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Hope for the Best: Alabama vs. West Virginia edition

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Sure, Bama is a 25-point favorite in Vegas, and the eye test has Bama in front by spades. But as we learned last season, it's not always the team with the best athletes that wins on the scoreboard. West Virginia is hungry...is the Crimson Tide hungrier?

"Get back in there and brush your hair, Dana..."
"Get back in there and brush your hair, Dana..."
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

"You don't practice to do it right...you practice to do it so many times that you can't do it wrong." - Coach Nick Saban

You can bet the off-season was pure, raw, unadulterated hell for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Just watch any snippet of video, whether of the players or Coach Nick Saban. The tension is thick and palpable, the angst is written all over the faces of the combatants. The anger is a product of numerous factors...an amalgam of a poor end to 2013, a loss to a hated traditional rival (as well as a personal coaching rival), the end of an opportunity to become the greatest champion in the modern era of college football, and the disgust and self-loathing that comes from falling short of one's personally imposed standard.

Things literally couldn't have been worse for the Crimson Tide at the end of 2013. While that seems laughable to most, a presumably certain statement of hyperbole, for those across Bama Nation it seemed almost as bad as those lean years under The Mikes. (Keep in mind, levity is not a strength among my people.)

That is, of course, ridiculous...but so high has the bar been set by Saban that a two-loss season (with those two losses representing half of the Tide's four losses in the last four years) may have well been a 10-loss season.

In reality, the Tide underachieved late in the year. No one disputes that. Depending on which narrative one follows, the team was doomed by the entitlement of youth, or the apathy of the elders. Regardless, no one in the Crimson Tide caravan was pleased with the end of 2013.

But there is always a curtain of redemption just waiting to be drawn, throwing the light of the new season into the void of darkness with shattering strength. No matter how poorly the Tide may have performed in its final two games last season, the process reboots, the slate is wiped clean...and so it begins this Saturday.

Make no mistake about it. If the word "salty" is used to indicate that a group of individuals is angry and ready for redemption, then this year's Crimson Tide is a bar bowl of dry roasted peanuts and pretzels with a seawater chaser. The man with possibly the biggest chip on his shoulder is none other than the (some would say former) king himself, a driven standard-setter who has trouble accepting less than 100% from anyone.

One can see it on his face, in his gestures and in the staccato cadence of his voice. Carve the ulterior meaning from beneath the surface of his own words, and one can know that Saban is disgruntled. With reporters for deeming his team a failure, with his players who refused to buy into The Process last season, with himself for not righting the wrongs on his coaching staff earlier. Nick Saban was not happy with the way the season ended, that much is clear. But as he reminded us all, the Tide has lost nine games in six seasons, a historically good run of luck for any team, let alone the Once and Future King of college football. In other words, Saban said things aren't as bad as some have made them out to be. He has a string of number one ranked recruiting classes who are now clawing for playing time at nearly every position. Saban's system is not falling apart, The Process is intact.

Face it. No matter how soothing the salve of self-pity may be, things are good for the Crimson Tide and its followers. All poor-mouthing aside, the Tide is stacked and primed for a breakout season with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Nick Saban knows what he has in Tuscaloosa, and despite the chirping from the haters, he knows he will return to the throne.

What could go wrong?  A lot could go wrong (and quit asking, you're going to jinx us), for the record. Injuries could take a quick toll in experience. The QB situation could take a tremendous step back, regardless of how it is ultimately resolved. The line could continue to struggle in regard to continuity. The secondary could continue to struggle through growing pains. The defensive line could once against struggle with the pass rush. And not to mention, as we found out last year, the most talented team in the world will struggle if its collective mind isn't right.

The quest for redemption is upon us. Will the Tide rise to the challenge presented by a poor finish in the previous season, like their 2009 predecessors? Or will they wither under the pressure in key moments, like the 2010 team? We will have answers soon...

West Virginia Dana Holgerson knows what Alabama has accomplished in current era, and like many, has expressed awe at the team's consistency. Holgerson, the mad scientist offensive brainiac with college football's most eccentric haircut, used his particular brand of Air Raid offense to buoy Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Houston to nearly undefeated seasons as OC before taking the helm at West Virginia. He knows what it takes for teams to win at a high level, and you can believe he'll have his proud Mountaineers juiced for their big-stage match-up with native West Virginian Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.

Obviously, Alabama has the more talented team, physically speaking. But West Virginia uses offensive and defensive systems meant to minimize the talent factor of its opponents. The Air Raid and 3-3-5 defense are built to allow smaller teams to exploit mismatches against behemoths, trimming the talent gap between power programs and their lesser opponents. Bama can be caught off-guard in such situations, as it was against Utah in the '09 Sugar Bowl, Texas A&M in 2012 and Oklahoma in the '14 Sugar Bowl.

So while Alabama should win the opener against WVU, as we well know, there are no guarantees. After all, Alabama SHOULD have beaten Auburn. Alabama SHOULD have beaten Oklahoma.

Rub that salt in your wounds and tell me you aren't ready for this season to kick.

But first, let's take a look at some of the keys to the game....

Alabama's offense vs. West Virginia's defense

Everyone assumes that Alabama will be okay at QB. I used the word "assumes" for a reason, because I'm not as comfortable with the quarterbacking situation as most people seem to be. Sure, everyone thinks Jacob Coker is the heir apparent, a former St. Paul's HS QB like AJ McCarron with a cannon arm to go along with elite size at the position. But you know what happens when we assume. Do so at your own risk, as I've seen nothing of late to assure me that Coker is the Prodigal Son. He looks tentative in drills, and he doesn't yet display the confident style of play we've grown accustomed to seeing behind center.

And then there's Blake Sims. While Sims would seemingly have the skill set and veteran experience to have a leg up, his A-Day performances have been more than enough to shock fear into any Bama supporter who meanders into the realm of what will happen if Sims is indeed the starter. Nothing against Sims, but that scenario scares the hell out of me. Both of these guys may be great in time, but right now, we have no reason to believe that will be the case, especially early in the season.

A popular retort to this concern has been that with Alabama's stable of backs, the QB won't have to do much. Think back over the last several seasons...how many times has the Tide pulled out a clutch performance with only the running game? The '09 game against South Carolina? The 2012 SEC Championship against Georgia? I'll grant those two. But in reality, when the Tide has been down late in games (as it was against LSU in 2012), it has been the passing game that has dealt the death blow for the opponent. Remove that weapon from Bama's arsenal (or through turnovers, convert that strength into a weakness), and the Tide will rely primarily on defense to hold other teams in check.

This very thing could happen against West Virginia. The style of defense West Virginia employs (explained here and here) by my RBR cohorts 12NationalChampionships and bammer, can legitimately create problems for the Tide's offense, particularly if the offensive line continues its trend from last year and struggles with smaller, faster, more athletic defenders in the front 7. That is exactly what the Mountaineers bring to the table, led by All-Big 12 linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (more on Kwiatkoski here). Kwiatkoski is a ball-hawk who is athletic enough to be very disruptive to the passing game as both a rusher as well as in coverage. His three INTs and three PBUs last season from the Will linebacker position should be enough to cause due concern with a new starting quarterback behind center for Alabama.

First-year defensive coordinator Tony Gibson uses intelligent aggression, leveraging the simplicity of the 3-3-5 to let his players run free and "play football." And as football guru Chris Brown wrote (here):

"The 3-3-5 is designed to make both pass protection and run schemes (particularly zone-blocking schemes that heavily rely on double-team blocks) difficult to the point of futility."

Futility, huh? That sounds like fun, no? Had enough of offensive futility after the end of 2013? I especially liked the part where he said it is particularly effective against zone-blocking teams...heavily rely...double-team...blahblahblah. (I'm going to be honest, I kind of blacked out after the zone-blocking part, as that is, of course, the blocking scheme Alabama uses on most running plays. Super.)

"But that defense can't be a legitimate threat to a team like Alabama, can it?" There is reason for doubt. The Mountaineers were terrible defensively in 2013, and 2013 marked a year of improvement for WVU. The defense allowed 455 yards per game and 33.3 points per game in 2013, good for 9th in the Big 12 (or near dead-last in the SEC). But that was then, and there's a new sheriff in town. Banks replaces Keith Patterson, who left WVU to join Arizona State. And former Pen State stalwart Tom Bradley has his hand on the defense now after being hired as associate head coach, whatever that means. The defense will be drastically improved, and remember, in Alabama's two losses last year, similarly-sized defenses were able to do enough to frustrate a more veteran Tide offense...to futility, one could say. The fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl sure felt like futility.

Maybe the Mountaineer defense isn't as scary as the likes of Florida or LSU, but it would be a fool's errand to write them off. Their's is a defense that can take advantage of an unconfident, green quarterback still feeling out the role, or an out-of-synch offensive line, both of which are real possibilities for the Tide in this first game.

So be cocky if you'd like, but as for me and mine, we're going to get out the worry stones and rub our fingers raw.

Alabama's defense vs. West Virginia's offense

"Yeah, yeah, Mr. Negativity...but what about that Tide defense? Defense should save the day, as it should be...right? After all, this is Alabama, where we don't need no Heismans, no Johnny Footbaw...just play tough defense and run the damn ball!"

As much as we all loved that style of football, we must admit that its days are numbered. Like the wishbone and the wing-T, it is going the way of the dinosaur in favor of the tried-and-true Pro-style and the new-fangled trickeration of the HUNH spread offenses currently making the rounds. For years, Bama's defenses were built to stop the run first, then let all-star athletes in the secondary make plays. But after the introduction of the HUNH, Saban has pivoted his recruiting evaluations to include more fast-twitch players with superior conditioning who are athletic enough to make plays in space. The evolution of the Tide defense has begun, and it will be put to the test by one of the early purveyors of the race-car style of offense in Holgerson.

It's hard not to Gump when looking at what Bama's defense brings to the table in 2014. Sure the unit will be replacing veterans like first round draft picks Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and All-World linebacker C.J. Mosley. But when you replace them with guys like Landon Collins and Dillon Lee, those losses are seemingly softened. Saban's recruiting has paid off in spades, with four- and five-star talent (if not experience) across the board.

For once, it appears that the defensive line may live up to the standard Saban set while at LSU, where his D lines produced wave after wave of NFL talent. While many have cast blame regarding the Tide/s 2013 defensive woes on the secondary, the situation would have been different with a more consistent and disruptive pass rush. The Tide has some experienced depth at corner this season with both Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve receiving considerable playing time last season, and up-and-comers like Eddie Jackson, Geno Smith Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey should provide the supporting cast needed to efficiently run the Saban defense.

Pair this with the fact that starting Mountaineer quarterback Clint Trickett (profiled along with the WVU offense here) is mistake-prone and unseasoned as a quarterback, and one can easily conjure images of a dominating Bama D pounding a Big 12 offense into the turf. But again, do so at your own risk. The Mountaineers have proven (against Clemson in 2012) that Holgerson's offense can hang 70 on an interdivisional opponent in a heartbeat. Sure, Bama and Clemson-Past have little in common defensively, but you get my drift. That offense is explosive, putting shifty play-makers in space where they can...well...make plays. But the system also requires a quick-trigger QB (not necessarily a 5* QB) who can make quick reads and place the ball accurately. Has Trickett matured into that kind of player for Holgergson? He sure as hell wasn't in limited action last season. Is he up to the task of staring across the line at A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Brandon Ivory? Can he adjust to the speed and ferocity of the Bama secondary? Who knows? But if he's substantially better at managing the offense, the Mountaineers can cause problems for Bama.

"Really? You think West Virginia can do that?"

I don't know, and that's the source of my discomfort. I know I didn't think Auburn could, nor Oklahoma.

The Mental Game

The "chip" factor...how will it play in this game? Both teams come into the contest with heavy crosses to bear. The Tide had the aforementioned two-game losing streak...its first since Nick Saban's inaugural season at the Capstone. West Virginia struggled on offense, and its defense was historically bad. Not to mention, no one thinks the Mountaineers have a flaming chance in hell of beating Alabama, this year, or in any year for the foreseeable future.

Both squads will want to work out the problems and troubles of the long offseason, a time when the drops of redemption fall sparingly and the old wounds of yesteryear heal slowly and painfully. Nothing motivates mankind more than money, fame and revenge, and both teams have plenty of cause to pursue the latter.

But only one will get the reckoning both think they deserve. For WVU, it's likely a one-game shot: beat Alabama and prove that West Virginia football is alive and relevant. Those are things from which Cinderella seasons are made, and every Mountaineer will enter the Georgia Dome Saturday night rooted in the belief that his team can beat ours.

For Alabama, however, it's the initial step on a long road that will only end satisfactorily in the national championship game, the first course of a season-long meal of revenge served chilled. Could the Tide possibly overlook lowly West Virginia the way they overlooked Oklahoma in last season's Sugar Bowl? The Tide is a 25-point favorite, true. But what does anybody really know about this Bama team, or their counterparts on the Mountaineer sideline? Each year features a different team, and an opportunity to progress, regress or hold steady. At this point in the season, we're all just guessing, aren't we?

Some would estimate that Bama has less to gain and more to lose against WVU, and that kind of atmosphere usually leads to a loose underdog that challenges the favorite to a bare-knuckled brawl. Is a young Bama team seasoned enough to stare down the challenge of a motivated and unpredictable West Virginia? Can West Virginia do the unthinkable and knock off the wounded warrior?

We will know more Saturday evening...hope for the best.