Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

September 12, 2013

'Bama-A&M face-off may come down to mental game

by Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— This is how big Saturday’s showdown between Alabama and Texas A&M is shaping up: Students backing the Crimson Tide are headed to New Orleans to watch the big game.

Nope, that’s not a mistake. Sure the game is in College Station – everybody knows that – but if you can’t get a ticket at Kyle Field, you gotta go somewhere exciting for the action, so The Big Easy seems like the second best place to be.

So bring it on. The Aggies might rule with the 12th Man, but the Tide will stand tall in the land where Bear Bryant – who would have turned 100 years old this week -- also coached.

The Alabama-A&M showdown is much more than a repeat face-off of two Southeastern Conference powers that went a combined 24-3 last year.  It’s more than a game between the country’s No. 1 and No. 6 ranked teams. It’s more than Alabama’s dogged defense versus A&M’s dominating offense.

Storylines are numerous. There’s Alabama’s ultimate challenge of staying focused and being disciplined and A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s ability to manage a game and not succumb to fighting the unrelenting distractions. So in a sport where brute strength and physical combativeness are critical, whoever wins the mental struggle is more likely to win.

It’s hard to say who that favors. Last year A&M rolled into Bryant-Denny Stadium and shocked the Tide, 29-24, because Alabama let Manziel get loose, allowing the defense to make mistakes. Coach Nick Saban and his staff have worked overtime – boosted by an extra week of preparation – to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

His plan is simple. “Everybody has to take care of business,” Saban said at his news conference this week. “We have to be our team, playing our game, taking care of our business. Everybody has to do their job.”

Alabama’s defense looked good in beating Virginia Tech two weeks ago. But Alabama has played just once, and the defending national championships are still at work figuring out how to replace nine starters that moved on to the NFL.

To Saban, it boils down to doing the “little things” right. “It’s like if you take care of the cents, the dollars can add up. If you don’t, it never happens,” he said.

The story on the other side of the field is different. Manziel had his life turned upside-down following last year’s victory at Alabama. It propelled a relatively unknown player into a national celebrity. Suddenly he was Johnny Football and a leader to win the Heisman, something a freshman had never done.

His play on the field speaks for itself.  In only six quarters this year, he’s passed for 497 yards and six touchdowns. It’s why he sat out two quarters – an NCAA dictate -- that is troubling. His improvisational approach on the field draws accolades; his moves and play-calling off the turf are drawing negative attention. Simply put, Manziel can’t stay out of the news – whether he’s winning awards or being investigated for signing autographs.

Beating Alabama was a great achievement, but in a strange twist it has made life for a college kid who wanted to blend in with others his age impossible. Except for a few brief remarks after last week’s route of Sam Houston State, Manziel has been mum.

A&M coach Kevin Sumlin explained it this way. For now, he said, Manziel, his family, his lawyers and his advisers have suggested he not speak to the press. How odd. Sounds like Manziel has a team of handlers that isn’t much smaller than Sumlin’s staff and no less important.

So if Manziel isn’t up to talking about the Tide in what is being billed as “the biggest game in Kyle Field history” is he mentally prepared to ambush Alabama a second time? If he can step on the field and play like a kid out of Kerrville, Texas, his instinctive style could again speak for itself. However, if he gets frustrated over CBS’ decision to use “Johnny Cam” to follow him throughout the game – no doubt including during TV commercial breaks – it could be a disaster.

Either way, a nationwide audience will tune in to see who wins the test of wills -- even those heading to New Orleans for the big game.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.