COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As badly as Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin wants Saturday's Alabama-Texas A&M showdown to be about team vs. team, quarterback Johnny Manziel is squarely in the center of every storyline. And like it or not, the polarization of opinions on the sophomore Heisman Trophy winner -- win or lose -- is about to reach a new level.
A few of the side shows that will command attention:
» Will Manziel outplay his quarterback counterpart and friend AJ McCarron, a fifth-year senior who is as road-tested as any quarterback in the nation? NFL.com's Bucky Brooks examined that matchup in microscopic detail.
» When he passes, it will be into the teeth of the most well-prepared defense he has ever faced. College football's most successful head coach, Nick Saban, is a defensive mastermind who routinely spends much of his practice time working directly with the defensive backs. After all, he was one once. And he's been preparing for Texas A&M's hurry-up, no-huddle pace for months. Even back in spring practice, Alabama's offense snapped the ball as fast as possible to simulate the Aggies' dizzying tempo. And the UA secondary carries out marching orders to the finest detail.
» Atop all this, Manziel faces Johnny Cam. The CBS Sports broadcast will include a camera focused on the emotional star's every move, from tunnel to tunnel, even on the sidelines when the A&M offense is off the field. How Manziel plays, and how Manziel reacts to how he plays, will be presented as alternating forms of entertainment. And don't think for a minute there won't be a lot of TV sets tuned into the broadcast more for the latter than the former.
The legend of Johnny Football, now 12 months in the making, could explode or implode in a single afternoon. When the fourth-quarter clock reaches 0:00 at Kyle Field around 7 p.m., the haters will hate more. The fans will fan more. All that's uncertain is which faction will have something to crow about.
What's especially fascinating is that plenty of Manziel haters might also be Alabama haters. Who outside of Alabama hasn't tired of the Crimson Tide's stranglehold on the college game? Many of those who want to see Manziel throw three interceptions, two tantrums and a helmet will have to root for the team they most want to see toppled.
"Manziel, he's doing something I never thought was possible, he's going to make me root for Alabama this weekend" -Charles Barkleyâ The SEC Logo (@SEC_Logo) September 12, 2013
Football allegiances make for strange bedfellows.
Fair or not, only two things this season could provide Manziel with a grander stage than the one he'll step onto Saturday: An SEC Championship Game appearance, or a BCS National Championship Game appearance.
Beat Alabama, and the legend continues its skyward spiral.
Lose, and Johnny Football might just be playing for another Cotton Bowl.
Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread