College Football Coverage: Alabama-Texas A&M Keys TV Trifecta

Week 3 of the college football season is highlighted by the big Alabama-Texas A&M battle from College Station on Saturday. And bracketing that game in the early and late time slots are games featuring contenders from both the Big Ten and Pac-12. Let’s hone in on the three biggest games of Week 3, taking them in TV order…

UCLA-Nebraska (Noon, ABC): Both of these teams won their divisions a year ago, but came up short of what would have been a rematch in the Rose Bowl. The Bruins hosted the Cornhuskers in September of 2012 and UCLA’s 36-30 win set the tone for the hard-nosed running game that would characterize Jim Mora Jr.’s first year in Hollywood.

Jonathan Franklin is gone from that UCLA rush offense, but Jordan James stepped in with a 155-yard performance in a 58-20 tuneup win over Nevada, a program that’s usually been a bowl team in recent years and gave the NFL world Colin Kaepernick. UCLA’s opening day win served notice that they’re a strong threat to win another Pac-12 South title, particularly with USC looking like such a disaster.

Nebraska did not play well in an escape over Wyoming, and then blew out Southern Miss, a team who went winless last season. What’s disturbing about the Cornhuskers is that they continue to look subpar defensively, at least when measured against the standard of other good teams. This is something my Monday podcast colleague, Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network has expressed mysticism over—how can head coach Bo Pellini, who’s expertise is defense, continue to be bereft of talent on that side of the ball?

We do know Nebraska can score, with Taylor Martinez pulling the trigger at quarterback. But the key to this game will be the play of UCLA’s quarterback, sophomore Brett Hundley, in his second year as a starter. If Hundley plays well, the Bruins then become a significantly better team the Huskers, even in Lincoln.

But if UCLA does not have a passing attack, then it becomes a fight for tempo, with Martinez trying to drive the pace like a point guard on a fast-break basketball team, and UCLA wanting to use James and their defense to grind it out.

What I like about UCLA is that there is one scenario where they become much better, and another scenario where they still have a pick’em, shot. What I don’t like is that they’re on the road and I’m feeling burned after picking the road team in all three of last week’s big games (losing with South Carolina, Florida and Notre Dame). I’m going to hedge my bets here and take the Bruins, but only with the (+4) the linesmakers are offering.

Alabama-Texas A&M (3:30, CBS): The big battle here is Johnny Manziel against the Alabama defense. The Tide has a veteran group of linebackers that can keep Manziel in the pocket and force him to win the game without improvising, where he is at his best. Alabama’s defense played very well in their Week 1 win over Virginia Tech, but Manziel is no Logan Thomas, A&M’s supporting cast is much better, and Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin is much more an offensive mind than Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer.

The other big battle is one defined more by combined incompetence. Alabama’s offensive line was lousy against Virginia Tech was universally panned by a media that’s usually anxious to heap adoring remarks on the Crimson Tide.

On Saturday, though, they get to block a defensive front seven from A&M that’s not going to remind anyone of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. If neither unit improves, give the edge to A&M, simply because it’s incumbent on the offensive line to win battles and create space, where defensive players need only hold the battle to a draw and keep everything clogged up.

I think Alabama is going to contain Manziel, but unless A&M self-destructs with turnovers, ‘Bama is likely to need at least 21-24 points, even if all goes well. It may come down to A.J. McCarron making a few plays down the field to Amari Cooper. Even if McCarron doesn’t get consistent protection—and he probably won’t—it only takes 2-3 big strikes to change the game. But we do have to note that the Tide quarterback couldn’t make those plays against the Hokies.

Alabama is an eight-point favorite, something that seems excessive, given that they lost when these teams played head-to-head last season. And that was a home game for ‘Bama. I wouldn’t lay this number with the Tide, but I will pick them to win without a lot of hesitation.

For one, I think the “self-destruct” theory is going to work with Manziel. I expect Nick Saban to have a good game plan, to frustrate him and get some forced throws.  I’ll give McCarron and Cooper the benefit of the doubt, that they can make some plays. And ultimately, I think Manziel has just put a big target on his back for everyone in the SEC, and Alabama already has reason to be fired up to play him.  Saban gets this win, his last serious test before November’s home date with LSU.

Wisconsin-Arizona State (10:30, ESPN): Arizona State looks like the best possible challenger to UCLA in the Pac-12 South, while Wisconsin is the only realistic challenger to Ohio State on their side of the Big Ten, and the Badgers also have realistic hopes of making a BCS bowl game.

Neither team has given up a point this year, although the opposition is Sacramento State, UMass and Tennessee Tech. This is the first legitimate game either team is playing.

The battle in the trenches when Wisconsin has the ball should be fun. The Badgers have their usual power running game, now led by James White and Melvin Gordon. The former brings the shiftiness between the tackles, the latter a classic combo of speed and strength. Arizona State counters with a defensive front led by All-American Will Sutton on the nose.

When Arizona State has the ball, it’s going to the pass rush that defines life in the trenches. Wisconsin’s secondary is suspect, while they are strong up front. Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly can have a good game if he gets time—and left tackle Evan Finkenburg is one of the best—and Wisconsin coach Gary Anderson has a tough decision to make about whether to bring pressure or play it safe.

The Sun Devils have been a hot choice in this game since lines were posted in Las Vegas in the summer, with ASU now at (-4.5), a surprising number. Even if you grant them (-3) as the home team, this is a lot of respect given to a program that’s not actually accomplished anything in recent years. As a Wisconsin fan I’m biased, but I like our chances here. Joel Stave is an underrated downfield passer at quarterback and he can open the defense to pound with White and Gordon. I suspect a fair amount of points will be scored, and the desert heat is a concern for a Midwest team on the road in September. But at least the game is at night, and a lot of UW fans will be in attendance. I’ll take Bucky to get a big road win.

TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage also looks at 11 other notable games on the Week 3 undercard.