Alabama vs Texas A&M preview: Five keys to the game

Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas A&M Aggies are set to host the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide in what is easily the most hyped, highly-anticipated game of the 2013 season. Whomever walks away from the home of the 12th Man with a win will be in the driver’s seat for the SEC West title and a berth in the conference championship game.

Last year, the Aggies shocked the college football world – not to mention their opponents – in beating the mighty Tide in Bama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game officially introduced Johnny Manziel to the nation as the gunslinging, playmaking superstar that would go on to win the Heisman Trophy. It also derailed the Tide’s national title plans until several undefeated teams across the country lost themselves, paving the way for Bama to get back into championship.

Despite its early date on the 2013 schedule, this year’s contest carries equally large implications. Here are five factors to watch as these two titans of the college football world collide for an inside path to the championship.

1. How will each team’s offensive line fare?

Texas A&M and Alabama trotted out arguably two of the best offensive lines in the nation a year ago. There were All-Americans littered across both. However, the Aggies lost superstar left tackle Luke Joeckel to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 2-overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker out of Alabama were off the board soon thereafter, at No’s. 10 and 11, respectively.

Most programs would not be able to rebuild after losing one top pick, but these two lost three between them (not to mention Barrett Jones, who slipped to the fourth round). That is millions of dollars of talent out the door.

In response, the Aggies slid Jake Matthews over to left tackle. He is expected to be taken in the top five himself, but how will he respond against the Tide’s vaunted defensive front?

Coach Nick Saban’s rebuilt offensive line has two stars in Anthony Steen and Cyrus Kouandjio. Cyrus’ brother Arie is another starter on the O-line.

We are exceptionally curious to see which of these two units is more effective at protecting their respective quarterback and which is more successful at plowing running lanes.

2. No experience, no problem?

Alabama is an upperclassmen-laden team. Pretty much everyone on the roster has won at least one national championship.

The Aggies cannot say the same thing. Two years ago, this team was busy losing six games under coach Mike Sherman. The 2012 campaign served as the first under coach Kevin Sumlin. It was the first for Manziel, as well as star-in-the-making wide receiver Mike Evans.

In 2012, A&M exploded onto the scene, winning 11 games, including one over Alabama and a Cotton Bowl blowout of Oklahoma. However, Sumlin is still installing his system – and his team has only gotten younger.

Sumlin played 16 true freshman in his season-opening win over Rice. Of that number, 11 were on the defensive side of the football. Can those youngsters hold their own when called upon against senior quarterback A.J. McCarron and his slew of skill position weaponry?

3. Which quarterback is going to make his case for the Heisman?

Last year, Johnny Manziel essentially cemented his status as Johnny Heisman after engineering an unbelievable win over Alabama. He is a year older. He has watched an extra year of film, put in an extra year in the weight room and definitely dealt with an extra offseason.

As for his counterpart on the Tide, McCarron became the first quarterback in BCS history to win two national titles as a starter. He has proven himself to be more than simply an elite game manager in the process. However, he threw a game-deciding interception in the Tide’s loss a year ago.

If McCarron can avenge the defeat and look great while at it, he may just supplant Johnny Heisman in the race for the hardware.

4. Which game plan will dominate the other?

Kevin Sumlin has done it. He has officially brought the no-huddle, spread, high-speed offense to a stubborn SEC. Yes, Auburn ran it with Cam Newton, but that had been seen more as a product of his singular ability than anything revolutionary on the part of the program.

Sumlin, on the other hand, set records at Houston and now at A&M. Offense is what he knows, it is the knowledge he cultivates, and it is the way he will always run his program.

Conversely, Nick Saban played defensive back at Kent State, he continues to personally coach Bama’s DBs, and he has relied on his defense as a whole in order to win titles.

Will Sumlin’s offense once again reign supreme, like it did last year, or will Saban’s defense and elite rushing attack exact revenge?

5. Can somebody lend us an extra set of ear plugs?

Kyle Field is always one of the craziest places to play in the country. They call it the Home of the 12th Man, and they do so for a reason.

It is rowdy, it is rambunctious and it will never have been more of both than when Alabama comes to town.

Alabama is used to everyone’s best shot, from teams to the fans. Can the Aggies get inside the Tide’s head on the field, or will Bama be ready for the noise?

Settle It: Alabama-Texas A&M, who will win in College Station?