Alabama coach Nick Saban concedes that his team’s date with Texas A&M will be considered a “business trip.”
In other words, the top-ranked Crimson Tide should be focused solely on efficiently dispensing with the Aggies. Play the role of SEC bully and then get out of town.
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin finds himself in a different position. How do you motivate a team that’s not given much chance to win?
Do you stress the four-game winning streak? The younger guys on the team could need positive reinforcement.
Do you replay the 2012 game, in which a magical Johnny Manziel and a stout, opportunistic defense dealt Alabama, the defending national champion, a 29-24 home loss? Sumlin says he rarely thinks about the game.
Do you play up the us-against-the-world, shock everybody card? A lot of coaches, even the ones who win all the time, like it when they can entice their players into placing a jagged chip on their shoulder.
What kind of pep talk works when your team is the 26½-point underdog?
“I think it’s the makeup of your team,” Sumlin said. “Every team is different. I’ve been on both sides.
“Trust me, if you’re a big favorite, you’d rather be that as a coach. … It’s a lot less stressful — I’ll put it that way.”
Sumlin then ticked off the time he spent as an assistant coach at Oklahoma, when the Sooners were expected to win every game “by 35 points.” He added that there were stretches when he was head coach at Houston during which domination was the weekly low bar to meet.
“Then being in situations where you’re given no chance, that can ruin you, too,” Sumlin said. “Some people can read that and believe it. They’re kids. They’re young adults, 18 to 23. They’re going to believe either scenario. What’s important is what the message is in the building.”
Alabama is such a formidable opponent because the Tide so rarely slips up in games they’re supposed to win. Bama has won 69 straight games against unranked opponents. For context, that’s a decade’s worth of beating up on teams outside the Top 25. Auburn was the last unranked team to knock off Bama. That was in November 2007.
But if A&M is to pull off an upset, here’s how it could happen:
• Alabama is due for a turnover. Through five games, the Tide have zero. The last time Bama suffered a turnover was in November against Auburn. Bama has reeled off 34 quarters and 590 plays since it last lost the ball.
Meanwhile, the A&M defense has forced a dozen, the most in the SEC. But 10 of the 12 turnovers came against nonconference opponents. The Aggies have forced one each in the past two games, with the biggest being safety Armani Watts’ interception in the end zone in overtime to beat Arkansas.
• Make Alabama score exclusively on offense.
It sounds easy enough — allow only offensive scores. But it’s more difficult than you think.
A year ago in Tuscaloosa, Alabama owned a 20-14 lead late in the third quarter. But Tide defensive lineman Jonathan Allen scooped up a Keith Ford fumble and converted it into a 29-yard touchdown.
The last time Bama visited Kyle Field, the Tide secondary returned three interceptions for touchdowns. Bama also burned Manziel for a pick-six in 2013. These sorts of momentum swings can be massive.
Alabama has abused nearly every opponent. It had 15 nonoffensive touchdowns in 2016 — the most by any team in the past two decades. The Tide scored 10 in 2015.
But those numbers have taken a dramatic turn this fall. Levi Wallace’s interception return last Saturday against Mississippi has been the lone nonoffensive score. Conversely, A&M’s Christian Kirk already has scored via a 100-yard kick return against Arkansas, and linebacker Tyrel Dodson had a 40-yard pick-six against Louisiana-Lafayette.
No. 1 Alabama at Texas A&M, 6:15 p.m., ESPN, 1370