Alabama Crimson Tide: 2013 Bama-A&M

A different kind of win for Alabama

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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Nick Saban smiled. And that was the first clue that there was something different about this game. Alabama's enigmatic, hypercritical head coach nodded and smiled and even laughed on camera Saturday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban certainly is happy to see Johnny Manziel in his rearview mirror.
If you were one of the few college football fans who missed the epic showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M, you might have tuned in for the postgame action, saw Saban and wondered what on earth was going on. Was he running a fever in that notorious Texas heat? Was he delirious and in need of medical attention? Surely it had to be, because only a force of nature could crack Saban's impervious funny bone.

The same man who scolded a room full of reporters earlier in the week, stalking off stage while sarcastically thanking them for their interest in the game, was suddenly warm and personable. He even made a joke, pointing out that the media had tried to make the game about a "61-year-old guy against that good quarterback," the one they call Johnny Football. In that context, "We didn't have much of a chance," Saban said, drawing laughter from many of the same reporters who sat in stunned silence only days earlier.

Everything about the game at Kyle Field was stunning. It was a shock to the senses in that it was so unlike everything we've come to expect from Alabama. It wasn't anything like the roughcast days of Paul "Bear" Bryant, who also coached the "Junction Boys" at Texas A&M. Rather, The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser gave the 49-42 Alabama win the all-too-fitting headline, "The Gumption Boys." Old-school Alabama turned to new-school tactics to beat A&M, showing a plucky, creative and even entertaining side never seen before.

It was nothing like Alabama and yet the Crimson Tide survived, which is probably why Saban looked so relieved. He was forced into a game he hoped to avoid, a high-scoring shootout against an opponent that ought to be labeled his team's kryptonite. Still, he won. When it was suggested that he ought be happy to never see Johnny Manziel again, Saban couldn't help but let a wild grin cross his face. He knew it was true.

"I wish we played better," he said. "I'll be the first one to say that."

David Hasselhoff should have been in East Texas to see a different kind of iron curtain fall. Alabama's vaunted defense, Saban's crimson-cloaked unit that has famously oppressed offenses with its overwhelming speed and strength for years now, was all but decimated by the upstart Aggies, who only a year earlier entered the SEC fray. The front seven was a step slow and the secondary was grossly outmanned. Defenders dropped like flies, lurching toward the sideline in search of an IV.

Texas A&M rolled up Alabama for the most total yards allowed in school history (626). And all Saban could do was tip his cap -- to Manziel, who accounted for 562 yards on his own, and to Mike Evans, who manhandled Alabama's cornerbacks to the tune of 279 yards and a touchdown. After the game, Saban met Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at midfield and shouted, "You took 10 years off my life." If not for AJ McCarron & Co. answering the bell on offense, the Tide would have been upset and their championship hopes diminished.

"Even though it got ugly at times, they were all in and they competed," Saban said of his team's effort.

"It was a great win," Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "It was a little sloppy, but at the end of the day we came out with the win, and that's what matters."

Mosley, like many of his teammates on defense, was matter-of-fact about the whole thing, acknowledging the unfamiliar position of needing the offense to bail them out. When Manziel scrambled, escaped a defensive lineman's grasp and heaved the most improbable of 12-yard receptions in the second quarter, Mosley threw up his hands and accepted his fate. He was OK with looking bad, as long as the result was the same and his team was still undefeated.

"@JManziel2 and @MikeEvans13_ [y'all] balled out today," Mosley tweeted after the game, "couldn't find u after the game so I'm giving [you] a [shout out] #respect"

Alabama couldn't be anything but complimentary of Manziel and Texas A&M's performance. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said, "He's a great quarterback, if you ask me," marveling at Manziel's ability to throw the ball 50 yards on the run. Fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri said, "As much as everyone talks about him off the field, I think he's a great guy."

Manziel's high-wire tactics and outsized persona wouldn't work in Alabama's borderline Marxist model, but even Saban had to appreciate what one athlete was capable of doing with the football in his hands.

"Johnny Manziel is a great competitor," Saban said. "He's a great player out there on the field. He makes a lot of plays with his feet and his arm."

Saban conceded credit to the Texas A&M coaching staff as well, saying, "Our hat's off to them."

It was a battle of wills, and though Alabama clearly won the heated contest, Saban looked fried. Smiling, almost dazed, Saban was relieved to escape College Station with a win. It didn't happen the way he wanted, but he could live with the outcome.

"We improved as a team," he said. "Obviously, we haven't put it all together yet."

And with that, the aura of happiness seemed to fade from Saban's face. Work was ahead, and that required his complete focus. He survived one challenge in Texas A&M, but plenty of others await, namely Ole Miss in two weeks and LSU in November.

Maybe then we'll see Saban's smile return, but don't count on it. This game was different.

Crimson Tide show mettle in victory

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For a league that was supposed to be all about defense, these wild offensive shootouts are suddenly becoming the norm in the SEC.

Remember the good, old days -- just two short years ago -- when Alabama and LSU played an epic No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown, including an overtime period, without anybody scoring a touchdown?

That model seems to have gone the way of the rotary telephone.

As entertaining as Alabama's 49-42 win over Texas A&M was on Saturday at Kyle Field, it raises a question that will reverberate around the college football world.

Are either one of these teams good enough defensively to win a national championship?

Maybe that's not fair to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who might not actually be Superman, but all he was missing Saturday was a cape. He torched Alabama's defense for 562 yards of total offense and five touchdown passes and was mesmerizing with his uncanny ability to turn nothing into something.

As good as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner was, his favorite receiver, Mike Evans, was just as good with seven catches for a school-record 279 yards.

So, just maybe, the Aggies are simply that dynamic offensively.

But you might want to rub your eyes before processing this next statistic: Alabama gave up 628 yards of total offense ... and still managed to win the game.

Raise your hand if you saw that coming.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said earlier in the week that this was a chance for this particular Alabama team to create its own identity.

When you win national championships at the rate the Crimson Tide have the last few seasons, the tendency is to lump them all together.

But the hallmark of this program under Saban is that it delivers when it has to, and even though the Crimson Tide gave up the kind of points and yards usually reserved for an Xbox video game, they had an answer for everything the Aggies and Manziel threw at them Saturday.

It's impossible to imagine how electric Kyle Field was after Texas A&M exploded to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, but Alabama steadied itself, never flinched and calmly reeled off 35 unanswered points to seemingly gain control.

Evans' improbable 95-yard touchdown catch gave Texas A&M hope once again, pulling the Aggies within 42-35 midway through the fourth quarter. But Alabama, which had fumbled on the goal line the previous possession, responded with a nine-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to finally seal the game.

The fact that Alabama couldn't put Texas A&M away after building a three-touchdown lead late in the third quarter will undoubtedly grate on Saban, whose Alabama defense allowed more yards Saturday than any defense in school history. You'd have to go back to Archie Manning and Ole Miss in 1969 to find an offense that shredded an Alabama defense the way Manziel and the Aggies did.

But Saban has also been around long enough to know that sometimes you have to win ugly, and while this was a different kind of ugly in the realm of Alabama football, maybe it was a sign of the times in this league.

To read more of Chris Low's story, click here.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent memory was a show of dominance by Alabama in the final three quarters, as the Crimson Tide defeated Texas A&M 49-42 before 87,596 on Saturday at Kyle Field. Let's take a look at how it went down.

It was over when: Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron connected with Jalston Fowler for a 5-yard touchdown with 2:28 remaining in the game. That score gave the Crimson Tide a lead they wouldn't relinquish. It came at the end of a methodical nine-play, 65-yard drive that ate up 5 minutes, 36 seconds.

Game ball goes to: The Alabama offensive line. Once the Crimson Tide responded to the Aggies' early 14-0 onslaught, the Tide's big guys up front got the job done. There was so much talk coming into the week about the line play in the opener against Virginia Tech, but that unit paved the way for 236 Alabama rushing yards. The line allowed the Tide to control the clock and control the pace of the game in the second half. It seemed like whenever the Aggies had a big score, the Tide answered. After falling behind 14-0, the Crimson Tide rattled off 35 unanswered points.

Stat of the game: Texas A&M finished with two turnovers to Alabama's one. Turnovers also played a big role in last season's battle, as the Crimson Tide turned it over three times in a 29-24 loss. A&M had zero turnovers that day. On Saturday in the rematch, A&M turned it over twice, including a 73-yard interception return by Vinnie Sunseri early in the third quarter that gave Alabama a three-touchdown lead. Texas A&M was able to narrow the gap late because of a fumble by T.J. Yeldon in the fourth quarter, but that was the only turnover the Tide had.

What it means for Alabama: The Crimson Tide get some redemption from last season's home loss to the Aggies but, more importantly, are 1-0 in SEC play. They answered a lot of questions about their offensive line, and McCarron looked strong. There might be some questions about the defense after it yielded 42 points and 628 offensive yards, but it's worth noting it was playing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, and one of the best offenses in the country. Are the Tide good enough to win a BCS title with what we saw on defense Saturday?

What it means for Texas A&M: The Aggies have a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of work to do on defense. That was a question mark coming in, especially the run defense, and it remains that way even though the Aggies finally got almost their full complement of defensive players back from suspensions. They allowed 568 total yards and 234 rushing yards. Are they good enough defensively to still contend for an SEC West title? This loss puts them behind the eight ball in that regard. The Aggies need Alabama to lose twice down the road (perhaps once if there's a three-way tie for the top of the division at the end of the season).

Game ball, Part 2: Give one to Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. He set the school record with 279 receiving yards on seven catches. He had a 95-yard touchdown grab that got the Aggies back to within a score and gave them hope in the fourth quarter. He has the look of an NFL receiver, whenever he chooses to enter the draft (he'll be eligible after this season). He is big and physical, has great hands, is a great blocker in the running game, and can beat one-on-one coverage.

Johnny watch: Manziel had two interceptions, which hurt, but overall played well. He set the school record for passing yards with 464 on 28-of-39 passing. He had five touchdown tosses and 98 rushing yards. He had some throws he'd like to take back, but he played pretty well against one of the best defenses in the country.

#CampusConnection: Tide-Aggies chat

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
2:30
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Alabama. Texas A&M. After all the hype, it’s finally here.

Our reporters – Chris Low, Edward Aschoff, Alex Scarborough and Sam Khan -- will be chatting throughout the game, so head on over to Campus Connection at 3:30 ET and watch the action along with us. Post your comments and questions and we’ll include as many of them as possible.
It's about time. The game, No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M, is finally, mercifully here. We're only a few short hours away from kickoff at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, where the rematch of the year will begin.

Can Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and the rest of the Alabama coaching staff solve the riddle that is Johnny Manziel? Can the Aggies defense rise up and stop the Crimson Tide offense as it did a year ago? Will AJ McCarron turn in the kind of performance in big games we've become accustomed to?

Finally, these questions can be answered.

After kickoff, we'll learn how far Alabama's troubled offensive line has come in the last two weeks and whether the running game can get back on track. We'll see whether Amari Cooper and the UA receiver corps can live up to its stellar preseason billing, and if the Tide's somewhat thin secondary can stand up to its toughest test to date. Will C.J. Mosley, the heartbeat of the defense, steal the show and shut down Johnny Football?

This game has been so anticipated for so long for a reason. Both teams have something to prove and everything to gain.

For Alabama, the week has been a contentious one. There's been all the talk about hype, but off-the-field distractions appeared again on Wednesday when Saban was forced to respond to a report that alleged wrongdoing from a former player. The buzz, it seemed, has reached a fever pitch.

For a few hours, though, we'll get to put the talk aside and watch the product on the football field as Alabama and Texas A&M go head to head. As you prepare for kickoff, take a look back at some of the key stories from the week that was:

Bama game key for Texas A&M recruiting

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like virtually every coach in major college football, Kevin Sumlin understands the importance of recruiting.

It's the lifeblood of a program. As players graduate or move on, new ones must come in to keep success going.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Brett Davis/US PresswireTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said the "move to the SEC has obviously been a boost" for the Aggies in recruiting.
Since taking over at Texas A&M, Sumlin and his staff have leveraged the power of playing in the SEC to their benefit, landing a top 10 recruiting class in the 2013 cycle while being on pace to do so again for the Class of 2014.

And this weekend could be the biggest yet when it comes hosting recruits.

While the college football world has long awaited the Alabama-Texas A&M rematch, the A&M staff has spent months preparing for the recruiting aspect of this weekend.

Roughly 75 recruits are expected to be in attendance for Saturday's highly-anticipated game between the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the No. 6 Aggies.

"I think [the game has] already had an impact," Sumlin said. "We have a large number of prospects that are going to be here. The move to the SEC has obviously been a boost for us. I think it wouldn't be as big of a boost if we didn't have some sort of success in the league last year. We didn't have all the success we wanted. We were extremely competitive and won a big game last year. But all that being said, I think the ability to compete and win in this league has really helped us too, in recruiting."

And that's the key. Without the 11-2 record, the Heisman Trophy run for Johnny Manziel or all the attention coming to the program as a result of that success in the SEC, widely considered the country's best conference, this weekend might not have been as big.

While the number of recruits who will be in attendance is impressive, so are the names. Topping that list are a host of highly-regarded 2014 ESPN 300 prospects: defensive end Myles Garrett, athlete Speedy Noil, safety Jamal Adams, defensive tackle Gerald Willis III, athlete Davion Hall, safety Edwin Freeman are among those expected. All of them are top 100 recruits.

“It’s going to be great, knowing A&M is in our top three," said Noil, who is making the trip with Willis, his high school teammate. "I want to see what they offer as an offense.”

Said Willis: “It’s going to be crazy. I’m very excited.”

A host of 2015 ESPN Junior 300 prospects are also expected in attendance. Receiver Tyron Johnson, outside linebacker Malik Jefferson, defensive end Anthony Wheeler and quarterback Kyler Murray are just a sampling of the impressive juniors that will make the trip.

If there's any doubt as to how important recruiting is to the Texas A&M staff, take this as evidence: Sumlin and defensive line coach Terry Price were out on the trail Thursday night via helicopter and trekked to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to see a prospect, fewer than 48 hours before one of the biggest games in program history.

The target? Garrett, the No. 7 player in the 2014 ESPN 300.

Sumlin and offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney also made a helicopter trip to Houston to see then-uncommitted 2013 ESPN 300 receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and 2013 Texas A&M quarterback commitment Kohl Stewart on a nationally-televised game between Sealy (Texas) High and Houston St. Pius X. Seals-Jones eventually committed and signed with the Aggies; Stewart signed but chose to play professional baseball after being chosen fourth overall in the MLB draft this summer.

While the Aggies continue to strengthen their position in recruiting statewide, their longtime rival, Texas, has a lot of question marks at the moment. After a decisive loss to BYU, the Longhorns fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. While the schools don't play each other anymore, they still battle for the same recruits. A win this weekend would further strengthen Texas A&M's position in the talent-rich Lone Star State.

This weekend has become something of a perfect storm for the Aggies. The chance to make a statement on a national level is there, with the eyes of fans across the country watching, not to mention dozens of recruits at Kyle Field to experience it all.

"You don't have a stage like this for this weekend if you're not a competitive program," Sumlin said. "And I think the high school coaches in this state do a fantastic job of coaching and regionally, recognizing that. And I think student-athletes are recognizing that, too, that we've got a great situation here from a stability standpoint, from a support standpoint, from a facilities standpoint and from a league standpoint.

"You don't have to go 700-800-900 miles away anymore to get all those things. That has been a big selling point for us since we've gotten here and I think that message has been driven home every week that we play in the SEC, not just play but play in meaningful games on big stages."

Video: SEC game of the week

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
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Sam Khan Jr. breaks down the game of the week in the SEC, No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M.

Video: Conference Call: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
1:30
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In this week's SEC Conference Call, Chris Low explains how the most important player on Saturday might be T.J. Yeldon if Alabama can control the clock and keep Johnny Manziel off the field.

Kickoff Live: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
11:00
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Editor's note: To watch the show on your smartphone, click here.

All eyes will be on College Station Week 3, as No. 1 Alabama seeks revenge against No. 6 Texas A&M. Join us at 2 p.m. ET as Chantel Jennings moderates a discussion between Texas A&M reporter Sam Khan, Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough and SEC reporter Chris Low.

Alabama gets another chance to keep pace

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
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One of the most closely watched referendums on where college football is headed will play out Saturday at Kyle Field.

It’s just part of what makes the Alabama-Texas A&M matchup so compelling.

Sure, it’s a game that will go a long way toward shaping both the SEC and national championship races, and it’s easily the most anticipated rematch of the season after Johnny Manziel and the Aggies went into Tuscaloosa in November and handed the Crimson Tide their only loss last season.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fulton
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesCan the Alabama defense slow down the Texas A&M attack?
But there’s no escaping the old school versus new age element to this contest, a contradiction in styles and philosophies that has made for quite the debate in college football.

Alabama wants to bully you with its pro-style offense, power-packed running game and a suffocating defensive scheme that has all the complexities of an NFL defense.

Texas A&M wants to run you ragged by spreading it out on offense and running plays at a pace that would make Usain Bolt envious, thus making your defense look like it’s running in quick sand in the fourth quarter.

A year ago, Texas A&M ran 77 plays in its 29-24 win over Alabama and jumped out to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter before the Crimson Tide knew what hit them.

The Aggies scored just one more touchdown the rest of the way, but that was enough to pull off the upset of the year.

Not only did that win propel Texas A&M to a top-10 finish in the final polls in its first season in the SEC, but it set the stage for some lively banter this offseason.

In short, how fast is too fast when it comes to running these no-huddle, warp-speed offenses?

Arkansas' Bret Bielema suggested this summer that running so many more plays on offense and not being able to substitute as frequently increases the likelihood of injuries. Alabama's Nick Saban, who's cut from the same defensive cloth as Bielema, also questioned whether offenses should be allowed to play so fast.

“I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, ‘Is this what we want football to be?” Saban said last season.

The coaches on the other side of the fence scoff at the notion that faster-paced offenses put players at higher risk for injuries.

They also have a message for those coaches who don’t like the idea of having to defend a two-minute-drill offense for all 60 minutes.

“I think that’s where college football is going, and you’re only going to see it become more popular over the next few years,” said Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, whose offenses are renowned for their blistering pace.

Others aren’t quite as sure.

“The physicality of the game wears people down,” Florida’s Will Muschamp said. “Look at who’s been really successful and won it three of the last four years. Everybody’s in these spread systems and tossing the ball around, and that’s all great. But if you’ve got the athleticism and the pass-rushers up front to defend that, week in and week out, it’s hard to win like that.”

South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier added: “If they want to rapid fire, then you’ve just got to get your defense ready to rapid fire with them. That’s part of football. The way you stop it is for your offense to stay out there and make a whole bunch of third downs. That’s probably as important as anything.”

The predictable buildup to Saturday’s game has centered around Saban, Kirby Smart and that Alabama "D" being ready for Texas A&M’s offense the second time around and being better equipped to deal with Manziel, who rolled up 345 yards of total offense a year ago against the Tide.

The flip side to that is that Manziel is also a year wiser and has an even better grasp of the offense.

And another thing: The Aggies have made their own tweaks.

“Maybe we have a few guys on our staff who can coach, too,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.

Early on in the game a year ago, it was Manziel’s mobility that gave the Crimson Tide fits, but it was his ability to complete key passes from the pocket that sealed the win for the Aggies. His 24-yard touchdown pass to Malcome Kennedy on the corner route in the fourth quarter was perfectly thrown.

Manziel converted 9 of 13 third-down chances in last season’s game, the highest conversion percentage for a quarterback against Alabama in the past 10 years. He also completed all six of his passes outside the pocket and scrambled for an additional 94 yards when forced out of the pocket.

So simply saying you’re going to make Manziel a pocket quarterback is a lot easier said than done, which Alabama learned the hard way last season.

What else did the Tide learn?

They know the Aggies would like to turn Saturday’s game into a track meet.

The faster, the better.

“We’re going to go as fast as we possibly can,” Sumlin said. “The object is not to trick people. The object is to play the game at a pace you’re comfortable with and maybe the other team’s not comfortable with. There’s a reason they call it offense and defense.

“Defense should not dictate the game. Offense should dictate the pace of the game when they have the ball. They have the ability to slow it down or speed it up. As long as it’s within the rules of the game and the players are set, all 11 players on offense are set and ready to go, then the defense should have to match.”

Game on.

Planning for success: Alabama

September, 12, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- To get you ready for the game, here are some things to look for when No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M dispense with the hype and finally go head to head in College Station, Texas, on Saturday:

The Crimson Tide will win if ...

All Alabama needs to do to have success in Round 2 against Texas A&M is look at last year's game. Yes, the game the Tide famously lost. That game, no matter how brutal the final outcome, is the key to winning this time around. The defense played within itself after Texas A&M's early run and did a great job of limiting Johnny Manziel until a late touchdown pass to Malcom Kennedy ended a three quarter streak of keeping the Aggies out of the end zone. Replicating that containment defense and limiting turnovers on offense are the two simple keys to victory. You'll be wise to remember that AJ McCarron's streak of 291 consecutive pass attempts without an interception ended against Texas A&M that day with not one, but two picks, the last of which sealed the Tide's fate 6 yards away from a miraculous come from behind victory.

The Aggies will win if ...

If Alabama's offensive line looks like it did against Virginia Tech and McCarron can't get the passing game off the ground, the Tide could be in big trouble. Before you even get to the riddle that is Manziel, that must first be addressed. Negative plays and turnovers will kill Alabama's chances as touchdowns will be at a premium against Manziel and the potent Texas A&M offense. Containing Manziel won't be easy, though. Getting into a shootout is not what the UA staff wants. If Manziel is allowed to run free, buy time with his feet and complete long gains downfield, the Aggies will have every shot of beating Alabama for a second straight season.

Texas A&M players to watch

QB Johnny Manziel: It's all led to this. We've heard again and again how there's a plan to stop Manziel and how last year's lessons were learned. Now it gets to be put into action. If Manziel is allowed to break contain and buy time in the passing game, Alabama's defense will suffer yet again. Getting pressure on him without giving up big chunks of yards is the key.

WR Mike Evans: If there's one player outside of Manziel on the Aggies offense that scare you, it should be Evans, who is a load on the outside at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. Either Deion Belue or John Fulton will wind up covering Evans, and both are mismatches physically. The talented sophomore was a freshman All-SEC selection a year ago after setting school records with 82 receptions and 1,105 yards.

Aggies front seven: Texas A&M's defense has not been what you'd expect from a team in the SEC. Giving up 28 points and 390 total yards of offense to Sam Houston State is indicative of issues up front, even if your offense scores 65 points. Alabama's offensive line had troubles in the season opener against Virginia Tech, but it should put up more of a fight than the Bearcats of the Southland Conference.

Alabama players to watch

LB C.J. Mosley: So much of stopping Manziel comes down to Alabama's All-American linebacker, who has the unenviable task of shadowing the speedy Texas A&M quarterback. But Mosley has wheels himself. As a prospect, he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash. He can tackle, too. But unlike last season, he must play more aggressive on Manziel and not let him dictate and orchestrate the action.

S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: He's the safety valve, if and not when the play breaks down. Last season Alabama's secondary had trouble keeping up with Texas A&M's receivers as Manziel bought 8 and 9 seconds in the pocket. This time the secondary, and Clinton-Dix, should be better prepared. They won't stop everything, but Clinton-Dix needs to help eliminate the big gains over the top of the defense.

Alabama O-line: As the line goes, so goes the offense. Alabama's passing game and running game failed against Virginia Tech in the season opener, thanks to a porous effort up front. Players say the communication and chemistry have improved with a bye week to work out the kinks, and against Texas A&M they'll get to prove it. If they can open holes and get the run game going, Alabama's offense should be in good shape. As we saw last season, so much of the passing game depends on the play action.

Key stats

2,179: Though their games are different, the difference in total yards is staggering between McCarron and Manziel, who set an SEC record with 5,116 total yards a season ago. McCarron was no slouch at 2,937 total yards himself, but he's nowhere near the playmaker as Johnny Football.

80: That was the percentage of passes Manziel completed that traveled 20 yards or more down the field during last year's game against Alabama. The Tide's other 13 opponents combined to complete fewer than 25 percent of their passes of that distance, throwing 10 interceptions, to boot.

10.9: Alabama's defense hasn't dropped off any in recent years. No amount of NFL draft picks or schematic changes have effected that. Alabama has allowed an FBS-low 10.9 points per game since the start of last season. During that period, UA has allowed the fewest plays of 10 yards or more (122) and forced the ninth most three-and-out drives in the FBS (85).
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban took a moment to let the question soak in.

Alabama's coach had reached his boiling point in his talk with the media. He was tired of all the talk about the young, unproven players on his team: who didn't play and why, who stood out in relief, who could see more time moving forward. Saban bent his knees at the podium and put his hand to his forehead in frustration before deciding to ask his own pointed question in return.

"You know, what I’d like to ask is, we’ve got a lot of really good players around here, all right, that really play like crazy, you know, like C.J. Mosley," Saban said. "The guy plays every play in the game and on two special teams [units], he’s running down the sidelines with Christion Jones, faster than Christion Jones is, cuts the angle off the safety so the guy can run for a touchdown. How about somebody asking about him? What’s wrong with asking about him and what kind of player he is and how did he do? Because I mean, that guy does fantastic, alright?"

C.J. Mosley
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesAlabama's C.J. Mosley lets his play on the field do most of the talking.
Well, Nick, this story's for you.

The problem with asking about C.J. Mosley is that C.J. Mosley doesn't have a lot to say about himself. Alabama's senior linebacker is deferential by nature. It's either about the system he's in or the players around him, but it's never about him. He's quiet, bordering on shy, and he'd cop to that assessment. Though he's a leader on the football team, he'd rather lead by example. He may play like his hero, Ray Lewis, but he doesn't shout or prance or bloviate like him.

His play speaks for itself. Last season he became the first Alabama linebacker since Rolando McClain to record more than 100 tackles. He won All-American honors and was second on the team in sacks and tackles for loss, all while playing a part-time role behind starting mike linebacker Nico Johnson. Mosley was the best backup in the country, and now he might be the best linebacker in all of college football.

If you don't know him by now, you will after Saturday's game against Texas A&M. Mosley is Alabama's best defender and arguably its best hope of stopping the Aggies' sensation at quarterback, Johnny Manziel.

Mosley, for his part, doesn't want the game to be about him versus Manziel. He said as much in a one-on-one interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday, but that might be what it comes down to. On and off the field, the comparisons are inevitable. In one corner, there's the media circus of Johnny Football: the big plays, the celebrations, the autographs, the social media outbursts, the NCAA investigation. And in the other corner, there's the media black hole around Mosley, smiling for the camera, albeit awkwardly. The most high-profile thing he did during the offseason was receive the keys to his home town of Mobile, Ala. Even then he told reporters, "Usually you see stuff like that on the movies with a superhero getting it." He couldn't see himself as the leading man.

Saban won't say it and neither will Mosley, but Bill Meredith had no problem putting the obvious comparison into words. In fact, it was the first thing Mosley's former coach at Theodore High wanted to talk about when he got on the phone this week.

"He’s what football is all about," Meredith said. "We’ve got Johnny Manziel all over the place. Let me tell you who C.J. is: he’s at church every Sunday, he’s so humble that if he owed a dollar to the football team he’d pay it, his Momma and Daddy was at every booster club meeting, he’s ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’ he’s never been in trouble one time in his life. He’s exactly what you look for as a human being. He is the opposite of Johnny Manziel. Why don’t we write more stuff about him?”

Well, Bill, this story's for you, too.

The problem with writing about C.J. Mosley is there isn't all that much to write about C.J. Mosley's life. Often you look for a hook in a story, a moment where the subject had to overcome adversity to get to where he is today. With Mosley, it's hard to pinpoint just where that is. By all accounts, he's never had an obstacle in his way. Why? Because he never put one there.

Mosley comes from a blue-collar family. His mother, Tracy, is a substitute teacher, and his father, Clinton, a supervisor at a ship yard, kept the leash tight on their two boys, C.J. and younger brother Jamey. Dad was the disciplinarian, and Mom checked in on the kids' homework. Both boys knew if school wasn't taken care of there would be no sports. Clinton once brought C.J. to tears when he told him he'd miss a game because he didn't have his work done.

Clinton was the one to get C.J. involved in football. Father and son took a trip to see a football game when C.J. was three years old. Clinton pushed C.J. in the stroller and looked around, eventually turning his attention to his son.

"He looked at it and stuck his head out and all the time he kept his eyes on the field," Clinton said, recalling the first time he understood that football would mean something to his son.

It took a year of watching from the sidelines before Tracy could be convinced that the game was safe enough for her boy to play. It was a good way to keep him occupied and out of the streets, the couple determined. And it didn't take long to realize they made the right decision. C.J. was tall and "thick" for his age, but Clinton could see his burgeoning athleticism.

"I can remember him being 6 years old on the defensive line kids running around the end and down the field. Everyone on the sidelines would say, 'Watch this, watch this,' C.J. would bust out the pack and run the whole length of the field all the way behind the kid to the end zone," Clinton said.

"That's everything in a nutshell. He's gifted."

C.J. played football, basketball and baseball growing up. He ran track and even sang tenor in the church choir. Everything he did, he did well. On the football field he played offense and defense, scoring as many touchdowns as he stopped.

Meredith happened upon Mosley at a middle school track meet and couldn't help but marvel at the 6-foot-1 runner lined up for the 100-yard dash.

"All of the sudden, they start the gun and here comes this kid from the middle school leading the pack," he said. "You look up here and C.J., this huge monster, is running down the track and I said, 'Oh my God, this kid's special.'"

In Mosley's first game in high school, he had 22 tackles against powerhouse Prattville. The following Monday, a member of Auburn's coaching staff called to offer him a scholarship.

He couldn't bench his weight, but boy could Mosley fly. He thinned out in high school and played at a slender 210 pounds, racking up a school-record 186 tackles his senior season. He wound up at Alabama's camp for prospective athletes and impressed former linebackers coach James Willis with his speed and determination.

"Coach Willis came up to me and said, 'Man, C.J. won't get out of the drills,' " Meredith said. "Here's all these top recruits, and he's out there learning football.

"Let's just say that before it was over Coach Saban was coming up really friendly to me. After that I started being C.J.'s coach instead of the coach from Theodore."

Mosley was always determined to sign with Alabama, and in February 2010, he did. He was a Top-100 player nationally and the second-highest ranked player from the state.

At home, though, he was still the same C.J., or Clinton Jr., as his parents know him. Even after all the awards, he came back to Mobile to do his chores and sing in the church youth choir, even though he may be a little too old to do so. Co-workers ask the senior Clinton about his son all the time, hoping for a story of his celebrity only to have him say, "He's just a child like anyone else."

But there was an opportunity for Mosley's life to change after last season. He could have entered the NFL draft and likely would have been selected in the first or second round. Mosley instead chose to return to school, and there was plenty of speculation why. But according to Mosley's parents, it was never even an option.

"There was no decision," Clinton said, emphatically. "There was never a discussion about it."

The Mosleys admit that their son has insurance in case an injury occurred and an NFL career was no longer an option, but they wouldn't say how much the policy is worth, only that, "He's taken care of."

Mosley said he told Saban his plans to return to school before his junior season ever began. When the season ended, Saban asked to be sure his mind hadn't changed, curious if a first-round grade had piqued his interest. It hadn't. The truth is Mosley never looked into it.

"No, not at all," Mosley said of seeking advice from the NFL. "For me, I still felt like I had things to prove. I wasn't an every down linebacker [last year]. People are saying, 'Well, he's not big enough to stop the run' and this and that. From a football standpoint, I felt like I had something to prove."

Well, for the doubters, this story's for you, too.

C.J. Mosley doesn't look like your typical linebacker prospect at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, but most linebackers can't run like C.J. Mosley. Most don't have his reputation, either.

"You can see that he's the leader," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said of Mosley. "He's a playmaker. That guy never leaves the field, I don't care what package they're using. He's always the guy out there getting them lined up and making plays."

Mosley is the heartbeat of the defense. He may be quiet in public, but when he steps onto the football field, he changes. He said as a senior in high school that his favorite part about football was "trying to kill somebody." He's just not all that flamboyant when he goes about it.

"He's a competitor," Meredith said. "It's all business. There's no backing down about him."

And this weekend, he'll face the biggest challenge of his career as he's tasked with shadowing Manziel. Mosley wasn't aggressive enough during last season's loss to the Aggies when he spied Manziel, giving him too much of a cushion to run with the football and make plays with his arm. But Mosley says this time it will be different. This time he feels ready for what's to come.

"Every time I see it on TV or hear about how they came into our house and killed our momentum and how he lifted his season and their season ... "That's what happens when you're a great team, the bull's eye is on your back.

"I'm pretty confident. I know the coaches are. We feel more comfortable about it than last year."

Mosley has the skill and the speed to do the job. He may play linebacker, but he can fly. It wasn't that long ago that he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at Alabama's camp, where reports put Manziel's 40 time somewhere around 4.5 seconds.

"I just have to make sure I play my type of football," Mosley said. "When I have a chance to make a play on him, I have to execute."

You may not hear Mosley's name mentioned often in the build-up to the game, but expect it to be called plenty by announcers after kickoff.

Mosley wants to return the favor of losing at home a season ago, but he's not making the game about himself. Saban and others may want the focus to be on him, but that's not Mosley's attitude. He's not talked about like Manziel and other stars in college football for a reason. That kind of spotlight would be too uncomfortable. He'd rather just play his game, quietly and without fanfare.

"There's a lot of talk about me versus him or Alabama versus Texas A&M and their crowd and all this stuff, but at the end of the day it's all going to come down to execution," Mosley said. "The big thing would be beating them in their house like they did to us last year.

"I'm ready for that game day."


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He'd like to talk about football. Period. Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn't care about hype or allegations or outside distractions. He simply doesn't want to hear it. If it were up to him, life would operate in a bubble that measures 360 feet by 160 feet. There's chalk inside that box, lines every 5 yards and a bright yellow goalpost on either end.

Saban's singular focus has no room for what happens out of bounds. Leave the rest to the administration to sort out. When reports like the one that broke Wednesday afternoon occur, he stays away. In fact, he doesn't even read them. Less than 72 hours away from No. 1 Alabama's date with No. 6 Texas A&M, he wants to talk about the Aggies and nothing else.

[+] EnlargeFluker
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWhatever D.J. Fluker did or didn't do occurred in the past, and Nick Saban would prefer it stay there.
"If you want to talk about the Texas A&M game, I'd be glad to talk about it," Saban said after back-to-back questions about the report. "That's what I'm here to do. I'm here to coach our players, talk about our team."

It has been a long week already for the Crimson Tide, and the scathing report was the imperfect cherry on top. Alabama lost to Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel at home a year ago. The players have been asked repeatedly since then how they'll get their revenge. And time and time again, they've said it's not about revenge or retaliation, that they don't buy into the hype and won't participate in the media build-up. Like their coach, they wanted the focus to be on the game and nothing else.

But it's hard to tune out the outside noise once it reaches a certain pitch.

Saban can say again and again how outside influences won't be distracting, but his body language said something different on Wednesday. Earlier in the week he talked about the value of playing without emotion in raucous environments like the one his team will face Saturday, but from the podium he was showing just how hot under the collar he can become.

"As I said before, I made a statement," Saban said. "Don't ask me any more questions about this!"

It was a rare instance where an exclamation point was deserved, as Saban shouted at a room full of reporters.

"It hasn't been distracting for me, because I don't read about it," he said. "I'm focused on what we need to do to play a game. That's what's fair to our players. That's what we owe our current players. So this has not been a distraction for me."

C.J. Mosley called the news involving former teammate D.J. Fluker disappointing, but was sure to add that it was in the past and that's where he was intent on keeping it. UA's All-American has been busy all week trying to figure out how to handle stopping Manziel. As Mike linebacker, he'll be tasked with spying the fleet-footed quarterback.

Junior wideout Christion Jones was similarly flip about the allegations. He wasn't worried about what allegedly happened a year ago. His focus was on Saturday.

"I don't really get involved with that," Jones said. "Our compliance does a great job teaching us about all those things and staying away from agents and stuff like that. We can talk about A&M and leave it at that. I don't really get involved with that."

It was easy to say, but it will be harder to put into practice. The question now is whether the distractions have reached a breaking point and whether it will have any influence on what happens on the football field come Saturday.

Knowing Saban, it will be kindling on an already intense fire, a burning source of motivation for a team already looking to prove something against Texas A&M. Getting back at the Aggies was enough. Now, players can take the "us against the world" mentality to heart.

Saban was defiant Wednesday night. He wanted to talk about football, not media reports. After three questions about off-the-field matters, he'd had enough. When no one followed up with an actual question about preparing for Texas A&M, he walked off, but not before adding his sarcastic thanks to the crowd.

"Appreciate your interest in the game," he said.

And that was the last anyone will hear from him publicly until after Saturday afternoon's game in College Station, Texas. Then, maybe, he'll be able to talk about what he wants: football.

Celebrating Bear Bryant's 100th birthday

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
1:00
PM ET


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A little more than half an hour before kickoff of every Alabama home game, the leathery visage of the legendary coach of the Crimson Tide, the late Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, appears on the video boards at either end of Bryant-Denny Stadium and begins to speak. And before all of those games when the university has played the video, no one has ever heard what Bryant says. The minute the 101,000 fans see him, they begin roaring.

"Well, the older people are," said Paul W. Bryant Jr., "and the younger ones don't know quite what the rest of them are talking about."

Time silences our heroes, robs us of them and then steals the witnesses who can tell the hero's story, and the day comes when all we have left are statues and houndstooth beach balls. Stories can be handed down, books can be written, movies produced. But the emotions that connect player to coach, or fan to hero, are not easily handed down from one generation to the next. Legends may not be kept in a cedar chest in the attic.

The flesh-and-blood Bear, the all-too-human man who inspired the fealty and worship of thousands, who coaxed and bullied and demanded that his players and his assistants meet a standard they didn't know they could meet, is disappearing. He has been dead for three decades, and as those who stood witness to him die, we are losing Bryant again.

Forgive the personal nature of this story. For those of us who grew up in Alabama in a time when our state was viewed as a cauldron of hatred, Bryant told the rest of the nation that we could produce success and character. He inspired a level of loyalty unlike any coach before or since in any state in any sport.

I can tell you where I was the day he died, and not just because it was my 23rd birthday. I know where I was because that was the first time a death ever made me cry. The notion that he is just a football coach to the 80 million millennials estimated to live in the United States makes me want to cry again.

Gene Stallings played for Bryant, coached for him, coached against him, and eventually became the first coach after Bryant to lead Alabama to a national championship.

"One of the reasons of his great success over an extended period of time was, we all wanted to please Coach Bryant," Stallings said. "The players wanted to please him. The assistant coaches wanted to please him. The alumni wanted to please him. The administration wanted to please him. The president of the university -- Coach Bryant just had that little something about him that people wanted to please. We'll do anything just to hear Coach Bryant say, 'You did a good job.' He didn't say it too often. But we wanted him to say it.

"You know, there was a little fear factor, and I don't think there's anything wrong with fear factor….whether or not you were doing your job well enough to please Coach Bryant."

Stallings is 78 years old. Bryant's players are just as likely to be grandfathers as fathers. His youngest players, the freshmen on that 1982 team, are getting solicitations from AARP.

"Some of my teammates and I were talking about this two or three weeks ago," said Ronny Robertson, who played for Bryant in the mid-1970s and is the senior associate athletic director for development at his alma mater. "When we were at Alabama and playing for Coach Bryant, there was this guy at Notre Dame that coached a long time ago named Knute Rockne, and he was a real good football coach. That's about the way I think the kids today look at Coach Bryant."

Bryant died suddenly, four weeks after he coached the final game of his 25-year career at his alma mater. Bryant was 69 years old, according to the calendar, and much older than that according to a body worn down by stress and illness, by late hours and lifestyle.

Today, on what would have been Bryant's 100th birthday, the university will hold a ceremony at the Paul W. Bryant Museum on campus. Alabama also commissioned a documentary, "Mama Called," and a book, "Inside the Vault: The Paul W. Bryant Collection," that will make their debuts today, too. Bryant's centennial falls during the week in which No. 6 Texas A&M, where Bryant coached for four seasons, will play host to his alma mater, the No. 1 Crimson Tide. On Friday night in College Station, players he coached at both schools will gather to celebrate his memory.

To read more of Ivan Maisel's legacy of Bear Bryant, click here.

Bryant's life in pictures Photo Gallery.

A look at Bryant's legacy living on in Houndstooth fashion.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Not many of Alabama’s players watched No. 6 Texas A&M host Sam Houston State over the weekend. The truth is they didn't miss much. The 37-point blowout was little more than a tuneup for the Aggies. But Alabama's players couldn't have named the score if they were asked to. Many, if not most, of them were too busy relaxing on their off week to find the nonconference game on the television dial.

Anthony Steen, the Tide's veteran right guard, was out at the lake. AJ McCarron didn't even know the game would be televised.

"Were they on TV?" Alabama's senior quarterback asked. At the very least, it was available online. "I don't have a laptop so …"

[+] EnlargeManziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama will have to deal with Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M's raucous crowd this weekend.
There was no follow-up question, though his trailing voice certainly left room to ask about his cell phone and tablet situations. It's hard to believe that an athlete in this day and age could be without some method of accessing the internet. At least then he might have been able to get a taste for what the environment at Kyle Field will be like on Saturday when the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide travel there to face Texas A&M.

It was typical McCarron nonchalance. He wasn't too concerned with anything when he spoke to the media on Monday. When asked, he said he had no plans to communicate with his friend, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, this week. The last time the two spoke, he said, was at SEC media days in July. And then, he added: "We're just friends, guys. Y'all make this thing a lot bigger than it needs to be."

Downplaying the significance of their relationship was understandable. But downplaying the significance of the game they'll play in just a few days wasn't possible. For the first time since 1988, Alabama is going to College Station to play a football game.

And that was enough to get McCarron excited.

"It's going to be a fun experience," he said. "Their whole 12th Man and everything, it's going to be a very cool experience for myself. Hopefully it'll be a good experience."

Steen said he watched the Aggies home opener two weeks ago and thought the crowd noise wasn't as bad as he expected. Still, it will be an obstacle for an offensive line that had difficulty communicating in its season opener against Virginia Tech in Atlanta two weeks ago.

"Things weren’t as loud as people say it is at 12th Man Stadium," he said. "We expect to not be able to hear each other, especially our center making the calls. We just have to stay focused and each and every person on the offensive line has to know all the calls for every position."

Steen, like so many of his teammates, downplayed the hype surrounding the game. There was no talk of revenge or retribution, just winning.

"It’s just one of those things where it’s in the back of your head that you lost last year, so you want to try that much harder to make sure you win this year," Steen said.

"I guess for some people it does [add motivation], but for me it’s another game and I know we’ve got to win it and I’m not going to go out there and come out flat. I’m going to go out there and try to play the best game I can."

Amari Cooper, Alabama's star wideout, said he doesn't watch TV and that and a Saturday’s trip to Kyle Field is only one step of many.

"We don't buy into the hype here," Cooper said. "I think all the hype is really irrelevant because at the end of the day you have to go out there and play your game. All the hype is really not real, you know, the things they say on TV and stuff like that. It doesn't line up with what's really going on."

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