Given Alabama's dominance the past four years, taking the Crimson Tide against the field to win the national title seems like a safe bet. But that doesn't mean Alabama is invincible. SI.com's Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples envisioned four scenarios in which the Crimson Tide might get derailed on their quest for a third consecutive BCS championship. Here's a hypothetical outcome of Alabama's matchup with Texas A&M on Sept. 14.
The case for: Ohio State l South Carolina l Stanford l Texas A&M
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Typically, the decks at Kyle Field don't sway until the fans link arms between the third and fourth quarters. On Saturday, they swayed five minutes into the most anticipated matchup of the 2013 season. That's when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel took the field with an NCAA investigation hanging over his head and a seven-point deficit on the scoreboard.
After Kenny Hill led the Aggies to wins against Rice and Sam Houston State, it appeared Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin would keep Manziel on the bench until the NCAA ruled on his eligibility in a case involving an accusation that Manziel was paid for autographs. But after Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and AJ McCarron combined to steamroll the raw Aggies' defense on the Crimson Tide's opening possession, Sumlin rolled the dice and played the defending Heisman Trophy winner. Manziel responded by throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns and running for 160 yards and two touchdowns as the Aggies hung on to win a 45-42 shootout.
"We still can't comment on any investigations," Sumlin said. "But we needed Johnny to win this game."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tide defenders had prepared all week as if they would face Manziel, but he believes the Aggies' use of Hill the first two weeks may have lulled Alabama players into an overconfidence that hurt them when Manziel took the field instead of the true freshman from Southlake (Texas) Carroll High. "I told them to be ready for No. 2," a disgusted Saban said. "Instead, we looked like No. 2."
Manziel's running ability -- combined with the threats posed by backs Ben Malena and Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams -- forced Alabama to stack the box, leaving the Crimson Tide's defensive backs one-on-one against Texas A&M's receivers on most plays. That allowed 6-foot-5 sophomore Mike Evans and 6-5 freshman Ricky Seals-Jones to win jump balls all day against Alabama's much smaller corners. Alabama linebackers C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard picked up two sacks each, but on most plays, Manziel either escaped or squeezed off a pass.
The Aggies needed every point Manziel could get them. Texas A&M's defense struggled most of the afternoon against Alabama's loaded offense. Yeldon carried 15 times for 120 yards and a touchdown, and freshman Derrick Henry carried 13 times for 130 yards and two scores. McCarron and sophomore receiver Amari Cooper hooked up on two touchdown passes, and freshman tight end O.J. Howard proved a mismatch for the various Texas A&M linebackers and safeties assigned to cover him.
The Aggies were down three late in the fourth quarter when Cooper slipped while running a slant route. McCarron's pass sailed over the grounded Cooper and wound up in the hands of cornerback Deshazor Everett, who looked just as surprised as he did last year in Tuscaloosa when he picked off McCarron to ice Texas A&M's win. Everett, playing in his first game after sitting out because of a suspension related to an offseason assault charge, returned the ball to the Alabama 32-yard line with two minutes and 15 seconds remaining.
After taking a five-yard loss on first down, Manziel hit Evans over the middle for a 17-yard gain. Malena then got the Aggies to the 11 on two carries. On third-and-six, Manziel dropped back to throw, saw an opening and sprinted past a diving Mosley for the go-ahead touchdown with just 45 seconds left.
Manziel wouldn't comment on the investigation after the game. "My attorney is still taking all the questions," he told CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson at midfield. It is unclear when the NCAA will wrap its inquiry into the autograph accusations. Sumlin, who accepted verbal commitments from five class of 2014 targets and three class of 2015 targets in the locker room after the game, said he intends to play Manziel for the rest of the season. "At this point," Sumlin said, "I guess we're all in."
RICKMAN: The (fictional) oral history of the time Alabama had to forfeit to Virginia Tech