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.

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

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President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

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Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

MAC football
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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”