Both teams head to Shreveport with 6-6 records, and just like the 2006 Independence Bowl, one team will fall to a losing season, while the other will narrowly finish with a winning record and have a small amount of momentum heading into the off-season. Colorado probably feels pretty good to be playing in the Independence Bowl, giving the fact that they finished 2-10 in 2006 and needed to beat Nebraska in the regular season finale just to become bowl eligible. Alabama, on the other hand, looked like it was heading to Atlanta with three minutes left in the LSU, but crashed and burned in the final 180 seconds, a slide that the Tide has yet to recover from. As a result, begrudgingly, Alabama finds itself in Shreveport for the second year in a row and the third time in six years. Make no mistake about it, no one grows up dreaming of playing in Shreveport in late December, but nevertheless that is the end result that these two teams have earned, and Sunday night will decide which squad can make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
Alabama Defense v. Colorado Offense
Offensively, the Buffs are led at quarterback by a redshirt freshman, Cody Hawkins. If you haven't seen Hawkins play before, he will probably remind you a good deal of John Parker Wilson, sans the mobility. He has played well a few times this year, but he's not a very accurate passer, he struggles greatly to stretch the field vertically, and he throws a lot of interceptions. Colorado is only 56th in the nation in passing offense, and the only reason they are ranked that high is because Hawkins has launched 424 passes on the season. What the Buffs do with Hawkins, however, is prevent sacks and major negative loss plays. Despite throwing the football 424 times this year, Hawkins has only been sacked 14 times, and that has largely been the key to their passing offense.
The Buffs' running game is more of a concern. Starting tailback Hugh Charles has ran for almost 1,000 yards this season, despite being extremely limited in the first three games, and only getting the ball around 20 times per contest. Physically, Charles (5'8", 190 pounds) is very similar to Alabama's Terry Grant, but Charles is senior and is much more adept at following his blocking and allowing the play to develop. He, much like Grant, does not have breakaway speed, and is not particularly a big play threat. However, he is a smart, shifty runner, and he uses that to consistently generate nice gains on the ground. He likely won't have any eye-popping long runs, but he will generally avoid negative plays and do his best to keep the chains moving.
All in all, the Buffs will try to consistently move the ball on the ground and open things up for their passing attack. Hawkins generally doesn't put up huge numbers, and most of his throws are generally shorter passes, but that is all a designed system in how they operate. They will likely throw the ball a good bit on Sunday night, but they are looking for consistent chunks of yardage, and not big plays in the passing game. The Buffs will try to do that, while getting good production from Charles on the ground, and then hope that Hawkins can protect the football.
Defensively, the late season collapse from the Crimson Tide has overshadowed the solid play from the defense. The four game collapse was painful, but it was not a result of defensive ineptitude, as the Tide defense has held four of its last five opponents to 21 points or fewer, despite having to deal with critical turnovers from the offense. At the risk of sounding cocky, Alabama's defense should stack up quite well against the Buffs' offense. Colorado isn't a terrible offensive team, but Alabama has faced far better over the course of the season, and has done well against those units. Barring a complete defensive meltdown, or a bunch of turnovers from the Alabama offense, the Tide defense should be able to keep Colorado's point production relatively low.
Alabama Offense v. Colorado Defense
In all likelihood, this is the key match-up of the night, and it will go a long way to determining the victor.
Defensively, Colorado is a stout unit when it comes to stopping the run. They get very good play from their starting interior defensive linemen -- George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas, two short and stout players who use the concepts of leverage and pad level particularly well on the playing field -- and middle linebacker Jordan Dizon is really something special, as he has racked up 160 tackles on the year, with 120 coming in as solos. The only downside to the Colorado rushing defense is that their front seven is generally small, and as a result they can be overpowered. No one in the linebacker corps tops the scale at 225 pounds or more, and they have struggled a bit against very physical offensive lines this year.
Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, though, the running game hasn't been seen since the Fat One was last spotted in Tuscaloosa. Alabama will be going back to its original five starting linemen, and we just all have to hope that will reinvigorate the rushing attack. Moreover, the backs should all be relatively healthy coming into this game, but unfortunately that does nothing to change the fact that none of them are particularly special runners. All in all, the Crimson Tide -- provided that the offensive line returns to early season form -- can effectively run the ball against the Buffs, but if the rushing attack shows up like it did over the final month of the season, things will be ugly.
The Colorado pass defense, however, hasn't been so good. They currently sit 70th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, and most of the good quarterbacks that they have faced this season have torn them to shreds. At best, it's a very porous unit that just isn't very good. Making things worse, the Buffs really cannot rush the passer either, as they sit 94th in the nation in sacks, only getting one sack, per average, on roughly every twenty-five throws.
Of course, the problem with that is -- regardless of how bad the Colorado pass defense may be -- whether or not John Parker Wilson and the Alabama passing attack can actually take advantage of it. Though he played great against Tennessee, 2007 has been a terrible year for Wilson, and he has struggled greatly against defensive backfields much worse than this one. Just because Colorado has struggled greatly to defend the pass does not mean that we will be able to throw the football effectively.
All in all, sigh, though we should be able to move the ball effectively against Colorado and score a good number of points, there is a very good chance that we will again crash and burn offensively amidst our own incompetence.
Putting It All Together
When you put it all together, these two teams are very similar, about as you would expect from two 6-6 squads. In reality, neither team is particularly good, and the outcome of the game won't change that underlying fact either way.
At the end of the day, the game will likely come down to two things: (1) turnovers, and (2) how well the Alabama offense can fare against the Colorado defense. The Buffs have struggled greatly to protect the football, and have given up a ton of turnovers. Alabama, unfortunately, has had very much the same story, particularly from the quarterback position. Secondly, neither the Colorado defense nor the Alabama offense is particularly competent, yet they are facing each other so one must come out on top.
Given that neither team expects to make any very big special teams plays -- given the fact that Javier Arenas will likely play but is less than 100 per cent with a high ankle sprain -- and that the Alabama defense should fare well against the Colorado offense, it will be decided by who wins the turnover battle and the match-up of the 'Bama offense v. the Colorado defense. If one team wins both, it will be a fairly comfortable victory for that particular team, and if they split the categories, it's likely to be a very close game. Either way, those two variables are almost certainly going to determine the outcome of the game.
Hope for the best.