Posted: Wednesday November 14, 2012 12:09PM ; Updated: Wednesday November 14, 2012 5:37PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAILBAG

Putting Texas A&M's breakthrough season in perspective; more mail

Story Highlights

Texas A&M has thrived in the SEC, but it'd likely have similar record in the Big 12

Ohio State would be ranked higher in the polls if not for status on NCAA probation

Plus: New playoff format, Oregon injury issues, BYU's independence debate, more

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Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel currently leads the SEC with 1,014 rushing yards.
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Following his team's 37-17 win over Mississippi State last Saturday, LSU All-America defensive end Sam Montgomery found himself answering questions about a team and a quarterback that had played three hours earlier.

"What was the feeling you got when you heard that Alabama had lost?" asked a reporter.

"Johnny Football," said Montgomery. "That's the first thing that popped in my mind."

Montgomery then went on to extol the virtues of Texas A&M's freshman sensation. "He's a quarterback and he's the leading rusher in the SEC! Heisman. Give it to him."

The SEC has won six straight national titles, yet the biggest story in the league right now involves a team and a player that were eliminated from championship contention weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the Mailbag questions have come pouring in.

Hey Stewart, what does Texas A&M's play in the SEC say about the strength of the Big 12? This is a team that was an occasional spoiler but rarely relevant in the Big 12 title race, and hung with Florida and LSU before upsetting almighty Alabama. Also, where would you project the Aggies in the Big 12 standings if they had never left?
-- Dave, Md.

Texas A&M's competitiveness in the SEC so far confirms what many of us had already suspected: The Aggies grossly underperformed in the Big 12 relative to their talent level under Mike Sherman. Granted, a first-year player, Johnny Football, has been the catalyst for their success, but lest we forget, A&M had a first-round draft pick (admittedly a questionable one) at quarterback last year in Ryan Tannehill. And Johnny Football isn't doing this alone. He plays behind a pair of projected first-round tackles (Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews). He throws to an accomplished veteran receiver (Ryan Swope). The defense is led by a projected first-round defensive end (Damontre Moore). Yet these same guys combined to go 4-5 in the Big 12 last season.

To be clear, I'm not saying the Aggies should have performed better because the Big 12 is an easier league. On the contrary, you could make a case as to why either conference is tougher. In the SEC, A&M has had to face three top-10 teams (Florida, LSU and Alabama), whereas in the Big 12 it would've faced one such squad (Kansas State) and a second that's close behind (Oklahoma). On the flip side, given the SEC's unbalanced schedules, it's possible to play half your conference games against complete deadweights (Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky), where with the Big 12's depth and round-robin format, there's only get one true gimme (Kansas). Even 5-5 Iowa State and 4-5 Baylor are no pushovers.

So to answer the last part of Dave's question, Kevin Sumlin's Aggies would probably be about where they currently are (8-2) in either conference. On the one hand, Johnny Football would not have faced defenses in the Big 12 of the caliber of Florida and LSU's, both of which neutralized him in the second half. On the other, A&M's pass defense is shaky (79th nationally), as you may recall from the Louisiana Tech game, and it's faced just two top-40 passers in SEC play, Alabama's AJ McCarron and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson. In the Big 12 this season, it would've faced five of the top 20 (Kansas State's Collin Klein, Texas' David Ash, Texas Tech's Seth Doege, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Baylor's Nick Florence).

It's possible Johnny Football would have even gaudier stats in the Big 12, but his team would likely have the same record. The difference is, those results would've come with scores closer to 54-49 than 24-19.

Alabama hasn't lost very often over the last five years (only seven times), and when it does, it often seems to be against a top-notch quarterback who can run the ball. Tim Tebow (in 2008), Cam Newton (in '10) and Johnny Manziel (last Saturday) come to mind. Even Jordan Jefferson (who I wouldn't quite describe as top-notch) played no small part in LSU victories in '10 and '11. Do you think that a running quarterback is a particular weakness of Alabama's defensive scheme and something that any blueprint to roll back the Tide must include?
-- Jon O, Palatka, Fla.

It's definitely an interesting thread, but I'd be careful not to draw too many conclusions, other than that Manziel and his predecessors showed that Nick Saban's defense is in fact mortal. Quarterbacks who are both dangerous runners and genuine passing threats are tough to defend, period. It's not like numerous defenses had better success against those players you mentioned. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a defense out there that's demonstrated a consistent ability to shut down otherwise prolific running quarterbacks. LSU's may come the closest. Besides having two exceptional defensive coordinators under Les Miles (Bo Pelini and John Chavis), the Tigers usually have a stout front four that's well suited to keeping a scrambling quarterback in the pocket. However, even Newton had one of his most memorable long runs against LSU.

A more interesting trend to watch with Saban's teams going forward is how they defend against dreaded no-huddle offenses. The way A&M started so quickly Saturday was very reminiscent of the 2009 Sugar Bowl, when Utah came out with a surprise no-huddle attack and seemed to catch the Tide off guard, scoring three first-quarter touchdowns. The Tide hadn't faced too many true no-huddle teams in between, but with the way that craze has been spreading, they will soon.

Let's assume for a second that Ohio State isn't on probation. Would the Buckeyes still be ranked as they are in the AP Poll, behind two one-loss SEC schools? Could you imagine the reaction in the Big Ten if a 13-0 (assuming they won the title game) Ohio State wasn't anywhere near the title discussion?
-- Keith Fisher, North Wales, Pa.

I think the Buckeyes would still fall behind Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame, but no, they most definitely would not rank behind any one-loss teams in the polls. There's undoubtedly been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind aspect to Ohio State's season, and that's especially true now that we're so focused on the BCS standings. Ohio State certainly isn't helped by the fact that the Big Ten is so lousy this year and thus hasn't played in a lot of big national games. But if Braxton Miller and Co. were eligible to play for the national championship, they would be in every single conversation right now and thus bunched together with the other unbeatens.

Mind you, I'm not necessarily saying Ohio State should be ahead of Alabama. The Tide have played a much tougher schedule (No. 14 in Sagarin's ratings) than the Buckeyes (No. 62), and they're 3-1 against Sagarin's top 30; the Buckeyes are 1-0. Put it this way: If the 2014 selection committee were in place this season, it would almost certainly rate Alabama above Ohio State. (Georgia, which has one win of any value, against Florida, and got blown out in its one loss, does not have the same argument.) But we're still in the poll era, and we know how polls work. Undefeated trumps all else -- though apparently not if you're facing a postseason ban.

Stewart, you pick against Nebraska every week. Aren't you sick of being wrong?
-- Aaron, Omaha, Neb.

By definition, one might say I'm insane for continuing pick to against Nebraska: I keep expecting a different result.

 
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