On Saturday, the Texas A&M Aggies will host the Alabama Crimson Tide in what has been billed as the marquee game of the SEC slate. It was a game we circled on our calendars before the 2012 season had even concluded, and when CBS announced they’d make Alabama vs. Texas A&M their season-opening SEC broadcast, our response was almost Pavlovian.
We salivated at the premise of Nick Saban and AJ McCarron squaring off with Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel for SEC West supremacy. We were elated by the thought of Uncle Verne chortling his way through another monumental SEC matchup and Cousin Gary finding some new way to negate the impact of up-tempo offenses. We longed for all those sights and sounds that we’ve come to familiarize with the SEC.
Then Johnny Football happened this offseason and the game we all longed for was slowly manipulated and turned into a showcase for the sideshow. With the media serving as P.T. Barnum and Sept. 14 serving as our circus, we turned the attention away from Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin matching wits in a game that will have serious national title implications and towards this TMZ lifestyle Manziel has been leading since notching the victory that earned him the Heisman last November.
Just last week, it was announced that CBS will dedicate one camera exclusively to following Johnny Manziel, an act equivalent to a day’s worth of birthday wishes for Tim Tebow on ESPN.
Personally, I don’t give a damn about how adamantly Johnny Manziel snaps off his chinstrap after a failed third-and-four conversion or how he celebrates a critical touchdown late in the third quarter. This football game is larger than Manziel, and while the incumbent Heisman Trophy winner will undoubtedly have a major impact on the outcome of Saturday’s clash, there’s not much CBS can show me of Manziel outside the dimensions of the field itself that I care to see.
Luckily, with coverage ramping up in the week leading into the game, we’re finally starting to see some coverage of storylines that matter. We’re discussing things deeper and more influential–at least as it pertains to football–than Johnny Manziel’s drink of choice (whiskey-coke, in case you missed Wright Thompson’s piece earlier this summer).
Grantland.com football wizard Chris Brown probably wrote one of the most interesting pieces of the year–if you love the schematic aspects of the game–in an SBNation Longform special, and it’s got me as excited as ever about Alabama vs. Texas A&M.
The piece centers around the schematic back and forth between Kevin Sumlin, who is ultimately responsible for the tempo and design of A&M’s offense, and Nick Saban, who does the same for Alabama’s defense. It highlights several critical plays from the Nov. 10 matchup, and explains how each team adjusted and eventually countered the other.
It goes on to delve into Nick Saban’s time as a defensive coordinator under current New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when they were at Cleveland, and how Saban and Belichick developed a system designed to stop more talented rosters in the mid-90s. Essentially, having been dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1994–they beat them three times on the season–Saban and Belichick were routinely burned in both Cover 3 and man-to-man (Cover 1) packages.
So what they decided to do was develop a coverage that allowed them to play both based on what the offense did post-snap. They called it Rip/Liz Match, and the idea was that they would show a single-high safety and if the offense ran the crossing routes and reads that were designed to beat man coverage, they’d pass them off into a zone. Likewise, if the offense attacked the seams to beat the Cover 3 zone, the linebackers and nickel would turn and run with the receivers as if it were man.
Brown surmised that Rip/Liz could be a potential deterrent to Johnny Manziel because it allows Alabama to walk an extra defender (potentially a spy) into the box to stop Manziel, while–HOPEFULLY–keeping A&M’s receivers from beating them on the outside. It was a fantastic piece both for its thoroughness and because it touched on an aspect of the game that continues to fascinate me… Xs and Os.
However, perhaps more important than anything else, it was a piece that made Alabama vs. Texas A&M feel like something that mattered again. It felt like a game that merited discussion rather than shouting. It finally felt like a game with significant national implications as they pertain to football, and less like a circus.
Whether or not Nick Saban utilizes the Rip/Liz to try to stop Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel remains to be seen. Whether or not it works if they do is another thing entirely. Regardless, it’s nice to treat this matchup we’ve all been so excited for like a football game rather than a reality show.