Alabama coach Nick Saban calls it "yard ball," and it's a pretty accurate description.
Yard ball happens when a coaching staff's carefully scripted plays are rendered utterly meaningless by the combination of a blocking breakdown and a quarterback athletic enough to keep himself upright behind the line of scrimmage for eight to nine seconds. Saban uses the term because when it happens, yard ball looks like one of those games children play in the backyard or out in the street. The quarterback says, "Just get open," and everyone improvises.
Two days before last year's Texas A&M-Alabama game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Saban seemed awfully worried about yard ball. His defense had been for it all week; backup quarterback Blake Sims would come over from the offensive practice field every day in an attempt to simulate Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel. "When he starts scrambling around and he extends plays -- sometimes for eight or nine seconds -- and makes big plays, whether they're passing or running, it probably is one of the most difficult things to try to simulate in practice and teach the players how you have to try to play him with guys who don't have the same skill set as the guy who has the ball," Saban said. Less than 48 hours later, Manziel and A&M used yard ball to race to a 20-point lead in the only game the Crimson Tide would lose in 2012.
The best example of yard ball in last year's game? Manziel's Heisman moment. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard tipped the ball from Manziel's hands, but the freshman caught the bobble and raced left. His receivers had broken off their routes and were looking for open space. Ryan Swope found a patch in the middle-back portion of the end zone, and Manziel hit him for the Aggies' second touchdown of the day.
To understand how Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart plan to defend Texas A&M when the teams meet on Saturday, read this excellent piece by Chris Brown that explains the Crimson Tide's schemes right down to the Rip/Liz match, a concept that allows defenders to turn man coverage into zone coverage based on the actions of the receivers. But just remember, when Manziel begins scrambling and starts playing yard ball, a lot of that stuff goes out the window.
Yard ball must drive Saban crazy. After all, this is a man so regimented that he eats the same salad every day for lunch so he doesn't waste time thinking about other options. He craves order. Manziel produces chaos.
But yard ball isn't chaotic for the Aggies' offense. In fact, Texas A&M has a plan for what to do when it breaks out. "We actually came up with a drill that we do that accompanies Johnny when he's scrambling," receiver Malcome Kennedy said this week. "We practice that every week. Right before, the game, we practice it. We've pretty much got it down to a T. We have actual scramble rules. When Johnny scrambles, we know where to go and what to do."
Most offenses practice this. For a great example of a scramble drill, watch this video featuring former Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch explaining what the Hurricanes used to do when he worked in Coral Gables.
As the video shows, the offense has clear rules when it becomes apparent that a play has broken down. The quarterback knows exactly where his receivers are supposed to be. The difference between the Aggies and most other teams is that most quarterbacks can't keep a play alive long enough for their receivers to get open. Manziel can, and he can throw effectively while on the run. And if need be, he can also escape the front seven and run for yardage instead. Cam Newton could do all that, too, and we all remember how that worked out for Alabama in 2010.
So what can Saban and Smart do to train their players? First, they can examine film of the Texas A&M offense and try to identify the Aggies' scramble rules. The 'Bama coaches have almost certainly done that and passed the information along to the players. This is somewhat tricky, though, because Manziel didn't scramble much against either Rice or Sam Houston State. So if A&M has changed its scramble rules, Crimson Tide defenders could be using the wrong study guide.
If all else fails, Saban will fall back on a phrase that he and every other coach in the Bill Belichick coaching tree use repeatedly: Do your job. Belichick and his acolytes believe that if every member of the organization performs the task specifically assigned to him and doesn't worry about anyone else's duty, the organization will succeed. That will be especially important in yard ball situations on Saturday. "Don't allow [Manziel] to make plays because of what you did incorrectly on defense. And that's where the discipline part is," Saban said this week. "Have good discipline down the field to stay matched in your coverage and not start looking at the quarterback. I told our players there's a lot of NFL games on Sunday. You want to watch the quarterback, go watch those games. But if you start watching this guy in our game, you're going to get busted.''
In other words, the Alabama defensive backs must trust the front seven to contain Manziel on the ground. And how does one contain such an explosive runner when he chooses to leave the pocket? "You've got to look at his hips," defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan told reporters in a video posted by AL.com. "You can't get caught looking at his feet or his hands or his head or anything like that. You've just got to look at his hips, because his hips never lie."
So if the members of the Tide's front seven are watching Manziel's hips, and the members of the secondary are sticking to their coverage assignments, yard ball shouldn't cause as many problems for Alabama as it did last year. But if 'Bama doesn't heed that advice? It probably results in a Texas A&M touchdown -- or worse. "Don't take your eye off your man," Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri told reporters, "or coach Saban's going to kill you."
• Louisville at Kentucky: Wildcats coach Mark Stoops is winning July recruiting titles, but the games themselves are proving more difficult for him. After this one, Stoops should shake Cardinals coach Charlie Strong's hand and say, "You know, I hear the Texas and USC jobs might be coming open."
• UCLA at Nebraska: This one could challenge the limits of the scoreboard. Both offenses work quickly and efficiently. Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez and Bruins counterpart Brett Hundley could post huge numbers. But will either defense be able to make a stop? With elite pass rusher Anthony Barr and tackling machine Eric Kendricks, the UCLA defense is the safer bet to break serve more often than the Blackshirts. A turnover or two could tilt the balance.
• Boston College at USC: This should be an easy win for the Trojans, but last week also should have been an easy win for the Trojans. Maybe the decision to name Cody Kessler the starting quarterback helped USC develop some offensive cohesion this week. The Eagles have already won as many games (two) as they did all of last season. If the Trojans can't complete a pass longer than eight yards on Saturday, they will lose again. But if the defense remains stout and Kessler can get something going through the air, USC coach Lane Kiffin's seat won't spontaneously combust.
• Tennessee at Oregon: The box score from the Volunteers' win over Western Kentucky last week was odd. The Hilltoppers outgained Tennessee and made one more first down, yet they lost by 32 points. Seven turnovers -- including five in six offensive snaps -- will do that to a team. The Ducks won't commit seven turnovers this Saturday, but they will probably outgain the Volunteers by a lot. They will also probably outscore the Volunteers by a lot.
• Nevada at Florida State: Remember that time redshirt freshman Jameis Winston torched Pittsburgh? That's still the only college game that the Seminoles' quarterback has ever played. His legend could grow this week.
• Washington vs. Illinois (in Chicago): The Huskies' season-opening win against Boise State in Week 1 suggested that they might be ready to move off the seven-win plateau. But what once appeared to be a fairly easy win for Washington in Week 3 now looks like a fun matchup. The Illini offense has improved under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit, and it will try to continue that improvement against a defense that held Boise to six points.
• UCF at Penn State: Not familiar with Knights quarterback Blake Bortles? Watch this play from UCF's season-opening win over Akron and then think about the quarterback Bortles resembles. Here's a hint: This column has already spent 1,000 words talking about him.
• Ohio State at Cal: Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said quarterback Braxton Miller (knee) will be a game-time decision. That could make things quite interesting. Backup Kenny Guiton played well in last week's win over San Diego State, but the Bears have far more talent than the Aztecs on defense. Cal's offense has hummed under first-year coach Sonny Dykes and true freshman quarterback Jared Goff, but Goff will have to take better care of the ball than he did the last time a Big Ten foe came to Berkeley. Against Northwestern, Goff threw for 450 yards, but he also threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Keep an eye on this one. If Miller can't play and if Goff avoids freshman mistakes, things could get very exciting.
• Vanderbilt at South Carolina: Both teams want to rebound after tough losses in their SEC openers. Though the Gamecocks are at home and have more talent, the Commodores always seem to play them tough.
• Ole Miss at Texas: Those who think that Longhorns coach Mack Brown will seal his coaching fate with a loss this week might be jumping the gun. Yes, Texas has issues. The Longhorns just replaced their defensive coordinator, and quarterback David Ash may be out on Saturday. But Texas matched up well with the Rebels last year and throttled them in Oxford. Add in the Longhorns' desire to make up for getting flattened last weekend at BYU, and this one could turn into a bounce-back performance. Texas' issues will likely catch up to them at some point, but that may take until the Oklahoma game on Oct. 12. Of course, if Ole Miss comes to Austin and wins, Brown might have to fire another coordinator to keep the wolves at bay. So watch your back, Major Applewhite.
• Wisconsin at Arizona State: We really don't know anything about either team yet. Each has the potential to be much improved, but the schedule to this point has shown nothing. So sit back, relax and watch a couple of mysteries get solved.
Jameis up front, scouting report in the back
If Winston continues to shine at Florida State, we're in for an epic season of stories. On Wednesday, the freshman proved that he looks for the truly important information in the scouting report. He told ESPN.com reporter David Hale that he's excited to play Nevada because the Wolf Pack have a defensive end with a mullet.
Jameis says he's very excited to play Nevada because their defensive end has a mullet.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 11, 2013
That might be understating the situation just a tad. Junior Brock Hekking's Tennessee Waterfall is pure poetry. Word is that when Randy Staples saw it, he wept because he knew that his own locks could never be styled into such a magical blend of business and party.
What now in Austin?
Manny Diaz has been shuffled to a sinecure, and Greg Robinson has reassumed the defensive coordinator post he left following the 2004 season. I was in Austin on Tuesday, and it was tough not to cringe when I heard Longhorns nickelback Quandre Diggs saying things like this about Robinson, who served as a consultant from June until Sunday: "He's behind. We've got to continue to teach him the things that we know and continue to learn on the go. He's been around. He's watched practice. He's watched us since two-a-days. He knows some of the things. We just continue to help him get up to speed."
Basically -- on the eve of a game against a team talented enough to beat Texas -- Robinson has been given the challenge of learning Diaz's system, and then coaching players who didn't execute that system particularly well in the first place. If Robinson can pull this off, people might forget his disastrous stints at Michigan and Syracuse. To understand the difficulty of the task he faces, read this piece from Ian Boyd at BarkingCarnival.com.
And now, a public service announcement from coach Brown ...
Vintage video of the week
We've discussed the last game between Texas A&M and Alabama, but the most famous meeting between these two programs was the second one. Mad Men viewers will remember that Bob Benson offered Don Draper tickets to the 1968 Cotton Bowl. Had Don accepted, he would have seen Aggies coach Gene Stallings beating mentor Bear Bryant and Bryant helping to carry Stallings off the field. The modern-day equivalent of this would be Saban carrying Florida State's Jimbo Fisher or Florida's Will Muschamp off the field -- which might melt the Internet.
On the menu
Those headed to College Station for the game between the Crimson Tide and the Aggies can stuff themselves with Dr. Pepper Cowboy tacos from Fuego at any hour of the day or night (ask for a corn tortilla), but those truly dedicated to the quest for comfort food will travel the extra 10 minutes to Snook, Texas, for the chicken fried bacon at Sodolak's Original Country Inn. If you do, pour out a little cream gravy for bacon-frying visionary Frank Sodolak, who passed away in May 2012.