The SEC’s Game of the Week features an LSU team looking to bounce back from a demoralizing loss at top-ranked Alabama against a Johnny Manziel-led program still clinging to at-large BCS hopes with two losses.
The West rematch most of the country labeled as one of the SEC’s Top 5 games coming into this season has lost some of its luster thanks to the Tigers’ pair of unexpected road losses, but don’t expect this one to be a snoozer. LSU’s defense has an opportunity to hang its hat on a signature win before bowl season while Texas A&M could use some away-from-home style points over its final two contests against ranked teams in front of BCS bowl representatives.
Here’s what to watch for Saturday afternoon:
Heisman campaign turned up a notch: We’ve all seen the statistics — Manziel’s numbers in 2013 dwarf last season’s top performances during the redshirt freshman’s spirited run to a Heisman trophy. With the emergence of outside weapon Mike Evans, Manziel has a higher completion percentage and has thrown for more yards and touchdowns. The dual-threat quarterback will have his hands full in Baton Rouge against a defense with an ultra-fast front seven. If he responds with a monster outing inside one the nation’s most intimidating environments, he becomes the front-runner. However, Manziel tossed three interceptions in last season’s meeting and if he does the same Saturday without multiple touchdowns to offset, Florida State’s Jameis Winston may start preparing his acceptance speech.
Is A&M tough enough defensively to stop Jeremy Hill and Odell Beckham?: The Aggies boast their own 1-2 punch in Manziel and Evans, but LSU’s combination of Hill-Beckham is among the country’s best at 201.5 yards of offense per game. Since being suspended for the season opener against TCU, Hill’s bested last season’s effort with 964 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in nine games. A&M’s problems up front on defense are well-documented and in last year’s grudge match with the Aggies, Hill averaged 7.1 yards per carry. Beckham remains Zach Mettenberger’s touchdown machine and often feasts in 1-on-1 situations.
Bye, bye, bye: Ranked teams returning to the field after bye weeks usually means better execution and both Les Miles and Kevin Sumlin know a thing or two about game planning prior to featured matchups. Under Sumlin, the Aggies outlasted Ole Miss, 41-38, following a bye and obliterated Oklahoma in last year’s Cotton Bowl with the coaching staff’s additional six weeks to prepare. During his stint at Houston, Sumlin led the Cougars four wins in five games after bye weeks with the only loss coming to Mississippi State in 2010. Miles is 2-2 the last four seasons against Alabama coming off a bye with the Tigers. He beat Auburn with an extra week in 2009.
Will special teams play have an impact?: LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye has made 10-of-11 field goal tries this season, the highest percentage in the SEC among players with double-digit makes. A&M’s Josh Lambo is 6-of-7, but hasn’t attempted a kick in the last three games. With as many points as the Aggies are giving up this season (30.9 PPG), you have to think Miles will take the Mad Hatter touchdown approach in and around the red zone. A&M leads the SEC in net punting at 41.3 yards per boot, a necessary counter-weapon against an offense intent on dominating possession and keeping the football away from Manziel and the Aggies offense.
Turnover margin, 50-50 balls important: Only two SEC teams — Georgia and Arkansas — are worse in turnover margin this season than LSU at minus-4. Providing A&M with a few extra possessions in Baton Rouge would be fatal for the Tigers in hopes of getting to a nine-win regular season. In the same breath, LSU’s secondary must take advantage of Manziel’s improvisation on the move and take away any ball that’s thrown up for grabs down the field.
Players to watch:
Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU: Beckham gets most of the pub with a list of electrifying plays, but Landy’s the sure-handed possession option as LSU’s leader in catches. Since catching 10 passes for 156 yards at Georgia on Sept. 28, Landry’s caught four more passes than his junior teammate but has seen an unexpected dip in trips to the end zone. Landy opened the season with touchdown catches in five straight games but only has one — at Ole Miss — over the last six weeks. He’s tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with eight and the Tigers could use a couple more from No. 80 against the Aggies.
Johnny Manziel, QB, A&M: It’s obvious Manziel’s play is the determining factor in A&M’s success, but without much help from his defense this season, the spunky sophomore has suffered two losses despite gargantuan performances in those games. LSU isn’t going to score touchdowns on every possession despite A&M’s deficiencies, so it’s crucial Manziel delivers when the Aggies get stops. Don’t expect the Tigers to hold Manziel without a touchdown for a second consecutive season. It’s not the same NFL-laden defense LSU once possessed, at least not at the moment.