Last weekend I had the privilege of attending college football's version of the Super Bowl: LSU v. Alabama. Prior to the game, I set my mind to observing Alabama to discover any weaknesses A&M could exploit. I found very few actual weaknesses, but I did notice that Bama is vulnerable.
Alabama is the model of contrarian football in this air-raid, high octane, points-gone-crazy world. Nick Saban is Bud Kilmer imploring A.J. McCarron to "stick to the basics, stick to the basics!" while slapping him repeatedly with his whistle. This Lombardiesque Bama team doesn't do anything flashy. On offense they run out of traditional, base formations. A lot of Ace-Big, a little I-Twins, and when they do go to the shotgun, it's the basic gun with only one slot receiver. On three critical plays in the second half this was the sequence: a drop to the tight end in the flat, a counter trey, and a play action pass to the fullback out of the I. You know what is coming. It's a Tecmo Bowl offense. Sure, there may only be 4-8 plays, but damn if they aren't effective when you execute them properly.
2012 Alabama reminds me a lot of 1998 Nebraska. That Cornhusker team had also won two titles in the previous three years but had lost a lot of its talent, particularly defensively, to the NFL. This Bama team is similar. Marcell Dareus is not walking through that door. Neither are Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower, or Dre Kirkpatrick. Marquis Maze and Trent Richardson are gone. And like 1998 Nebraska, Bama is team designed to beat you physically and never play from behind. That 1998 Nebraska team was just as feared as this Bama team, but they were exposed by the Aggies. The way to be beat 2012 Alabama resembles the way A&M overcame the 1998 Cornhuskers on that glorious afternoon: Big plays, taking advantage of turnovers, and having no fear.
Throughout the LSU/Bama game, I focused on the interior lines, which I believe to be the key to winning football. LSU's offensive line has been decimated by injury, and they started a true freshman at RT. Yet, they held their own against what appeared to be to be a massive but clumsy Alabama defensive line. They kept LSU QB Zach Mettenberger relatively clean and allowed him to make throws down the field. LSU's center, Senior P.J. Lonergan, deserves a lot of the credit, as he played an outstanding game.
Key #1 Offensive Line Play
To beat Alabama, our offensive line will have to play nothing short of perfect. That's not front page news, but what is news is that the key to our offense this week will not be our pair of 1st Round NFL talents at tackle (Luke Joekel and Jake Matthews) but the interior linemen: Center Patrick Lewis, and Guards Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi. Lewis has played outstanding lately, earning praise from Coach Kevin Sumlin, and he will have to continue do so this week. Alabama focuses on creating chaos in the interior, primarily to take away running lanes and free up their defensive ends and linebackers to make plays. I was genuinely unimpressed by the defensive end play by Alabama against LSU, and I have no concerns about our tackles being able to handle them. Not only was LSU able to keep Mettenberger vertical, they were consistently able to manhandle the ends allowing their running backs to get the outside on stretch plays. C.J. Mosely was a relative non-issue as well. Alabama's ends and backers did not appear to have that ESS EE CEE speed we hear so much about. They played more like a Big Ten team, only much much better.
Key #2 Big Plays
The most dangerous thing you can do in a college football fight is to let the underdog believe he has a chance to win. In 1998 the mighty Cornhuskers did just that, giving up huge plays to Chris Taylor, Jaamar Toombs, and Dante Hall allowing the Aggies build a lead, and thereby put Nebraska in the position of having to comeback without the virtue of having a decent passing game. The Aggies must recreate this scenario.
The Aggies have to be Muhammed Ali to Bama's Sonny Liston. The boxer versus the puncher. Johnny Manziel will have to "float like a butterfly but sting like a bee". I have my doubts that Johnny Football will be able to break huge plays like he did against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but he should attempt utilize his speed on the edge and keep the chains moving. More important will be the play of Mike Evans and Uzoma Nwachukwu. To win, we will need long vertical passing plays. Alabama's only true weakness is their corner play. Their defensive backs focus more on physicality than coverage skills. JFF will have to throw the ball up and let our big, physical guys make plays for him.
We cannot abandon running the ball, but the strategy we used against Mississippi State will not avail us here. Alabama is brutally efficient at keeping contain and playing solid fundamental defense. They don't bite on the zone read. They fill their gaps and they can tackle. To run the ball effectively, A&M needs to mix getting Ben Malena out to the edge on stretch and option plays, with some Christine Michael power plays to keep Bama committed to the center of the field. I'd like to see 15-20 traditional carries between them. That may seem low, but Bama must be beaten through the air.
Key #3 - Turnovers
I am less than optimistic about our ability to generate turnovers against the Bama juggernaut. Cy Jones fumbled a punt against LSU and is now likely breaking rocks somewhere in a Cullman, Alabama quarry. A.J. McCarron hasn't thrown an interception all year, and he didn't come close to doing so against LSU. Alabama laid two brilliant eggs against LSU and Les Miles tried to hatch them rather than fry them into a delicious upset omelet. We are not likely to receive such gifts, but if we do KK better get in the kitchen and use those eggs to make some delicious CHOCOLATE CAKE.
Key #4 - NO FEAR
We must not fear Bama. FEAR IS THE MIND KILLER. This is one area where our team has excelled so far. We have displayed no fear of the SEC powerhouses, and no fear of going into hostile stadiums and facing unfamiliar opponents. Most importantly, the reborn Aggie defense must play with reckless abandon and without doubt. The last three weeks efforts by the defense have been nothing short of inspired, but to win against Bama they will have to play with even more heart than they did against LSU and Florida.
I watched Alabama center Barrett Jones almost exclusively when the Tide were on offense. I was tired of all the ESPN hype. I wanted to see if this kid could play, and believe me....he can. He dominated. He crushed, he killed, he destroyed. He can take on double teams, and if left alone he has the ability to take two players out of the play completely. He is the engine that drives the Bama train. Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Stewart, the unheralded linchpins of this defense, will need to play the games of their lives if A&M is to neutralize the sledgehammer Bama rushing attack.
LSU punched Bama in the mouth. Now Bama knows they can be beaten and deep inside the recesses of their mind, that they SHOULD have already been beaten. They are now cursed with doubt, but make no mistake, this team is still a mentally tough powerhouse that plays with a purpose and a process. That purpose is to grind other team's bones to make their bread. To win, A&M will have to dance, keeping themselves at a distance, utilizing every inch of the field on offense to create space for our playmakers. We will have to score early, perhaps building as much as a two-touchdown lead in order to force Bama out of its comfort zone. This will force A.J. McCarron to pass the ball downfield while under pressure, hopefully resulting in some timely turnovers. A.J. played decent on the final drive last week, but he's not a quarterback that can beat you. He's been efficient, but that's because he hasn't been needed to make plays. Given the choice between the Bama rushing attack and A.J., I'll take my chances with the second coming of Gino Torretta.
I was unable to find when the last time a #1 team was upset on their home field. Still, this Bama team is beatabIe due to a lack of genuine offensive playmakers and attrition on defense. I give Kevin Sumlin & Co. a puncher's chance if they roll into Tuscaloosa with the same swagger they've displayed all year, and spread the field while making big plays without turning the ball over or squandering opportunities with missed field goals. They have to be flawless. But hey! They've exceeded our expectations (and the expectations of all the Big 12 haterz) all year. Why stop now?
Believe. This weekend we will be pilgrims in an unholy land. To emerge victorious in our quest for college football's holy grail, WE MUST BELIEVE!