clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hope For the Best: Alabama vs. Florida Atlantic

Alabama will not lose this game. Let's get that out of the way right now. But will the Tide show improvement after mixed results and negative reviews in week 1? The Owls provide the perfect opportunity to work out the kinks.

Yeah, probably going to be a lot more of this kinda thing this year...jus' sayin'.
Yeah, probably going to be a lot more of this kinda thing this year...jus' sayin'.
Michael Chang

"I'm not disappointed. It is what it is. This is where we are. This is the starting point." - Coach Nick Saban So that was Alabama's starting point?

Was that the Alabama defense that we saw last week against the supposedly helpless baby lamb of a sacrificial opponent from West Virginia? Certainly not...couldn't be...could it?

Wasn't it the offense that was supposed to struggle, with a yet-to-be-determined starter under center and an offensive line that was not up to the Bama standard for parts of 2013? The defense was the Tide's ace-in-the-hole, its bludgeon, its Force-lightning, its back-breaker...and the team's best chance at a guarantee of a return to greatness in this, the first playoff-driven season in the history of major college football.

Saban says he's not disappointed, but then again, he's had months to come to grips with the reality of what he has in this 2014 Crimson Tide team. But for those of us seeing it with new eyes, there was, at least for some, pervasive shock at the ease with which the outgunned WVU offense moved the ball against what was supposed to be a defense better prepared to deal with the trials and travails of the HUNH.

After Saturday's defensive performance, one can't help but wonder if that is, indeed, reality, or just some form of delusion tainted with the tarnish of previous teams that so dominated the competition defensively that games were labelled "boring" (even by Bama fans). The defense certainly didn't look like the type of unit that could buoy a young quarterback and his vanilla offense through the tough SEC schedule, allowing OC Lane Kiffin to keep the game-plan within the comfort zone of last Saturday's starter, Blake Sims. The pass rush was still not incredibly disruptive, the defensive backs (one in particular) still looked beaten and confused on many occasions. And the gaping maw in the middle left by departed linebacker C.J. Mosley was more apparent than even the most pessimistic Bama follower could have imagined.

If nothing else, Bama's defensive performance against West Virginia reinforced the fact that Alabama will need more than a strong running game and decent defense to remain a power in the SEC West, let alone the conference at-large.

For all of the chest-beating National Championship proclamations that fans of the Crimson Tide carried into the first game of the season last Saturday night, there must have been some let down. The team that took the field last weekend was not what we've come to expect from Coach Nick Saban and his Tide football team, particularly on defense. It was clear to anyone not wearing the most crimson-hued of glasses that this team, in this season, will be a work in progress unlike any Saban and staff have tackled since his first campaign at Alabama in 2007.

Sure, they are talented. But the trump card is that they are also young. Sure, they will grow into a feared defensive unit in time. But how many games may slip through Bama's fingers in the meantime?

Granted, comparing this team to Saban's first team is an exercise in pure hyperbole, as the two squads really aren't on par for myriad reasons. However, the similarity resides in the uncertainty. For the past several years, Alabama has had anything but uncertainty. Between Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron at quarterback, Alabama had plenty of stability at the most important position on the offense. The defense has been loaded with experienced starters, Ro McClain, then Dont'a Hightower, then CJ Mosley. Until recently, there was always a Dee Milliner or Dre Kirkpatrick in the Bama defensive back field, a defensive back the Tide could count on to lock down the best offensive threat on the opposing sideline. Things were good back then because we knew what we could expect from these players. And what we could expect was nothing short of 100% effort, maturity, elite talent and an attitude that can only be described as "pissed off for greatness."

But things are different this year. There is little certainty outside of the running back and wide receiver positions. And those particular impact players are nothing without an adept QB and mauling offensive line. On defense, the depth is just as unfamiliar. Sure, we've heard their names called on Signing Days past, 5 star athletes who were certain eventual NFL Draft picks. But what do we really know about Reuben Foster, Reggie Ragland, Eddie Jackson and their ilk? Not much, outside of their pure athleticism and potential. That, plus last week's miscues, are what have many Tide fans anxiously awaiting the Tide's next test.

Unfortunately for those who wait impatiently with watchers' eyes, that test will not come this weekend, as the Tide entertains the regrouping Florida Atlantic Owls at Bryant Denny Stadium. Had this been written last week, I could have told you about the top-flight talent that new head coach Charlie Partridge is bringing to Boca. I could have told you about dual-threat QB sensation Jaquez Johnson and fellow NFL prospect and shut-down corner D'Joun Smith. But both of those young men were injured in the opener against Nebraska, and though Johnson is expected to start, it's certain his injured shoulder won't take too many trips to the turf beneath Bama behemoths before the training crew tosses in the towel.

No, Florida Atlantic was never going to beat Alabama, and their odds of doing so are now even lower. But that doesn't mean there won't be a theater of undercurrent flowing beneath the surface of this Saturday's game. What can Alabama do to contain a winged (but still dangerous) Johnson at quarterback? Will he be able to further test Alabama's still-developing secondary? FAU has decent talent in the defensive backfield, and will they leverage that into success against a Bama passing game that is admittedly limited to high-percentage short and intermediate routes. Will the offensive line build off of week 1's solid performance and cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Tide rushing attack? Despite the lowered threshold of competition, this week could tell us a great deal more about this year's edition of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Let's take a closer look...

Alabama offense vs. Florida Atlantic defense

Let's be brutally honest here. Blake Sims played better than most of us thought he would in week 1. Regardless of whether you find yourself pulling for Sims or fellow combatant Jake Coker as the eventual starter, one has to give Sims his props after that first game. West Virginia threw a lot at Sims defensively, and he managed most of the game without going "rat-trap," to use a Sabanism.

Yeah, Sims missed a few easy passes. And sure, Kiffin and the Bama offense did little to stretch the field against WVU because it simply didn't have to. O.J. Howard is apparently still on Sasquatch detail (nowhere to be found), but few complaints could be levied against the vanilla game plan the Tide used against an outmanned West Virginia team.

But what happens when an opponent, whether it is the Owls this week (unlikely) or some heftier opponent down the line, challenges Sims to throw the ball deep against tight coverage? What happens when the offensive game plan calls for more than bubble screens and quick outs to Amari Cooper? Maybe Sims will rise to the occasion. But his performance last Saturday did little to comfort me regarding his ability to scare defenses with his arm.

Who knows who will be the "starter" in name this week, but expect to see a little of both quarterbacks against a team that simply won't be able to hold Alabama's offensive weapons in check for the entire afternoon. Sure, the plucky Owls will make their plays. But unless Alabama really has a meltdown offensively, the Tide should pretty much have its way with FAU.

That said, 2013 was actually a good year for the Owl defense, as it led Conference USA in total defense, giving up 339.6 yards per game (good for 26th nationally). The defense returns guys like All-Conference USA linebacker Kirk, safety Damion Parms, defensive tackle Brandin Bryant and others on a unit that was the strength of last season's team. Hopes were high in the pre-season, as FAU was expected to be in contention for the Conference USA title, and possibly more.

However, the timbre of the tune has changed early in 2014. The Owl defense gave up 784 total yards of offense in a 55-7 loss to the Cornhuskers in week 1. Take that in for a second...that is a tremendous amount of production for a Nebraska offense that few SEC defenses would fear. Almost 500 yards of that total came via the Husker ground game, as the Owls were simply unable to stop Nebraska due to a frustrating combination of poor tackling and missed assignments. Expect Alabama to make hay in the ground game, as there is no one on the defense that can consistently hold T.J. Yeldon in check, let alone the human freight train known as Derrick Henry. If Alabama does nothing but run the ball effectively, the Tide should score at will early and often.

Here's a glimpse of the task at hand for the under-sized Owl defense this week: according to senior linebacker Andrae Kirk, the Owls had their tight ends (yes, tight ends) carry the ball in defensive drills this week to get the Owl defenders accustomed to tackling Bama's big backs. Ouch...I hate it for FAU.

The secondary is a different matter, however, even with Smith likely sitting the game out. While many starters in the secondary were rated 2- and 3- star prospects coming out of high school, they are experienced and savvy. Led by Parms, the secondary has the potential to be disruptive if Sims is asked to flex his passing ability and push the envelope on more difficult throws. The FAU will offer a gentle, soft test for Sims's improved passing ability, as the Owl secondary is good enough to offer a challenge but still below the level of defensive back play Bama will see during the SEC schedule.

Alabama defense vs. Florida Atlantic offense

Johnson is the presumed starter at QB for FAU in the Alabama game...and that is unfortunate for him. After a less-than-stellar first effort against a tricky West Virginia team, the Tide defense will want to dominate a little, punch the Owls in the mouth in much the same way that Nebraska did in the opener. Sure, the Owls engineered an 11-play scoring drive to open the game, but their offensive successes afterwards came few and far between.

Johnson is the kind of quarterback against which the Alabama defense has traditionally struggled. He's not Johnny Football by any stretch, but he brings the same elusiveness and unexpectedly good passing attack to the table. Pair that with an Owl offensive line that is heavy with veterans and one may expect FAU to cause Bama some problems.

That will likely not be the case, however, as Partridge is a Bret Bielema disciple and, like the Head Ogre himself, Partridge likes to run the ball first and foremost. A lot. That plays right in Bama's strength, as the return of Bama linebacker Trey DePriest will likely solidify what was at times a soft-middle in the Alabama defense last week with newcomers Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster making their first starts. Bama won't let Johnson beat them with his legs, and the Bama defensive backs will get a soft test of their own against a familiar system and quarterback who would rather run first.

This will likely get ugly, and in Bama's favor. West Virginia poked Bama's defense in the chest last week, and now it's FAU that gets to deal with the aftermath. Sometimes, life just isn't fair.

The Mental Game

The intangible here for Alabama is not the ultimate outcome of the game, which will undoubtedly go in the Tide's favor. The real game will be the game the Alabama team plays against itself. After all, they'll be playing an opponent they should beat, they are the number two ranked team in the nation...what could go wrong?

Saban has said many times in the past that historically speaking, his teams have shown the greatest improvement between games one and two. While it may be difficult to divine such improvement against an opponent like Florida Atlantic, there are things that will indicate this Alabama team has its collective mind right. Will Bama jump to an early lead, then let off the throttle? Will Sims be able to maintain his focus without the adrenaline of making his first start in front of his hometown crowd? Will the defense rightfully taste the blood in its mouth from last week and return to its relentless, monotonous, pounding ways?

If so, we can proclaim the reports of the Crimson Tide's demise premature and greatly exaggerated.

But if we see a virtual treading of water against an inferior opponent the likes of the Florida Atlantic Owls? Maybe we ought to get ready for a long, frustrating football season.

As always, hope for the best.