- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For a league that was supposed to be all about defense, these wild offensive shootouts are suddenly becoming the norm in the SEC.
Remember the good old days -- just two short years ago -- when Alabama and LSU played an epic No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown, including an overtime period, without anybody scoring a touchdown?
That model seems to have gone the way of the rotary telephone.
As entertaining as Alabama's 49-42 win over Texas A&M was Saturday at Kyle Field, it raises a question that will reverberate around the college football world.
Is either one of these teams good enough defensively to win a national championship?
Maybe that's not fair to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who might not actually be Superman, but all he was missing Saturday was a cape. He torched Alabama's defense for 562 yards of total offense and five touchdown passes, and was mesmerizing with his uncanny ability to turn nothing into something.
As good as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner was, his favorite receiver, Mike Evans, was just as good with seven catches for a school-record 279 yards.
So, just maybe, the Aggies are simply that dynamic offensively.
But you might want to rub your eyes before processing this next statistic: Alabama gave up 628 yards of total offense ... and still managed to win the game.
Raise your hand if you saw that coming.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said earlier in the week that this was a chance for this particular Alabama team to create its own identity.
When you win national championships at the rate the Crimson Tide have the past few seasons, the tendency is to lump all those teams together.
But the hallmark of this program under Saban is that it delivers when it has to. And even though the Crimson Tide gave up the kind of points and yards usually reserved for a video game, they had an answer for everything the Aggies and Manziel threw at them Saturday.
It's impossible to imagine how electric Kyle Field was after Texas A&M exploded to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, but Alabama steadied itself, never flinched and calmly reeled off 35 unanswered points to seemingly gain control.
It was a similar deal after Evans' improbable 95-yard touchdown catch pulled Texas A&M within 42-35 midway through the fourth quarter. Alabama, which had fumbled on the goal line the previous possession, responded with a nine-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to finally seal the game.
The fact that Alabama couldn't put Texas A&M away after building a three-touchdown lead late in the third quarter undoubtedly will grate on Saban, whose defense allowed more yards Saturday than any other defense in school history. You'd have to go back to Archie Manning and Ole Miss in 1969 to find an offense that shredded an Alabama defense the way Manziel and the Aggies did.
But Saban also has been around long enough to know that sometimes you have to win ugly, and while this was a different kind of ugly in the realm of Alabama football, maybe it was a sign of the times in this league.
Georgia lost a 38-35 game to Clemson in the opener, and then turned around the next week and beat South Carolina 41-30. Ole Miss outlasted Vanderbilt 39-35 to open the season, and even LSU is putting up points in bunches.
And let's face it. As long as Manziel is on the field, Texas A&M is going to be a threat against anybody the Aggies play. But given what we've seen from their defense the first three weeks, they better be prepared to score a ton of points this season.
"This wasn't our Super Bowl," Manziel said. "Our season's not over. Look at what happened with Alabama last year. This is college football. Anything can happen."
He's right, but as leaky as that Alabama defense looked Saturday, it's difficult to imagine the Tide will face anybody the rest of the way in the regular season who will test them the way the Aggies did.
And while we're at it, the other guy playing quarterback Saturday was pretty good, too.
Alabama's AJ McCarron proved it is possible to throw for 334 yards and four touchdowns and still be overshadowed. He completed passes to 10 different players and was barely even breathed on thanks to an offensive line that grew up considerably from Week 1.
"We said coming into the game that AJ was going to have to beat us, and he was on fire. He caught fire," Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder lamented.
The relief in Saban's voice late Saturday afternoon was obvious. Perhaps this is going out on a limb, but here's betting he will never win another football game in which his defense gives up 600-plus yards.
Then again, that tells you a little something about Alabama's mettle -- to come into an environment such as this, get carved apart on defense and still manage to win.
So, yes, we have a pretty good bead on what this team's identity is after it won for the 13th time in the past 15 outings against a top-10 opponent.
The Crimson Tide know how to win and are comfortable doing it any way you want them to.
Even if that means winning a game that featured very little of what's been a constant during the SEC's seven-year national championship streak -- defense.
1dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
1dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna