COLUMN: Efficiency model
Fans have a newfound trust in this team, and the numbers show why
Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 02:11
A&M throttled Mississippi State Saturday morning — the game was over before I finished breakfast — but there was something wrong. I’ve seen big wins in my time here. Some, though not many, were bigger than Saturday’s road win over the No. 15 Bulldogs. I was thrilled with the win, but I wasn’t beside myself as I was in 2010 after the Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas games. Have I matured since my freshman year? Hardly. So what was the difference? I’ll tell you: Saturday, we expected it.
Johnny Manziel was sensational, but we’ve already seen sensational. Sumlin and Kingsbury threw together a cocktail of offensive looks that had a decent Bulldog defense guessing — and guessing wrong — all afternoon. Aggie fans have a team whose product they can be confident in every week. Take a moment and compare that with last season. Has the performance on the field merited such a wholesale shift in fan confidence? Let’s look at the numbers.
By my count, Manziel has led 18 drives over the past two games before being pulled for his backups — a 63-21 win at Auburn and a 38-13 win at Mississippi State. For our purposes, let’s define a successful drive as one that leads to points or puts the kicker in position for a makeable field goal. Freshman kicker Taylor Bertolet warrants a conversation best saved for another day but it’s unreasonable to blame a quarterback for a kicker’s misses. Of those 18 drives, 17 have been successful from Manziel’s end for a conversion rate better than 94 percent.
That’s seven touchdowns and a missed field goal in eight drives against Auburn; and six touchdowns, three field goal attempts (two missed, one made), and one punt in 10 drives against Mississippi State.
Before we go on, a clarification, because observant readers will have caught something in that last sentence. What happened to the fumble at the goal line Saturday? The play in question was ruled a turnover on the field and a Mississippi State touchback after Manziel stretched across the goal line. The ruling was wrong. He had the full nose of the ball across the goal line and the rulebook says that’s six points. It won’t show in the box score, but just as a quarterback can’t be blamed for a kicker’s misses, he can’t be blamed for a referee team’s misses either.
The offense won’t convert 94 percent of its first-team drives in Tuscaloosa against No. 1 Alabama next Saturday, just as it didn’t against LSU or Florida. Against Alabama and the unrivaled best coach of the nation, Nick Saban, the same coach who decried the breakneck speed of offensive schemes like Kingsbury’s, there are too many variables in the way of definitive prediction.
I don’t know if the fact that A&M and Alabama played LSU in much the same way means anything. I don’t know if LSU’s success through the air with a quarterback inferior to Manziel was an indictment against an Alabama team some thought invincible, or if Zach Mettenberger and LSU caught Alabama napping. If it’s the latter, don’t count on a team catching the Crimson Tide off guard twice in a row.
But maybe Alabama is beatable. Maybe defensive lineman Damontre Moore has anchored that unit enough to keep Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron in check long enough for the slippery Manziel to do his thing. If the Aggies win the turnover battle by two or more, win the field-position battle by 15 yards or more, and don’t let the penalty yardage stack too high, the game will be within reach. If only two of those three things come to fruition, Sumlin will have his first road loss in his tenure at A&M but no one will blame him. If none of those things happen, it’ll get ugly for the maroon team.
Alabama is a machine. The Mississippi State and Auburn wins were impressive, not shocking. They showed us a hyper-efficient Manziel-led offense converting possessions into scoring opportunities better than nine times out of 10. But to topple the national championship favorite at home, that would shock the nation.
But should it? Isn’t A&M the best — or at least most complete — two-loss team in the country? Isn’t the team peaking at the right time? Or have I been buying too much of what Manziel has been selling? In Tuscaloosa, we’ll see.
Much of the expectation for A&M to win games has been filtered through Manziel. This week, I don’t think that’s the case. His isn’t the perennial behemoth program that almost let its season slip away against LSU. He’s not the senior aiming for a second straight national title. Saturday, he’s a redshirt freshman playing ball on its biggest stage one week removed from bar hopping in a Scooby-Doo costume. If I was Saban, that would terrify me.