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September 14, 2013

Tarp's pregame thoughts

I'm just about all talked out. I've watched film of Alabama so much I'm sick of it. Yet, there's still a few things to get off my mind before the game so here they are.

-For all of the talk about the premier matchup between Manziel and Saban, it's probably going less intriguing one between A&M's front seven and Alabama's revamped offensive line that will determine the outcome. A&M's defense is no longer missing anyone due to suspensions although S Floyd Raven won't play due to injury and backup DT Isaiah Golden may not play due to personal reasons. Last week's injection of starting DT Kirby Ennis into the lineup almost instantly provided significant help; after giving up a touchdown on their first drive, the Aggies held Sam Houston to 29 yards in next four possessions. Deshazor Everett has come off the bench in the first two games and the Aggies have forced four interceptions in his two halves of football. It's hard to believe that LB Steven Jenkins and CB Devante Harris won't have a similar impact.

In contrast, Alabama is trotting out the same guys from week one but hoping they'll get better working together (they missed both line calls and assignments against Virginia Tech) in a really hostile environment may be more to ask than what you think. However, Virginia Tech's front seven is probably much better than A&M's and it's probably too much to hope that A&M puts up similar numbers versus the Tide than the Hokies did.

-A&M was a very physical football team last season in part because it started a majority of upperclassmen in both the offensive line and front seven. You had experienced, physically mature guys not afraid to take people on. If one thing has been missing from the Aggies' defense so far, it's been that ability to meet people at the line of scrimmage. Too many underclassmen have been playing which means that too many plays have been made five yards downfield. The return of some veterans should help but even some of the upperclassmen are having issues in this regard although that may well have been because too many newcomers were causing them to play hesitantly too.

The Aggies came out last year, hit Alabama in the mouth, and the Tide never recovered from that in part because they're used to hitting people and having them fold up. Alabama wants to send a message tomorrow and A&M needs to be prepared to send one back.

-Last year, one of the things that made me think that the Aggies had more than just a shot against Alabama was the play of A&M's front seven. The Aggies had one of the better run defenses in the SEC last season and they were good enough to typically put the opposition in third and medium/long situations. In turn, that put opposing offenses in disadvantageous situations so that A&M's defense could get off the field.

The majority of the guys in the front seven that made that performance possible last season are gone. In fact, there's still a personnel hole at each level of the A&M defense this season (line, linebackers, secondary). Guys like Tommy Sanders and Darian Claiborne have been productive but they're not starting this game. Some of the starters need to be on a short leash come tomorrow or step up and play better.

There's no margin for error on personnel.

But -- there's no sign right now that Alabama is simply going to run all over A&M. Everyone assumes that based on A&M's performance the first two weeks versus the run but that's based moreso on what Alabama's offensive line did last year. A&M simply has to slow down inside zone and avoid putting its safeties in a run/pass bind and the big plays associated with that bind.

-I had a discussion with someone on Twitter after I posted that Alabama was facing the Mike Leach conundrum that A&M faced in the past: how do you keep up with an offense like A&M's when you're not built to do it? This person said that Alabama always found ways to score 35 points, even against Virginia Tech. I then asked how they would do it versus A&M and posted "You can't have a destination without a journey. How does Bama make the end zone? A Yugo?"

Alabama's game versus Virginia Tech reminded me of how A&M teams of past years or even the Hokies themselves operated…they always got a special teams or defensive touchdown to supplement whatever their offense was doing. At the end of the day, they would put up 28 or 35 points and their offense looked better than what it really was. Last week, Alabama had three returns for touchdowns. Without them, the Tide's offense only scored 14 points.

In other words, Alabama probably needs turnovers and big plays on special teams to keep up with A&M.

-That leads me to my next point…A&M's special teams were solid last year in Tuscaloosa….no big plays for the Tide. In fact, I'll argue that even though A&M is considered by most to be an underdog in this game, Alabama is actually more in the position of an underdog in that they need big plays on special teams and defense. Teams that are underdogs are more likely to run a fake punt or onside kick because they need to score points and Alabama has a much greater need to do so than the Aggies.

A&M's special teams have already fumbled a kickoff and had a fake punt run against them this year. They currently rank in the middle to lower part echelon of Division I teams in kickoff and punt coverage. They have to be alert for things tomorrow and they have to control Christion Jones in the return game because one special teams touchdown could spell the difference between victory and defeat.

-A&M's running game has a different dimension this season with its new personnel. Germain Ifedi is simply a more physical presence inside with the ability to get leverage that a taller Cedric Ogbuehi. In addition, Mike Matthews moves tempo and is nasty football player himself. Cameron Clear has been a force down on the goal line and in short yardage. Tra Carson is a bigger back than A&M is used to having and he's learned to run with lower pad level and with attitude. Alabama isn't used to seeing a spread team with this kind of offensive line and backs since the days of Tim Tebow at Florida and Cam Newton at Auburn. Alabama controlled or stopped their running games but lost the 2008 SEC title game to the Gators and the 2010 Iron Bowl to the Tigers because they couldn't rush the passer and they gave up too many big passing plays.

One way or another, A&M's improved running game should pay dividends.

-Last season A&M got Heisman Trophy performance from Johnny Manziel but everyone loses sight of what Ryan Swope did from the slot, catching 11 passes for 111 yards and generating a couple of big plays. Alabama doesn't cover down on the slot like they do their outside receivers and so A&M was able to throw the stick route to him multiple times. In addition, since he got a free release into the secondary, he was able to get deep.

A&M has got to get similar production this year out of its receivers and backs. Last week, Virginia Tech blocked Alabama at times but their receivers busted routes or dropped the ball. Malcolme Kennedy and Ricky-Seals Jones have to be able to replace at least some of his production. Mike Evans had five catches for 40 yards but he was put in multiple one on one situations down the field and Alabama's corners won those battles. That can't happen this year. One of the cornerstones of Alabama's defense is its corners playing man to man virtually all the way down the field with a free safety coming over on deep balls down the sideline. If you can win that battle and generate explosive plays, then the Tide really don't have backup plan.

-Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said yesterday that would spy Johnny Manziel. If that's true, then Alabama really hasn't been paying attention to what A&M has been doing this year and Maniziel really is in Alabama's head. Not only that, Alabama is essentially saying that it can stop A&M's running game with ten guys. That's because A&M has moved beyond Manziel's ability to improvise and can generate explosive plays via its running backs and downfield passing game. In addition, A&M can use stick/draw and zone/bubble like option plays and put Alabama in both a run/pass and inside/outside bind.

Those things will essentially make Mosley a spectator while he's shadowing Manziel. Also, let's remember that Manziel is a mistmatch for most spies who lack his athleticism, especially in space, and even Mosely (who is a great linebacker) is going to have similar issues. Finally, last season, Manziel had over 100 yards rushing but this year the Aggies don't need him to replicate that. A&M's running backs and receivers are more than capable of picking up the slack. Manziel needs to focus on his footwork in the pocket and getting A&M in the right play.

-A&M's concept plays are the antidote to one thing that Alabama likes to do which is change up its defense right before the ball is snapped…or at least give the appearance of changing things up to confuse the offense. A&M's concept plays are essentially an option because they are blocked the same and Manziel has the option to hand the ball off or throw it. As a result, the Aggies will be able to make an adjustment after the ball is snapped and essentially trump whatever pre snap audible the Tide is able to call.

-It may be hard to believe but Johnny Manziel has now become a better quarterback than last year. His footwork and mechanics are far superior to last year. By keeping him from running past the line scrimmage, Jake Spavital helped him develop a pocket presence along with the ability to look downfield and find open receivers for bigger gains than he could get himself via his legs (over ten yards an attempt). He's learned to spread the ball around (eight receivers are averaging at least two receptions a game). He's using the left side of the field more in the passing game and not just focusing on the right side where Mike Evans normally lines up. The mental aspect of reading defenses and coverages was already there.

Most of all, this is the game he's been pointing to all off season and he's a guy that shines on the biggest stage. Other teams have played in a game and had a transcendent player to take them through it and now A&M does too.
-This week, A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin was very relaxed while Nick Saban seemed a bit more uptight than usual. Sumlin knows that he has a system that Saban's defense and personnel are not designed for. Not only that, Saban knows it too. In addition, Alabama now has a distraction with the Yahoo! story on D.J. Fluker's possible involvement with an agent hanging over its head this week and going forward while A&M's administration dealt with the Johnny Manziel situation before the season even started. Like last year, all the pressure is on Alabama while Sumlin are the underdogs with nothing to lose with many of the state's and even country's recruits on hand to watch.

-Finally…enjoy the moment. You're going to get more games like this in the future because of A&M's move to the SEC but there's still nothing like that first kiss. Soak it up and revel in it and never, never forget it.

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