The Top Ten (Actually, 14) Storylines of the Weekend
There are two types of people reading this article - those who can't read enough about the Alabama-Texas A&M game and those who don't care to read another word. To serve both groups, we've super-sized our preview of the game... and placed it at the bottom of the page. Enjoy.
1. “People have asked, 'Do you have a chance to win all the games?' We do." - That's a quote from Mack Brown on August 15 of this year. Thirty days later, he'll stand on the sideline with a his second defensive coordinator in as many games. There are some reasons for Brown to feel positive. First, his teams have always responded well after being shellshocked (usually at the hands of a highly-ranked Oklahoma team). Second, no matter how he may feel on the inside, there's no reason for his players to play any way but loose. The expectations are gone, there's nowhere to go but up, and his defenders should have a clear mind and nothing but a basic scheme in their heads. Of course, this all sounds nice on paper.
2. Lane Kiffin's next most important game - Lane Kiffin has reached the stage of his career where his most important game comes every single time he steps on the field. There's absolutely no reason USC should ever lose at home to Boston College. Right, Lane?
3. Oregon meets the SEC - If Butch Jones is looking for a bright side, he'll know exactly how far his program has to go to reach the elite by 4 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday. Meanwhile, this represents Oregon's only shot at the SEC until (presumably) they meet the conference champion January 6 in Pasadena. Whatever the final score, it will serve as the lone data point to compare the Ducks with the titans of the SEC, so Mark Helfrich's should meet foot with gas pedal for all 60 minutes on Saturday.
4. Bo Pelini hopes to hop off the treadmill - Pelini has won 51 games in his five-plus seasons as Nebraska's head coach, and lost exactly four games in every single season. With a schedule that will find the Cornhuskers heavy favorites in every game until November, this is a crucil game to get the head Husker off the four-loss treadmill.
5. An important follow-up game for Steve Sarkisian - Washington provided perhaps the best pound-for-pound performance of Week 1 in its 38-6 drop-kicking of Boise State. Tim Beck's Illinois team has been better than anyone anticipated, especially on offense, but Sark needs another solid performance here. Honestly, anything less than a beat down would feel like a letdown by Sark.
6. A nightcap worthy of your attention - Wisconsin at Arizona State is too good of a game to play before an audience of just Pac-12 fans, college football media members and insomniacs. Drink a Red Bull at the end of Vanderbilt-South Carolina to give this 10:30 p.m. ET kick the attention it deserves.
7. Speaking of Vanderbilt-South Carolina - James Franklin has done a lot of good in a short time in Nashville, but he's yet to win a game against the SEC East power trio. If he's taking that program the places he's promised, it's time to start winning these games. Meanwhile, South Carolina could go from No. 6 nationally to effectively eliminated from SEC championship contention in the span of a week. No pressure or anything.
8. A quietly crucial game awaits Dan Mullen - Mississippi State heads to Auburn a touchdown underdog. While we don't know a whole lot about Gus Malzahn's Tigers, I think we know enough to pen them in for a bowl trip. If we can agree on that, let's take a look at the last time Mullen's team beat a bowl-bound opponent from the SEC: a 24-17 win over 6-7 Kentucky on October 30, 2010. That was 19 SEC games ago.
9. Randy Edsall's return to Connecticut - The Huskies will get a reminder of just how far they've fallen after Edsall takes his improved Maryland squad back to his old stomping grounds on Saturday night. In fact, I think they'll have a good idea by halftime.
10a. Nick Saban vs. Johnny Manziel - This wasn't included our most interesting coaching matchups of the weekend for obvious reasons, but it's the deciding factor in the biggest game of the weekend. If there's one proven cheat code for conquering Saban, a dual-threat quarterback that can make off-schedule plays is it, further proven by Manziel's 253 passing yards, 92 rushing yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers in last year's win. I don't think there will be a more preparing group in the country on Saturday than the Alabama defense, but will it matter?
10b. A Resistable Force meets... - Alabama's offense looked shockingly pedestrian and nothing like the juggernaut that devoured Notre Dame the last time we saw them. The Tide ran 38 times for a paltry 2.5 yards per carry. A.J. McCarron, FBS's most efficienct passer in 2012, was a wildly-inefficent 10-of-23 for 110 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His 87.64 passer rating was nearly half of his 175.28 rating from 2012, and down nearly 55 percent from his flawless 197.77 rating versus Notre Dame. Doug Nussmeier and company have had two weeks to poke, prod and tinker. How much progress have they made in 13 days?
10c. .... A Movable Object - Through two games, Texas A&M ranks 117th nationally in total defense. Rice ran 51 times for 306 yards (six yards per carry) and two touchdowns. They gained 509 total yards and achieved 28 first downs, three more than the Aggies. Last week, Sam Houston State rushed 42 times for 240 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and two scores. Bearkats running back Tim Flanders was the game's leading rusher at 170 yards on 19 attempts. Sam Houston State completed only seven passes, but those completions averaged 21.4 yards per pop. Needless to say, the talent level of the players lining up across from the Mark Snyder's defenders jumps about six levels on Saturday.
10d. Turnovers - Yes, winning the turnover battle is a goal of every single team at every level of football, but let's check out the turnover totals from Nick Saban's recent losses.
2012 Texas A&M - Aggies force three turnovers, Alabama forces zero
2011 LSU - Each team forces two turnovers
2010 Auburn - Auburn forces two turnovers, Alabama forces one
2010 LSU - LSU forces two turnovers, Alabama forces none
2010 South Carolina - Each team forces one turnover
2008 Utah - Utes force two turnovers, Alabama forces one
2008 Florida - Alabama wins the turnover battle, 1-0
In the Crimson Tide's ridiculous run under Saban, Alabama has a 12-6 turnover deficit in its seven losses and an approximate 305-1 edge in every other game. And the one team good enough to overcome a turnover deficit was Tim Tebow's 2008 Florida squad, only one of the five best teams to take the field in the BCS era.
10e. Managing the hoopla - This technically shouldn't matter once everyone crosses the white lines and toe meets leather. But if it truly didn't matter, then coaches wouldn't worry about it. CBS will broadcast the game to the largest September audience in recent memory. ESPN isn't just sending GameDay to town, they've turned College Station into Bristol-lite since Thursday. The environment in College Station on Saturday will fall somewhere in between a Super Bowl and a religious revival. Alabama has a lot more practice than Texas A&M at blocking out the white noise, but the Aggies' best player has proven that the wilder the circus, the better he plays.