, here are a few clips worth reviewing. Part 1Part 2Part 3 Simply put, he is that X-Factor. How many times do you see him make plays that college football players simply do not make? And to say he might be a touch motivated is more than a slight understatement.

And to add to it, I don’t think that ‘Bama has ever played in front of a crowd like the one they will face on the 14th. No one has – because the 12th Man will never have had as much a reason to be as hyped, as focused, as intense as they will that day. It will be something to behold, and it will affect the game.

So I’m calling this 28-24, Aggies over Alabama. How things play out against LSU later in the season – or the games v. Old Miss, Vandy or Mizzu – we can discuss later. But for this game, with a win, the Fighting Texas Aggies are going to be the best team in college football. No reasons to dismiss, no excuses. Both teams coming into the game with eyes wide open, no lack of awareness of each other, no reasons to be distracted or thinking about last week or any other game. The team that has one three of the last four national titles will fall to the team that beat them last year. Imperfect though the Aggies (mostly on defense) might be, they will have beaten that juggernaught twice in a calendar year.