Nick Saban made something perfectly clear to his players about Saturday’s game against No. 15 Texas A&M.
“This is either going to bring out the best in you or the worst in you,” Saban said.
And he’s right.
Fresh off last week’s draining win on the Bayou, No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) must now turn around and host red-hot Texas A&M (7-2, 4-2). The Aggies own the SEC’s best offense and one of the nation’s most exciting players in quarterback Johnny Manziel. The Aggies have the kind of up-tempo offense that gets under Saban’s skin, and it’s equipped with the right offensive weapons to exploit the Tide’s defense more than LSU did.
Everything that Alabama has worked for to this point could all go away at the click of Johnny Football’s heels.
But the Tide really couldn’t ask for a better matchup. We’ll really find out what this team is made of Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa because it might have to play an even better game than it did last week.
“We realize that these are the types of games that we have to win,” Crimson Tide linebacker Nico Johnson said. “It’s probably more important than last week’s game.”
Alabama is in must-win mode every week if it's going to make it to South Beach for the Discover BCS National Championship Game. A loss on Saturday wouldn't put the SEC West out of reach, but it probably would end Alabama's national championship aspirations. It also would validate the points made by the recent naysayers who are calling the Tide “beatable.”
Every team is beatable, but that sort of language has Alabama players steaming. See, they understand LSU played its best offensive game of the season, but Johnson said the Tigers capitalized on Alabama’s procedural mistakes. There were too many communication and mental errors, busted plays and missed tackles.
Johnson said that the mistakes are correctable and that this week has been used to fix things. Now the Tide are ready to show the country again that they're for real.
“We want to go out another week and let everybody know that we are not a fluke,” Johnson said. “We didn’t play to our best last week, and we know that.
“We understand that we’re not going to be perfect every night. Every game is not going to go our way. We just have to fight through adversity and come out on top, and that’s what we did.”
Defensively, Alabama showed holes we hadn’t seen before against the Tigers. It struggled in man coverage, wasn’t very aggressive and watched LSU convert too many third downs. LSU, which was just trying to keep its offense afloat heading into last week’s game, registered 435 yards of total offense, including 139 on the ground, snapping a streak of 11 games in which Alabama held FBS opponents under 100 yards rushing, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Aggies are averaging 559.6 total yards of offense and 251.3 rushing yards per game. Say what you will about the majority of defenses A&M has faced, but that’s still pretty good for a team that has a new offensive staff and a rookie quarterback.
That rookie quarterback ranks second nationally in total offense and has had four games this season in which he has run for 100-plus yards and passed for 200-plus yards.
Johnson knows that stopping Manziel is the key to slowing this offense, but he also realizes that the mistakes from the LSU game have to disappear. It’s as much about keeping the defense focused as it is about containing Mr. Football.
“We don’t want that type of game to happen again where we pretty much beat ourselves,” he said. “We want to come out and prove to everybody that we’re just as good as any other week. Just because we didn’t have a good week doesn’t mean we fell off.
“We just want to go out and dominate our opponent -- Texas A&M.”
Saban might not have been pleased with last week’s defensive effort, but he’s been happy with how his team has practiced this week. The focus he wanted was there, and the attitude never faded.
Saturday, Saban wants to see that same persona on the field.
“Now, we have to focus on trying to get things right and doing things better, because this is a really good team that we’re playing this week,” he said. “Our players need to understand that and appreciate it and get in the right frame of mind that they’re going to have a very difficult, 15-round fight coming up.”