Alabama Crimson Tide: Kliff Kingsbury
With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.
1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense
When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.
The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.
One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.
On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.
And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.
The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.
Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.
2. Finding the "Y"
Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.
Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?
And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.
3. McCarron can scramble, too
While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.
McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.
In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.
4. Defending Manziel on the ground
But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.
This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.
5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game
Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.
He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.
The head coaches are the ones who make the big money in the SEC.
But without a quality staff, a head coach isn’t going to survive very long in this league.
So as we look back on the 2012 regular season, let’s pay tribute to 12 assistant coaches who separated themselves from the rest. Each of these guys made a huge difference in their development of players and units.
We’ll call it our “Dandy Dozen” of SEC assistant coaches, and they’re listed in alphabetical order:
Mike Bobo, Georgia, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: A finalist for the Broyles Award, Bobo has the Bulldogs ranked in the top four in the SEC in both rushing and passing offense. They scored 28 or more points in 11 of their 13 games, and did it with an offensive line that was both young and unproven when the season began.
Burton Burns, Alabama, associate head coach/running backs: Despite injuries to Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, Alabama didn’t miss a beat in its running game. In fact, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon became the first two players in school history to each rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
John Chavis, LSU, defensive coordinator/linebackers: Like clockwork, Chavis just keeps on churning out rock-solid defenses at LSU. The Tigers are No. 8 nationally in total defense and No. 11 in scoring defense, and that’s despite losing their top playmaker on defense (Tyrann Mathieu) in the preseason.
D.J. Durkin, Florida, special teams coordinator/linebackers: When you play as many close games as the Gators did this season, you better be good on special teams. They weren’t just good. They were excellent in all facets, which is a credit to Durkin and the job he did in coordinating the entire kicking game.
Herb Hand, Vanderbilt, offensive line: For the second year in a row, Zac Stacy rushed for 1,000 yards, and for the second year in a row, the Commodores more than held their own up front offensively. One of the best decisions James Franklin made when he took the job was holding onto Hand from the previous staff.
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: Just his work with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel alone was enough to get Kingsbury some serious props. But Texas A&M’s offense also put up crazy numbers in its first season in the SEC. Kingsbury, a finalist for the Broyles Award, has suddenly become a hot commodity in the head coaching ranks.
Brad Lawing, South Carolina, defensive line: One of the more underrated coaches in the SEC, Lawing has been doing it for a long time at a very high level. His defensive lines at South Carolina have been excellent the past few years and are one of the big reasons the Gamecocks have made their move into the SEC’s upper tier.
Matt Luke, Ole Miss, co-offensive coordinator/offensive line: Just about everybody agreed in the preseason that the offensive line was Ole Miss’ weakest link, but Luke was able to get everything and then some out of that group after a lackluster showing by the Rebels in the trenches in 2011. What’s more, Ole Miss was one of only three teams in the league (Texas A&M and Georgia) to average more than 250 yards passing and 165 yards rushing this season.
Sam Pittman, Tennessee, offensive line: Few units in the league improved as much from 2011 to 2012 as Tennessee’s offensive line. The Vols gave up just eight sacks in 12 games, which was tied for fourth nationally, and padded their rushing average by more than 70 yards per game. Pittman’s approach was exactly what the Vols needed up front, and they blossomed into one of the top offensive lines in the SEC.
Dan Quinn, Florida, defensive coordinator/defensive line: The Gators won 11 games in the regular season, and they held the opposition to 17 or fewer points nine times. Quinn, a Broyles Award finalist, put a defense on the field during his first season at Florida that was very good. But the one this season played at a championship level. The Gators head to the Allstate Sugar Bowl ranked No. 3 nationally in scoring defense and No. 5 in total defense.
Bob Shoop, Vanderbilt, defensive coordinator/safeties: For the second straight season, the Commodores rank among the top 20 teams nationally in total defense. They’re also No. 15 in scoring defense. They’re not real big up front and lost three key players from last season (Chris Marve, Casey Hayward and Tim Fugger), but Shoop keeps finding ways to stop people.
Kirby Smart, Alabama, defensive coordinator/linebackers: Alabama fans were holding their breath when it looked like Smart might be going to Auburn as head coach. The Crimson Tide had six players drafted off of their 2011 national championship defense, but here they are again going back to the national title game and ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense.
Who's the next Urban Meyer? The next Chris Petersen? What about another Brady Hoke?
Who's that next great assistant who rises up the ranks and takes over a major program ... and succeeds?
I'm not completely sure, but I have a few ideas. Here are some coaches lurking in the SEC who could be on their way to bigger and better things or are ready to take the next step with their current teams: