Alabama-A&M: the Tale of the Tape

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Game of the Century?  Try Game of the Millennium.

While that may be overhyping it a little — hell, it’s overhyping it by a wide margin — Alabama-Texas A&M still has all the makings of an instant classic.

The defending BCS champions coming to town seeking revenge for its lone loss in 2012?  Check.

Johnny Manziel attempting an upset repeat — UA’s an eight-point favorite — coming off a controversy-filled offseason? Check.

Two teams ranked in the Top Six holding very realistic title aspirations, with the winner coming out with a clear path to the SEC championship game and thus a BCS title shot?  Check.

The Johnny Cam may be over the top, but the coverage dedicated to the game leading up to it is not.  Even for the third week of the regular season, a game featuring two SEC West heavyweights is indeed that important — and that’s armed with the knowledge the Tide still managed to win its division… and its conference… and the BCS title despite the loss to the Aggies in 2012.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s take a position-by-position look, after the jump, at how the two gridiron gladiators matchup:

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks
Alabama: AJ McCarron is not the electrifying on-field presence his counterpart on the opposing sidelines is — nor the lightning rod off of it — but all the senior has done is play a big part in guiding the Tide to back-to-back BCS titles, a big chunk of which is his disdain for handing the ball back to the opposition — he’s thrown just nine interceptions in 665 pass attempts the past two-plus seasons.  Sleep on McCarron’s underrated passing ability at your own peril, though; the past two seasons, he’s thrown 46 touchdowns for the run-happy Tide.

Texas A&M: Coming off a season in which his team won 11 games in its first season in the SEC and he took home the Heisman, Johnny Manziel‘s offseason was one negative headline after the other, culminating in a half-game suspension for the opener.  Make no mistake, though, Johnny Football, despite the off-field distractions, is still one of the most dynamic run/pass talents at the quarterback position in the country.  He will prove to be one of the stiffest offensive tests for the Tide all season.

Advantage: Texas A&M

Running backs
Alabama: Go four-deep — hell, maybe even five-deep — on the Tide’s depth chart at this position, and you’ll find backups who could start for scores of other FBS programs in the country.  In just a little over a season at the FBS level, sophomore T.J. Yeldon has turned into one of the top backs in the country and a dark-horse Heisman contender.  Yes, the Tide is loaded in the backfield on paper, and they’re not afraid to use that talent on the field.  Perhaps the only thing that could hold back the deep stable of backs?  An offensive line still trying to find itself.

Texas A&M: While not exactly ‘Bama deep, the Aggies, with Ben Molina and Tra Carson and others, are not exactly bereft of playmakers in the backfield.  With a sizable chunk of a defense’s focus on Manziel’s ability to not only make plays in the passing game but also hurt you with his legs, the opportunities could be there for A&M backs to cause some damage.

Advantage: Alabama

Receivers
Alabama: With so much attention paid to the quarterback… and the running backs… and the defense, this group might very well be the most underrated aspect of the 2013 Crimson Tide.  Amari Cooper and Christion Jones provide a formidable one-two punch in the passing game and will test a weakened Aggies defense that will be without a starting safety.  Provided McCarron can be kept upright, of course.

Texas A&M: Talent-wise, you could argue that the Aggie side of the ledger trumps what the Tide offers.  Add in experience, though, and outside of Mike Evans, the Aggies and Manziel are still trying to identify some reliability and dependability at the position.  Ryan Swope (11-111-1 vs. Tide last year) will be missed, but his departure also presents an opportunity for a young player — Ricky Seals-Jones? — to burst into the national consciousness.

Advantage: Alabama

Offensive line
Alabama: Normally a bastion of reliability and stability and outstanding play, the Tide’ line struggled mightily in the season opener, especially in the run game.  Late last month against Virginia Tech, the Tide ran for 96 yards on 38 carries, a paltry average of 2.5 yards per carry; last season, Alabama’s 5.6 ypc was tied for fourth in the country.  Replacing three starters from that 2012 group, it was known it would take time for the new unit to come together.  With the road game against the Aggies on tap, the Tide needs to hope that the bye week was the perfect elixir to expedite the gelling process.

Texas A&M: Despite the loss of Luke Joeckel (No. 2 overall NFL draft pick), the Aggies still possess one of the top lines in not only the SEC, but in all of college football.  All five of A&M’s starters are considered potential NFL draft picks, with starting left tackle Jake Matthews a likely first-round selection next year.  There may be question marks when it comes to the Aggies, but this unit isn’t even remotely close to being one of them.

Advantage: Texas A&M

DEFENSE

Defensive line
Alabama: As much concern as there is with the offensive line, there’s little or none on the other side of the ball. Sure, there were some hiccups in the opener against Tech — 153 yards allowed on the ground, albeit for less than five yards per carry (4.6) — as the Tide worked in new full-time starters, but the talent is among the best in the country along the defensive front.  Manziel and his offensive line, though, will provide a true test of just how talented and, with their fast-paced offense, deep this unit truly is.

Texas A&M: Like ‘Bama, A&M was forced to replace a couple of veteran and productive members of this unit.  Unlike their Saturday opposition, they don’t have nearly the quality depth, at least not at the moment.  Starting defensive end Gavin Stansbury was suspended for the first two games of the season while starting nose tackle Kirby Ennis was suspended for the opener; both are back, which will obviously help going up against the Tide’s stable of backs.  The Hokies in the opener gave the Aggies the blueprint for making McCarron uncomfortable in the pocket.  Any lessons learned from that could play a significant role in the outcome.

Advantage: Alabama

Linebackers
Alabama: After losing just Nico Johnson following the 2012 season, the starters in this group are among the most experienced and talented of any team the Aggies will face.  One of the returnees, C.J. Mosley, is expected to be Manziel’s shadow Saturday, taking over spy duties on the Heisman winner.  How well the future first-round draft pick gets his CIA on could go a long way in determining how big of an impact Manziel has on the game — and which side heads off the Kyle Field turf with arms held high in victory instead of head hung low in defeat.

Texas A&M: Steven Jenkins is one of the most underrated players at his position in college football.  Outside of Jenkins, and this early in the season, there are question marks in the middle third of A&M’s defense.  The defense in general and this unit in particular have been subpar through two games — 899 total yards allowed to Rice and Sam Houston State — but that could be attributed in large part to suspensions and injuries to the defense as a whole.

Advantage: Alabama

Secondary
Alabama: If you’re looking for a weakness in the Tide defense… you won’t find it here, either.  Losing quality players like Dee Milliner and Robert Lester would be a significant blow to most defenses; as is the case at several positions, the Tide simply reloads with experienced vets — John FultonVinnie Sunseri and HaHa Clinton-Dix included — mixed in with young four- and five-star talents.  Veteran Deion Belue will likely be charged with sticking to Mike Evans, although help should be at his disposal if needed.

Texas A&M: The Aggies have exceptional talent in this group, especially at the cornerback position — Deshazor Everett (game-saving INT vs. Bama) and De’Vante Harris.  The loss of Floyd Raven to a broken collarbone will hurt, as will the fact that, due to various injuries and suspensions, this unit has not had a whole lot of time together on the field this season.  Keep an eye on Raven’s replacement (Clay Honeycutt?) and if McCarron/Cooper/Jones attempts to test him and Howard Matthews in the deep passing game early on.

Advantage: Alabama

Special teams
Alabama: Christion Jones returned a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the opener.  Cade Foster did not attempt a field goal in the opener, but connected on just four of nine attempts last season as the Tide’s long-range kicker; if this game is close and comes down to Foster’s leg, Tide fans wouldn’t be wrong in being concerned.  Cody Mandell averaged just over 44 yards a punt last season, and is at just over 46 yards after one game.

Texas A&M: As individually impressive as the Tide’s Jones was in the opener, the Aggies can match that with quantity.  While Drew Kaser has punted just four times, he’s averaged 54.8 per boot, including a long of 76 in the opener.  Despite his youth — this is his first season as the Aggies’ regular punter — he has the leg to help shift field position.  As is the case with the Tide, the confidence is not there quite yet in Taylor Bertolet (no relation), who hit on just 59-percent of his 22 field goal attempts last season; this year he’s missed one of three attempts.

Advantage:  Push

Coaching
Alabama: Lemme see, four BCS championships, three of which have come at Alabama; five SEC championships, three of which have come at Alabama; 68 wins during the last five seasons in Tuscaloosa heading into 2013, with 61 of them coming the past four years; the No. 1 Rivals.com recruiting class five of the past six years.  Alabama is the football program by which all others are measured, and Nick Saban is the gold standard for every other head coach at the FBS level.

Texas A&M: In my opinion, and I felt very strongly about this prior to his arrival in College Station, Kevin Sumlin is one of the top young coaches in the game.  He went out and proved it right out of the gate in 2012, leading the Aggies to an 11-win season and a woodshedding of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl in A&M’s first season in the SEC.  If Sumlin stays at the collegiate level, he could be one of the best the game has ever seen; right now, though, he’s not Saban.

Advantage: Alabama

Intangibles
Alabama:  There’s the revenge angle, with the Tide looking to avenge their only loss last season.  There’s the prep angle, with Saban and his coaching staff having, unlike last year, an entire offseason to study and prepare for A&M’s unique offensive attack. And then there’s this: going back to his time at LSU, Saban is 15-2 against teams that beat him in their previous meeting.

Texas A&M: Take your pick for the Aggies.  The Kyle Field homefield advantage, with the 12th Man in full throat amidst what will reportedly be just a few thousand Crimson Tide fans who were able to secure tickets.  The confidence of having been there, done that in beating Alabama last season — in Tuscaloosa no less.  And Johnny Football, who can singlehandedly take over a game whenever his team needs it.

Advantage: Push

PREDICTION: For my prediction of the game, as well as that of Chris Huston and Kevin McGuire, click HERE.

Jim McElwain hints at playing three quarterbacks vs. Michigan

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Considering his opponent won’t so much as release a simple roster, there’s no reason whatsoever for Florida head coach Jim McElwain to say anything of consequence.

Still, it sounds as if No. 17 Florida may play all three of its quarterbacks next Saturday against No. 11 Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

“You’re going to see a bunch of them in there playing. The three guys have done a really good job. Not naming a starter right now,” McElwain said. “I think that there’s some things that they all bring to the table that are really good. Now the key to us is putting them in those positions that play to their strengths.

“Will all of them play? I don’t know yet. Will a couple of them play? I don’t know yet. I know we will have somebody at the position. This is not — don’t read into this that we’re not happy where they’re at. It’s really more so the competition has really brought out some good things. It’s going to be … ultimately the guy the team moves with the best, the guys that create positive plays on third down and get the ball in the end zone [that we go with].”

The three of them, by the way, are graduate transfer Malik Zaire, junior Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. In a world governed by the truism of “If you have two quarterbacks you don’t have any,” it’s not exactly a good sign that none of Zaire, Del Rio or Franks have separated themselves from the others.

Zaire showed flashes but was eventually benched at Notre Dame and just arrived on campus this summer. Del Rio, a 2-time transfer before arriving at Florida, was the Gators’ starter coming out of training camp last season but fought through injuries throughout the season. And Franks is a 6-foot-5 former 5-star recruit that many thought would have grabbed the job by the horns by now.

While every team turns over from one season to the next, Florida finished 105th nationally in yards per play last season while Michigan’s defense placed second. With top playmaker Antonio Callaway serving a suspension, Florida will look to put the ball in the hands of whomever can move it, even if three of them happen to play quarterback.

Tracy Claeys discusses protests that led to his firing from Minnesota

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Chances are you haven’t heard Tracy Claeys‘s name mentioned in a while. The former Minnesota interim-turned-full time head coach was let go in January and has not been picked up by a new staff in the months since.

But Minnesota released an outside report last week that defended the school’s decision to suspend 10 players amid a sexual assault investigation and pinned the subsequent team-wide threatened boycott of the Holiday Bowl on “weak leadership” of the coaching staff. The Gophers played and won that Holiday Bowl, but it wasn’t enough to save Claeys’s job.

On Wednesday, Claeys penned an essay in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that both defended his tenure as the Golden Gophers’ head coach and admitted mistakes in a saga that would have swallowed many a head coach’s career.

Last September, I suspended five players for a reported sexual assault. When law enforcement authorities the following month declined to file any charges, the university reinstated those players. At the time, I was congratulated by our athletic director for my handling of this issue and promised that I would remain the head football coach in 2017.

But university officials soon conducted their own inquiry and in December resuspended the five players and suspended five more — again, even though prosecutors had determined there was no basis for formal charges.

Members of our Football Leadership Group and others on the team felt strongly that administration officials had overstepped their authority and that the accused players were treated unfairly and denied protection under due process. To amplify their argument and shine light on what players felt was a flawed and unjust process by the university, the team voted to boycott the Holiday Bowl.

It was a decision that moved us directly into the national spotlight. Unfortunately, some misunderstood or misinterpreted the players’ decision to boycott the Holiday Bowl. They felt that our team and coaches were condoning or downplaying sexual misconduct or assault. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

In light of this new report, are there things I would have done differently? Certainly. First and foremost, I would have remained on campus with my team and coaches rather than attend a Holiday Bowl news conference in San Diego. I’m confident that my presence would have better directed the conversation with our players and that I could have steered them toward something other than a decision to boycott the game.

 I also would have refrained from using social media to state my support of the team’s decision. This was too complex and important an issue to address in a 140-character message. It generated more questions than it answered and likely created more problems than it solved.
Claeys was 11-8 in his one and a half seasons as Minnesota’s head coach, his first head coaching job. Assuming he does not get hired in the next week and a half, the 2017 season will be Claeys’s first out of the game since launching his career as a student trainer at Kansas in the early ’90’s.

Kirk Ferentz and wife donate $1 million to Iowa children’s hospital

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Kirk Ferentz may be the but of a bunch of contract-related jokes, but no one jokes about the man’s character.

And for good reason.

The University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital announced Wednesday that Kirk and his wife Mary have donated $1 million to create the Savvy Ferentz Program in Neonatal Research, which will aim to improve the survival rate for premature babies. The Ferentzes made the donation in honor of their granddaughter Savvy, who was born in 2014 at 22 weeks gestation.

“We knew Savvy was born too early,” Mary said in a statement. “We also knew they do extraordinary things at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital that would give her a fighting chance. We were thankful we had that.”

The Stead Family Children’s Hospital claims higher survival rates for infants born at 24- and 25-weeks than the average U.S. hospital, and the Ferentzes hope their donation will further increase those rates.

“The University of Iowa has long been a leader in neonatal research and in providing high-level patient care, particularly to this most vulnerable population,” Iowa pediatrics professor Dr. Jeffrey L. Segar said. “This gift from the Ferentzes will help us capitalize on our strengths, advance our research, and, most important, make an impact on the lives of many Iowa children and their families, now and far into the future. We are deeply grateful for their support.”

Kirk Ferentz will begin his 19th season as Iowa’s head coach next Saturday against Wyoming (noon ET, BTN).

Texas TE Andrew Beck now out for entire 2017 season

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As it turns out, it’s much worse than originally thought for one playing member of the Texas football program.

Nearly a week ago, Andrew Beck went down during practice with what was later diagnosed to be a broken foot.  At the time, it was thought that the tight end would miss anywhere from 6-8 weeks, which would’ve put him back, at the latest, early October.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, however, and the Longhorns announced that Beck will be sidelined for the entire 2017 season because of the injury.  The senior will undergo surgery at some point this week to repair the damage.  He’s already undergone two previous foot surgeries and sat out the spring because of issues in that area.

The good news is that Beck has yet to use his redshirt season, which means he could return in 2018 as a fifth-year senior.

Beck started 13 games the past two seasons, including three in 2016.  Last season, he caught four passes for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  Entering summer camp, he had been expected to be the Longhorns’ starter.

With Beck out, that onus will likely fall on Kendall Moore, a graduate transfer from Syracuse.