TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — AJ McCarron and Alabama came up just short this time with the game, and probably their national title hopes, on the line.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide rallied from a three-touchdown deficit Saturday and nearly took the lead before leaving Bryant-Denny Stadium with a 29-24 loss to Johnny Manziel and No. 15 Texas A&M.
Now, the Tide (9-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) will have to beat struggling Auburn to clinch the West and get into the SEC title game.
As for the national title, Alabama will have to hope for another shakeup in the form of losses by Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame.
If the Tide wins out, and two of those teams go down, a third national championship in four seasons is still in play.
The Aggies (8-2, 5-2), playing in the SEC for the first season after ditching the Big 12, also might have ended the league’s run of BCS titles at six years.
Manziel passed for 253 yards and rushed for 92, confounding the Tide defense as the Aggies scored the game’s first 20 points.
“No moment is too big for him,” coach Kevin Sumlin said of his redshirt freshman.
“They played a tremendous game and certainly outplayed us,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
McCarron nearly pulled off a scintillating comeback. He threw one touchdown pass to cut the lead to 29-24, and motored the ball downfield before Deshazor Everett stepped in front of his fourth-down pass at the goal line with 1:36 left.
Alabama then forced a punt with less than a minute left, but A&M never had to kick it away. The Tide was penalized for offisides, giving Texas A&M a first down and a chance to kneel out the clock.
Alabama managed a second-shot national title after losing to LSU just over a year ago in the regular season but seems a longshot to do it again. Alabama would have secured a spot in the SEC Championship Game with a victory and only Western Carolina and Auburn remaining.
Alabama kept coming back, but never caught up with the slippery, speedy Manziel and the Aggies.
The nation’s top scoring defense, forced a punt with less than a minute left, but A&M never had to kick it away. The Tide was penalized for offisides, giving Texas A&M a first down and a chance to kneel out the clock.
“The players were told ‘make sure you stay onsides, they are going to try to get you to jump offsides with a shift or a motion or something,’” Saban said.
Before that, McCarron breathed life into Alabama with a 54-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to freshman Amari Cooper to make it 29-24 with 4:29 left.
A quick three-and-out by the Aggies put the ball in McCarron’s hands again. He opened at the 40 with a 54-yarder to speedster Kenny Bell down to the 6. Two scrambles and an Eddy Lacy run left one final shot from the 2 against a Texas A&M defense often overshadowed by its potent offense.
He had some time on third down, rolling left but finding Lacy well covered and having to try running it, a la Manziel, before Dustin Harris stopped him at the 2.
McCarron had rescued the Tide’s national title hopes with a 28-yard screen pass in the final minute for a 21-17 win over No. 9 LSU. The Aggies, nearly two-touchdown underdogs, didn’t let him do it again. Everett made the play on a pass toward the front corner of the end zone.
McCarron completed 21 of 34 passes for 309 yard but also was intercepted twice, ending his streak without getting picked off at 291 passes.
Eddie Lacy had 16 carries for 92 yards for Alabama and added 35 yards on four catches. Cooper had six catches for 136 yards a week after missing much the second half of the LSU game with an ankle injury, and failing to make a reception.
The Aggies had already lost to top-10 teams LSU and Florida by a combined eight points, proving they’re already challengers in the powerhouse SEC.
“We played with a chip on our shoulder,” receiver Ryan Swope said. “We were just trying to make a statement that we could compete with anybody in this league.”
Manziel completed 24 of 31 passes with two touchdowns and ran 18 times, including four sacks.
He kept finding Swope. They hooked up 11 times for 111 yards and a 10-yard touchdown where Manziel bobbled the ball as defenders swarmed him, reversed field and spotted Swope alone in the back of the end zone.
The Aggies’ first-quarter touchdown drives, giving them a 20-0 lead, stunned the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd of 101,821. Christine Michael had a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs in the quarter, along with Swope’s TD catch.
“We weren’t stunned at all,” Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “As a defense, we knew they were going to make plays, that’s what their offense depends on. They got a great quarterback, they got a great running back. We just have to settle down and play Alabama football.”
The rest of the game was an emotional roller-coaster ride for fans who might have thought LSU was the toughest test on the road to another championship.
Then Alabama flexed its own muscle to counter Manziel’s speed, sticking with power runs to set up 2-yard touchdown runs by T.J. Yeldon and Lacy.
McCarron also converted a fourth-and-4 with a pass to Lacy to set up the first score. Alabama marched back down the field after Mosley pushed Manziel out of bounds a yard shy on fourth-and-6.
The Tide ran out all but 19 seconds with a methodical drive right back into the game.
It was still the first time Alabama had trailed at halftime since a loss at South Carolina in 2010.
Jeremy Shelley kicked a 28-yard field goal with 4:49 in the third quarter to cut it to 20-17 and Taylor Bertolet answered with a short one to start the fourth.