For a team that has been battered and beaten in regard to injuries over the last two weeks, the Tide's annual pre-Auburn cupcake semi-bye couldn't come at a better time.
Despite what Coach Nick Saban said (using rather colorful metaphors) on Wednesday, it's almost a done deal before the ball is even kicked. The Tide won't need Kenyan Drake, who broke his arm against Mississippi State, to tip the scales in Alabama's favor this weekend. The same goes for nickel phenomenon Minkah Fitzpatrick, or any of the other Tide players who have fought through persistent injuries for the last fortnight.
No, there is little suspense in regard to the final outcome of Saturday's payday for one of the best teams among the ranks of the FCS subdivision. Charleston Southern has proven itself a defensive force in the Big South, with its sole loss coming at the hands of another FBS school from Alabama, namely the Sunbelt Conference's Troy (by a score of 44-14, no less). There's little chance that the Buccaneers will do much to stop Alabama from doing what it does best: smothering offenses with its front seven, and pounding defenses into submission with Derrick Henry and the running game.
Despite Saban's mid-week bluster, everyone knows the drill. The Bucs won't just roll over, of course, but even with double their usual pluck, their chances of victory are next to nil. Charleston State will take home a hefty paycheck, and Alabama gets a punching bag for the week in preparation for the final two stanzas in a lyric that could end in the College Football Playoffs.
So, why even watch this weekend? Well, for one, there's a fairly good chance observers will see some of the Tide talent of the future Saturday, especially once the starters get in a few reps and retire to the sidelines for the remainder of the game. Another point of interest could come as a result of CSU's throwback offense. The Bucs aren't a terrible team, and they run an offense the Tide doesn't often see with their option attack. Watching this dynamic Alabama defense against a unique scheme makes for some entertainment, right?
This week, there aren't many X's and O's to consider, but there are a few points to ponder. Let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the Charleston Southern defense
It's pretty clear how things are going to go down on this side of the ball. Alabama is going to employ as vanilla a game plan as possible and focus on execution of fundamentals. For the Tide, that means finishing blocks, opening holes for Henry (and later Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough) and finding some rhythm in the passing game that will carry over to the Iron Bowl. End of story.
It doesn't really matter what Charleston Southern does defensively, as the Tide holds an insurmountable advantage over the Buc defense: that advantage is one of physics. Plainly put, a defensive front seven with only two starters who outweigh Bama's first-string running back is not going to come out on the winning side of many line-of-scrimmage collisions. And Alabama's offensive line, if executing to a standard, shouldn't have any trouble moving the CSU D line (which averages 251 pounds) out of the way, no matter who is ultimately running the ball.
That said, it will be interesting to see how Alabama's back-ups perform, particularly at center. After all, one of the Tide's few departing seniors on the starting unit who will leave after this season, Ryan Kelly, certainly won't see a ton of action. There's a good chance that Josh Casher or J.C. Hassenauer will get some time at the anchor spot, which will not only give the player in question some valuable live-fire reps, but will also show Tide observers an idea of what the future holds.
Everyone has speculated that Scarbrough may be the physical second coming of Henry, but it will be interesting to see if he has the kind of balance issues that plagued the Heisman front-runner in his first two seasons at Alabama. Harris has shown good burst in limited playing time this season, and he and Scarbrough appear to be Bama's next great tailback tandem. Seeing them in action against Charleston Southern won't be a reliable forecaster of their future ability given the level of competition, granted. But it will provide a glimpse of their respective skill sets, and how each may be used in the Tide offense of the future.
The Charleston Southern secondary is comprised of defensive backs with good size and solid coverage skills. Since the Tide won't likely have trouble running at will, and the outcome of the game is a foregone conclusion, it will be interesting to see if Lane Kiffin lets Jake Coker continue to build momentum heading into the Auburn game, and the all-important SEC Championship Game beyond. Alabama's running game is stout, to be sure. But an Alabama offense that adds the element of a dynamic passing game and at least some semblance of a downfield threat is exponentially more dangerous. Kiffin and Coker can give future opponents something to think about with a polishing of the aerial attack against CSU, while at the same time keeping the passing game rhythm the Tide has established in the second half of the season.
For those who are interested, the Buccaneers run a standard 3-4 defense, with defensive linemen and linebackers who are extremely light by FBS standards. The defensive line averages 251 pounds, a far cry from the 311 pound-average defensive line the Tide uses to attack offenses. The linebackers would project as safeties at the FBS level. The Bucs mix up their pressure packages nicely, and they sport the top ranked defense in FCS football. That said, no one should expect anything more than momentary frustration for Alabama against this defense, unless of course execution is lax and some tsunami of penalties and turnovers causes the Tide offense to stutter and stop.
The Alabama defense versus the Charleston Southern offense
Again, this is an incredible mismatch that Alabama will have little trouble dominating. Alabama's front seven have demolished any offensive front that's been put before them this season, and usually in nasty fashion. Alabama's nine sacks against Mississippi State were part of a clinic in defensive line play, as all of that pressure that Dak Prescott felt Saturday afternoon was largely produced by a four-man rush. Hard to believe, but Alabama's four-man rush is more effective at tearing up an opposing backfield than many defenses that routinely rush five or six.
With wave after wave of future NFL prospects attacking an undersized Buccaneer front, there won't be much Charleston State (and former UAB) quarterback Austin Brown can do to move the chains with consistency. Austin is good enough to make a play here or there (he is a 55 percent passer with 1356 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions on the season), but he is not at the helm of the kind of triple-option offense that Georgia Southern used to shred Bama's vaunted defense a few years back.
Charleston Southern doesn't use the wing-T triple option made famous by Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech and to a lesser degree, by the Georgia Southern team Saban referenced in this week's rant. This is a two-back option that doesn't require Brown to do much running. Most of the attack is in the hands of a trio of backs, the leader of which has been Darius Hammond (734 yards on 120 carries with six touchdowns). Hammond is a banger who fits the system well, and he is joined by Mike Holloway (87 carries for 515 yards) and Ben Robinson (398 yards on 55 carries with four touchdowns) in the rotation. Robinson is the most explosive of the trio, but he has seen limited action due to a penchant for turnovers.
While these backs are all very good at what they do, there's little reason to believe that Charleston Southern will be able to do what so many bigger, stronger teams haven't been able to accomplish: namely, run the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide defense. The option attack won't matter much, as this Alabama defense has proven itself disciplined and adept at minding gaps and spacing, two keys for stifling any option offense. Alabama's secondary has gotten more ferocious in run defense as the season has worn on, and those factors portend a tough row to hoe for the Bucs in the running game.
It will be interesting to see if Saban's recent "pep talk" to cornerback Tony Brown will put the sophomore defensive back on top of his game. Saban reportedly had a "talk" with him regarding his commitment and potential a few weeks ago, and since then, Brown has responded with a stellar special teams performance against LSU (remember the explosive hit he put on Derrius Guice?), which was followed up by a steady performance in relief of the injured Fitzpatrick at nickel versus the Bulldogs. Can Brown continue to build on his upswing and stake claim to a bigger part in the secondary rotation? If appears he has been surpassed by both Fitzpatrick and fellow sophomore (and former five-star) Marlon Humphrey. Another solid performance may get Brown more time on the field for the Tide down the stretch, and a Tide secondary with plenty of options at corner and nickel could make a stellar Alabama defense even better.
Needless to say, the Alabama defense should control the field, hands down. Anyone want to venture a guess on the over/ under for sacks and tackles for loss in this game? The Tide defense, even with a healthy dose of second and third stringers, should have little trouble holding the Buccaneers in check.
This week is all about repetition and confidence for the Tide special teams units. Cyrus Jones had his first decent return of the season (and his first for a touchdown) on a line-drive punt against Mississippi State. Everything about the play worked well, and one can hope that the Tide can replicate that type of thing in the future, when the stakes are much higher.
The kicking game was once again solid, though punter J.K. Scott hit a couple punts that were less than optimal. More consistency is needed in that regard, and while place kicker Adam Griffith will undoubtedly see some action Saturday, it is not likely that Scott will get many opportunities to ply his wares.
Saban was right in one thing: one shouldn't take Charleston Southern lightly, just as one should never take any team likely. As Gene Stallings once opined (paraphrased), if one doesn't think games like this are important, then mess around and lose. A loss, realistically, is not in the Tide's future this Saturday. Not in the conventional sense, at least. An injury to one of the Tide's key players would be a devastating loss. The Tide could suffer a loss in terms of public opinion with a sloppy, poorly executed effort against an outgunned opponent. But aside from those two things, there is little legitimate risk.
The best outcome will be a clean, efficient game in which the starters are safely on the bench prior to the half, and the Tide gets a chance to develop some young talent at full-speed, real-game conditions. Anything short of that will be a disappointment, quite honestly.
Can the Tide remain focused despite the lesser competition after two weeks of battle against SEC West foes? Can Alabama play to a standard when little is on the line? Will the momentum stay in the Crimson Tide's favor heading into the annual grudge match with Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium?
One would certainly imagine so, but stranger things have happened...hope for the best.