One year ago this weekend, Alabama faced a Georgia State program which was in its first year of existence and which was at the very bottom of the Football Championship Series ladder. That program was led by a former Alabama coach who had not roamed the sidelines at any level in almost fifteen years, and most of the players on the Georgia State roster would not have been accepted into the Alabama program even as walk-ons destined for a career on the scout team. On net, it was probably the weakest opponent 'Bama had faced in decades.
And while it may be tempting to group Georgia Southern into that same generic category given the similarity in name and classification, this team is light years ahead of where Georgia State was a year ago. In short, Georgia Southern is the kind of program that Georgia State wants to become in the many years, perhaps even decades, ahead. Obviously the Eagles are still an FCS opponent and accordingly Alabama remains a heavy favorite for good reason, but this won't exactly be the taking-candy-from-a-baby routine that 'Bama experienced one year ago.
Georgia State comes into Tuscaloosa sporting a 9-1 record and ranked #2 overall nationally in the FCS. The Eagles wrapped up a Southern Conference championship last weekend with a win over Wofford, and the only blot on their resume is a 24-17 road loss to Appalachian State, where they failed many times in the second half to seize victory due to various misadventures in the red zone (sound familiar?). The playoffs can tend to be a different beast entirely, but head coach Jeff Monken expects to make a serious run at a championship this season and it would come as no surprise if State came out on top in the coming weeks.
In terms of the on-field match-up, Georgia Southern brings the triple option to Tuscaloosa, which marks the first time 'Bama has had to defend against that offense in ages. Jaybo Shaw, a Georgia Tech transfer, leads the Eagles from under center, and as a whole the offense has a throwback feel that will make many 'Bama fans feel nostalgic. The passing game is largely non-existent but when present it usually strikes with big plays down the field; the leading receiver, Johnathan Bryant, has only eight catches on the season but averages over 33 yards per reception. The football gets distributed to a countless rotation of backs in the running game, with nine players on the roster having over 100 rushing yards on the season, and the offensive line is comprised of undersized, fleet-footed players who all move very well. The starting line as a whole averages only about 270 pounds.
Many years ago, both players and coaches alike had years of experience defending against the triple option, but given how few programs run this offense now at any level of the game, it presents a relatively daunting task for anyone trying to learn how to defend it essentially from scratch on short notice. The 'Bama defense has been dominating all season, but it will be forced to do things this weekend that it is not accustomed to doing. Obviously Alabama will have a heavy advantage in size and speed, but digesting the triple option in the course of five days is anything but easy and it should come as no surprise if Georgia Southern has some success and a couple of big plays mixed in. Discipline on the defensive side of the ball figures to be key.
Fortunately, though, the Georgia Southern defense shouldn't present those problems, as the Eagles run more of a traditional attack. This has been a solid unit on the season, but it's vulnerable particularly in the linebacker corps, and the defensive backfield has yet to face anything like the caliber of athlete that Alabama has outside in the passing game. The defensive line lacks size and their quickness will likely be the toughest problem for the 'Bama offensive line; getting a hat on a hat could prove tricky at times against players smaller than some of Alabama's linebackers.
Special teams, as is almost always the case for Alabama, heavily favors the opposition. Georgia Southern kicker Adrian Mora has not missed a kick all season and the Eagles have been strong to date both punting the football and in the return game, so don't be surprised if the Tide's special teams woes continue another week.
In the meantime, once again Alabama expects to be limited with injuries this weekend. Nick Saban said last night on his radio show that both Barrett Jones and Darius Hanks were "highly questionable," and neither are expected to play. Defensive lineman Jesse Williams is also not expected to play given a shoulder injury suffered last weekend in Starkville, so 'Bama looks to have as many as three starters out tomorrow night. The hope for the time being is that those players can return for the Iron Bowl -- no guarantee, mind you -- so don't expect the UA coaching staff to take any chances with them this weekend.
All in all, Alabama should win and should do so by a relatively comfortable margin, but again this is not a repeat of Georgia State. It will not be an obligatory annihilation, and unlike last year 'Bama could actually have to fight for victory on into the second half. Stopping the triple option could be problematic, and Alabama will have to quickly acclimate itself to all of the misdirection, which is probably why this game was scheduled in the first place (i.e. as a way of helping prepare for all of the moving parts of Gus Malzahn's attack next weekend at Auburn).
'Bama comes into this game as a physically beaten team and as mentioned earlier several key cogs do not expect to be in action this week. Next weekend presents the regular season finale with a road trip to Auburn, and while the Tigers have generally played poorly all season and look to be relatively weak, a clean bill of health would certainly make life much easier for the Tide. 'Bama needs to get healthy and stay healthy while praying for chaos throughout the rest of the college football landscape to help bolster the Tide's chances of a trip to New Orleans.
Hope for the best.