At the moment, we are just over 24 hours away from kick-off in Bryant-Denny Stadium, so here goes the Western Kentucky preview.
Alabama comes into the inaugural meeting with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at 2-0 and ranked in the top fifteen nationally, a place that very few observers thought that Crimson Tide would be at this point.
For Alabama, the sky is the limit at this point and the players have clearly expressed a desire to make some serious noise this season. And to that end, after the upset blowout of Clemson in the season opener, the schedule is setting up quite nicely for the Tide, so there is legitimate reason for optimism. Arkansas looks much worse than expected, neither Ole Miss or Kentucky are all of that great, and Tennessee looks to be in for a long year. Realistically speaking, Alabama could go into Baton Rouge at 8-1 and atop the SEC West without having beaten anyone that's particularly good. Bottom line, the Tide wants to make some serious noise, and the schedule tends to lend itself towards that possibility.
Nevertheless, that notwithstanding, the performance of a week ago against Tulane left much to be desired. Special teams performance was good, the defense was outstanding, the running game was good, but the passing attack was so ungodly abyssmal that it drug down everything else and made for a close game. Now, it's hard to read anything into that performance this early in the season. To be sure, we were never in any serious jeopardy of losing, injuries hit us hard, Tulane may be better than we all expect, and say what you will about Tulane, they are probably as good as ULM, the team that beat Alabama a year ago. Nevertheless, it's clear that our team feels the need to not only win this week, but, more to point, to play like they should play.
With Western Kentucky, it's the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Whereas Alabama has spent nearly a century as an undisputed powerhouse of college football, the Hilltoppers will begin their first full season in Division 1-A in 2009. After many years of good performance in Division 1-AA, they are making the jump up, and would love nothing more than to pull off a couple of upset victories to firmly establish themselves as a bona fide Division 1-A program. With our recent struggles against inferior opponents, Western Kentucky clearly has to be looking at this game -- whether they will explicitly admit it or not -- as an opportunity to put their young program on the map.The Hilltoppers would love nothing more than to amend the order to go: Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois, Louisiana-Monroe... Western Kentucky.
Either way, Western Kentucky will come into Bryant-Denny with a 1-1 record after a season opening 31-13 loss to Indiana, and a win over rival Eastern Kentucky.
Alabama Offense v. Western Kentucky Defense
After a gangbusters performance against Clemson in the opener, the Tide offense came crashing back down against Tulane. The running game looked good -- and we could have probably had more overall success had we just stuck with it -- but the passing game was abyssmal and we tried to work the kinks out in that department as much as we could. Moving forward, it's hard to say exactly what we will do.
Defensively, Western Kentucky, just like Alabama, operates out of a 3-4 base set, but unlike the Tide they do not make much of the Jack linebacker position. If anything, given the size of the two outside linebackers, Western Kentucky flexes into more a 5-2 than anything else. Moreover, it should be pointed out that that the defensive line has good size and is quite stout, with big ends and a legitimate nose guard. As a result, this is a unit that should be pretty stout against the run. Fortunately for us, the defensive backfield isn't anything overly impressive.
Coming into the year, most felt confident that WKU would be able to stop the run well, and with good reason. However, after giving up almost 300 yards rushing to Indiana, many people have retreated on that, but I would urge caution. If you look a bit closer, WKU was terrorized by two huge runs by the Hoosier quarterback, and if you factor out his production -- which is prudent, because obviously Wilson isn't going to break off any 80 yard touchdown runs -- then WKU held Indiana to 112 yards rushing on 31 carries, which works out to only about 3.5 yards per carry. Bottom line, it's not exactly what you expect at first glance. The truth of the matter is that this defense can be pretty stout against the run, and if they decide that they want to expend the resources necessary to stop the run against us, then they have the sheer size to give us some legitimate trouble.
The good news for Alabama is that things should be opened up in the passing game. The size of the outside linebackers is nice against the run, but that should create a lot of problems when those guys are forced to cover our backs and tight ends. Moreover, the WKU defensive backfield, aside from cornerback Marcus Minor, is quite limited. Finally, the WKU defensive line has been largely unable to get pressure on the quarterback, and they've had to rely on blitzes to get pressure. Bottom line, the opportunity should be there for us to effectively throw the football.
The biggest question mark is whether or not Alabama can effectively stretch the field vertically. As a result of the complete lack of big plays in the first two games, Tulane was able to significantly compress the field. We saw a lot of cover one and cover zero packages against them, and they essentially bet that we either couldn't hit the deep passes or that they would get to the quarterback before we could make the throw. All night long, they bet right. Whereas Clemson gave us the short throws all night long, Tulane came up and took them away, and the results quickly showed how effective that strategy was. And make no mistake about it, opposing defensive coordinators surely took notice, and they will use that strategy against us again and again in the near future unless we make them respect the vertical element.
Fortunately, Andre Smith is almost certain to return for this game -- even though it looks like Marlon Davis will sit on the sidelines -- and that should help immensely. Even if we cannot stretch the field vertically again this week, offensive production is almost destined to improve somewhat simply by default. Nevertheless, though, if we allow WKU to compress the field on us like Tulane did, the offensive struggles will certainly continue.
Alabama Defense v. Western Kentucky Offense
Unlike Clemson and Tulane, Western Kentucky presents a bit of a different challenge for the Tide. Whereas our first two opponents lined up in relatively conventional sets and generally wanted to establish the running game, Western Kentucky is a bit different. They consistently spread the field with three and four wide receivers, and they like to use the spread option a good bit. The offensive line -- as you would expect given the scheme they run -- is a bit on the small side, but there is an experienced group of receivers and tight ends.
Now, coming into the season, most expected that the rushing attack would be a clear strength for this team, and rightly so. K.J. Black is a nice rushing threat with the spread option, top three tailbacks from a year ago combined to rush for over 1,800 yards and average over six yards per carry, and all four of those players return for 2008. Nevertheless, things haven't quite worked as planned. Though they ran the ball pretty well against Division 1-AA Eastern Kentucky, the rushing attack was almost completely non-existent against the porous Indiana run defense. On that day, only quarterback K.J. Black had any success, and the rest of the team combined for 16 net rushing yards on 16 carries.
The major problem that WKU faces right now is that starting quarterback K.J. Black won't play, and that does limit them a bit. When David Wolke is in the game, the Hilltoppers do tend to get a bit more conventional on offense, and that will help remove some of the concerns that a true dual threat quarterback can give you. It should be mentioned that Wolke -- a former Notre Dame quarterback who was Brady Quinn's back-up in 2004 and 2005 -- has a decent pedigree in his own right, but clearly there was a reason as to why Black was starting, and there will be a drop-off with Wolke in the game.
For the Alabama defense, the changes in style of offense will cause us to make some changes on the defensive side of the ball. You will likely see a lot more nickel and dime packages this week than you did the previous two weeks, but we should be able to make the transition quite smoothly. You'll probably see a bit less of Terrence Cody and Dont'a Hightower this week, and a bit more of Corey Reamer and Mark Barron in the personnel department.
All in all, we should be able to shut down the WKU offense without much trouble. Indiana completely stopped their running game, and frankly our run defense is much stouter than anything you'll ever see coming out of Bloomington. Our sheer size advantage at the point of attack, if nothing more, should mean that we will slow down the running game. The pass defense will be tested a bit, particularly with the short and intermediate stuff to the backs and tight ends, but even so it's still a very favorable match-up for the Tide. I'm not sure if our touchdown streak will continue another week, but frankly I cannot find many objective reasons as to why we won't significantly limit the Western Kentucky offense. All signs point to it being another good night for the Crimson Tide defense.
Putting It All Together
After a week in which injuries hurt the Tide badly, thankfully we are going to get a lot of those guys back for Western Kentucky. Andre Smith will return, and both Javier Arenas and Leigh Tiffin are back to form as well; all three will make life easier for us in this game. And to be sure, the Tide is clearly the better team of the two. We have more overall talent, speed, athleticism, depth, coaching... you name it and we have more of it. We should win easily. But again, as I mentioned last week, should is a word that Tide fans have long since been leery of.
And to be sure, at the risk of being the bearer of bad news, this game could end up being pretty close, and if it is no one should be surprised.
I know this is going to sound very elementary -- because, well, it is -- but the truth of the matter is that this game ultimately reduces itself to points. You win, simply enough, by scoring more points than the other team. Moving forward, the offense, of course, is the primary engine by which you generate points. And if your offense is struggling to move the football and score points, you are going to have close games regardless of how much better you are than your opponent. That was the case last week, and that could very well be the case again this week.
Do not kid yourselves, Western Kentucky may very well give us troubles again on offense. Until we can stretch the field vertically with any degree of success, we're an easy team for a defensive coordinator to play against. Western Kentucky will compress the field, make the short and intermediate passing game difficult, and try to pressure the quarterback by disguising blitz packages... just like Tulane did. And make no mistake about it, they do have the size in the defensive front seven to be able to give us some trouble in the running game if they choose to commit the resources necessary to stopping the run, which will be something they will have the luxury of doing if we cannot stretch the field.
Our defense should control the WKU offense, and we have a clear special teams advantage, but again our offensive woes, if they continue, could keep this game close. Hopefully the offense will get things together and get the job done, and if they do this game should be an easy win that results in a lot of the back-ups getting playing time mop-up duty. But if there is anything that Alabama fans should know from the past decade, it is that there is no such thing as a sure thing, and we may very well find ourselves in yet another close contest.
Hope for the best.