-Almost immediately after Texas A&M's opening loss to Florida, I posted that I was very encouraged about the game. There were two things that I really liked: one, that redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel hadn't turned the ball over. For a young quarterback making his debut against a great defense, Manziel hadn't just made great decisions…he had also been unselfish enough to sacrifice the playmaking aspects of his game to protect the ball and give his teammates a chance to win. Two, A&M's defense had played very, very well, especially against the run. When you are able to stop the run, you are able to dictate to offenses what they can do and put them in predictable situations to force turnovers or punts.
If your quarterback protects the ball and your defense stops the run, you have a chance to win any ballgame. That game was a sign that A&M matched up better against SEC teams used to living off of their running games and turnovers than people anticipated.
-Texas A&M's defense deserves so much credit for what happened against Alabama starting with the interior of the defensive line. Once again, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder changed up his personnel and way of doing business and got everyone to buy. He went back to his bigger cornerback tandem of DeShazor Everett and Dustin Harris over freshman Devante Harris and also had Spencer Nealy and not Kirby Ennis line up at nosetackle. Of course, Everett had the game saving interception but more importantly Nealy and Ennis helped A&M control the middle of the field for the Aggies. In particular, despite giving up 40 to 50 pounds, Nealy made All American Barrett Jones' life miserable. Ennis himself had seven tackles including a sack. Both tackles continue to play with great technique, getting their hands inside those of the offensive linemen and despite being smaller gaining leverage on them and stalemating them. Again, this freed up A&M linebackers Sean Porter and Steven Jenkins to make plays.
It also set a tone for the game early on. On the first play from scrimmage for the Tide, Sean Porter pushed through and stopped Eddie Lacy for no gain because Ennis and Nealy freed him up. Instead of sticking with their running game, Alabama wound up throwing on four of its first seven pass plays (and one of them was an interception).
Again, there's a sense watching the SEC during A&M's first season that these programs are built almost entirely around running the ball, stopping the run, and winning turnovers to the point that there is no backup plan if anything goes awry. As a result, when a team can't run the ball right off the bat, they start throwing the ball and they aren't equipped to do that. They get put in predictable situations and here come the turnovers. A&M got three of them from a team that had just eight all year.
In other words, A&M did to Alabama what they are used to doing to other people.
-Howard Matthews' killer hit that forced Bama's first interception of the game set the tone for the defense. With the exception of a bad angle on the Tide's last touchdown, Matthews was the killer free safety with SEC size and speed that everyone projected him to be coming out of high school. Deshazor Everett made the play of the game down on the goal line late in the fourth quarter when he simply played his assignment right to the ball. It was the type of game saving play that no one expected out of A&M's defense.
-During the week, I wrote about Nick Saban's pattern reading defense (one high safety with a form of man coverage) and how to attack it. What I didn't spend as much time digesting was the defense that Bama used in the 2009 national title game against another spread team in Texas. In that game, the Tide decided to use a four man front, two linebackers, and a two high look at safety. That was a defense that I didn't think that A&M would see that much because 1) it put LESS speed on the field and 2) it would invite A&M to run the ball because the defensive tackles were aligned on the outside shoulders of the guards. It ran counter to everything that Saban and Kirby Smart believe about stopping the run and yet they felt compelled to use it because A&M was successful in generating big plays against their man free looks.
-Alabama is supposedly a well coached team yet their safety play absolutely killed them at times Saturday. On A&M's first touchdown, when Johnny Manziel bobbled the ball and escaped pressure to the outside, Ryan Swope had run his route to the corner of the end zone and then came back to the middle of the field for the ball. The safety had him but when he saw Manziel running around he inexplicably abandoned Swope and ran some FIFTEEN yards from where he originally was toward Manziel and left Swope totally alone. Manziel had the vision to find Swope and Swope was smart enough to come back to Manziel's field of vision and the combination made the Tide pay for a horrific lapse in coverage.
Then, on A&M's last touchdown, A&M went five wides and the free safety aligned himself on the two receiver side and to the boundary, not the field. The three A&M receivers on that side now faced three defenders in man coverage with no deep help whatsoever and all of that field to work with. Even if you are Alabama, the odds of three defenders being able to stay with any receiver with that much field to work with are astronomical, even if there is a pass rush.
-Saturday was senior Ryan Swope's finest hour. Although the talk will continue to be how he caught the ball on the crossing route, took a helmet to helmet hit, and still held on to the ball, coming back to the middle of the field so that Manziel could find him on A&M's first touchdown was equally important. It got A&M a touchdown in the red zone and a field goal then would have allowed the Tide to kick a field goal later in the game instead of being forced to go for it on fourth down. He caught some hitch routes early on as well which helped open up things down the middle later. It was the consummate performance from a slot receiver in a spread offense.
-A&M blocked Alabama. The Tide simply aren't used to that from anyone else but LSU. They had four sacks but they were coverage sacks more than anything else. They also watched A&M convert multiple red zone opportunities and short yardage third down opportunities. More than anything else, that's the reason this game wasn't a fluke.
-For all of the talk about Johnny Manziel's physical gifts, his transition to being a complete quarterback was never more on display than on Saturday. He got A&M into the right play time after time. He refused to put his team into bad situations with bad decisions even when pressured. In addition, we talked all week about taking shots down the field against Alabama and he did this time after time when he found them in man coverage.
The big picture items…
-A&M win's has now propelled them into the top ten of both the polls as well as the BCS. In fact, outside of LSU (which beat them head to head), they have the best two loss resume of any team in the country. There's also a chance that they could move ahead of one loss teams such as Alabama or Georgia (remember, they still have to play each other in the SEC title game barring a miracle win by Auburn over the Tide). Florida still has to play Florida State on the road. There's still an outside chance that A&M could sneak into the BCS.
-If you are looking for a way for A&M to get to the Cotton Bowl and play Texas, it's a lot more likely given Texas' sudden resurrection from the dead and A&M's three game blitz through the SEC. From Texas' end, if Oklahoma wins out, they should stay ahead of whoever the Pac 12 has to offer (either Stanford or UCLA) unless one of them pulls an upset on Oregon. The Big 10 will only get one team and that should be Nebraska. Notre Dame should get a shot. Right now, everyone assumes that Alabama would beat Georgia and if Florida State beats Florida, then everything falls into place on the SEC side…Alabama goes as the SEC champion and LSU would go as the second team. The Chick Fil A bowl would take Florida or Georgia from the east.
Quite honestly, that's probably the most realistic scenario remaining out there.
-Before the season started, the three game stretch of road games that A&M just completed was labeled as death march. Quite honestly, if you would have asked me before the season started if A&M had won those three games where they would be, I would have said that they would have been playing for the SEC title. In fact, A&M went through its five road games in a six game stretch with just one loss (LSU) and they could have very easily have won that game.
-A&M's first season in the SEC has repudiated a lot of what the league stood for….run the ball, stop the run, dumb down the quarterback position and make sure that guy doesn't lose the game for you. When you do the same things that everyone else is doing, you have to have more talent than those people but a lot of schools can't recruit to that level. You still have to play great defense no matter what happens but if you are a athletic director or money guy at Arkansas, Tennessee, etc., do you want to bring another Will Muschamp clone (i.e. Kirby Smart) or do you want someone like a Sonny Dykes or Kliff Kingsbury who does things differently on offense?
-A&M beat Alabama in time of possession by about five minutes Saturday running the spread offense and outrushed them by 165 to 122 yards. At some point, is it going to sink with SEC coaches that you can do the same things out of the spread that you can out of any other offense….like you know, run the ball…
-Speaking of pressure, Alabama is getting the ball back with 40 seconds left and decent field position and yet has so little confidence in their offense to go even 50 yards that they go into punt block mode, fall for a hard count on fourth down, and jump offsides.
If A&M had more than five yards to go for a first down…I could see it. Less than five yards to go…just get the ball back.
-You can't win in this league without an elite defense and what's gone unnoticed over the past few weeks is that Mark Snyder has built himself a great SEC defense. Although A&M ranks between 6th and 9th in the conference in the four major statistical categories (rush, total, scoring, pass efficiency), they're giving up an average of just 115 yards a game rushing in their last three. When you can stop the run in the league, you have a great defense and A&M has a great defense.
- Finally, Kevin Sumlin, his staff, and his players have done more in one year than many people thought that they could achieve in three. They coached with a sense of urgency, accepted their limitations, maximized their strengths, and got the players to buy into what they are doing. The players themselves have had their roles change from week to week but it hasn't affected their focus and they have continued to play hard. With a transcendent player and a quality resume, A&M can now go recruit head to head with anyone in the Big 12 or SEC. Perhaps even more importantly, A&M knows that it can PLAY with anyone anywhere and that's the mentality that eventually gets you championships.