Associated Press Photo
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (Sports Network) - The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide head down the homestretch with a three-game homestand to close out the regular season, starting with this weekend's clash with the 15th-ranked Texas A&M Aggies in Tuscaloosa.
Nick Saban's squad had run over the competition on the docket until last weekend, when the defending national champions had to come from behind to preserve their perfect season with a 21-17 victory over then fifth-ranked LSU. The victory moved Alabama to 9-0 on the season and 6-0 in league play. A win in this game would secure the SEC West for the Crimson Tide.
Kevin Sumlin's first season in College Station has been highly successful, as the Aggies are 7-2 overall. The team's first foray into the SEC has been equally satisfying at 4-2, two full games behind the Tide. Texas A&M was in Starkville last weekend, where the Aggies posted an impressive 38-13 romp over Mississippi State.
This marks just the fifth meeting between these two teams and first since 1988. Alabama holds a 3-1 series advantage, although this game represents A&M's first-ever trip to Tuscaloosa.
The Aggies have excelled on the offensive side of the football this season, ranking fourth nationally in scoring (44.7 ppg), fifth in total offense (559.6 ypg), while placing 19th in passing (308.2 ypg) and 10th in rushing (251.3 ypg). In all, the team has scored 49 offensive touchdowns (32 rushing, 17 passing). Texas A&M is on pace to break the SEC record for total offense per game set by Florida in 1995 (534.4 ypg).
Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel has been outstanding in his first season under center and could mean more to his team than any player in the country. Manziel has completed 66.6 percent of his passes, for 2,527 yards and 16 TDs, but means almost as much to his team for his rushing exploits, closing in on 1,000 yards (922), with 15 more scores.
Other offensive players of note include Mike Evans (56 receptions, 802 yards, two TDs) and Ryan Swope (45 receptions, 641 yards, five TDs) and tailback Ben Malena (637 yards, 6.6 ypc, six TDs).
The offense as a whole has evolved and Sumlin is pleased with that.
"We are certainly a different team than we were week one. Ten weeks later we better be, especially with a young quarterback. We certainly have more offense at our disposal now than we had against Florida. It's just growth, number one. Number two, it is the comfort level and Johnny being able to handle it. Just because you put up a play, you better have some answers for it. Defenses in this league are pretty complex. It's not necessarily what you think you can handle as a coach but what your players can handle. In year one, ten weeks in, I think we've progressed pretty well."
While Texas A&M has allowed its offense to lead the way, the defense has showed flashes of strong play.
Rush end Damontre Moore has been a one-man wrecking crew, leading A&M in tackles (69), while ranking among the nation's best in TFLs (19.0) and sacks (11.5). Middle linebacker Jonathan Stewart is second on the team in tackles (58).
The A&M offense has received plenty of attention, but Saban knows that the Aggies are a complete team.
"Their defense is really good - they are very aggressive, they do a lot of different things, they run a lot of pressures. They are very, very aggressive in terms of loading the box and they are going to stop the run at just about all costs. They are just very, very aggressive. They have good players and have been pretty successful doing the things that they do."
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron showed his ability to be clutch when needed, leading a pair of scoring drives in two-minute drills at the ends of both halves, resulting in two touchdowns and a come-from-behind victory in Baton Rouge.
McCarron has orchestrated an offensive attack that averages an impressive 424.7 yards per game, with great balance. The Crimson Tide are putting up over 200 yards per game both on the ground (209.0) and through the air (215.7).
A cool and collected signal-caller, McCarron has completed 66.7 percent of his throws, for 1,849 yards, with 19 TDs and no interceptions. Amari Cooper (32 receptions, 472 yards, five TDs) has been the primary target in the passing game, but everything is set up by the run.
Tailbacks T.J. Yeldon (725 yards, 7.0 ypc, seven TDs) and Eddie Lacey (679 yards, 5.7 ypc, eight TDs) have been an effective tandem on the ground.
The nation's best defense resides in Tuscaloosa, with Alabama ranking first in scoring defense (9.1 ppg) and second in both rush defense (66.3 ypg) and total defense (228.9 ypg).
The squad is paced by an impressive linebacking corps, headlined by C.J. Mosley (team-high 69 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery). Fellow linebackers Trey DePriest (44 tackles) and Nico Johnson (40 tackles, two INTs, two fumble recoveries) have made their share of plays as well.