Alabama-Texas A&M: 10 X-factors to watch for in Saturday's game
The headliners for Saturday's clash between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M in College Station are well established at this point. In fact, few people would be surprised to witness impressive performances from the likes of quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron or running back T.J. Yeldon. However, many of the biggest games are decided by little-known players. The emergence of a few under-the-radar names could ultimately determine the outcome of 2013's most-anticipated matchup.
So which X-factors could take center stage at Kyle Field in Week 3? Here are five players from each team to keep an eye on.
• WR Christion Jones: Jones scored more touchdowns by himself (three) than the entire Virginia Tech team (one) did in Alabama's 35-10 season-opening win in Week 1. The wide receiver showed off his versatility by reaching the end zone on a punt return, a kick return and a touchdown catch. In last season's meeting with A&M, Jones made just three receptions for 21 yards and returned only one punt for five yards. After breaking out against the Hokies, however, he could be poised to make a bigger impact on Saturday.
• CB Vinnie Sunseri: Sunseri demonstrated his game-changing ability with a 38-yard pick-six against the Hokies. Manziel isn't as interception prone as Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, but Sunseri could play a critical role limiting Aggies wideouts Mike Evans and Ricky Seals-Jones. The 'Bama secondary limited Thomas to a 5-of-26, 59-yard performance in Week 1. Manziel and company will be much a tougher assignment, but the junior and Tuscaloosa native may be up to the task; he notched seven tackles off the bench in last year's loss to A&M.
• P Cody Mandell: Special teams largely defined Alabama's only game so far this season, as Jones made a mockery of Virginia Tech's kickoff and punt return coverage. But Mandell kept the Hokies' special teams at bay, punting nine times for an average of 46.4 yards. Virginia Tech returned those punts an average of only 10.3 yards. LSU's Brad Wing and Drew Alleman were arguably the most valuable players in the last "Game of the Century." If Mandell can limit A&M's field position, he could play a similar role in this one.
• TE O.J. Howard: Howard was greeted with tons of hype when the five-star prospect arrived in Tuscaloosa this summer. Yet while 'Bama coach Nick Saban has been extremely high on Howard, the heralded true freshman did not record a catch in the Tide's opener. Still, it seems safe to reason that the 6-foot-6, 237-pounder will emerge as a red zone target at some point. This may be encouraging: A&M allowed Rice's tight end to find success in Week 1. Connor Cella finished second on the Owls with 52 receiving yards on four catches.
• C Ryan Kelly: Kelly is tasked this season with replacing former All-America center Barrett Jones, a key cog in 'Bama's punishing offensive line from a year ago. Kelly is one of three new starters on the unit, and he admitted to missing a few calls as the line struggled in spurts against Virginia Tech. As a result, the Tide's front gave up four sacks to the Hokies. Still, Kelly seems to have right mindset heading into Saturday's showdown. From AL.com:
"When you're the No. 1 team and you have the target on your back, I'm sure defensive coordinators are still sitting there now trying to dig up new blitzes, especially after watching this film," Kelly said. "People are going to try to do what Virginia Tech did. It's important we try to correct what we didn't do in the game and stick to our basics."
• LB Steven Jenkins: Jenkins finished third on the Aggies with 79 tackles last season, and he returned as one of its defensive anchors heading into 2013. But the senior was one of four players suspended for Texas A&M's first two games for violating team rules. His return should provide a spark for a defense that showed a few holes against Rice and Sam Houston State; A&M allowed an average of 449.5 yards per game.
• CB Deshazor Everett: McCarron likely won't be particularly excited to see Everett in A&M's defensive backfield. Eyeing a last-gasp comeback in the 2012 meeting with the Aggies, McCarron threw his second interception of the game -- and the season -- when Everett stepped in front of a fourth-down, goal-line pass with 1:36 remaining. Everett has been the subject of controversy this fall -- he was ejected for targeting against Rice -- but he also snagged a pick against Sam Houston State. The cornerback could play a key role limiting McCarron and wideout Amari Cooper.
• RB Ben Malena: Manziel's dual-threat abilities are a given, but the reigning Heisman winner overshadows another talented rusher in the Aggies' arsenal. Through two games, Malena is pacing A&M's run game with an average of 7.9 yards per carry and a total of 173 yards on the ground. He also hauled in an 18-yard touchdown catch against Rice. Alabama allowed Virginia Tech's Trey Edmunds to rush for 132 yards and a touchdown. If the Tide focus too singularly on Manziel, Malena could have a chance to shine.
• WR Sabian Holmes: While Evans has solidified his role as Manziel's favorite target, Holmes isn't far behind. The sophomore is tied for second on the team with seven catches, one more than his entire freshman output. Evans and deep threat Seals-Jones provide plenty of highlights, but Holmes, who reeled in a 27-yard touchdown grab last week, shouldn't be overlooked. • DT Alonzo Williams: One of the biggest questions surrounding Alabama this season is the team's new-look offensive line. Along with Kelly at center, guard Arie Kouandjio and right tackle Austin Shepherd weren't exactly clicking against Virginia Tech, as they allowed too much pressure on McCarron and couldn't carve a path for the run game. Williams could cause more trouble for the Tide's line: He's one of three Aggies to record a sack this season, and he's one of five to reach the double-digit tackle threshold. If McCarron appears stifled for the second straight game, Williams might be a big reason why.