On Saturday Alabama will play host to the Jim McElwain led Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference. Colorado State already had a full twelve game slate prior to adding this game, and for their troubles they'll receive a cool 1.5 million dollars. CSU will enter the game with a 1-2 record ... losing their first two games -- 41-27 at a neutral site against Colorado and 30-27 on the road against Tulsa -- before winning last weekend at home against Cal Poly by a score of 34-17.
Coach McElwain inherited quite the mess at Colorado State, but he slowly seems to be turning things around. They just signed their best class in quite some time, netting seven 3-star recruits. By Mountain West standards that's quite good, and if they can have similar success in the coming years they should be approaching the upper echelon of the conference in the near future.
The Rams return eight starters on offense and are led by junior quarterback Garrett Grayson. Coach McElwain is probably best known for his ability to work with quarterbacks (being a former QB himself), and Grayson seems to have improved under his tutelage, finishing the 2012 season strong before being forced out of action with an injury. However, Grayson is off to a bit of a rough beginning this year. In three games he has only completed 56.1% of his passes, and is averaging a paltry 6.18 yards per attempt. On the plus side Grayson has spread the ball around nicely. Eleven different Rams have caught passes this year, with none of them having hit double figure receptions yet. Freshman WR Jordon Vaden leads the team with 105 receiving yards (to go along with a 52 yard reception) while sophomore Rashard Higgins leads the way with 9 receptions. Vaden, listed at 6' 3'', is their go to weapon on the outside, and is the player to watch in the Rams' passing game.
While they've lacked major production in the passing game, the Rams have found more success on the ground. Chris Nwoke and Kapri Bibbs have received the majority of the carries, and both are averaging over 5 yards a pop (5 and 5.6 respectively). They've combined for a total of 4 touchdowns, and each has broken off a run of longer than 40 yards. Donnell Alexander, who was one of the feature backs in 2012, should also see some carries on Saturday, although he's off to a slower start this year, only averaging 3.5 yards per carry. These backs will be running behind a very experienced offensive line, led by four seniors ... three of which are returning starters, while the other saw significant playing time in a sixth man role. The player to watch is center Weston Richburg, who is on the Rimington watch list. While Alabama's front seven is almost certain to be up to the challenge, CSU's running attack is a strength and should not be taken lightly.
On the defensive side of the ball the Rams return six starters and they operate out of a base 3-4. The line will be comprised of three new starters, led by 330 pound nose tackle and JUCO transfer, Calvin Tonga. Eli Edwards and Terry Jackson (also JUCO transfers) start at the two defensive end positions. True freshman Austin Berk will also see significant snaps in a backup role. The strength of their linebacking corps are their outside backers, where they return two starters, Shaquil Barrett and Cory James. Barrett is a player to watch, particularly on passing downs when he's likely to rush off the edge. They also return both of their starting inside backers, Aaron Davis and Max Morgan, each of whom finished the 2012 season with 80+ tackles. In the secondary the Rams return one starting cornerback, Shaq Bell, and one starting safety, strong safety Trent Matthews. DeAndre Elliott will man the other cornerback position while Kevin Pierre-Louis will play free safety. Of all the position groupings on defense, defensive back is the clear weak link, largely due to lack of talent. On the other hand, what the defensive line lacks in experience they make up for in talent. The defensive line and linebackers form what is a fairly strong front seven for the Rams.
In terms of how Alabama will attack this defense, frankly it doesn't much matter. The talent is stacked so far in Alabama's favor that no matter what they do they're almost certain to move the ball with relative ease. But of course, it's more about the process than the result, especially in games like this.
It also would be nice to jump out to a huge lead early on, so the backups can get upwards of 20-30 minutes of game experience. I have no clue (honestly, how can you?) who the starting QB will be next year, but this game should provide Blake Sims and/or Alec Morris with a good opportunity to start making their case. Beyond that I'm excited to see both Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny spend more time on the field, while running behind the likes of Alphonse Taylor and Leon Brown. On the other side of the ball the secondary is probably the place to watch. My guess is that Deion Belue does not play this week, which means second and third stringers should see extended action at the cornerback position. Saban mentioned that two freshmen are possible replacements ... one of which is obviously Maurice Smith and I'm guessing the other is Eddie Jackson. Hopefully this game provides both of them with some valuable experience. And of course, it'll be nice to get to see more of Reuben Foster.
Lastly, I apologize that this post lacks the sort of insight that many of you may have expected. I had a difficult time finding much film of Colorado State, and was thus limited in what I could do, in terms of analysis and meaningful evaluations. I hope this will suffice, and rest assured, my Ole Miss preview will be far different. Enjoy the game and Roll Tide!