- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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One of the most closely watched referendums on where college football is headed will play out Saturday at Kyle Field.
It’s just part of what makes the Alabama-Texas A&M matchup so compelling.
Sure, it’s a game that will go a long way toward shaping both the SEC and national championship races, and it’s easily the most anticipated rematch of the season after Johnny Manziel and the Aggies went into Tuscaloosa in November and handed the Crimson Tide their only loss last season.
But there’s no escaping the old school versus new age element to this contest, a contradiction in styles and philosophies that has made for quite the debate in college football.
Alabama wants to bully you with its pro-style offense, power-packed running game and a suffocating defensive scheme that has all the complexities of an NFL defense.
Texas A&M wants to run you ragged by spreading it out on offense and running plays at a pace that would make Usain Bolt envious, thus making your defense look like it’s running in quick sand in the fourth quarter.
A year ago, Texas A&M ran 77 plays in its 29-24 win over Alabama and jumped out to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter before the Crimson Tide knew what hit them.
The Aggies scored just one more touchdown the rest of the way, but that was enough to pull off the upset of the year.
Not only did that win propel Texas A&M to a top-10 finish in the final polls in its first season in the SEC, but it set the stage for some lively banter this offseason.
In short, how fast is too fast when it comes to running these no-huddle, warp-speed offenses?
Arkansas' Bret Bielema suggested this summer that running so many more plays on offense and not being able to substitute as frequently increases the likelihood of injuries. Alabama's Nick Saban, who's cut from the same defensive cloth as Bielema, also questioned whether offenses should be allowed to play so fast.
“I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, ‘Is this what we want football to be?” Saban said last season.
The coaches on the other side of the fence scoff at the notion that faster-paced offenses put players at higher risk for injuries.
They also have a message for those coaches who don’t like the idea of having to defend a two-minute-drill offense for all 60 minutes.
“I think that’s where college football is going, and you’re only going to see it become more popular over the next few years,” said Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, whose offenses are renowned for their blistering pace.
Others aren’t quite as sure.
“The physicality of the game wears people down,” Florida’s Will Muschamp said. “Look at who’s been really successful and won it three of the last four years. Everybody’s in these spread systems and tossing the ball around, and that’s all great. But if you’ve got the athleticism and the pass-rushers up front to defend that, week in and week out, it’s hard to win like that.”
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier added: “If they want to rapid fire, then you’ve just got to get your defense ready to rapid fire with them. That’s part of football. The way you stop it is for your offense to stay out there and make a whole bunch of third downs. That’s probably as important as anything.”
The predictable buildup to Saturday’s game has centered around Saban, Kirby Smart and that Alabama "D" being ready for Texas A&M’s offense the second time around and being better equipped to deal with Manziel, who rolled up 345 yards of total offense a year ago against the Tide.
The flip side to that is that Manziel is also a year wiser and has an even better grasp of the offense.
And another thing: The Aggies have made their own tweaks.
“Maybe we have a few guys on our staff who can coach, too,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Early on in the game a year ago, it was Manziel’s mobility that gave the Crimson Tide fits, but it was his ability to complete key passes from the pocket that sealed the win for the Aggies. His 24-yard touchdown pass to Malcome Kennedy on the corner route in the fourth quarter was perfectly thrown.
Manziel converted 9 of 13 third-down chances in last season’s game, the highest conversion percentage for a quarterback against Alabama in the past 10 years. He also completed all six of his passes outside the pocket and scrambled for an additional 94 yards when forced out of the pocket.
So simply saying you’re going to make Manziel a pocket quarterback is a lot easier said than done, which Alabama learned the hard way last season.
What else did the Tide learn?
They know the Aggies would like to turn Saturday’s game into a track meet.
The faster, the better.
“We’re going to go as fast as we possibly can,” Sumlin said. “The object is not to trick people. The object is to play the game at a pace you’re comfortable with and maybe the other team’s not comfortable with. There’s a reason they call it offense and defense.
“Defense should not dictate the game. Offense should dictate the pace of the game when they have the ball. They have the ability to slow it down or speed it up. As long as it’s within the rules of the game and the players are set, all 11 players on offense are set and ready to go, then the defense should have to match.”