Alabama will look to exact revenge on Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies when the Crimson Tide roll into College Station for the first conference game of the year for the two programs. The winner will be designated with "front-runner" status in the nation's toughest division, while the loser will be fighting an uphill battle to get to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Manziel and the Aggies punched Alabama in the mouth last season, scoring 20 first-quarter points and holding on to claim a 29-24 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Manziel completed 24 of 31 passes in that meeting for 253 yards, two touchdowns and zero picks; he also added 92 yards on the ground in the process.
Since that day (and perhaps even before), the target has been on Manziel's back.
Will Manziel's sandlot style trip up the Tide again?
His elusiveness behind the line of scrimmage creates confusion in the defense and opens up seams for him to either run or throw. Limiting his ability to get outside is surely at the top of Alabama head coach Nick Saban's mind with two weeks to prepare for the Aggies.
As my colleague Michael Felder over at Your Best 11 pointed out, it's going to be up to the Alabama front seven—and in particular, "Sam" linebacker Adrian Hubbard—to confuse the relatively young Texas offensive line, keep Manziel in the pocket and prevent him from those big gains when he breaks contain. He'll have to play smart, not over-pursue and stay in control.
After all, a three-yard gain is much better than a 20-yard scramble.
In the end, though, it won't be Manziel's sandlot style that trips up Alabama; it will be his poise and composure in the pocket.
I know, I know. "Poise" and "composure" are not words that are typically associated with Johnny Football, but we saw a more polished Manziel versus Rice as a pocket passer, which is a direct result of his work in the offseason.
In his first touchdown pass of the season, he comes off his primary receiver lined up in the slot at the bottom of the screen, looks across the field and passes on the deep dig to hit his third option—Mike Evans—coming short over the middle. Evans does the rest himself, taking it 23 yards for a touchdown.
That's a good sign for the Aggies.
Manziel is still capable of being Manziel and making big things happen with his legs. But if Alabama keeps him in the pocket—just like Florida and LSU did in Texas losses last season—his effectiveness won't diminish all that much.
This week versus Sam Houston State is big for Manziel.
You saw Manziel get back in sync with Evans with no problem at all, but against the Bearkats, he needs to spread it around a bit. He needs to sit back in the pocket and become familiar in game action with some younger players like wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, sophomore receiver Sabian Holmes and tight end Cam Clear.
It isn't Manziel's sandlot style that's going to trip up the Tide; it will be his ability as a dropback quarterback.
It'll certainly be a test for Alabama's secondary, which held Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas to 5-of-26 for 59 yards and a pick in the opener. That same defensive backfield will get nickelback Geno Smith returning from suspension.
While Hubbard, C.J. Mosley, "Jack" linebacker Xzavier Dickson and the rest of the linebacking corps will be charged with keeping Manziel from busting loose on the ground, the far more important unit in this game is Alabama's secondary—and in particular, Smith, Deion Belue, John Fulton and the rest of the Crimson Tide cornerbacks.
Manziel will make a concerted effort to throw first. If it works, don't expect a sandlot-style game at all.
But if the Crimson Tide shut that down and force Johnny Football to rely on his old tricks, he's certainly capable of doing that, too.
How Alabama game plans to stop Manziel will be fascinating to watch in the biggest game of 2013.
Saban is undoubtedly the most brilliant defensive mind in college football, and a revenge game against the most dynamic player in the game makes this must-see television. His defense is predicated on discipline, which is the most important attribute needed to slow down Manziel.
But if Manziel comes out and plays disciplined himself, it will be a game-changer.
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