COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In Texas A&M's brief history in its new league, Johnny Manziel and the Aggies have had the opportunity to beat every SEC opponent they've faced, except two: Florida and LSU.
A&M's two losses this season came to teams -- Alabama and Auburn -- that it defeated last season. Florida wasn't on the schedule this fall and won't be next season so it will be some time before the Aggies get another shot at the Gators.
But if Manziel and Co. want redemption against LSU, the opportunity affords itself on Saturday in Death Valley. The Tigers are the dragon that Johnny Football has yet to slay.
The 2012 season was a wild one for Manziel, who became the first freshman in college football history to take home Heisman Trophy. Team after team seemed to struggle to find an answer for the unpredictability that Manziel possesses.
LSU was not one of those teams.
The Tigers are the team that held Manziel to career-worsts in several areas. according to ESPN Stats and Information. His completion percentage was the lowest he has ever had (51.8) in a game. So were his yards per pass attempt (4.9). His minus-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio was a career low as was his Total QBR (25.8). His signature running ability? That was bottled up too, as LSU held him to 27 yards, a season-low in 2012 and a career-low 1.6 yards per carry.
A lot of factors went into that performance and much has changed since the two teams met on Oct. 20, 2012 at Kyle Field.
LSU's defensive front was filled with elite talent last season. Five players from LSU's two-deep in the front seven were chosen in the first five rounds of the 2013 NFL draft (four of them were juniors who declared for early entry into the draft – defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter).
While the Tigers are still talented up front, they're not quite as experienced and might not be up to the caliber that last season's group was.
"I think their defense last year, you had a bunch of NFL guys [who] were pass rushers," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "Not that these guys aren't, but those guys were really, really good. It was just a battle between our tackles and their outside rush guys."
Those battles were key in LSU's success. Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis appeared to craft an effective plan against Manziel, who had a tendency to escape the pocket and devastate teams with his running ability. Combine the strategy Chavis and his assistants employed with the speed and athleticism of guys like Mingo, Montgomery and others, and you had the desired result for the Tigers.
Earlier this season, Texas A&M offensive line coach B.J. Anderson recalled specific strategies used by the LSU defensive ends.
"They rush hard vertically, then you can tell Chavis has given them spots [on the field to pause]," Anderson said. "When they get to [the spot, they] stop and they squeeze and press those [offensive] tackles. They want him to feel the pressure, but they know if they blow up the field, he'll just run underneath him and there he goes. We had to adjust to that."
LSU head coach Les Miles said that there are elements of the 2012 attack that the Tigers will employ, but it won't necessarily be the same game plan.
"We're going to do similar things," Miles said. "We're going to not necessarily do what we did a year ago, but I think some of the principles will be the same."
The Tigers also appeared careful not to "over-rush" too hard vertically up the field off the edges to prevent open running lanes for Manziel. However, they were still able to get good pursuit, often times bringing a quick linebacker or even a safety off the edge to utilize their speed and catch Manziel before he could escape. That helped them limit him to a career-low 2.6 yards per play on plays outside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
"You'd like for him to be pressured, not only by a rush lane, but by coverage," Miles said. "In other words, not necessarily say hold, but you would push the pocket at him, and hopefully his running opportunities would minimize as his time to throw it grew short, he had to make a decision. And that's what you'd like to have happen.
"And then cover during that time. At those other times, where you add a guy to the rush, now you'd better cover it very quickly and then you'd better be able to chase. I think chase is a part of the game, as well."
This will be a grand stage and a challenging setting, as LSU is an elite home team that's 25-1 at Tiger Stadium since 2010. Manziel, however, has thrived on the road, where he's 9-0 and has been responsible for 31 touchdowns with just eight turnovers, while averaging 417.2 yards of offense.
Manziel has improved significantly since the teams' meeting in 2012, the seventh game of his career. Miles noted earlier this week that Manziel is "bigger, faster, stronger," and it's clear that he has improved as a passer, something that should help him this week.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin noted that not much stock should be put into last season's game because of the difference in the teams, as well as the fact that the Aggies progressed and even changed some after the 24-19 loss to the Tigers last October.
"I'll be honest with you, there's two different football teams on the field this year," Sumlin said. "They lost a bunch of guys, particularly edge players defensively. I think it goes without saying that offensively, schematically, we changed as the season went on after that football game. Last year's video is important, but not nearly as important as the last seven or eight weeks of video."