It was 59-0. Alabama and Texas A&M have played some interesting football games over the years, particularly the Johnny Manziel years, but no one expected anything like last year’s Crimson Tide romp over the Aggies in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Moreover, it is likely that no one leaving the game a year ago expected it would be a white-knuckler when the teams met again this season in College Station. But here we are in a topsy-turvy college football season with the Crimson Tide and the Aggies meeting in a collision of top 10 teams.
Kickoff Saturday at renovated Kyle Field will be at 2:30 p.m. CDT with television coverage by CBS. Capacity at the stadium, which has been renovated in each of the last two off-seasons, is tops in the Southeastern Conference, capacity 102,733. We say capacity, but the Aggies have squeezed in more than that over a half dozen times, including over 110,000 last year against Ole Miss.
Alabama is 5-1 and ranked 10th in the nation in the Associated Press poll and ninth in the Coaches Poll. The Aggies are 5-0 (and had an open date last Saturday) and ranked ninth by the AP, 10th by the Coaches.
It is big for everyone when Alabama and Coach Nick Saban come to town, and the atmosphere will be electric. Saban, however, doesn’t worry about electricity. His concern is primarily about his Crimson Tide team performing well and doing so consistently.
Still, Saban said, “The game coming up is our primary focus right now against a very good team. Texas A&M is ranked in the Top 10 and they're undefeated. (Aggies Head Coach) Kevin Sumlin has done a very, very good job there. His record certainly indicates that. They've beaten some really good opponents and are playing much, much better on defense. I think (new Defensive Coordinator) John Chavis has done a really good job there. They're not giving up as many points. They're a lot tougher. They're sounder in what they're doing.
“Offensively, they're one of the top teams in our league. A lot of really good skill players. They've really worked hard to try to create balance on their offense this year, in terms of being able to run the ball a little bit better. But they're still one of the most prolific passing teams in the country. Kyle Allen has done a really good job at quarterback for them. His passing efficiency rating is one of the tops in the country.
“They score a lot of points and make a lot of big plays. This is certainly going to be a challenge for our defense. Tough game on the road. Our players have to focus on what we need to do to execute and do our job well.”
Texas A&M was somewhat disappointing last year, particularly in Tuscaloosa, but the Aggies have a lot of men who were young starters in 2014 and are experienced players now.
Saban said, "I thought they had a good team last year. We just had a crazy game where things went right for us and not much went right for them. They had a good team last year, those guys have all gotten better. Kyle Allen became the quarterback so he got a lot of experience last year. He's a lot better player now than then, and I think he played very well then. I think experience has helped him.
“The receivers are really, really good. The addition of their No. 1 receiver, Christian Kirk, who's a freshman, great returner, as well as 32 receptions. They have really good skill players. Their players have gotten better. They've improved, which is a sign of a good program.”
Kirk came in for additional mention. Saban said, "He doesn't really line up outside. He lines up in the slot quite a bit, so you can't really just put a guy on him. Especially a guy that's not used to playing in the slot. Corners usually play outside. But he is very explosive, great run after the catch guy, very good out of the break, very quick, has good hands, great balance and body control. This guy is a really really good player and you would never know he was a freshman by watching him play. He doesn't play that way. He has a lot of confidence and doesn't make a lot of mistakes in terms of what he's doing. So he's got a good understanding of what's required and he does it very effectively."
The Texas A&M alignments will dictate how much Alabama is in nickel and dime defensive schemes. Saban said, “I think they'll be in three wideouts and four wideouts and that's when we're in those, so they determine how much we're in them. But we've given up fewer big plays, which is a positive. We stopped the run a little better out of those fronts, and I think it's primarily because our front has done a really good job. If you always have to add a guy in the box to stop the run it really puts you in a little more vulnerable coverage, which we've had to do less of that this year, which is a compliment to our front, and the more we can continue to do that the better we can play in nickel. I think when we have to pressure to stop them or to get pass-rush or to add a guy to the box you become vulnerable to giving up big plays.”
The Aggies also have real stars on defense, particularly pass rushing ends Myles Garrett (6-5, 252) and Daeshan Hall (6-6, 250). Saban said, “I don't think there's any question about the fact that they have some good edge rushers. I think we've all seen and played against John Chavis quite a bit when he was at LSU, and he's had lots of good rushers. He's going to do things to try to get those guys in one-on-one situations. They're very good edge rushers and they've been very, very disruptive. If we don't block the edges well, we'll have some issues. I think the challenge is to our protection and the protection scheme that we present, to help our players have a chance to limit these guys being disruptive."
As for his own team, Saban said, “We've always had a system around here of here's what you need to do, here's how you need to do it and here's why it's important to do it that way. And you've got to have the discipline to execute it down in and down out. I just think we need to continue to improve in that area so we can focus on getting things right and we won't have some of the negative plays that we're having on both sides of the ball.”
In the Saban system, he expects Bama to play effectively from kickoff to final horn. And while his concern might seem trivial to some, it is a measure of his attention to detail that he raised it. “We've given up a couple of big plays at the end of games that shouldn't have happened, and we've had a few too many negative plays on offense.”
Those big plays given up by the defense came in the final moments of a 38-10 win over Georgia in Athens and a 27-13 come-from-behind victory over Arkansas last Saturday in Tuscaloosa.