There's little mystery surrounding sixth-ranked Texas A&M's offense heading into Saturday's showdown with No. 1 Alabama. It's all about Johnny Football. By contrast, after having to play the first two games with only part of its starting lineup, the Aggies' 2013 defense feels like a complete unknown -- even to its coaches.
So bring on the two-time defending national champions.
"There's no doubt, brother," A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said this week. "We'll know exactly where we are."
While Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel provided the most enduring moments of their 29-24 upset of the Crimson Tide last season in Tuscaloosa, the largely unsung A&M defense had plenty to do with staking the underdogs to an early 20-0 lead. The D made three straight third-down stops to open the game, bottled up Alabama running back Eddie Lacy and induced Tide quarterback AJ McCarron's into throwing his first interception of the season. Three quarters later, after Alabama mounted a comeback and had a chance to take a last-minute lead, Aggies cornerback Deshazor Everett sealed the victory with a fourth-and-goal interception in the end zone.
"Last year, I felt like we controlled the line of scrimmage," said A&M defensive back Tony Hurd Jr. "First down, second down, we got them behind the chains. On third down, we just went after them."
Watch the video that shows how the Aggies' dominated the first quarter last year, however, and it's clear that McCarron was under heavy pressure from two players -- defensive end Damontre Moore and defensive tackle Spencer Nealy -- who have moved on to the NFL. Replacing that pair, as well as veteran linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, presents the biggest challenge to A&M's quest to match or surpass last year's 11-win campaign.
"This is very, very different game than it was last year from a personnel standpoint based on the number of players that won't be on the field for both teams," said Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin.
First, Sumlin suspended starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis for the opener stemming from a February gun charge arrest. Defensive backs Everett (one half) and Floyd Raven (one game) were suspended as a result of their misdemeanor arrests following an April 7 fight at an apartment complex. (Sumlin announced those punishments during preseason camp. Everett then missed the first half of the Aggies' 65-28 victory over the FCS Bearkats because of his ejection for targeting a receiver in the second half of the 52-31 defeat of the Owls.)
Then, just before kickoff against Rice in Week 1, the school disclosed two-game suspensions for cornerback De'Vante Harris, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive end Gavin Stansbury -- all starters -- for "violating athletic department rules and regulations." A defense already faced with replacing five starters from last season opened with just two returning starters -- and it showed. The Owls scored 21 points and gained 332 yards in the first half and 509 total yards for the game against a patchwork mix of backups and unprepared freshmen. Up seven at the half, A&M pulled away upon Manziel's own return from suspension in the second half and won 52-31. The unit improved against the FCS BearKats, but still allowed four touchdowns.
"I don't care who you are, if you take [six] starters off their defense, they're not going to be good, either," said Snyder. "We had all these young guys, they've got no business playing 30, 40, 50 snaps. Those guys should be 10 snaps a game kind of players."
Of his suspended players, Snyder added: "We survived. We got 'em all back. This will be the first time the A&M defense has played together as starters since two-a -days."
Now, all it has to do is slow the No. 1 team in the country.
Snyder, the former Marshall head coach and Ohio State defensive coordinator, was up at 7 a.m. on Sunday eager to view the first tape of the Tide's season-opening 35-10 win over Virginia Tech. "I want to see the new Alabama," he exclaimed. In its first game playing without three departed offensive line standouts (Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker), the Tide's offense gained just 206 total yards. Facing a stout Hokies' defensive front, 'Bama's offensive line visibly struggled, blowing assignments and having communication issues. McCarron completed just 10-of-23 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.
But Virginia Tech returned nine starters from a top-20 national defense led by All-ACC defensive end James Gayle, who 'Bama struggled to contain. Texas A&M may well have its own version of Gayle ... but nobody knows yet. Last year, Moore exploded for 12.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Snyder, whose 4-3 depends heavily on edge pass rushers, is eager to see whether sophomore Julien Obioha or first-time starter Stansbury can emerge as similarly dominant forces.
"That's the unknown," said Snyder. "You gotta have guys that can play on the edges in this game. We won our fair share against our tackles in camp. We'll see."
The Aggies will still be without one key player. Raven, a physical safety, will miss at least Saturday's game with a collarbone injury. That's not something Snyder is taking lightly. "[My] only concern right now is safety," Snyder said. "Those guys haven't played well. We've got to get better safety play right now."
Snyder, 48, first worked with Sumlin, 49, when the two were assistants together at Minnesota in the late 1990s. They later faced each other as head coaches (Snyder at Marshall, Sumlin at Houston) before Sumlin hired Snyder in 2012. "I'd been following Kevin's offenses for a long time. I'd been wanting to get with his system for a while," said Snyder.
And why is that?
"You score a lot of points, you force people's hands," said Snyder. "When you score a lot of points, they have to open up their play list, and they can't save anything for the fourth quarter. ... I love this system for that reason -- I may be able to gamble a little more."
The Aggies did a nice job in last year's Alabama game of not only pressuring McCarron, but also confusing him with a variety of coverages. McCarron's first interception came when safety Howard Matthews (a returning starter) started in two-deep coverage before slipping inside to meet seemingly open 'Bama receiver Kenny Bell just in time to disrupt his catch, with the ball ricocheting to Porter.
"It's going to be a challenge for us because they've got a really good defensive package," said Alabama coach Nick Saban. "They've got a lot of different ways to pressure -- drop eight guys, do multiples of things that make it difficult for you to maybe be consistent on offense. We definitely need to do a better job than we did last year, especially early in the game, of attacking their defense because they did a really good job against us a year ago."
Saban had two weeks to correct his offense's Week 1 woes and to study the Aggies' defensive personnel. However, A&M will play a bunch of guys on Saturday who didn't play for most or all of the first two games.
"We don't really feel like they'll change defenses," said Saban. "So the scheme will be the same, but the players will be better."
The talent influx provided by those returning players may go a long way toward determining whether A&M can pull off another upset. Manziel may well have another huge game, but the Aggies won't win if they can't defend the Tide's plethora of skilled receivers or tackle running back T.J. Yeldon in the open field.
The A&M defense that got lit up by Rice and allowed 28 points to Sam Houston State would seem ill-equipped to do that. But the defense that will take the field on Saturday? It's impossible to say, because fans have yet to see it.