Texas A&M fields the most electrifying player in the country in QB Johnny Manziel and a potential top-10 pick in left tackle Jake Matthews. Both have to play well for the Aggies to get their second consecutive win over the Tide. It won't be easy considering Alabama's defense plays six prospects who graded out as third-round picks or better based on their 2012 tape, and the Tide's coaching staff has had two weeks to prepare.
Here's a look at how the Tide defense will test these two talented prospects in terms of individual matchups.
Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel vs. Alabama ILB C.J. Mosley
It doesn't get much better than watching Mosley spy Manziel during the 2012 matchup. Forgive the cliché, but it is like watching a lion stalk a gazelle. However, Manziel is quicker and changes directions better than Moseley. Moseley is a smart hunter who tracks the ball well, takes sound pursuit angles and is relentless. He doesn't get caught out of position, either, because he relies on each member of his pack to do his job. Of course it's not just about quick reaction time, effort and angles. Mosley has above-average closing speed, and it showed up when he prevented Manziel from picking up a first down on a fourth-down scramble in the second quarter. One area Mosley can improve is getting off blocks, which could give an edge to Manziel on designed quarterback keepers as long as he stays patient.
Last week, Manziel failed to see a linebacker dropping into coverage and threw a pick against Sam Houston State in the red zone. Mosley has above-average ball skills and he did a nice job of reading Manziel's eyes last season, so he can make Manziel pay if he makes the same mistake this week. He's also a powerful pass-rusher who can rush up the middle or off the edge; he put a guard on his back against Virginia Tech in the season opener. More importantly Mosley's discipline is important to point out here as well. He did a nice job of staying in his lane and taking seams away from Manziel when he rushed.
Manziel vs. DS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Alabama frequently rotated a safety into the box and had the other safety play over the top in a centerfielder-type role last season. Clinton-Dix is generally a reliable last line of defense when he aligns high. He shows good discipline and instincts in coverage, plus he takes sound pursuit angles and wraps up in run support. However, Manziel's unique skill set will test him in ways other quarterbacks can't.
As important as it is to limit Manziel's production on the ground, Clinton-Dix can't be too eager to help out, whether it's biting on play-action or more notably stepping up when he sees Manziel move out of the pocket. Manziel throws well on the run and he has enough arm strength to hit one of his receivers over the top when coverage breaks down. It's pivotal that Clinton-Dix take sound angles and show good body control when Manziel does run. If Manziel gets behind him, the Tide pursuit will have a tough time catching him before he gets into the end zone.
The scales will tip in favor of Clinton-Dix if and when the Tide put Manziel in obvious passing situations and keep him in the pocket. Manziel will have a tougher time seeing the field when he can't get outside. Last week, he showed that he's still willing to take chances like throwing across his frame over the middle. Clinton-Dix is a playmaker who has above-average hands and breaks on the ball well. He intercepted a pass in each of the Tide's final three games last season, including the national championship, and he's an effective open-field runner who can pick up chunks of yards.
Texas A&M LOT Jake Matthews vs. Alabama OLB Adrian Hubbard
Last year, these two didn't face off much, and quick-hitting passes didn't allow the matchup to develop. Now that Matthews is lining up on the left, they should see more of one another. Keep an eye on their hands when they do. Matthews has the lateral quickness to cut off the edge and he anchors well enough to hold his ground against Hubbard's speed to power. He's also an above-average hand fighter, with a strong punch and good length -- but the same goes for Hubbard. Hubbard will counterpunch and force Matthews to reset quickly. If Matthews doesn't gets his hands back up quickly enough, he'll have a tough time staying in front of Hubbard.
Matthews has the initial quickness to get into sound initial position when Texas A&M runs at Hubbard, and he has the size advantage to sustain when he shoots his hands inside and locks on. It won't be that easy, though. Hubbard is stout for his size (6-foot-6, 252 pounds) and he has the long arms to keep bigger offensive tackles off his frame when he gets his hands inside. The one area Hubbard needs to improve is pad level, as he played too high at times against Virginia Tech, and as seen on his 2012 tape. Matthews has the power to drive Hubbard when Hubbard is not the low man on contact.
Pagan (6-4, 290) and Stinson (6-4, 292) are prototypical 3-4 defensive ends who have the size and length to set the edge against the run. Pagan even kicks inside to defensive tackle at times. Matthews is more likely to see them on early downs or if they work outside on stunts. They will test Matthews' ability to drive bigger defensive linemen and his ability to win with his hands working against defenders with good length. He is capable of getting the best of these matchups as long as he doesn't get overaggressive and lunge trying to move these bigger players, which was seen on film at times.
If he struggles with the quickness or agility with either of these players, not only would it be surprising but it would also raise some concerns about Matthews' ability to line up on the left side in the NFL. He may give some ground to their power rushes, but they are both one-dimensional pass-rushers with limited athletic ability. In addition, don't expect Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to catch Matthews off-guard when he stunts. Matthews keeps his head up and shows excellent awareness in pass protection.
There are too many unknowns when it comes to the Aggies' defense to get overly excited about individual matchups when Alabama has the ball. Demontre Moore, the Giants' third-round pick in 2013, was their best pass-rusher by far last season, and several suspensions have prevented them from getting the best defenders on the field until now. There are concerns about cohesiveness and rust. That doesn't mean, however, this game won't test Alabama's three offensive prospects for the 2014 draft.
Crimson Tide left tackle and projected first-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio and projected middle-round pick right guard Anthony Steen faced a better front in the season opener. However, their ability to adjust in a hostile environment will be tested by the noise level at Kyle Field and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's scheme. Kouandjio also would do well to show better body control in pass protection. He got caught setting high and lunging against the Hokies.
Crimson Tide QB AJ McCarron projects as a Day 2 pick, and he needs to rebound from a tough start. McCarron played behind an outstanding offensive line last season, and he's always been surrounded by a strong supporting cast, which raises questions about his ability to get the job done when the odds aren't stacked in his favor. Making sound decisions in the face of pressure and getting the offense in the right play despite the noise level are two things to watch in this game.