TUSCALOOSA, Ala. —
Alabama just etched an entry into Crimson Tide lore with a stomach-twisting road win over No. 9 LSU after the national title hopes went on life support.
Now, the top-ranked Crimson Tide face another huge, and much different, challenge. No. 15 Texas A&M visits Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night with a versatile quarterback and a high-speed offense that seldom takes a break.
Such is life in the Southeastern Conference.
"That wasn't the national championship game," Tide left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said. "We're not done. We've got more work to do. And we've got a different animal this week. That's how we approach it. "
Alabama (9-0, 6-0) can secure a spot in the SEC championship game with a win.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Aggies (7-2, 4-2 SEC) have already made a big splash in a league that's won six straight national championships. They have taken top 10 teams Florida and LSU down to the wire before losing both games by a combined eight points.
"The first game against Florida was a pretty big event," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We've had some pretty big games already. If anything, the atmosphere going on the road will be different. These guys have put us in a position, by their play, to make these games meaningful. It's not a one-game season. It never has been and it never will be."
He said the Aggies gained confidence from their close calls with the Gators and Tigers that they can handle the league's physical style. They were hurt by nine penalties against Florida and five turnovers against LSU.
Now, their pedal-to-the-medal quarterback and offense take on a more old-school SEC football team.
It's run-and-gun Manziel versus AJ McCarron, who thrust himself more prominently into the Heisman Trophy conversation by engineering a swift game-winning touchdown drive against the Tigers. McCarron still hasn't thrown an interception this season.
Texas A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart figures it will take a much more pristine performance to beat an Alabama team with two national titles in three years and a third in its sights.
"We know that we're going to have to play up to the part," Stewart said. "We're going against the No. 1 team in the nation. As we saw when we lost to Florida and we lost to LSU, our two losses this year, we can't beat ourselves. When we're going against top 10 teams, they don't beat themselves. Unfortunately, in our two losses, we beat ourselves."
Alabama hadn't looked particularly beatable all season until last weekend in Baton Rouge — before McCarron, wide receiver Kevin Norwood and tailback T.J. Yeldon produced a rapid-fire string of big plays en route to Yeldon's 28-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 51 seconds left.
"If we finish out like we're supposed to, probably one of the greatest wins I've been a part of in my life," McCarron said. "The win only means so much if you finish out strong. If we don't finish out strong, it really doesn't factor in, really. Just another win."
Tide coach Nick Saban said that was easily his team's worst defensive performance of the season. Alabama's defense gave up 435 yards and got stuck on the field for 85 plays.
The Aggies would love to maintain that kind of staying power on the field and keep the nation's top scoring defense out there and McCarron & Co. on the sideline.
That sets up a battle between the swashbuckling Johnny Football and a physical, disciplined defense that would love to make the Aggies look like Johnny Come Lately. That's much easier said than done.
Manziel is leading the SEC in rushing, scoring and total offense. He's averaged 10 points a game not even counting his 16 touchdown passes. Alabama, by contrast, is only allowing opponents to score a tad over nine points per game.
Saban said Manziel reminds him more of Doug Flutie than Michigan's Denard Robinson or former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, now with the Carolina Panthers.
"I had to play against (Flutie) a long time ago," the former Kent State defensive back said. "But he's a really good player, a really good competitor and that's who this guy reminds me of. He can throw it, he's not great big in stature or anything like that, he's extremely quick. He's very instinctive. Has a unique ability to extend plays and seems to know when to take off and run it. And he scrambles and makes plays throwing the ball down the field.
"But this is a unique guy in terms of his playmaking ability and his size, quickness and speed and ability to make people miss in space."
The Aggies will complete a three-game SEC road swing with this trip to 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny, and they're hoping to do it in style.
"I think that in playing college football, and playing football in general, this is going to be the Saturday you live to play for," Texas A&M offensive lineman Patrick Lewis said. "Going up there on the road, I think their stadium holds well-over 100 thousand people. It's probably going to be packed to capacity.
"We look forward to the challenge they're going to present."