When Coach Nick Saban gives the "every opponent deserves respect" speech, one can almost guarantee the coming opponent has little chance of unseating the Crimson Tide the following week. And though such is likely the case in the second week of the season as the Tide prepares to face the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, as former Bama Coach Gene Stallings once opined, "If you think there's such a thing as an unimportant game, then try losing one."
While the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider defense may not carry the cache' of Wisconsin's brutal Big 10 D, the Blue Raiders bring to the table a plate loaded with healthy helpings of senior leadership and veteran experience. Seven of the 11 defensive starters are seniors, with the remainder being juniors (many of whom have considerable playing time under their belts.) Though not intimidating in 2014, the MTSU defense has made improvements that will show marked progress in 2015.
Progress should be easy to accomplish, given the Blue Raiders' rather dismal total defense ranking in 2014 (MTSU finished ranked 108th in total defense, allowing 452.3 yards per game.) The defense was relatively efficient against the pass with future NFL Draft pick strong safety Kevin Byard leading the secondary, combined with a stout (by C-USA standards) pass rush. Where the Blue Raiders really struggled was against the run, partially due to a rather light defensive front that averaged in the 290 pound range.
Veteran MTSU co-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is no stranger to the SEC. A former Southern Miss defender himself (from 1990-1993), Nix has had coaching stints with the Golden Eagles, South Carolina (under Spurrier), the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Ole Miss. Nix knows what is required of a defense to contain the SEC's power rushing teams. Incidentally, running the ball is one of the strengths the Crimson Tide flexed in its season opener against Wisconsin's stingy run defense.
Regardless of scheme, the personnel are the spot at which the rubber meets the road on defense. The Blue Raiders are fortunate to have a seasoned (and much larger) defensive unit on the field in 2015.
While the Blue Raiders obviously can't boast the hordes of four- and five-star defensive line talent that Alabama fields, MTSU does have a deep rotation of skilled ends and tackles which help keep the front fresh. Fortunately for the Blue Raiders, they return ten of their top 11 defensive linemen from 2014.
Also fortunate for Middle Tennessee is the fact that those who return have bulked up considerably after struggling in many games against physical rushing attacks. Many of the returning Blue Raider linemen added quality weight in the off-season, a fact which should help the front seven keep opposing running games in check. For example, starting defensive tackle Shaquille Huff went from 294 pounds to 320 pounds, and fellow tackle Jimal McBride bulked up from 281 pounds to 325 pounds. The weight appears to be the good kind, as both players retained their agility and athleticism at the increased bulk.
Starters at tackle for the Blue Raiders in the first week of the season were the junior Huff (23.5 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks) and 6'1", 320 pound senior Patrick McNeil (11.5 tackles, two tfls, one sack). Joining them are 6'3", 256 pound junior Steven Rhodes (19.5 tackles, three tfls and two sacks) and 6'4", 274 pound junior Chris Hale (10 tackles, two tfls, one sack) at defensive end in Nix's 4-3 base scheme.
As with Alabama, however, expect to see a lot of other linemen on the field during the course of four quarters. The Blue Raiders are known to rotate as many as nine linemen in an effort to extend stamina and keep the horses up front fresh. Top replacement players include junior tackle Raynard Felton (13 tackles, one tfl), the aforementioned behemoth McBride (21 tackles, 4.5 tfls, 2.5 sacks), and senior end Alexandro Antoine (11.5 tackles, one tfl and half a sack).
With good size up front and the aggressive schemes of Nix, the Blue Raiders will not wilt against the Tide offensive line early. While running back Derrick Henry will surely be called upon to pound the front seven into submission, domination of the unit is not a given, especially in light of the increased size of the defenders along the line.
Leading the charge for the Blue Raiders at linebacker is senior WLB T.T. Barber (72 tackles, 7.5 tfls, two interceptions, two forced fumbles), the Blue Raiders' leading returning tackler from 2014. The 6'1" 229 pounder is a head-hunter with good tackling fundamentals and a heady understanding of what offenses are trying to accomplish.
Five of the six linebackers in the Blue Raider's two-deep are seniors, which bodes well for a defense that needs to see improvement in run-stopping in 2015. While they aren't the biggest linebacking unit (the starting trio averages 228 pounds), they are aggressive, seasoned and assignment-sound, something only a handful of Bama opponents can boast in 2015. Starting alongside Barber are 6' 254 pound MLB Cavellis Luckett (52 tackles, three tfls, two sacks, four passes broke up, one ff) and 5'10", 202 pound SLB Trey Wofford (45 tackles, one tfl, two pbu, one ff).
The trio is not prone to mistakes, sharing numerous starts as a unit. While Alabama may be able to overpower them as the game wears on and exhaustion takes its toll, the steady unit will provide a challenge early on.
Providing relief to the starting three will be 6', 214 pound WLB Quay Watt (30 tackles, one tfl, one pbu) and 6', 220 pound roving linebacker James Roberson (20 tackle, two tfl, one sack, one pbu). Roberson is versatile enough to fill in where needed, giving Nix even more flexibility.
Probably the most NFL-ready player on the Blue Raider defense, the aforementioned Byard is a force at strong safety. With decent size (5'11" 226 pounds), solid fundamentals and nice speed, Byard is projected as a second to fourth round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft next spring. The unquestioned leader of the defense, Byard posted 54.5 tackles in 2014 (along with three tackles for loss, six interceptions, four pbu and two ff). Byard isn't a one-year wonder either. As a four-year starter, he has accrued impressive statistics, and is currently the active NCAA interception return yardage leader. Speaking of interceptions, Byard has 15 over the course of his career, with four of those resulting in pick-sixes.
While Byard is the stud of the unit, the remainder of the Blue Raider secondary is nothing if not experienced. Joining Byard at free safety is 6'4", 212 pound senior Xavier Walker (58 tackles, one tfl, one INT, four pbu). The corners are a mixed bag in regard to experience. While junior left-side corner Chris Brown (21 tackles, two pbu) has considerable experience, senior Jamarcus Howard (3.5 tackles) is easily the greenhorn of the group despite his class seniority.
As is the case with the other defensive units, the DB rotation (particularly at corner) is deep, with seniors Jared Singletary (46.5 tackles, two tfls, two INT, six pbu, one ff) and Jordan Frost-Dixon (five tackles) backing up the starters.
The pass defense was the strength of the Blue Raider defense in 2014, and with a ton of returning talent (MTSU only replaces corner Khari Burke from 2014), expect the pass defense to be even better in 2015.
How MTSU Can Stop Alabama
While some may consider this laughable, Middle Tennessee can do a few things to make life tough for Bama in the early going. Sure, the second half should see the outmanned Blue Raider defense wilt in the Alabama sun, but at least initially, the senior-laden Blue Raider roster could pose problems for the Tide, particularly in relation to the execution of the passing game.
Given the recent (read: 2014) struggles of the Blue Raider defense to contain potent rushing attacks, as well as the presence of a deep, veteran corps of players in the secondary, one could expect that on obvious rushing downs, Nix and company will key on the run heavily. While it may be questionable whether or not the MTSU secondary can hang with Bama's talented but young receiving corps, the Blue Raiders' best bet at stopping the Bama offensive attack will be to load the box by bringing Byard down on run support while counting on the corners (with help from Walker) to handle the Tide receivers in man or some variation of a nickel/dime scheme.
Even then, stopping the Alabama rushing attack is easier said than done. The Blue Raiders will hope that with the added bulk up front, they'll be able to clog running lanes and get a hand on Derrick Henry out of the backfield. While Henry's performance against Wisconsin allayed many concerns about his 0-60 running ability, the Blue Raiders will need to pick at Henry near the line of scrimmage in hopes of slowing him while the rest of the senior defense closes on him.
While Bama quarterback Jacob Coker looked steady enough against the veteran Wisconsin secondary, MTSU's best chance of disrupting the passing game will come through a combination of pressuring the quarterback with an aggressive four-man pass rush while keeping both safeties in pass defense.
MTSU uses interesting blitz packages to generate pressure, such as on their "Cross" four-down-linemen scheme in which the Mike and Will linebackers attack the A-gaps on either side of the center, crossing in front of him. The ends take the edges on containment while two tackles rush through the B-gaps. (Please excuse my less-than artistic renderings below...this is the quick and dirty version, folks.)
The scheme retains pass coverage integrity by giving each corner responsibility for his respective one-third of the field to either boundary, while the free safety covers the flat underneath and the strong safety plays over the top with the Sam roving the middle of the field underneath.
Fortunately, Alabama has a strong interior line and should be able to stymy the somewhat undersized linebackers on such a play. However, the scheme also has the fringe benefit of putting an awful lot of beef in the box, which could clog running lanes for the gigantic Henry as he attempts to sledge-hammer the line. This strategy could give Bama a few mismatch opportunities if blocks are picked up, namely matching the tight ends (especially O.J. Howard at 6'6") against the smallish Sam linebacker or free safety. Also, the speed of Kenyan Drake can exploit such a defense if it is executed in undisciplined fashion, so expect to see screens and short slants to the area vacated by the blitzing backers.
The Blue Raiders can also use their skilled, speedy defensive backs to generate pass rush, a concept that should be quite familiar to acolytes of one Nick Saban. For example, Nix uses his "COD" defense to create a speed double-team that easily overwhelms the larger, slower tackle. In this scheme, the corner and dime defensive backs line up as if to cover their respective receivers. The leftside end shoots the B-gap between tackle and guard, effectively isolating the tackle. The corner and dime take advantage of the tackle on an island scenario, quick blitzing directly at him. Not only does this attack create a two-on-one situation for the defense, but it also creates a speed mismatch. Even if the lumbering tackle gets a hat on one of the blitzing defensive backs, the other speeds directly into the offensive backfield unmolested, a prospect which more often than not leads to a quarterback sack.
Pass coverage integrity is maintained as the free safety drops to the flat underneath where the blitzing DBs were to create the illusion of a "one-high" coverage. The strong safety takes responsibility for the boundary side of the field. The Sam and remaining corner take coverage responsibility on the right side of the field.
The speed mismatches against Bama's massive tackles have been an issue in recent years, and despite the relative steadiness Dominick Jackson showed in his first start against Wisconsin, his size could be a liability if confronted with two small, speeding blitzing corners. Ditto for all-everything left tackle Cam Robinson, who when not dominating quality defensive linemen, has struggled at times with smallish speed rushers around end.
In addition, Jacob Coker displayed he is loath to throw the hot read at times when under pressure, a fact which led to a pair of sacks earlier versus the Badgers. If the blitzing defensive backs get in the back field, Coker will need to either hit his safety valve hot reads or throw the ball away to keep his jersey clean.
The Blue Raider defense can also create problems in coverage for a green quarterback looking to go through his progressions. The MTSU "WAG" three-drop defense brings four on the pass rush while dropping the remainder of the defense into coverage schemes of one sort or another. In this configuration, one defensive back teams with the Will to overload the C-gap on one side, while the other end contains the other C-gap. The remaining end hits the A-gap while the nose attacks the B-gap.
Both corners drop into man coverage, while the free safety plays underneath to the flat to replace the blitzing defensive back. The Mike drops into Hot 3 coverage between the hashes, with the remaining down lineman dropping into the other flat on Hot 2 coverage.
This can present the opposing quarterback with a ton of reads that can overwhelm and slow decision making, limiting big plays in the process (as in when the quarterback has to take a hot read rather than going through progressions due to said confusion).
With the double-team against the right tackle, the pass rush has a good chance of being disruptive and forcing the quarterback into a mistake ala interception to the waiting safety hovering between the hashes (oftentimes, Byard).
Byard will be all over the field, but on obvious passing downs, he will be called upon to cover the backs on passing routes and possibly Bama's tight ends. When Howard is on the field, this will create a mismatch between the 6'6" Howard and the 5'11" Byard.
Despite the protestations of Saban, the outcome of this game is likely a foregone conclusion. The Tide will simply have too much manpower for the Blue Raiders both offensively and defensively. Even if the MTSU defense is stingy early, they will most assuredly wilt as the game wears on, especially in the run game against Alabama's massive offensive line and bruising backs.
The best the Blue Raiders can hope for is a good showing and a respectable final score, and they can accomplish that by being disruptive in regard to the Tide passing game. If they can force Alabama to be one-dimensional, it will present itself as a more merciful outcome on the score board. If the Blue Raiders can generate a turnover or two, the score may even be shockingly closer than the 35 point spread.
Truthfully, even a one-dimensional Bama wielding its Mjolnir-like running game will be more than enough to pound the Blue Raiders into submission. However, if Coker and company can weather the Blue Raider blitz storm and execute the passing game, this score should look something like the 70-14 whipping the Blue Raiders hung on Jackson State in the previous week.