Texas A&M does the unthinkable and leaves Alabama with no margin for error in title defense
Ever since its first year in the SEC, when Texas A&M stunned Alabama with an all-time performance by Johnny Manziel, the ensuing decade has looked like one long Nick Saban revenge plot.
Year after year, this game has been hyped to the hilt. And year after year, it has delivered nothing but Alabama’s ruthlessness.
But the weirdness of this college football season is turning all conventional wisdom on its head, and apparently nobody's safe. In a year when it appeared the Aggies had little-to-no chance to beat this No. 1-ranked Alabama team, what do they do?
They take the early lead, let it slip little by little, appear to be beaten and worn down by Alabama’s class and then make all the important plays at the end of the game for as improbable of a 41-38 win as Texas A&M has ever been able to celebrate.
We got the sense a few weeks ago, perhaps, that Alabama wasn’t impenetrable — especially on the road — when it struggled at Florida. But this? How did this happen?
Texas A&M has been one of the most disappointing teams in the country this season. After last week’s loss to Mississippi State, which followed a loss to Arkansas, coach Jimbo Fisher’s new 10-year, $95 million contract was fodder for mockery.
Instead, the Aggies came out with a renewed purpose against Alabama, taking a 24-10 lead into halftime as the Crimson Tide struggled to protect quarterback Bryce Young against an all-out blitz.
Still, it was hard to envision Texas A&M actually winning this game at almost any point because it seemed inevitable that the Alabama switch would flip on. But the Crimson Tide weren’t able to ever get into that gear, even as they had stifled the Aggies for most of the second half.
Alabama’s punt block touchdown early in the third quarter was met with a kickoff return touchdown right away by Texas A&M to re-establish a 14-point lead. Then, Alabama had to settle for field goals after 9-play and 13-play drives that ended inside the 10-yard line.
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In one sequence, Alabama had first-and-goal at the 4-yard line, threw the ball three straight times and couldn’t get it into the end zone. That’s how you let an inferior team hang around, and even when Alabama took a 38-31 lead with 5 minutes remaining, they had allowed a sense that the game was still up for grabs.
Zack Calzada took it, throwing a 25-yard touchdown strike with three minutes left to tie it, then coming right back despite getting slammed in the knee and driving 54 yards in eight plays to set up a 28-yard field goal as time expired.
Certainly Alabama can’t be counted out of the national championship race off just one loss. We’ve seen the Crimson Tide bounce back too many times, and as long as they get into the College Football Playoff they’ll have a chance.
But it certainly becomes more complicated now because so much of the SEC’s omnipresence this season hinged on the idea that Alabama and Georgia would both be unbeaten when they met in the SEC title game in early December.
Now — assuming Alabama even gets there — they’ll have a loss. Which means they almost certainly can’t lose to Georgia and still make the Playoff.
At this point, Alabama might have bigger problems to sort out than the postseason math. Young is a terrific talent, but his inexperience showed in this game when the pocket wasn’t clean and he rushed throws.
Late in the game, when Alabama had a chance to drive down the field and win it, he made a couple poor throws that landed short.
Alabama outgained Texas A&M 522-379 in yards, but it never felt like the Crimson Tide could physically impose themselves whenever they wanted. And it all added up to the biggest win of Fisher’s tenure, even though it occurred in a season where it won’t actually help the Aggies climb the mountain in the SEC.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken