TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Now it’s out of Alabama’s hands.
The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide has not only lost that aura of invincibility that seemed to surround Nick Saban’s team through eight games and the final two minutes against LSU, but surrendered control of its fate in the national title derby. No. 9 Texas A&M made sure of that with Johnny Manziel’s dazzling performance and a goal line stand in Saturday’s 29-24 upset.
Bama (9-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) fell three spots from its nearly season-long perch atop the rankings and now must hope for some sort of shakeup among No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 Notre Dame.
The word of the night from Saban was “recommit,” and he used it several times after the game. The Tide nearly duplicated its last-minute game-winning drive of the previous week against LSU, but still had plenty of issues that had seldom crept up against lesser competition.
“I was really concerned about this week,” Saban said. “We seemed like we were a little bit out of gas, and Texas A&M is a really good team and they played really, really well. Their quarterback’s a really fantastic player and made some plays that were great plays out there. And you have to have a tremendous amount of discipline to play a guy like that, and there were times when we didn’t quite get it done the way we’d like to.
“I think our players will recommit themselves and do the things that they need to do to finish the season the right way, and hopefully have an opportunity to accomplish something of significance with this particular team,” Saban said.
Alabama does still control its own fate in the SEC, but has little chance in the next two games to make a statement for poll voters or the BCS computers. Next up is a visit from Western Carolina, a 1-9 FCS team. Then comes Auburn (2-8, 0-7 SEC).
A win over the Tigers puts the Tide into the SEC championship game against No. 5 Georgia on Dec. 1. Alabama had trailed only 15 seconds through eight games. Saban pointed out that his 2003 national champion LSU team lost 19-7 to Florida and last year’s Tide team dropped a 9-6 overtime decision to LSU.
Alabama’s offense has been inconsistent the past two games, with performances that went from sputtering to fantastic faster than Saban can scowl. Quarterback AJ McCarron pulled off a dramatic last-gasp rescue in Baton Rouge but was picked off at the goal line — his second of the game and the season — trying to do it again.
The defense has been vulnerable, too, even though Alabama and Notre Dame yield the nation’s fewest points. Bama has allowed 435 and 418 yards against LSU and Texas A&M (8-2, 5-2) but still made a stop at the end that would have forced a punt except for an offsides penalty.
“We really had a lot of undisciplined, missed assignments, not playing with the kind of discipline you have to play with, especially against their quarterback, ” Saban said.
Whatever sliver of an opening the Tide allowed, Manziel squirted through it. He passed for 253 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 92 yards, while completing 21 of his first 22 passes.
Manziel led touchdown drives on the Aggies’ first three possessions against a team that had outscored opponents 104-6 in the opening quarter. He might have left Tuscaloosa a solid Heisman Trophy candidate, he definitely left with Alabama’s respect.
“That’s the kind of player he is,” Saban said. “The players have to know that they have to contain him, that he’s going to scramble, that he’s elusive and he’s instinctive in the pocket, and he’s also fast. So if you get pushed by the quarterback, which we did once on third down, if you don’t stay in your pass rush lane, he’s going out the gate. We adjusted to that, because he must have had 50 yards rushing in the first quarter.”
In fact, he ran for 74 and passed for a touchdown on a play when he bobbled the ball in a crowd before rolling away from the pressure. The Aggies also converted their first seven third-down attempts, including that 10-yard TD pass to Ryan Swope and Manziel’s 32-yard scamper into Tide territory in the first quarter.
“Zero-for-seven in the beginning of the game on third down kept every one of their drives alive, led to points,” Saban said. “We played better as the game went on, but we still didn’t make the plays that we needed to make.”
McCarron passed for 201 of his 309 yards in the fourth quarter, including a 50-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper and a 54-yarder to Kenny Bell on the final drive that set up first down from the 6 before the fourth-down interception.
“Everybody needs to recommit themselves to playing better, being a little more consistent, and being somebody that they can trust us, we’re going to put them in a good situation,” Saban said.