The Chase for the Crystal Football

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Alabama-Texas A&M, true to the hype, was a shootout from beginning to end.  Johnny Manziel orchestrated a seven-play touchdown drive to start it.  He followed with a five-play drive to go up by 14.

The very next drive Alabama found its groove, and that was all she rolled.

Going for a third consecutive national championship, Alabama seems to have only one vulnerability:  a defense that looks a step slower than last year’s.  Johnnyball scored 29 points last time, in Tuscaloosa, 42 this time in College Station.

The lack of swagger on defense (you can’t swagger when you’re walking backwards) makes the team vulnerable should there be an offense that’s even slightly more up-tempo than A&M’s.

Turns out there is such a team, the Oregon Ducks, more on them later.

Until he reaches the BCS Championship Game, Nick Saban does not have to worry about second-ranked Oregon.  His two toughest remaining regular-season opponents are Ole Miss and LSU, and both games are in comforting Tuscaloosa.

No matter where the game is played, Mississippi bears enough resemblance to Texas A&M to make Tide fans a bit uneasy.  Like the Aggies, Ole Miss has fast, sure-handed receivers.  And in Bo Wallace the Rebels have a mobile big-play and improvising quarterback, though one who, like Johnny Manziel, is from time to time intercepted.

For the Rebs, defense is where problems lie.  Here they look no stronger than what Texas A&M set in front of A.J. McCarron and Co.  Like the Aggies, inexperience  on defense may leave them short of victory.

After Ole Miss, Alabama’s next test becomes Nov. 9 in the always decisive meeting with LSU.  It was widely assumed Les Miles would see his mighty defense step backward with the departure of six stars to the pros.  But any decline seems slight.  Rest assured, LSU is still a bastion of defense, even if nobody else is.

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ offense improves with the continued development of senior QB Zach Mettenberger, who came within 4 points of beating Bama last year.  This year he’s being tutored by NFL import Cam Cameron.

Besides Ole Miss and LSU, the Tide must beware of road bumps in Lexington, Ky., and Starkville, Miss.  And after that, the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta, where they will feel like they’re facing the home team, if the opponent is the Georgia Bulldogs, another team with enough speed to test Alabama’s secondary.

Assuming the Tide reach the BCS Championship final, there could be the Dream Game:  Alabama’s versatile but traditional offense on one side and on the other the high-tech, high-octane scoring machine of Oregon, currently averaging 61 points per game.  The popular assumption turns out to be erroneous, that the underpublicized Marcus Mariota cannot be the same quarterback he was before coach Chip Kelly went pro.

In the isolation of the Pacific Northwest, Mark Helfrich is running to near perfection the lightning-paced Oregon offense the master taught him.  It seems improbable Alabama – or anyone else for that matter — can stop it.

As we plot out the road to the championship, we should not forget Louisville. Teddy Bridgewater is the real deal and some scouts are saying he could even go in the first round of next year’s draft.  And to go along with its Heisman-hoping quarterback the Cardinals field one of the best defenses in the nation.

Oh and by the way, their next nine games are against unranked opponents. This is a Cinderella story in the making.

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