The Read-Option: Can the Alabama-Texas A&M game really live up to its billing?
For those who might not have heard, there’s a pretty big football game this weekend. No. 1 Alabama is set to take on No. 6 Texas A&M in what many have billed as the biggest game of the season — not just the first three weeks, but the entire 2013 campaign. With reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel pitted against an Alabama team in search of its third straight BCS title, it’s easy to understand why this game has been circled on college football calendars for months.
But will this game really live up to its expectations? How does it compare to other much-anticipated matchups over the past few seasons? What will it really mean in the long run?
Campus Union’s Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman tackle the subject in this week’s Read-Option.
Zac Ellis: Last week, we discussed college football’s hype machine, and the weight of expectations affects games as well as players. There are just so many storylines for this matchup: Johnny Manziel’s ongoing saga, ‘Bama’s quest for a college football three-peat and the Tide’s revenge factor after losing last year’s meeting in Tuscaloosa. Still, it’s worth asking: Can a game like this actually live up to the buildup? And how does it stack up to other widely anticipated showdowns? I can only think of four non-bowl games in the BCS era that truly paralleled ‘Bama-A&M in regard to buzz: Michigan-Ohio State in 2006, Florida-Alabama in 2008, Florida-Alabama in 2009 and Alabama-LSU in 2011.
Martin Rickman: Oh, I remember that Michigan-Ohio State game fondly. That was the final game of the 2006 regular season, so it had a different feel than this ‘Bama-A&M matchup does. It featured two undefeated teams and two standout offenses (Michigan had Mike Hart and Chad Henne; Ohio State had Troy Smith, Beanie Wells and Ted Ginn), and it settled the Big Ten before the league had a championship. That one is hard to live up to, if only for its timing. If this week’s game between the Aggies and the Tide happened in November with both teams still unbeaten, I think it’d become the most built-up game in recent memory. Honestly, I wish that’s how it was.
ZE: That might be the one negative about this week’s clash: It takes place so early in the fall. The Michigan-Ohio State game featured a No. 1 vs. No. 2 season-ending matchup in which one team would sour the other’s national title aspirations. But as we learned last year, ‘Bama’s loss to A&M didn’t end its shot at a title. The Tide won it all anyway. That ’06 Ohio State-Michigan game pretty much wrapped up the Heisman Trophy for Buckeyes quarterbacks Troy Smith, too, as he turned in a four-touchdown performance.
MR: But remember, the ‘Bama-A&M game last year served a similar Heisman purpose. It was Manziel’s coming out party, as the Aggies’ upset put him in front of Heisman voters and he never looked back. It’s great to have a game this big, this early, but as we’ve seen in the past not every game billed as the “Game of The Year” turns out that way by season’s end.
ZE: Right, though that Big Ten bout (a 42-39 Ohio State win) was a heck of a thing to watch. You could probably say the same about the ’08 Florida-Alabama meeting in Atlanta. The No. 4 Gators actually trailed the No. 1 Tide 20-17 in the fourth quarter before scoring two unanswered touchdowns to pull away. Tim Tebow three for three scores to help Florida reach its second straight title game. The SEC title game is often thought of as a play-in for the national championship, and that edition certainly lived up to that notion.
MR: So we’re in agreement, it seems. These types of games need to have national title implications and possible Heisman buzz. They can’t just be the most fun game of the year. Otherwise, we’d have a whole other list of matchups to talk about. Star power is also key. We’re so tired of hearing about Tebow from the NFL that we kind of forget how fun Tebow was as a quarterback running Urban Meyer’s offense in college. Jump passes, battering-ram runs, bad throws that somehow got converted. Tebow was one of those rare this-is-how-I-would-create-a-video-game-player guys who had clear flaws but was perfect for his role.
ZE: Who’s the one player to whom many people have compared Manziel’s coverage? Tebow. I think these are games in which top players solidify their Heisman candidacies. This week’s game — which features Manziel, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and running back T.J. Yeldon — is no different. Keep in mind, the 2009 Alabama-Florida game included more than just Tebow. Tide tailback Mark Ingram rode a three-touchdown performance all the way to New York for the trophy.
MR: You’re a Heisman voter, right? I’ve heard before that voters, for whatever reason, just don’t get the chance to watch certain players enough. I have to imagine matchups like this shape a lot of voters’ opinions. It’s like going to a music festival and seeing a band live who everyone has been telling you to see; you put it off or hear snippets, but when you see a band in person, you can make up your mind. If anything, these games are a showcase. But beyond individual accolades, what happens when a game of this magnitude doesn’t live up to the hype? If it doesn’t meet fans’ loftiest dreams, it can feel like a bit of a letdown.
ZE: These games matter, no matter what the outcome. But it’s true that they’re prone to falling short of expectations, and many thought the 2011 “Game of the Century” between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama should be grouped into that category. Remember, this was a battle of two stellar defenses, but few expected neither team would reach the end zone in a field goal-filled 9-6 LSU victory. In the end, what angered the most people was the result’s negligible effect on the BCS race. The Tigers won this game, but they met ‘Bama again for the national title a few weeks later.
MR: Which brings us to Sept. 14, Bama vs. A&M: Part II. Is the hype worth it? Can you realistically dub this the “Game of the Year” in Week 3?
ZE: If a November game in 2011 between the country’s top two teams essentially had no bearing on that year’s national title, it’s certainly within reason that this Alabama-A&M meeting won’t ruin either team’s BCS aspirations, either. We know so little about what the AP and BCS rankings will look like later on down the road. Still, from an X’s-and-O’s point of view, I’m totally on board with hyping up a game in Week 3. When you’re putting the most dynamic player in the country against ‘Bama’s formidable defense, that’s bound to be entertaining no matter when it happens.
MR: So how do we put this game into context? Look at it in postscript and put it where it belongs afterwards? I don’t mind the attention this game is getting. I loved watching last year’s A&M-’Bama game. Loved it. It had everything I want out of a game. But the rematch doesn’t quite have the same feel. It isn’t an upstart or an underdog against a dynasty. If anything, and Good Bull Hunting referenced this in their Tailgate this week, it’s perhaps a chance to see the passing of the torch to the Next Great Head Coach. If Sumlin can pull this out and beat Alabama in back-to-back years — and if Manziel can deliver a masterful performance — then this has serious historical implications, including some that many of the other aforementioned games lacked. At the very least, with all the star power, it should be fun. And that’s all I really want football to be.
ZE: No argument here. Plus, on the other sideline, you have a head coach who many are already mentioning among the greatest in the sport’s history. If Saban can go into College Station, avenge last season’s loss and ride that momentum to a three-peat, then we’ll have been lucky to cover one of the greats of the game.