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Saban manages to beat Manziel, barely

Image: Alabama coach Nick Saban (left), Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel (Matthew Emmons, USA Today Sports)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban talks with Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel after the game.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas

This was order restored. It was one generation telling the next one that it will have to wait its turn, and to show a little respect, stand up straight and tuck in its shirt.

It was order beating chaos, Nick Saban beating Johnny Manziel. Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42.

“I know you’re trying to make it out as a 61-year-old going against their quarterback,’’ Saban said. “We wouldn’t have a chance in that game.’’

His point was that it was a team effort, of course. It was a process. It was discipline. And I love how he didn’t use the word “Manziel.”

But what did you just see from the quarterbacks, Manziel and A.J. McCarron? It’s impossible to predict what Heisman voters saw, but Manziel was typical Manziel, throwing for 464 yards and five touchdowns, and running for 98 more yards. He almost pulled this off, even though his team isn’t nearly as good as Alabama’s.

Meanwhile, McCarron was typical McCarron, making the reads, throwing to the right place, not making mistakes. He threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns and beat the No. 6-ranked team on the road.

Saban said McCarron did a great job of “implementing’’ the gameplan.

Implementing. That’s got to hurt McCarron.

The point is that it’s very possible the Heisman Trophy was won here Saturday, but I’m not sure which quarterback won it. (Yes, Teddy Bridgewater and Marcus Mariota are still in the running).

To me, McCarron gets the edge because Johnny F. mixed in two killer interceptions in his chaos.

The truth is that it’s going to take a culture change for McCarron to win it. There is just not enough ME in him to win a national popularity contest with Manziel.

Manziel is the guy your daughter wants to date, while McCarron is the guy you want her to marry.

The attention goes to the guy defying authority, not abiding by it. The guy who is on Twitter talking about his rap buddies, and LeBron, and celebrating his partying. And he’s on the field making autograph- and money-signs after his autograph scandal as a raised middle finger to the world.

During the week leading up to the game, I was in Alabama talking to players. At one point, in the hall of the football offices I tracked down McCarron and asked him if he could ever see freelancing in a game like Manziel.

He laughed, and said he did it as a kid, but not as Alabama’s quarterback. He did say, though, that Saban was giving him more freedom now than he used to.

After the game, he said that “the whole game, coach allowed me to check in and out of plays. He would give me a run call, and I know that I have certain checks out of it. Coach left it in my hands today to get us in the right play.’’

I’m not sure granting someone freedom that way will inspire votes. But it did probably put McCarron in position to win his third straight national championship.

See, this game was one big culture clash. And it was easier to evaluate things last year, when Manziel beat Alabama. But this time, Saban spent months trying to figure out how to stop this punk.

He didn’t use that word.

But he did talk with coaches around the country and start game-planning in the spring. The goal was to keep Manziel in the pocket, regain control and show that a sound process and fundamentals can beat an individual.

It didn’t work out that way. But Saban was fine with that. Overall, his control beat Manziel’s chaos.

“It’s their offensive team, their offensive system,’’ Saban said, “and him managing it.’’

Look, Saban spoke highly about Manziel. But some of his post-game quotes felt a little like an end-zone dance, Saban style.

A few years ago, Saban called McCarron a "game-manager," and that label has stuck with McCarron.

He hates it.

The truth is, McCarron is, in fact, a fantastic game-manager. In Saban’s world, as an old-time coach, he means that as a good thing. In a modern era, it suggests that a player can’t create on his own, can’t be an individual like ... Manziel.

And what did Saban just say? That A&M is about an offensive system with Manziel “managing’’ it.

It’s too close of a call whether Saban meant that as a compliment or as a way of suggesting that no one person is bigger than a system.

Manziel rarely speaks to the media anymore because, well, I’m not sure exactly. But he did after the game Saturday. He said he was proud of his teammates, and that the season isn’t over after one loss. He noted that Alabama went on to win the national title last year after losing to A&M.

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But when someone asked him something about his autograph signing, a Texas A&M official nearly ended the press conference.

Well, he started the game just like last year’s, quickly confusing Alabama. Halfway through the first quarter, A&M led 14-0, and Alabama already had to have a team meeting. It was a reminder that the Tide trailed 20-0 in the first quarter last year and then took control and almost won.

So don’t panic now.

Alabama’s offensive line, which was lousy in the season opener, dominated from there. And McCarron was smart and solid, checking in and out of plays when Saban allowed him to be an individual, and ...

I really don’t want to use the term game-manager again. But after this game, it just doesn’t seem that bad.

Tagged: Alabama, Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel

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