- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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In advance of Saturday's game between the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide and the No. 15-Aggies, Texas A&M beat writer Sam Kahn Jr. spoke to TideNation about the matchup and what Kevin Sumlin's team will have to do to be successful in Bryant-Denny Stadium:
Scarborough: Texas A&M has made the transition to the SEC look easy despite a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and a rookie quarterback under center. How has Kevin Sumlin gotten the Aggies to this point and how much of that success is credited to Johnny Manziel?
Kahn: The early success I think is helped in part by the fact that while the coaching staff is completely new, a large chunk of the staff is familiar with each other. Sumlin hired most of the offensive staff he had at Houston over at Texas A&M, strength coach Larry Jackson, as well as a few other staff members that worked with him there, so that continuity has helped. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury is a rising star in the coaching ranks and I think there's little doubt that he'll be a head coach of his own in the future. The hire of Mark Snyder as the defensive coordinator has paid huge dividends as Snyder and his staff have done a really good job getting that side of the ball to play above expectations, despite limited depth in a few areas. Manziel no doubt has been a big part of the success. If he was playing like you might expect a redshirt freshman to play, I don't think there's any way they're 7-2 right now. But he has taken care of the ball (mostly), made some amazing plays and the confidence that has combined with his ablity and the personality fit with Kingsbury has been huge for the offense. And I don't think it can be overlooked that the strength of the team, personnel-wise, is the offensive line, which is critical in SEC play. That unit has been stellar for most of the season.
Scarborough: What part about Manziel's game would surprise us? We know he can make plays with his legs, but how good of a passer is he? If Alabama is able to take away the run, can he beat the Tide with his arm?
Kahn: I think his accuracy has been good. On the timing routes, he seems to be on point the majority of the time and his ability to throw accurately while on the run is uncanny. I remember Jon Gruden last year complimenting former Houston quarterback Case Keenum -- who played for Sumlin and Kingsbury -- on the way he could throw from awkward body positions. Manziel definitely has that trait too (earlier this year, he threw a touchdown pass rolling to his left, off one foot while leaning forward with a defender leaping in front of him and hit the receiver in between the numbers). Also I think he's faster than most realize. When he gets into the secondary, he's often as fast or faster than the guys chasing him, which is why he's had so many spectacular touchdown runs. Can he beat the Tide with his arm? Only if he doesn't turn the football over. He did a great job of that against Florida, but not so much against LSU.
Scarborough: The Aggies defense gets overlooked a lot because of their offense. How good are they up front and what kind of challenge do they present the Tide?
Kahn: Their defensive line has performed well above expectations this season. Junior defensive end Damontre Moore is playing like a first-round pick, leading the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. He has good speed and agility and he has been consistent in his effort game-in and game-out (which wasn't necessarily the case last season). Last week, he chased down Mississippi State receiver Chris Smith from behind on a 42-yard reception, which pretty much tells you how quick Moore is. The true freshman opposite him, Julien Obioha, has been productive as well. He also is pretty athletic coming from defensive end. Kirby Ennis and Spencer Nealy have done admirable jobs at defensive tackle. Ennis is a big body (6-4, 300) and Nealy isn't as big (277) but makes up for it with relentless effort. Linebacker is where most of their experience lies and all three -- middle linebacker Jonathan Stewart and outside linebackers Sean Porter and Steven Jenkins -- have played well this season. Porter is quick and is really effective when they blitz him and Jenkins is a hard hitter who has been an impact player this season.
Scarborough: Give me one player Alabama fans should be keeping an eye on Saturday, other than Manziel of course.
Kahn: Running back Ben Malena. Many assumed coming into the season that senior Christine Michael would carry the load among the running backs but that hasn't been the case. It has been Malena, who fits the offense well -- he's a threat in the running game, as a receiver coming out of the backfield, he's an effective pass blocker and he even spends time on special teams, covering kicks. He has the speed to get outside the tackles and the vision to run in between them. If he's successful when he gets the football, chances are Texas A&M's offense will be really successful too.
Scarborough: What needs to happen for Texas A&M to pull off the upset?
Kahn: A few things: First, the Aggies have to take care of the football. Turnovers hurt them against LSU and that was a game which, had the Aggies not turned it over five times, they could have come away with a victory. Secondly, they need to be able to run the football effectively. I'm not saying they need to get 150 yards, but they need to get production when they hand it off so that they can move the chains and keep the up-tempo pace going. It'll make the Crimson Tide respect the run and open things up a little in the passing game against that talented secondary. Third, they need to be able to slow down Alabama's running game. When the Aggies played LSU, the Tigers were most effective when they ran the football well. Clearly, the Tide has a nice tandem of backs in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon and a huge, star-studded offensive line in front of it. The Aggies need possessions so they can run up the play count against the Tide defense and they can't do that if they don't slow the run game and get off the field on third down. Third-down defense is one of the Aggies' fortes (Texas A&M ranks sixth nationally allowing just conversions just 27.1 percent of the time) and that can be credited in part to their run defense on early downs. And of course, they'll have to hit some big plays on offense. If they protect Manziel, which they've done well all season, those opportunities will be there.
11hEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf