A&M stepped into the ring with Florida earlier this season, but they weren't ready to beat the Gators. Yes, they hung with them and showed they could compete, but the Aggies weren't good enough to win, not yet. Then it was LSU, and this time the Aggies were good enough, but they weren't poised enough to win. Lack of focus led to crucial turnovers from Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Ben Malena, and missed field goals haunted the Aggies in the second half.
The last three teams to win in Tuscaloosa all had a Heisman Trophy finalist on the team. Can Manziel re-stake a claim this week? (AggieAthletics Photo)
Now, the toughest challenge of all is in front of the Aggies in the top ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
An optimist would look at Alabama's schedule and see some reason for hope. Prior to LSU, the Crimson Tide's only victory against a currently ranked team was Mississippi State, who A&M also throttled. Against LSU, it took an epic fourth quarter drive for Alabama to come back and win the game. That after LSU missed a field goal, didn't convert a fourth down, didn't recover an onside kick, and had a fake field goal demolished.
Zach Mettenberger also showed the Aggies that Alabama's defense isn't completely bullet proof. Mettenberger, who threw for less than 100 yards against A&M's embattled secondary, threw for almost 300 on Saturday Night in Baton Rouge. He averaged 8.5 yards per attempt passing the ball. That's the same Mettenberger who averaged 3.3 yards per pass attempt on 29 attempts against Texas A&M.
So, you could make a fair argument that perhaps Alabama isn't the world-beating juggernaut that we all think they are. You could look at their stats and make the case they haven't faced an offense even remotely close to what A&M is going to bring to Tuscaloosa on Saturday. You could say, that if Mettenberger can light up the Crimson Tide secondary, just imagine what Johnny Manziel could do.
But you could also see a team that has been defeated just once in their last 23 games, and a team that has just three home losses in the last five seasons. Those three losses were to LSU in 2011, Auburn in 2010 and Florida in 2008, who all went on to play for the BCS Championship. Two of them won it, and the other one was defeated by... let's look that up... oh yeah, Alabama.
You could also say they were “Shock and Awe”-ed by Zach Mettenberger, because prior to that game Alabama's defense had been an absolute graveyard for opposing quarterbacks. They crushed Denard Robinson in September, and pummeled both Tyler Bray and Tyler Russell.
Alabama's defense is statistically among the best at everything. They're second in yards allowed to Florida State, but first in scoring defense, allowing opponents under 10 points per game. They're second to Stanford against the run, allowing just 66 yards per game on the ground. They're fifth in pass efficiency defense, eighth in total passing defense, and they're fifth in turnover margin.
Kevin Sumlin's first season in Aggieland is already an unquestioned success.
Again though, Texas A&M brings an offensive challenge the Crimson Tide haven't seen yet this season. The Aggies are fifth on total offense, 19th in passing offense, tenth in rushing offense and fourth in scoring offense. And that's after playing two of the nation's elite defenses in LSU and Florida.
The real challenge for this week may not be the Alabama defense. It might be Crimson Tide's offense. A.J. McCarron is third in the nation in passing efficiency, so he can make the Aggies pay deep if they stock the box like they did against LSU. Mettenberger missed on those throws several times, but don't expect McCarron to do the same. The Tide also feature a pair of running backs that will test A&M's depth on the defensive line. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon each average more than five yards per carry this season.
Of course, you could also just say to throw the stats out the window. Both A&M and Alabama's stats are skewed a bit by blowout victories, and perhaps the biggest thing working in A&M's favor this week can't be measured by stats. Alabama is coming off of a physically and mentally taxing effort at LSU, and while they'll certainly be focused on A&M, it's going to be hard to replicate that for two weeks in a row.
So heading into Tuscaloosa this weekend, an optimist could rightfully pull quite a few things out of the hat to tell you why A&M has a chance to win this game. A pessimist also has equal fodder, and history, for his arguments as well.
The fact that we're even talking about it though, the fact that this game even matters, is a testament to the job A&M's first year coaching staff has done. They've ignited a fan base that couldn't have been hungrier for success. They've inspired a team that had every reason to be mediocre this season. The one thing they haven't done is grab a signature win.
We'll debate an argue all week about whether or not A&M can beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa this weekend, and the tone of the fan base will run the full gambit from absolute fear to alcohol-fused optimism before Saturday's game arrives.
But to fully understand exactly how far A&M has come this season, all you need to know is that there's at least one group of people who fully expect the Aggie coaches and players to pull this off.