SEC: A.J. McCarron

SEC's lunch links

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
12:00
PM ET
The Super Bowl is just days away, but we know you college football fans are just as excited, if not more, about what comes after that. National signing day. Notably, stories relating to both are a part of today's lunchtime links:

Allstate Sugar Bowl preview

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
11:00
AM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma features two of the most storied programs in college football history. Here’s a preview of one of the most intriguing games of the bowl season:

Who to watch: Alabama's AJ McCarron, who, with two national titles, is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Even though the Crimson Tide came up just short of advancing to another national championship game, McCarron has put together another fabulous season. He was a first-team Walter Camp All-American, won the Maxwell Award and finished second in the Heisman voting. On top of owning virtually every passing record at Alabama, McCarron also has a career record of 36-3 as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback. A win over the Sooners in his collegiate swan song would cap the finest quarterbacking career in Alabama history in fine fashion.

What to watch: How Oklahoma performs against the preeminent program from the preeminent conference in college football. Even though the SEC has reeled off seven straight national titles, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has questioned why the SEC is accepted as college football's top conference, even calling it "propaganda." Stoops also has suggested the SEC's defensive reputation has been overhyped, because of substandard quarterbacking in the past. Stoops, however, has never disrespected Alabama, and this week called the Crimson Tide the best team in the country despite their loss to Auburn. Still, the fact remains, the Big 12's reputation will be squarely on the line this game, especially after Baylor's disastrous showing against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma's reputation will be on the line, too. The Sooners can prove on the national stage they're on their way back to standing alongside the nation’s elite programs. Or they -- and the Big 12 -- will take yet another perception hit heading into the College Football Playoff era, where perception will be paramount.

Why to watch: This will pit two of the most tradition-rich programs in college football history. Alabama and Oklahoma have combined for 17 national championships, including four in the BCS era. Despite their histories, the Crimson Tide and Sooners have met only four times before: the 1963 Orange Bowl, 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl and then a home-and-home in 2002-2003, which the Sooners swept. Nick Saban and Stoops, however, have faced each other only once, in the 2003 national championship game when Saban was at LSU. The Tigers won that game 21-14.

Prediction: Alabama 41, Oklahoma 17. The Sooners have thrived as the underdog, both in the past, and here late this season. But Alabama is another animal, and Oklahoma, which has been inconsistent offensively all season, will struggle to move the ball against linebacker C.J. Mosley & Co.
Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down the biggest storylines in Thursday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Oklahoma:

The last time the Crimson Tide just missed out on a national championship game and ended up in the Sugar, they didn't seem to be very motivated. Will they be motivated this time?

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIt's hard to imagine AJ McCarron and the Crimson Tide coming out flat against OU in the Sugar Bowl.
Alex Scarborough: With AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley guiding their respective units, I don't think motivation will be a problem. The leadership on this team is too strong for Alabama to come out flat emotionally. There are too many seniors who don't want to go out on a sour note with back-to-back losses. Revenge, even though it can't come in the form of a national championship, is at play against the Sooners. That loss on the road at Auburn has eaten away at the Tide for a month now, and I believe this team is eager to get that monkey off its back and change the narrative of its season. As Brian Vogler told the media a short while back, this game is all about respect and proving again that Alabama is one of the best teams in the country.

Jake Trotter: I don’t think motivation will be a problem for Alabama. Then again, it could be. After all, the Crimson Tide have played in the national championship game in three of the last four years. Playing in the Sugar is a step down. One thing we do know is that Oklahoma will be motivated. This is the biggest bowl the Sooners have played in since the 2008 national championship game against Florida. As a double-digit underdog against the preeminent program in college football at the moment, it’s a guarantee Oklahoma will be fired up to play well.

For OU to pull off the upset, what is the one thing that has to happen?

Scarborough: Aside from Alabama surprising me and coming out flat, I think it comes down to the defense. McCarron, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will put up plenty of points on offense, but can Mosley and the secondary rebound after what was a testing season defensively? Alabama was excellent in terms of production this season, but our colleague Edward Aschoff was wise to focus on the importance of the Tide facing another zone-read team as both Auburn and Texas A&M had success moving the ball against them. Even Mississippi State had some success spreading the field and pushing the tempo. Alabama has to set the edge and stop the run early against Oklahoma, forcing Blake Bell, Trevor Knight or whoever plays quarterback for the Sooners into obvious passing situations. If Oklahoma finds itself in a lot of second-and-mediums and third-and-shorts, Alabama will be in trouble because while there's plenty of talent at safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins, there's a significant drop off at cornerback once you look past Deion Belue.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight and the Sooners need to get off to a good start if Oklahoma is going to pull off the upset.
Trotter: The Sooners have got to get off to a good start. Whether Knight or Bell (or both) is at quarterback, this is not an offense built to come back from behind. After falling behind early to Texas and Baylor, Oklahoma had to scrap the game plan and start throwing the ball. And the end-result was a pair of blowouts. Conversely, if Oklahoma can start fast, then hang in the game past halftime, the pressure will swing on Alabama, which is expected to win this game big. And like at Oklahoma State, the Sooners would be a successful trick play or big turnover away from taking the Tide to the wire.

Who is the player to watch in this game?

Scarborough: This is going to be a very interesting game for Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest. He's had a fairly solid junior season, but he hasn't done what many expected when the season began and there was speculation over whether he'd turn pro early. Well, he's already said he intends to return to school, and with Mosley moving on, he'll be the man leading and executing Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban's defense in 2014. How he does against Oklahoma is an important step in that progression. He needs to show he can both lead his teammates, as well as show the sideline-to-sideline type of tackling that Mosley brought to the table. As more teams go to the zone-read offense, that part of the game becomes more and more important. And if I can add a second player to watch quickly, keep an eye on freshman tailback Derrick Henry. He's a talented big man at 6-foot-3, and the buzz is that he may be poised to pass Kenyan Drake for second on the depth chart.

Trotter: Receiver/returner Jalen Saunders is Oklahoma's X-factor. In the Sooners' upset victory over Oklahoma State, Saunders unleashed a 61-yard punt return touchdown, a 37-yard reverse rush that set up another score and a game-winning, 7-yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone in the final seconds. For the Sooners to have a chance, Saunders must deliver another monster performance.

SEC players to watch this bowl season

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
9:00
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Bowl season is fast approaching and there are plenty of reasons to tune in, especially to your favorite SEC squads. Today, we take a look at five players to keep your eye on during the bowl games:

Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
Outback Bowl

[+] EnlargeOdell Beckham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsOdell Beckham is a thrill a minute. The LSU wide receiver is a threat to score from everywhere on the field.
Beckham has been one of the best pure playmakers in the SEC this season. The receiver/return specialist excels in both of those roles, catching 57 passes for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns while logging 806 yards on 30 kick returns, 141 yards on punt returns and a 100-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown. His all-purpose yardage total -- 2,222 -- broke LSU's single-season record previously held by Domanick Davis (2,120). As a result of his stellar season, the honors have rolled in for Beckham: third-team Associated Press All-American, first-team Football Writers Association of America All-American, and the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation's most versatile player.

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Chick-Fil-A Bowl

He hasn't declared for the 2014 NFL draft yet, but many believe he will soon enough, which means New Year's Eve will be Johnny Football's last hurrah (how fitting is it that it's on the biggest party night of the year?). By several statistical measures (passing yards, yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns), Manziel has been a better passer than he was in his Heisman Trophy-winning season and, let's be honest, you never know what he's going to do on the field. He puts on a show almost every time he's out there and provides great theater on top of his stellar play, which earned him a return trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist this year. He is in the top 10 nationally in eight different QB-centric statistical categories and is one of college football's best and most entertaining players in recent memory. Watch him while you can.

Tre Mason, Auburn
VIZIO BCS National Championship Game

Mason made a late run at the Heisman Trophy and earned himself a spot at the finalists' table, and deservedly so. When the games have been big, so have Mason's performances: 132 yards and two touchdowns at LSU; 178 yards and a touchdown at Texas A&M; 164 yards and a touchdown versus Alabama and a whopping 304 yards and four touchdowns in the SEC championship game against Missouri. Mason has 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns and finished the regular season as the SEC's leader in both categories, something virtually nobody predicted coming into the season. His running mate, quarterback Nick Marshall, has been stellar also, so watch both of them as they make a dynamic duo that has been difficult for most to defend.

AJ McCarron, Alabama
Allstate Sugar Bowl

This will be the senior quarterback's final game, and his list of accomplishments is impressive. He started at quarterback for two national championship teams, has a 36-3 record as a starter and has a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 75-to-13. He has made plenty of big throws, led some critical drives, set records and won big games throughout his collegiate career. He hauled in several honors this season, including the Maxwell Award, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and finished second in the Heisman voting. After the Crimson Tide beat LSU this year, Alabama coach Nick Saban said of McCarron "All he does is win and he does what his team needs him to do to win ... I think he's the best quarterback in the country."

Michael Sam, Missouri
AT&T Cotton Bowl

Sam was named a first-team All-American on all five major All-America squads (only the second Mizzou player to achieve that feat) and was the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year. Those honors are well deserved as the senior finished the regular season with 45 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was part of a Missouri defense that led the SEC in sacks (38) and was in the top 10 nationally in that category. He's one of those diamonds in the rough who came to Missouri as an unheralded two-star recruit and has turned into a bona fide star and one of the country's best pass rushers. He'll leave Columbia as one of the most decorated seniors in Mizzou football history.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
12:00
PM ET
It's Friday, which means only a day until game day. Thank goodness. Here's some reading from around the league to get you ready:

SEC Week 12: Did you know?

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
10:00
AM ET
It's a relatively light week in SEC football with only four intraconference games and one nonconference matchup as teams hit the home stretch of their respective schedules. Here are a few nuggets for readers to chew on in advance of this weekend's SEC action, with an assist from the fine folks at ESPN Stats and Information.
  • Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron didn't have a terrific start to this season but he's coming on strong lately, especially when it really matters, like on third downs. Since Oct. 1, McCarron's Total QBR on third downs is 96.3, which is fifth best in the FBS (in his first four games, his third down QBR was 57.2). He has completed 72.7 percent of his third-down passes, which is second only to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in that time span and converted 59 percent on third downs with zero turnovers in the last five games. McCarron converted only 33 percent of the time with two turnovers in the first four games of the year.
  • The Crimson Tide's opponent, Mississippi State, is trying to knock off a team ranked No. 1 in the polls. The last time the Bulldogs beat a team atop the Associated Press poll? 1980. The opponent? Coincidentally, it was Alabama. The Bulldogs have had only three shots at a top-ranked team since 1980 and lost all three (1998, 2008, 2012). Also, since Dan Mullen has taken over, Mississippi State is 5-19 against SEC West teams (the Bulldogs are 9-4 against the SEC East).
  • Auburn has more than doubled its average production running the football this season. The Tigers are averaging an SEC-best 320 rushing yards per game, compared to 148.4 last season. They also have 33 touchdowns on the ground, compared with just 16 a year ago. They've also improved yards per carry (6.5 from 4.1) and number of carries gaining 10 or more yards (100 this season, 64 last year).
  • Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has seen his numbers dip some in recent weeks. After averaging 304 passing yards in the first six games of the season, Murray has thrown for just 217.7 yards per game in Georgia's last three outings. His touchdown-to-interception ratio (3-to-2) isn't quite what it was in those first six games (17-to-5) and his opponent-adjusted QBR is down (76.3 from 89.3).
  • Injuries and a struggling offense have been a significant part of Florida's decline this season, but so has the Gators' run defense. Five games into the year, Florida boasted what was one of the country's best run defenses (at one point, the Gators ranked No. 1 in average yards allowed). In the first five games, Florida allowed 65 yards per game, 2.8 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns. In the last four, the Gators have allowed 165.5 yards per game, 4.3 yards per carry and nine rushing touchdowns. Not a good formula when one of the SEC's best backs, South Carolina's Mike Davis, is on deck.
  • Speaking of Davis, he currently leads the SEC in rushing yards per game with an average of 117.6. That's good for 12th in the FBS. Since joining the SEC, only one Gamecock has finished the season with the league's best rushing average, and that was Duce Staley in 1996, who averaged 124 yards.
  • Ole Miss has its final nonconference game of the year on Saturday, hosting Troy. Traditionally, the Rebels have had great success against teams that currently reside in the Sun Belt, going 28-1-2. The only loss came all the way back in 1915 to Arkansas State. Saturday is the first meeting between Ole Miss and Troy.
  • Vanderbilt has been pretty successful in the month of November under head coach James Franklin. The Commodores are 7-2 in the month since he took over and currently, they've won six straight dating back to Nov. 26, 2011. Vandy will seek its seventh straight November victory against Kentucky. In the 10 years prior to Franklin's arrival in Nashville, Vanderbilt was 3-32 in November games.

SEC Saturday roundup

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
7:00
AM ET
Saturdays are always fun in the SEC, but this particular Saturday brings what has been one of the most tightly contested games in the conference in each of the last two years: Alabama and LSU.

Yes, the Tide and the Tigers will take center stage at 8 p.m. ET, and if you're an SEC fan -- heck, if you're a college football fan -- there's a good chance you'll tune in and take a peek. Because no matter your allegiance or preferred style of football, Alabama and LSU have done a good job of bringing us drama in their last couple of meetings.

In 2011 -- the "Game of the Century" -- it was a defensive slugfest, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime. Last season, it was a game that was in the Tigers' hands until Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron engineered a 72-yard drive capped by a 28-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Yeldon for a 21-17 comeback win in Death Valley.

We should be so lucky to get such a finish tonight. Even though No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) isn't as highly ranked as it has been in the last two meetings, there's still plenty at stake, because Alabama (8-0, 5-0) is still No. 1 and still trying to make its way toward a third consecutive BCS national championship.

But no, that's not the only game today.

No. 8 Missouri (8-1, 4-1) will try to maintain its hold on the SEC East Division lead when it travels to Kentucky (2-6, 0-4). Of note is who starts at quarterback for the Tigers. Will it be James Franklin, who missed the last three games because of a shoulder injury? Or will freshman Maty Mauk get his fourth start of the season. Either way, Franklin's close to returning, according to coach Gary Pinkel.

Over in Knoxville, Tenn., No. 9 Auburn (8-1, 4-1) tries to continue what has been a magnificent turnaround season under new head coach Gus Malzahn. Every game is critical for the Tigers, because they're still in the SEC West title chase, just a game behind Alabama, whom they will meet at season's end. Tennessee (4-5, 1-4), which built up quite a bit of positive momentum earlier this season, looks to get up off the mat after taking two decisive losses on the road to Alabama and Missouri.

Is Texas A&M's defense really improving, or was it the product of facing a pair of backup quarterbacks? We should find out when the No. 15 Aggies (7-2, 3-2) host Mississippi State. It's the last of the Aggies' eight home games and could be the final time playing at Kyle Field for quarterback Johnny Manziel and/or receiver Mike Evans, both of whom will be draft eligible after this season. Mississippi State (4-4, 1-3) should get an emotional boost from quarterback Dak Prescott, who dealt with the tragic death of his mother Peggy as a result of cancer, earlier this week. Coaches and teammates attended Peggy's funeral with Dak on Tuesday, but he returned to practice on Wednesday and will play today, head coach Dan Mullen told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

With a win at home today, Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3) would become bowl eligible and get to .500 in conference play. It's been a rough season for the Rebels' opponent, Arkansas (3-6, 0-5) and new head coach Bret Bielema.

Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4) and Florida (4-4, 3-3) each need a couple wins to reach bowl eligibility. The Commodores hope to repeat their strong finish from a year ago, when they won five in a row to close out the year. Florida didn't think it would find itself in this position, but an inept offense and an uncanny number of injuries have put the Gators here, basically out of SEC East title contention.

Georgia (5-3, 4-2) has the only non-conference game of the day, hosting a 2-7 Appalachian State squad. That one should be over in a hurry.

Here's a rundown of today's full SEC schedule:

Auburn at Tennessee, noon ET, ESPN
Vanderbilt at Florida, noon ET, FSN
Missouri at Kentucky, noon ET, ESPNU
Arkansas at Ole Miss, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC TV
Applachian State at Georgia, 12:30 p.m. ET
Mississippi State at Texas A&M, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
LSU at Alabama, 8 p.m. ET, CBS

Inside McCarron's memorable month

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
1:30
PM ET

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesA.J. McCarron is playing mistake-free football for Alabama.

AJ McCarron quietly had the best statistical month of his career.

He completed nearly 71 percent of his passes during October and had 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in 99 attempts.

It was the fourth-highest touchdown percentage for any FBS player with at least 70 attempts and tied for McCarron’s most touchdowns in any four-game stretch during his career.

McCarron has been playing virtually mistake-free football. Since Oct. 1, he is the only FBS quarterback with at least three starts who has not been sacked, and he is one of five such quarterbacks who have no turnovers. McCarron and Middle Tennessee’s Logan Kilgore are the only players in the last three seasons to throw 75 passes in a month without being sacked or intercepted. Kilgore did it last November.

Staying positive
Arguably the most important thing McCarron has done was keep Alabama out of negative plays.

The Tide have an FBS-low nine plays that lost yards since Oct. 1. McCarron was under center for only one of those plays, a screen pass for -2 yards to Amari Cooper against Tennessee.

Super-strong starts
McCarron has started games strong during this stretch. His five first-quarter touchdowns since Oct. 1 are tied for the fourth most in the FBS.

If he continued his first-quarter pace for a full game, he would average 369 passing yards and five touchdowns. His best performance came in his last game, when he completed 9-of-12 attempts in the first quarter for 131 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee.

Key to winning: Third-down effectiveness
The key to McCarron’s recent success has been improved play on third down. His 98.5 third-down Total QBR since Oct. 1 ranks second in the FBS behind Winston.

During that stretch, he has completed 76.5 percent of his third-down passes and converted a first down on 65 percent of his third-down passing plays (sacks plus pass attempts). Both stats ranked in the top 3 of the FBS.

In his first four games of the season, McCarron completed 70.6 percent of his third-down passes, but only converted a first down on 33 percent of his third-down passing plays, tied for 76th best in the nation. His third-down Total QBR (56.9) was two points below the FBS average.

Best in the game?
If you put it all together, the result is an FBS-high 92.5 Total QBR for McCarron since Oct. 1. He posted a Total QBR of at least 85 in each of his four games during that stretch.

Florida State’s Jameis Winston is the only FBS player with a longer such streak this season (5 games).

To be fair, McCarron has not faced a defense ranked in the top 50 of the FBS in points per game since Week 1 against Virginia Tech. In that game, he posted a season-low 23.4 Total QBR. McCarron will get his second crack at a top 50 defense Saturday with No. 13 LSU coming to Tuscaloosa.

If McCarron can continue his excellent play of late, he might start to make some noise in the Heisman race.

Tide, Tigers contrast in QB stability

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
9:00
AM ET

When AJ McCarron steps behind center on Saturday night for Alabama's first offensive snap in its showdown against LSU, he'll be making his fourth start against the Tigers.

The senior has been the picture of stability the last three years as Alabama’s starting quarterback. His first start against LSU was Nov. 5, 2011, dubbed "The Game of the Century," one that LSU won 9-6 in overtime at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, McCarron's counterpart on Saturday night, will make his second start against the Tide. LSU hasn't quite enjoyed the same stability that Alabama has, though Mettenberger has provided a steady hand and productive play this season, making LSU's offense the talk of the program for once; hard to do in a program known for its defense.

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger was 28-of-35 for 298 yards and a score in his first start against Alabama.
But in the same time span that McCarron has served as Alabama's lone starter in the Tide-Tigers showdowns, LSU has had three different starting quarterbacks. Mettenberger started last season's game but when the teams met twice in 2011 – in November and in January for the BCS championship – the Tigers had a different starter each time.

That's simply a microcosm of these two power programs. Both are championship-caliber teams that are annually in the BCS national championship discussion. Both have stable coaching staffs and a foundation built on great defense and the ability to run the football. Both recruit at a high level and, of course, play in the same division, the SEC West.

But since the Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the Tide have had just three quarterbacks start against LSU: McCarron, Greg McElroy (2009-10) and John Parker Wilson, who predated Saban and started for the Tide from 2006-08.

In that same time span, the Tigers have had a different starter vs. Alabama six times. In 2007 it was Matt Flynn, who was a senior. Jarrett Lee started the 2008 game, while Jordan Jefferson started in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 Lee started the November "Game of the Century," and Jefferson started the BCS national championship later that season. Though the Tigers have had four different quarterbacks in that span, it's been rare that the same one has started twice in a row against the Tide like Mettenberger will do Saturday.

Despite that contrast, the series has been back-and-forth. Alabama has won four times since 2007, LSU three. The Tigers' success despite quarterback turnover is even more fascinating in an age where quarterbacks dominate the headlines and up-tempo spread offenses are en vogue.

Take last season as an example, one in which the Tigers didn't make a change at quarterback but didn't get strong play from the position either. Florida (3rd), Oregon State (13th) and Kent State (25th) were the only schools other than LSU with a Total QBR of less than 55 for the season to finish in the top 25 of the BCS standings at the end of the regular season. The team with the worst QBR of thos, LSU (38), finished eighth in the final BCS standings last season.

Even in 2011, when the Tigers went 13-1 and went to the BCS title game before falling to Alabama, the quarterback situation was far from stable. Lee made nine starts that season, Jefferson made five. There was even discussion in the aftermath of the 21-0 title game loss to the Crimson Tide about LSU coach Les Miles' decision to not play Lee at all that night and leave Jefferson in, which Miles later said was because he wanted a mobile quarterback who could avoid Alabama's tenacious pass rush in the game.

The reason the Tigers were able to succeed despite a sometimes uncertain quarterback situation is their defense. LSU finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense each season from 2010-2012 and had a 34-5 record in that time span. They've also had a reliable running game to turn to move the chains offensively.

Alabama has enjoyed the fruits of both of those traits during their run of three BCS titles in four seasons, but the stability at quarterback is evident. The Tide have finished the season with a better QBR than LSU each of the last five seasons.

Stable or not, life is tough for the quarterbacks in this game. During the Saban era, Alabama quarterbacks have a QBR of 42.8 against LSU, while LSU's is 33.1 against the Tide. The touchdown-to-interception ratios aren't pretty (8-to-6 for Alabama, 7-to-11 for LSU) as the defenses take center stage in this matchup.

But the Tigers have shown that even in this era of offensive dominance, good defense can still get you far. And now, they just might have the quarterback to knock off the nation’s top team.

Manziel, Aggies good but flawed

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
11:58
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — There was no plan for Johnny Manziel to speak to the media on Saturday.

In fact, win or lose, Texas A&M officials made it clear before the game that the Heisman Trophy winner would not be available for postgame interviews. Earlier this week, coach Kevin Sumlin noted that Manziel's family and attorneys advised him not to speak publicly this week.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel produced more than 500 yards but admitted there were a couple of throws he wished he could take back.
But Manziel wasn't going to be told no. He approached Sumlin and Texas A&M associate athletic director for media relations Alan Cannon and said he was going to speak. When Cannon mentioned the objections from Manziel's parents and lawyers, Manziel said, according to Cannon, "My team didn't quit on me, so I'm not quitting on them."

The No. 6 Aggies showed no quit in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field in one of the most highly anticipated games in school history. What they did show is that they're a good team with a lot of flaws that still need ironing out.

The message from Manziel, who played brilliantly for much of the day but had a couple of throws he'd like to have back, was that the Aggies had to keep playing -- both on Saturday and moving forward.

"My initial reaction is that I'm just proud of these guys," said Manziel, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 98 yards. "I kept telling them that no matter what point in the game it was, we were never out of it. Didn't matter what [Alabama] did. I told the offense that going into it, that no matter what happened on the defensive side of the ball, no matter what happened on special teams, we felt like we could come out and score points. So I was proud initially more than anything else, proud of the way they kept fighting until the very end. I mean, we're a young team. That's impressive to me."

The Aggies (2-1) were down by as many as 21 points in the third quarter after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Alabama roared back with 35 unanswered points and used its power running game and efficient passing attack behind AJ McCarron to eat up yardage and extend drives to score points while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline.

The biggest flaw seen on Saturday was on defense. The Aggies' front seven was hammered by the Alabama offensive line -- a unit that struggled in its season opener against Virginia Tech -- to the tune of 234 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry, led by T.J. Yeldon's 149-yard effort. McCarron was rarely pressured in the passing game and wasn't sacked a single time; only one player on the Aggies defense, Kirby Ennis, recorded a quarterback hurry. There were big plays given up in the passing game as well, as the Tide threw for 334 yards.

"We've got to get some things shored up in our front defensively," Sumlin said. "We're playing a lot of young guys in there. [Gavin] Stansbury was back and [Steven] Jenkins was back [from suspensions], so they were a little rusty. We didn't have Isaiah Golden today because of the tragedy [involving the death of a family member] earlier this week. That put a lot of pressure on Hardreck [Walker] to handle that type of stuff with Kirby. We just have to get those guys in a routine, a steady routine and a rotation and shore some things up up front."

Mike Evans, who already was considered one of the country's better receivers, made his case to be considered among the best after catching seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a touchdown. He beat man-to-man coverage consistently, ran good routes and was an asset for Manziel when scrambling.

"I couldn't be prouder of him," Manziel said. "Last night in the hotel, me and him, we're roommates, and we were just talking about how the game was going to play out. I knew he was going to come out and play really well."

Manziel wasn't perfect. A fade pass to Ja'Quay Williams in the end zone was intercepted by Cyrus Jones in the second quarter ("We probably could have run a better route," Sumlin said). He tried to squeeze a pass in to Travis Labhart early in the third quarter but it was tipped by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams and intercepted by Vinnie Sunseri, who returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMike Evans set a school record with 279 receiving yards, including this 95-yard touchdown.
"I had a couple throws that I want to have back, two in particular," Manziel said. "Coach Sumlin always says there's no regrets. Leave it all out on the field. I think that's what we all did. I know I did."

But he was, like the Aggies, still very good. He set the single-game school record for passing yards and put up the second-most total offensive yards in a game (562), second only to his own total (576) against Louisiana Tech last year.

He made what many would call an ill-advised throw in the second quarter after magically evading a sack while in the grasp of Alabama defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, heaving a jump ball 40 yards downfield while falling backward. The ball wound up in the hands of a leaping Edward Pope for a first down that sent the crowd into a frenzy. The gain was only 12 yards; Manziel retreated back far to evade pressure.

At some point, it seems it might just be worth chalking it up to a little Manziel magic, since he has seemingly found an uncanny ability to make jaw-dropping plays of the sort each week. It's part of what captivated the college football world en route to his Heisman Trophy last year.

For those who said Manziel's eventful and sometimes tumultuous offseason would come back to haunt him when the games started this year, none of that seemed to be a factor. Though there were some mistakes made on the field, Manziel's play is hard to criticize, especially against the team that was No. 1 in the country last season in total defense. Manziel said afterward that it wasn't a factor.

But for all the flash, the bottom line was that Manziel and the Aggies fell short of their goal on Saturday. They were beaten by a better team.

The disappointment could be heard in the voices of the players afterward; they wanted Saturday's win badly. But with nine games to go in their season, they feel that what they want -- an SEC West title, SEC title and BCS title game berth -- is still within reach; it's just more difficult to obtain now that they're 0-1 in SEC play.

But if the Aggies are still serious about pursuing those goals, there's still much work to do.

"Just got to go game by game," Manziel said. "Just like last year, continue to get better, week by week, and the result was what happened in the Cotton Bowl. For us this wasn't the end of our season. This wasn't the Super Bowl. This wasn't the last game of the season.

"Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win a national championship. They lost to LSU the year before and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn't over. Anything can happen. This is college football. Some of the craziest things happen every week. So you never know. All we can do is take care of ourselves, take care of what's in this locker room and continue to get better as a team."

Plenty to prove for Aggies' defense

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset No. 1 Alabama last November, the Aggies' offense, and specifically quarterback Johnny Manziel, were lauded for their efforts in taking down the Crimson Tide.

Often overlooked was the play of Texas A&M's defense, which was integral in the Aggies' ability to jump out to the 20-0 lead that paved the way for the eventual 29-24 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

While nobody would confuse the Aggies' defensive efforts with that of the 1985 Chicago Bears that November day, A&M was opportunistic and effective.

On the first three drives of the game, the Aggies held the Crimson Tide to two three-and-outs and a turnover. The offense capitalized by scoring after each of those defensive stops to take the commanding three-score lead.

Turnovers were key for the Aggies throughout the game. They came up with three, the most the Crimson Tide committed since a 2011 season opener vs. Kent State, when Alabama committed five. Quarterback AJ McCarron hadn't thrown an interception in 2012 going into the game and threw two against the Aggies.

In several ways, the Aggies' ability to come up with stops and turnovers at key times was representative of what the unit accomplished as whole last season under defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. The defense came into the 2012 season with questions about depth and competitiveness in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC.

Those questions were answered resoundingly as the Aggies ranked highly in several key categories in 2012. They had the nation's 26th-best scoring defense (21.8 points per game) and one of the best third-down defenses, allowing conversions just 32.4 percent of the time (16th nationally, fourth in the SEC).

They were No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 in the country on third-and-5 or fewer yards (44.6 percent conversion rate).

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M's Deshazor Everett
AP Photo/Dave MartinDeshazor Everett, whose interception against Alabama last year clinched the victory, expects the Aggies defense to keep getting better.
This season, with six key defensive players serving suspensions for part or all of the season opener against Rice and four more serving penalties for all or part of the second game against Sam Houston State, the numbers have taken a dip. On third down, the Aggies are tied for 73rd in the country, allowing a 39.4 percent conversion rate. On 3rd-and-5 or fewer yards, the Aggies are in the middle of the pack (59th, 52.9 percent conversion rate).

The Aggies are averaging 6.16 yards allowed per play, up from 5.22 last year.

Having almost the full complement of defensive players, including the return of starting linebacker Steven Jenkins, starting cornerback De'Vante Harris and starting defensive end Gavin Stansbury, should help the Aggies' defensive efforts.

"It'll be interesting once the game gets started," Snyder said. "They've got to knock a little bit of rust off. We've got a couple days here of practice first to get some of the rust knocked off. It was really good [Monday] to have our first unit out there together. It was very, very pleasing to see."

Starting safety Floyd Raven Sr. (collarbone) will miss the game because of his injury, and starting defensive end Julien Obioha's status is up in the air also. Cornerback Deshazor Everett said the country hasn't seen the Aggies' "real defense" yet.

"We can only progress, so I'm not going to say they've seen the real defense," Everett said. "But we have to get better, and we'll keep getting better, and this week of practice is crucial. But as a whole defense, we'll keep progressing and getting better."

Though the Aggies were able to intercept McCarron in the last meeting, Snyder said he expects the quarterback to be poised and confident coming into Saturday's game.

"He is a leader," Snyder said. "He runs their offense. He knows where his checkdowns are and obviously he is a great leader for them, because they have won a lot of football games. He drives that engine. He's the guy that's driving the car. And you can see his poise and patience, and it's hard to get him rattled. And if you do get him rattled a little bit, he has the ability to go over and sit down and get unrattled and come back out and play in his game. That's what I see in him."

The players know the national perception is that it's easy to move the ball on the Aggies, and because of the evidence presented by Rice (306 rushing yards) and Sam Houston State (240), it's hard to argue that, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. But the players know the way to change what people think is by improving their play, starting Saturday.

"Yes. I think everyone looks at it that way," Everett said. "You can look at what a defense does well and what a defense doesn't do well, and you go off of that basically and see where you want to attack and what their weaknesses are. That's what we're trying to improve on, what our weaknesses are."

Podcast: Talking Tide, Aggies and more

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
2:00
PM ET
In the latest edition of the ESPNU College Football podcast, ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel visits with SEC Bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff about several topics, including the quarterback situation at Auburn, the importance of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and the the latest surrounding Texas A&M and quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Click here for the podcast.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
12:20
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"College Football Live" and its Summer Tour stops in Alabama today. Tom Rinaldi and Todd McShay will check in on Nick Saban, AJ McCarron and Co. Catch them throughout the day on "SportsCenter" and on CFB Live at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

Here are some other things from around the SEC that you may find interesting.
  • Alabama's deep group of receivers may make this year's offense one of the best in school history, receiver Kenny Bell says.
  • Auburn fullback Jay Prosch draws strength from his faith and family as he tries to overcome his mother's death.
  • Georgia's offense didn't exactly light it up in the Bulldogs' first scrimmage.
  • LSU is trying to make sure its players act responsibly when using social media.
  • Kentucky forced just 13 turnovers last season and the Wildcats are making that a point of emphasis during the preseason.
  • Vanderbilt receiver Jonathan Krause is trying to rebound from a season in which he was the forgotten man on offense.
  • Florida having a successful season doesn't hinge on the quarterback, receivers or offensive line. It depends on how well the linebackers develop. The Gators did lose one of the country's top kick returners on Wednesday when the school announced that Andre Debose had suffered a torn ACL.
  • Texas A&M running back Ben Malena is a steadying force in the Aggies' backfield.
  • Five former college quarterbacks weigh in on how they believe Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel has handled his success.
  • Missouri still hasn't settled on a starting quarterback. James Franklin, is trying to hold off redshirt freshman Maty Mauk and sophomore Corbin Berkstresser.
  • Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is frustrated with quarterback Bo Wallace's decision making.
  • TCU coach Gary Patterson took a shot at LSU coach Les Miles for reinstating running back Jeremy Hill after allowing teammates to vote to return to the team.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
3:17
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A little lunchtime reading from around the SEC:

Video: AJ McCarron talks signing day

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
11:13
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video

Tom Rinaldi talks with Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron about national signing day. The title-winning quarterback shares what recruits should expect when they step on campus in Tuscaloosa.

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