A top-ranked total defense. A run defense unit that ranks ninth nationally, giving up barely 100 yards per game on the ground. A secondary full of veteran play-makers. Sound scary?
Without context, such factors could be enough to create pause for an Alabama team that has few hurdles left between now and the selection of the College Football Playoff foursome. Fear not, however, as these are not the stats of an FBS powerhouse contender, but rather those of the Charleston Southern Buccaneers, the ninth-ranked team in the Football Championship Series. Given that information, one can easily conclude that Alabama's opponent this week will be a cupcake unworthy of worry. And while it's true the Tide offense should be able to execute, find a nice rhythm and play some of the more inexperienced members of its roster this weekend, it would be a mistake to think the Buccaneers will roll over and play dead for the Crimson Tide this weekend, Senior Day or not.
Charleston Southern doesn't represent a "tough out" for Alabama. The Bucs are not the David to the Tide's Goliath. But they have the type of defense that will test Bama's second- and third-string offensive players once the starters are through with their mauling. It's just the kind of game Alabama needed at this point in the season, a true win-win (despite what the national pundits have said this week): Alabama will get a week of relative rest against a team of lesser quality, but the opponent will be feisty enough to give the Tide quality live-fire experience.
Will the Buccaneer defense bottle up Derrick Henry? There's a better chance of Hell freezing over. That said, the Buccaneers have a talented secondary that could, indeed, test Jake Coker to a lesser degree than some recent opponents, and they'll make Alabama's receivers work for their receptions this week. Is there anything productive that the Tide can glean from this weekend's match-up? Let's take a closer look...
The first thing one notices when looking over the Charleston Southern defensive roster is the relative smallness of the front seven. The secondary is not that far off what one would see in FBS football, with starters hovering around the six-foot, 190-ish pound threshold. However, the defensive linemen and linebackers are downright diminutive by SEC standards.
Take for example the big guys up front in defensive coordinator Chad Stagg's iteration of the 3-4. The starting combination of redshirt freshman nose tackle Mike Taylor (6-3, 250 pounds), sophomore end Anthony Ellis (6-1, 245 pounds) and freshman end Johnny Robinson (6-1, 260 pounds) averages 251 pounds. Now compare that to the Tide's starting defensive line of Jonathan Allen (6-3, 283 pounds), Jarran Reed (6-4, 313 pounds) and A'Shawn Robinson (6-4, 312 pounds), a group that averages 303 pounds. Therein lies the difference between life in the FBS and the FCS. The Buccaneer defensive line is roughly equivalent in size to the average Tide linebacker, and you can bet that will pose problems for them when they match up with a force like the Alabama offensive line.
Ellis has been a solid performer up front for the Buccaneers, as he leads the defensive line in tackles with 34. Against FCS competition, he has been a force in the pass rush and against the run, leading the team with 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks on the season. While Ellis is the most veteran player on the three-man line, he does have solid running mates in Taylor and Robinson, who, though green in experience, have stepped up well for the Buccaneers throughout their Big South conference schedule.
One point of favorable comparison for the Buccaneers is that, much like the Tide's defensive staff, Stagg has confidence in his depth, as he has rotated as many as 10 different defensive linemen into the breach throughout the season.
The linebacking corps is a strength for the Buccaneer defense, which is a must for any team running a 3-4 scheme. That said, they are an extremely small unit. The standout is senior Will linebacker Aaron Brown (6-0, 220 pounds). Brown currently leads the team in tackles with 63, and he is an aggressive run-fitter who is an intelligent leader on the field. Fellow senior Zach Johnson (6-0, 200 pounds) is another defensive standout at linebacker, as he is second on the team in tackles with 50. While the two leaders of the unit are seniors, they are joined by talented youth in the form of redshirt freshman Solomon Brown (6-1, 220 pounds), and sophomore Zane Cruz (6-1, 215 pounds). Brown has played tremendously well in his first season as a starter, earning Big South Defensive Player of the Week honors this season.
Again, the linebacking corps is roughly comparable in size to some of Bama's safeties, but what they lack in size they make up for in speed, agility and awareness. While that may help them later in the game as the Tide spells starters with the depth chart, against Alabama's first-string running attack, the Buccaneers will most definitely be physically overmatched.
As previously stated, the secondary is physically on par with those typical of FBS rosters, and the talented veteran group brings a lot of upside to the Buccaneer defense. Senior corner Malcolm Jackson (5-11, 180 pounds) is the standout among the group, ranked among the best defensive backs in the nation in the FCS ranks. Jackson brings to the table decent speed, good ball skills and nice downfield coverage ability. Thus far in the season, Jackson has been solid, with an interception and 12 passes broken up. He is joined at corner by sophomore Troy McGowens (6-1, 190 pounds), a bigger-framed corner by FCS standards who plays a physical style of coverage with good range. Junior safeties D.J. Curl (5-11, 192 pounds) and Corbin Jackson (6-0, 195 pounds) are efficient in coverage and excel in setting the edges and supporting the run.
Something one notices about the Buccaneer secondary is that they take responsibility versus the run quite seriously. They play with a physical swagger, and with good size, they have been able to make running backs pay for yardage gained after breaking through the first level.
How can Charleston Southern stop Alabama?
Quite simply, they can't. The physical mismatch is simply too great for this defense to do much to impede the Crimson Tide's will, at least so long as the first-string offense is on the field. While tactics and strategy will take teams far in the game of football, size and physicality remain critically important for obvious reasons. Even if the Tide plays a less than perfect game and the Bucs give it their best performance of the season, they will fall short.
Look, it doesn't really matter that CSU has the ninth-best run defense in FCS football. It doesn't really matter that they are the number one team in total defense. It doesn't make a difference that they've held three opponents to under 150 yards of total offense this season. It's irrelevant that CSU is allowing only 16.6 points per game (and that's including a 44-16 blowout loss to another FBS opponent in Troy). It's a matter of the cardinal rules of physics, and Alabama will win such a battle on 10 out of 10 occasions.
After all, Derrick Henry is bigger than every defender on the field outside of the Buc defensive line, and truthfully, he only cedes five or so pounds to the Charleston Southern big men. It's hard to conceive of a scenario in which the Buccaneers can stop Alabama's primary method of attack: death by bludgeoning in the run game. Alabama's offensive line should be able to shove the Buc front seven off the ball with ease, leaving gaping holes for Henry (and later Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough) to exploit. With the size advantage heavily leaning to Alabama's favor, there will be little CSU can do to stop Alabama from imposing its run-based will.
That said, if Lane Kiffin decides to use the opportunity as a safe venue for polishing Jake Coker's passing skills and timing with his receivers, the Bucs may get some chance to be disruptive after all. Alabama hasn't done a tremendous job in pass blocking this season, and the slick, smallish defensive line does have a speed advantage when facing the Tide's behemoth line. When Coker drops back to pass, Stagg will use some rather unique pressure packages (along with the inherent speed advantage of his smaller defenders) to put Coker in situations he may not find overly comfortable.
Also, the Buc secondary is legitimate, and they are aggressive. They have seven picks to their credit this season, and they've spread them around (with each starting DB recording an interception this season). While they likely won't be able to shut down the Tide aerial attack, at least for a quarter or two, they could do some things that will make Coker execute well in order to take advantage of talent mismatches through the air.
That said, expect Alabama to dominate with the starters in, and likely even with the second-stringers taking snaps. The match-up of the Tide's offense against the Buc defense is the equivalent of a Volkswagen running into a freight train: there's just no scenario in which the Bug doesn't come out crumpled like a tin can.
The result will be an absolute pummeling, as one would expect. As good as the Buccaneers have been against FCS competitors in their own league, they gave up 44 points to a Troy team that is levels below Alabama in terms of quality. Any defense that Troy can shellac is going to have an extremely difficult time keeping Heisman front-runner Henry in check, and even Coker will get a chance to look like Johnny Unitas against this outmanned defense.
Coach Nick Saban, being an old-school sportsmanship kind of guy, likely won't leave his starters in for more than a quarter or so if they execute the game plan. If the Tide is sluggish, Coker and Company may see a half of action before heading to the bench. The high point of this game will be watching emerging talents like Harris and Scarbrough carry the ball, and the Tide's back-up QB Cooper Bateman will get some quality reps as an insurance policy moving forward.
Given the foregone conclusion of an outcome on the scoreboard, the biggest win for the Tide this Saturday will come in getting experience for players who don't see the field often and emerging from the contest unscathed in regard to injury. The Tide had several costly injuries against Mississippi State, though it appears Kenyan Drake, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Reuben Foster will all be able to return at varying points in the remainder of the season. Alabama doesn't need additional injuries at this point, to be sure.
There will be little excitement on the field this weekend, but that is a good thing for a Tide offense that still hasn't maximized its potential this season. Charleston Southern will put up its best fight to be sure, but it won't be enough to pose a legitimate threat to the Tide's playoff hopes.