Tomorrow will be our last chance to see our beloved Tide take the field for nine horrible months, so soak up every precious second of it. Alabama will ring in the new year against the Spartans of Michigan State in Orlando, with kickoff set for 12:00pm CST. The game will be televised on ESPN (and ESPN3.com) and radio coverage, as always, will be provided by the Crimson Tide Radio Network. We'll have an open thread set up around 11:45 tomorrow (with spill over threads as comment volume dictates throughout the game), so be sure to join us here for one last hurrah. On to the preview:
When breaking down the numbers for this season, the Tide offense looks to have the edge over the Spartans in every category.
|31.33||Points per Game||34.6|
|406.67||Yards per Game||435.58|
||3rd Down Eff. (Att/Made)||137/59 (43.1%)
|344/230 (66.9%)||Passing Attempts/Completions||339/234 (69%)|
|8.3||Passing Yards per Attempt||9.2|
|237.83||Passing Yards per Game||260.3|
|4.87||Rushing Yards per Attempt||4.97|
|168.8||Rushing Yards per Game||175.3|
|19 (1.58 per game)||Sacks Allowed||32 (2.67 per game)|
|54 (4.5 per game)||Tackles for Loss Allowed||63 (5.3 per game)|
Though both teams are pretty evenly matched on the ground, Alabama has a definite advantage through the air. Honestly, this Spartan team reminds me a lot of the surprise 2008 Crimson Tide. They aren't spectacular but they run the ball well, they rarely make mistakes and are good enough to make you pay for yours, and are just an overall solid football team. So what does that tell us about our chances?
I'm reminded of comments made by Greg McElroy before the start of the conference schedule (and OTS's excellent analysis of them):
We've played great up to this point but we really haven't played anybody that really challenges what we do. Penn State is a great team. They're extremely well coached, but they're not built to face a team and have a lot of success against a team like us. They're built to expose the power running game and things like that, which they did. They shut it down on us and we didn't run the power real well or the inside zone real well. We beat them with speed around the edge, and we were able to break some tackles which led to some explosive plays.
Considering we have a common opponent in Penn State, I went back and looked at the box score for each team's win over the Nittany Lions. The Tide trounced them in Tuscaloosa to the tune of 24-3, while Sparty escaped Happy Valley with a 28-22 score. In Tuscaloosa, the Tide jumped out to a 17-0 lead before the half, allowing the lone FG in the 4th quarter, while Michigan State plodded through a workmanlike effort, scoring a TD in each quarter but allowing the Nittany Lions to rally with a 19 point 4th quarter effort after holding them to a lone FG in the 1st. The Tide offense averaged 7.1 yards per play, while Sparty could only muster 5.3. On the ground? 4.2 for MSU, 5.3 for the Tide. Through the air? 7.0 to 9.5, advantage Tide. Obvious caveat that the games took place at opposite ends of the season aside, do you see what I'm getting at here? Alabama's advantage through the air and overall (ESS-EE-SEE) speed advantage is what we'll have to rely on if we are going to finish the season on a high note.
Moving to the other side of the ball, the same theme holds up:
|20.08||Points Allowed per Game||14.1|
|337.75||Yards Allowed per Game||296|
||Opp. 3rd Down Eff. (Att/Made)||175/59 (33.71%)
|399/224 (56.14%)||Opp. Passing Attempts/Completions||178/338 (52.7%)|
|6.49||Opp. Passing Yards per Attempt||6.13|
|215.83||Opp. Passing Yards per Game||172.67|
|3.59||Opp. Rushing Yards per Attempt||3.64|
|121.92||Opp. Rushing Yards per Game||123.33|
|20 (1.67 per game)||Sacks Made||22 (1.83 per game)|
|74 (6.3 per game)||Tackles for Loss Made||64 (5.33 per game)|
The Tide holds the advantage in just about every category here, as well, and one thing jumps out to me as the potential difference maker for us. As much as we have bemoaned the lack of a backfield presence from our front seven, Sparty has been just as bad. They average one more tackle for loss than we do, but both teams have been woefully inadequate at getting sacks. The Tide offensive line looked lost this year (especially near the end of the season), and facing a team that has been as bad as us at controlling the line of scrimmage is a huge blessing.
We all know that safety Mark Barron is out for the Tide after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, but the Spartans are also missing a key player in WR B.J. Cunningham. Cunningham was the Spartans leading receiver this season with 50 catches for 611 yards and 9 TDs, but where Alabama is facing the prospect of playing walk on Will Lowery in place of Barron, the Spartans aren't losing their only playmaker in the passing game. Mark Dell has had a solid year for MSU, grabbing 49 passes for 761 yards and 6 TDs. Not having Cunningham to draw coverage and give Dell opportunities is certainly a liability, but of the two personnel losses I'd weigh Barron's as the more damaging.
If a few years ago I had told you a bowl game featuring the Crimson Tide and a Big Ten team was shaping up to be a quarterback dual you'd have probably laughed in my face, but it's looking more and more like that's the kind of game we are in for. Greg McElroy and Kirk Cousins are experienced signal callers with quietly impressive stat lines:
|2010 - Greg McElroy||12||103.0||209||296||70.6||2767||230.6||9.3||19||5||59||-16||-1.3||-0.3||1||-||-|
|2010 - Kirk Cousins||12||103.0||216||320||67.5||2705||225.4||8.5||20||9||35||-80||-6.7||-2.3||1||-||-|
Considering the trouble the Tide has had running the ball effectively against better front sevens, taking advantage of our depth and speed at wide receiver will likely be a priority. Again, think back to the Penn State game. After a three and out, the Tide went empty for the entire second offensive possession, resulting in the games first TD. Look for the Tide to try and jump out to a fast start through the air.
On the other side, the Spartans have a chance to take advantage of a young and beat up secondary missing it's sole bona fide star and captain. The loss of Cunningham may change those plans, and having a 1000+ yard rusher like Edwin Baker in the backfield (plus capable backup Le'Veon Bell) doesn't hurt, but if the Tide does, in fact, take to the air early and often with success, the Spartans won't be able to simply sit back and play their brand of football. In other words, to go back to 2008, we need to do to them what Utah did to us. Hope for the best.