After a mini-rant at his Monday press conference following what was a dominating win over a ranked opponent in the season opener, it was clear that Nick Saban was perturbed.
Was he perturbed that a reporter, in some ill-placed act of "journalism," elected to make light of the Tide's next opponent, Middle Tennessee State? Or was Saban flustered by what he knows will likely be the outcome of a "cupcake" game against a fair-to-middlin' C-USA also-ran? That outcome, which in reality is probably not in question in regard to the final score, could still have negative consequences for the Tide and put a chink in its crimson armor.
After all, Saban will be facing a Blue Raider scheme that represents the eternal thorn in his side (at least in terms of public perception if not reality), the much-hated uptempo no-huddle offense. Though Saban and the Tide have adapted defensive tactics over the several years in which the HUNH attack has come to the forefront, it is something that Saban the Traditionalist hates with an unconcealable passion. Though Saban's offense under Lane Kiffin has even adopted some of the principals of that which he loathes, one can tell that Saban speaks of it with clinched teeth.
The strength and appeal of the HUNH offense will be on full display as the Crimson Tide takes on the Blue Raiders, and the game will be something of a mild measuring stick of the Tide's increasing comfort in dealing with uptempo attacks. While there's little doubt the Tide offense will ultimately have its way with an outmanned Blue Raider D, the MTSU offense can test Alabama's still-developing secondary and mitigate (through exhaustion) the Tide's greatest strength on the defensive side of the ball: namely its deep, star-studded defensive line.
MTSU runs the HUNH and they run it fairly well. In 2014, the Blue Raider offense churned out 31.6 points per game, and nearly 5,000 yards of offense in the last two seasons. The offense runs faster than Gus Malzahn's, faster than Kevin Sumlin's. In fact, the only SEC teams to run more plays per game than the Blue Raiders are Tennessee and Mississippi State. Against Jackson State in the season opener, MTSU ran a total of 95 plays.
In reality, the HUNH style of offense was created for just such a match-up. It was borne from the need of smaller schools with lesser talent to negate the inherent advantages of large perennial powerhouses with endless recruiting resources. It represents the sling and stone of David versus the Power 5 Goliath. In a twist of fate, this same weapon has been adopted by power conference teams as a way of leveling the playing field, hence Alabama's frequent run-ins with the pesky scheme among SEC West opponents like Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Auburn.
Obviously, the Blue Raiders don't field the same level of talent as the three aforementioned uptempo SEC teams. But this weekend's match-up will give Alabama an early look at the style of offense it will see twice in the first half of the season versus the Rebel Black Bears and the Aggies. And with the secondary still a bit of a question mark, Blue Raider success, especially in the passing game, could also be a bit of a wake-up call for a fan base still reveling in an old-school smashmouth victory over a Big 10 adversary.
The Alabama offense versus the MTSU defense
This should be a no-brainer, as Alabama demonstrated in its opener against the solid Wisconsin defense that this incarnation of the Tide has returned to its run-based roots. Alabama's running back tandem is a known commodity, with both Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake garnering plenty of pre-season attention as one of the premier rushing tandems in the league, if not the nation. Henry did little to disprove that against the Badgers, showing not only improved acceleration and field vision, but the patented power running that allowed him to break free of a pack of Badger defenders in route to a flashy touchdown run.
But the unsung hero of the running game in the opening stanza was a refined offensive line that was able to do something Alabama lines of the past two years have struggled to do: namely, they were able to assert their will at the point of attack and dominate the line of scrimmage consistently. Sure, there were a few early breakdowns, particularly in pass pro. But overall, and especially in regard to the running game, the left side of Alabama's line (with LT Cam Robinson and LG Ross Pierschbacher) was able to get great push and maintain leverage against a strong Badger defensive line. The right side of the line is still a work in progress, but the tandem of Alphonse Taylor at RG and Dominick Jackson at RT looks to be steam-roller material in the near future. Center Ryan Kelly, the line's most veteran member, looked like a different player against the Badgers. He maintained leverage, executed the scheme, used his athleticism and looked like a seasoned veteran.
This is bad news for the Blue Raider defensive line. Though bulked up in 2015 in order to better handle physical offensive fronts, the Blue Raider big uglies will be hard pressed to get much penetration against Alabama's front wall. MTSU defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is no stranger to the SEC, as he has had coaching stops at Ole Miss and South Carolina. Needless to say, he knows what it takes to work big, elite offensive lines, and his approach involves innovative blitzes and using the athleticism of defensive backs against the larger lumbering linemen. His aggressive packages can create big plays in the back fields of opposing offenses, but said schemes also rely on execution and athleticism in coverage.
That's where the Blue Raiders will likely hit the wall. Alabama's athletes are bigger, faster and arguably stronger. Scheme can't undo the advantages inherent in Bama's talent versus MTSU's talent. There's no way around it. Alabama will be content to hammer away at the Blue Raider run defense, ultimately tiring them and opening bigger and bigger gaps. Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker will have to be patient with his reads as the exotic blitzes used by MTSU will produce some equally exotic coverage schemes. It's nothing ground-breaking, per se, but keep in mind that Coker will be making only his second career start versus the Blue Raider defense.
The Blue Raiders can only hope that some of the blitzes strike true, and that Coker gets a little confused if flushed from the pocket. If that happens, safety Kevin Byard has a proven ability to generate turnovers and make plays in the middle of the field. He's an NFL talent who lurks between the hashes, a tactic which has produced 15 career interceptions during his four year career (Byard is the current active NCAA interception return yardage leader).
Basically, the Tide's tactic against this defense will involve hammering them with the run early and taking shots with play-action or run-pass option opportunities to prevent MTSU from keying up and anticipating the play. If the Bama offense can stay away from Byard and once again control the line of scrimmage, it should be smooth sailing and a good exercise for the Alabama offense.
The Alabama defense versus the MTSU offense
This is the arena in which the Blue Raiders are most likely to give the Crimson Tide fits. Just take a look at the stats from the Blue Raiders opener (albeit, it was against Jackson State): 605 yards of total offense, 363 yards passing, 242 yards rushing, 36 first downs. Those are eye-popping numbers, regardless of the level of competition, and they are indicative of an offense that knows how to execute the game plan and is hitting on all cylinders.
Given the fact that said cylinders are of the uptempo variety, such a performance could give the Tide defense a little trouble if MTSU can manage to replicate it in some fashion. Saban, and by proxy the Crimson Tide, has done much in recent years to combat HUNH principals, from recruiting two sets of defensive athletes (heavies for tradition pro-style offenses, lighter, more athletic defenders for the HUNH schemes) to altering his patented defensive approach itself. For a uptempo team with as much balance as the Blue Raiders have displayed, there are few opportunities to load the box, as doing so leaves defensive backs vulnerable on their respective islands.
Expect to see those more athletic defenders on the field this Saturday, as the Blue Raiders run a variety of uptempo offense that prides itself on balance. Though the stats from the first game skewed towards the passing attack (unlike some popular Air Raid variants), the run is a heavy component in head coach Rick Stockstill's attack. The Blue Raiders have a stable of backs with which to attack defenses, including junior Shane Tucker (6', 217 pounds) and senior Parker Jordan (6'1", 222 pounds). While not the biggest or fastest backs on the block, they play their role in the scheme as both rushers and receivers, and they get results. Expect the duo to see the bulk of the carries against the Tide this Saturday.
They'll be running behind a retooled but experienced offensive line. The line averages over 300 pounds, which is good for a non-Power 5 squad. Leading the pack is Darius Johnson at left guard, a 6'3"305 pound senior who probably could have lined up for several SEC schools if given the chance. Newcomer Chandler Brewer won the left tackle spot for the opener, and though he lacks collegiate experience, his size (6'6", 310 pounds) and physical assets bode well for him at the blind-side spot.
That said, the Blue Raider offensive line better be good, because they'll have their work cut out against the Alabama defensive line. Anyone who watched a quarter of the opener against Wisconsin could see that this time next year, several Crimson Tide D linemen will be making their respective NFL debuts. A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed are a known commodity, but the game versus Wisky was a coming out party for Jonathan Allen, who recorded two sacks in the contest. Expect the trio to continue to impress against the Blue Raider offense. And exhaustion shouldn't be an issue early, as the Bama D line rotation goes nine deep. If the Blue Raiders run 90 plays, of course, any defense will find itself winded. The key for Bama's defense will be to shut down the MTSU first down machine and keep offensive series short, especially early on.
Expect the Blue Raider offense to struggle in the running game, which will be the first strand of their undoing against Alabama. The Tide run defense is always stout, but the unit held the Badger rushing attack (one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the country) to a mere 40 yards. There's no reason to expect deviation this week, as the Blue Raiders have neither the horses up front or in the back field to have much more success against the strength of the Tide D. Make no mistake, the Alabama run defense could be historically good, so expect the Blue Raider offensive attack to skew towards the pass as desperation grows.
Speaking of the passing game... Freshman quarterback Brent Stockstill (yes, he's the coach's son) won the job from 2014 starter Alex Grammer in August. Before jumping to the conclusion that nepotism was at play, consider Stockstill's stat line from the opener: 25-of-31 for 364 yards and four touchdowns. The kid can play, and in the system, he has proven to be a good combination of spectacular, quick-witted and consistent.
Part of the appeal of the Blue Raider offense is Stockstill's steady hand, but it also stems from the plenitude of targets the quarterback has at his disposal. The Blue Raiders run a three-wides, one tight end set a good bit of the time, alternating on obvious passing downs to four-wides. Not to mention, the elder Stockstill uses the running backs prolifically in the passing game. For example, in 2014, Tucker recorded 21 catches for 351 yards. That gives the younger Stockstill plenty of opportunities to get the bacll out quickly, which will be critical against a ferocious Bama front seven.
Among the wide receivers, senior Ed'Marques Batties is the leading pass catcher from a year ago, and he had a strong game in the opener as well (eight receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns). With a 6', 200 pound frame, Batties is big and physical with a nice complement of speed. Freshman Richie James (5'11", 170 pounds) gives the Blue Raiders a big-play presence, and junior Terry Petties (6'5", 232 pounds) can create mismatches against the Tide's corners with his size and physical ability.
It is through the passing game that one can expect the Blue Raiders to make their greatest in-roads against the Alabama defense. Let's face it...despite the talk of improvement in the Bama secondary, the sample size is not great enough to make that determination conclusively. While young corners Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick looked good in many situations, they also had some breakdowns that allowed big plays in the passing game against Wisconsin, though Wisky didn't string enough of them together to mount a serious problem. The way Joel Stave was able to move the ball at times in the passing game left a little to be desired of a pass defense that was shelled all too many time in 2014. Bama was especially vulnerable against short passing routes, where either the coaching staff was content to give the Badgers the underneath routes, or the Tide defenders were gun-shy and gave the receivers a little too much cushion.
Even with a successful passing attack against Alabama, the Blue Raiders have little chance of mounting the kind of sustained success to change the timbre of the game. Make no mistake, the Tide should dominate, and if Alabama struggles against this incarnation of the HUNH, it will undoubtedly lead to sleepless nights heading into match-ups with far more potent uptempo SEC teams coming up on the schedule in the not-too-distant future.
It doesn't matter how good or bad Middle Tennessee's special teams unit is. After all, it can't be much worse than Alabama's special teams performance against Wisconsin. The usually steady J.K. Scott looked like a different punter altogether, shanking punts and leaving his trademark cannon leg in Tuscaloosa versus the Badgers. After the game, Saban claimed that Scott's troubles stemmed form a little inconsistency on his drops, but with bigger games looming on the horizon, one can only hope Bama's secret weapon works out the kinks, and fast.
After all, Scott is perceived to be the strong point of the Alabama kicking game, a fact which was obvious against the Badgers. The place kicking woes Bama has experienced in the last several years are hard to explain. The Tide recruits top kicking talent, only to see its promise wither on the vine at the Capstone. Place kicker Adam Griffith came to Alabama as a heralded clutch kicker with a cannon leg. Since then, Griffith's legacy has been the Kick-6, a litany of missed makable kicks that fortunately came at less-than-clutch times, and a fantastic back story as rendered by Tom Rinaldi.
At some point or another (and make no mistake, it won't be against the Blue Raiders), Alabama will need a clutch kick to win a closely contested game. It may come against Arkansas, it may come against LSU. Regardless, to win an SEC Championship, much less a spot in the College Football Playoffs, the Tide absolutely must have some degree of warranted confidence in its kicker. Right now, that does not appear to be the case. That, folks, is a huge problem.
Cyrus Jones did an adequate job on punt returns, as did Drake and Ar'Darius Stewart on kick returns. None of the options look quite comfortable in the return game just yet, but that should come in time. Kick coverage was solid for the most part, and one can expect little change against MTSU.
Face it...the Blue Raiders have little chance of beating Alabama this weekend. What they can hope for is to erode the air of invincibility that many have cast upon the Tide after their performance in the opening week. Alabama is good...very good. However, as Saban himself would gleefully admit, they haven't accomplished anything yet. Is this team strong enough to endure a brutal schedule? Will Alabama be able to handle both pro-style smashmouth teams and the uptempo squads on its schedule this season? Will the Tide find a reliable kicking game?
These questions and many more remain, and MTSU won't upset the Tide's proverbial apple cart to any great extent. However, the Blue Raiders' success, or lack thereof, may be telling about the Tide's ability to adapt and overcome. That characteristic will be critical for a Tide team that seeks to undo the wrongs of 2014.
Hope for the best...