By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer
HOUSTON — The last blockbuster of the summer is set in Texas.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 6 Texas A&M. Johnny Football trying to derail the Crimson Tide dynasty. Who is the hero and who is the villain depends upon your perspective. And, of course, it’s a sequel.
The Tide (1-0) and Aggies (2-0) meet today in the most anticipated and talked-about game of the season.
Just how big is this game, Tide coach Nick Saban?
“Obviously this is an exciting game for our team, the players in our program,” Saban said.
OK, so Saban isn’t much for hype, but there’s no doubt this is huge.
Looking online for a last-minute ticket to Kyle Field? Be prepared to shell out $700, give or take a hundred. A hotel room in town? Better have a plan B. Most of the space was booked not long after the Aggies upset Alabama 29-24 last November in Tuscaloosa. Texas A&M was expecting a crowd of around 50,000 at the stadium for midnight yell practice Friday night, the Aggies’ unique version of a pep rally, which will be televised by ESPN.
Last year’s victory propelled A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy. For the Tide, the loss was a detour on the way to a second straight national championship. Saban’s team is trying to become the first to win three straight titles. The Aggies have championship aspirations, too.
In a couple of tuneup games leading into today’s Southeastern Conference opener for both teams, Manziel has looked better than ever (six TD passes and 520 yards), showing no signs that an offseason in the spotlight has had any adverse effects on his game.
Alabama’s only game was a 35-10 victory against Virginia Tech that — by Tide standards — was almost a letdown.
Five things to know about the latest SEC Game of the Century:
HOLD THE LINE: Alabama’s rebuilt offensive line was one of the few areas of concern for the Tide coming into the season. The Virginia Tech game did nothing to soothe the worry warts. The Tide didn’t crack 100 yards rushing against the Hokies.
“After Virginia Tech everybody is talking about being disappointed in us,” guard Anthony Steen said, “and we’ve got a chip on our shoulder … and we’re ready to prove something.”
REINFORCEMENTS: Texas A&M’s defense has been leaky against Rice and Sam Houston State. To plug the holes, the Aggies get back four key players — linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De’Vante Harris — after they missed much or all the first two games because of various suspensions. Jenkins is one of the few seniors on defense.
“Just to have that confidence out there on the field, that swag, was permeating throughout the team yesterday in practice,” Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said earlier this week.
THE OTHER QB: AJ McCarron is no Johnny Football, but Alabama fans aren’t complaining. The senior has two national championship rings and is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. One of his few mistakes last season was an interception near A&M’s goal line late in the fourth quarter. The best-laid plans for Alabama probably don’t involve getting into a high-scoring game with A&M’s super charged, up-tempo offense. But if it goes that route, McCarron and the Tide’s myriad playmakers should be up to the task.
JOHNNY CAM: Yes, CBS will have a camera on Manziel all day. Coach Kevin Sumlin was not pleased. And he doesn’t want Johnny Football to play with any less passion.
“The intensity and emotion that he plays with is part of his game,” Sumlin said. “I don’t think that anybody around college football that watches him play denies that. Our job is to channel that type of emotion into a positive way of doing things.”
SO, HOW DO YOU STOP MANZIEL?: Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart are about as good it gets when it comes to mixing defensive fronts and coverages, but Manziel is a game-plan wrecker. And A&M is loaded with talented tailbacks and receivers, so it’s not like he’s doing it on his own.
“I think that he’s going to make some plays,” Saban said. “And I think athletically he extends a lot of plays but he extends a lot of plays to pass. It’s not like he’s just a runner that only extends the play scrambling and takes off running. You’re not going to make him a pocket passer, because if someone is not open, he’s not going to throw them the ball.”
Or as Alabama safety HaHa Clinton-Dix described Manziel: “He’s one of a kind, if you ask me.”