Undefeated, tied for first place in the SEC West and playing from the comfort of home, there is no reason for No. 9 Texas A&M not to feel confident entering Saturday’s showdown against No. 10 Alabama.
"It really gives you goosebumps to see," said Alabama running back Kenyan Drake of Kyle Field. "It’s like the stadium is literally rocking."
Though the sports books in Vegas favor Drake and the Tide overcoming a tough road environment, ESPN’s metrics give the Aggies the edge with a 56 percent predicted win probability.
After two consecutive games facing teams that play into Alabama’s strengths of slowing down the game and stopping the run, coach Nick Saban’s defense is faced with the challenge of turning on a dime. Players are confident -- "This week is all about running everywhere in practice because they’re a quick, fast team," said linebacker Reggie Ragland -- but going from Arkansas' Ground 'n' Pound to A&M’s Fun 'n' Gun offense won’t be easy.
After all, it’s A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's offense that started to reveal the cracks in Alabama’s foundation three years ago. They are ones who provided the blueprint to every Alabama loss that followed.
On Nov. 10, 2012, A&M’s freshman runt of a quarterback got the best of the big, bad Alabama defense. Johnny Manziel -- he wasn’t Johnny Football yet, mind you -- pushed the tempo, scrambled for extra yards and bought time for his receivers downfield. Manziel won the Heisman Trophy that day as he accounted for just shy of 350 of the Aggies’ 418 total yards of offense, leading A&M to an upset of the then-No. 1 ranked Crimson Tide.
Though the quarterbacks have featured different styles since then, the overall formula for beating Alabama has remained the same: an elusive quarterback running a spread, up-tempo offense. Nick Marshall did it with Auburn, followed by Trevor Knight at Oklahoma. Ohio State’s Cardale Jones ran roughshod over Alabama in last season’s playoff, and both Chad Kelly and Bo Wallace led Ole Miss to regular-season wins against the Tide in each of the past two seasons.
Kyle Allen and the current incarnation of the A&M offense fits that mold perfectly. Though the sophomore quarterback is more of pocket passer than a runner, he does have some dual-threat in him with 136 yards and two touchdowns rushing. In every game this season he’s had a run of 10 yards or more.
With good feet, he’s capable of eluding the rush of Alabama’s defensive line and buying himself the time and space to run or pass. By employing multiple receivers, he can force hefty linemen and linebackers off the field, eliminating the challenge of playing in a crowded phone booth against Alabama's stout front seven. By pushing the tempo, he can take away Saban’s defensive mind by not allowing him to sub in speciality personnel to match the down and distance.
"They spread you out a lot," Saban said of A&M on Monday. "Sometimes they're in empty, sometimes they're in four-wide with a back. The skill players they have are capable of beating you one-on-one. ... It's going to be a real challenge for us to be able to cover them and keep them cut off and not give them plays down the field."
Granted, the same could have been said prior to last year’s game when Alabama stomped A&M, 59-0. But as Saban put it, "We just had a crazy game where things went right for us and not much went right for them." Quarterback Kenny Hill was benched the following week and Allen was installed as the team’s starter.
"Their players have gotten better," Saban said. "They've improved, which is a sign of a good program."
The biggest challenge, outside of A&M's tempo and Allen’s ability as a passer, might be stopping freshman Christian Kirk. The former four-star prospect has been arguably the SEC’s most electric receiver with four touchdowns and an average of 16.2 yards per catch.
"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," Saban said. "This guy is a really really good player and you would never know he was a freshman by watching him play."
Whether he’s matched up on Kirk in the slot or not, Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones is up for the challenge of facing A&M.
What the Aggies do offensively has given Jones and the Tide trouble in the past, but they are no less confident heading into this weekend as they were the previous two Saturdays against pro-style teams in Arkansas and Georgia.
"It’s two different-style teams," Jones said, "but we feel like we’re ready for whatever they throw at us. We take pride in stopping the run, but also in the back end, in the secondary, we don’t think anybody can have big games against us as long as we’re doing what we’re supposed to do."