Let's face it: this week's match-up against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks carries neither the prestige nor electricity that surrounded last week's extravaganza in Tuscaloosa. There's just no way to recreate the excitement of a top-25 match-up against a SEC West foe, and this week's contest with the Warhawks will fall well short of last week's spectacle in regard to nearly every measurable.
That, however, does not mean that this week's game is an afterthought. No, despite the relative obscurity of the opponent, this week will do a great deal to determine what kind of team Coach Nick Saban has this year. A dominant, business-like thudding of the Warhawks this weekend would portend that there is hope for this Tide squad yet, as such would be indicative of the mindset of a champion. Get knocked down...get back up and keep swinging. Alabama has, after all, enjoyed its share of last-round knockouts in the Saban era, reentering the title race when hope was all but lost. It's a mindset Bama teams of recent memory possesses, the ability to put aside a previous loss and focus with resolve on the pending task at hand...to keep plugging away, win or lose.
Then there is the other end of the spectrum. An Alabama win may mean little if it is tainted with turnovers, mental errors, special team woes and the kinds of sloppy execution that put the Tide in such a deep hole versus the Rebels last week. That type of outcome could (and should) be the cause of great consternation across the Bama fan base, as it would indicate that unlike teams of this past, this Bama program is devolving into a state of chaos the likes of which haven't been seen in Tuscaloosa since late 2006.
It's hard to believe the latter could be the case, as Saban has proven that he tolerates neither mediocrity nor underachievement very well. With a roster loaded with multiple back-to-back top-ranked recruiting classes, anything less than a 10 win season seems like something of an undershot.
Believe it. While this week's game, at season's dawn, may have seemed relatively insignificant, in reality the Tide's next contest could be prophetic of the remainder of 2015. Will the Tide rise, pick itself off the canvas like a champion and keep swinging? Or will the punch landed square on Bama's crimson chin prove more than a flash knockdown? Time will tell...let's take a look at the mechanics of this week's match-up...
The Alabama offense versus the ULM defense
After a frustrating display (and what seemed to be absolute chaos at times) against Ole Miss, it appears Saban and company have settled on a quarterback. For better or worse, Jake Coker will get the nod as Saturday's starter after Cooper Bateman unexpectedly started for the Tide under center against the Rebels. While Bateman, at times, looked capable, it was Coker who emerged as the most viable option with his grit and determination, despite his sometimes errant throws and erratic decision making.
Let's be objective: Coker is no Joe Willie Namath, regardless of what the talent scouts say about his rocket-like arm. When Coker throws a perfect spiral, his passes are as pretty as they come. But then, there's the inaccuracy. There are times when it's difficult to determine Coker's target by the direction and trajectory of the ball. This could, on isolated occasions, be on account of a lack of familiarity with the receivers, or receivers who are running sloppy routes. But a lot of times, Coker just throws bad passes, and he has a penchant for forcing the ball into double- and triple-coverage. His short field vision leaves something to be desired, as he seems to struggle with safeties and linebackers floating underneath and in the flats.
This isn't a Jake Coker whippin' post episode, however. Despite his flaws and short-comings, he looks like the man who will marshal the Bama offense in 2015. With a little primp and polish, Coker may not prove to be Freddie Kitchens Redux after all.
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is known for his work with quarterbacks, and now is the time for him to earn that accolade. Coker has the raw skill to be workable at worse, solid at best. It will be up to Kiffin to tailor the system around Coker's strengths and give the signal caller his best chance of success using the plenitude of weapons in the Bama arsenal.
The Tide receivers, outside of Richard Mullaney and Calvin Ridley, could do a little more to help their quarterback, as well. For all of the talent Bama has in the wide receiving corps, there has been little production to go along with it. And the big-play threat that kept the Tide offense explosive in 2014 is all but gone. Bama clearly misses Amari Cooper, as expected, and no one has adequately stepped into that void in the first quarter of the season. Over the course of three games, Alabama has not completed a pass for more than 23 yards. That is not the type of passing game that helped loosen running lanes and keep defenses guessing last season.
It's not a function of talent. Alabama has talent to spare. Rather, it appears there is little chemistry between either quarterback and the receiving corps. This is likely due to the recently ongoing quarterback race, but regardless, the receivers are charged with being in position to make plays no matter who throws the ball. Mullaney has been clutch when called upon in the slot, and Ridley has shown flashes of explosiveness. With Robert Foster out for the foreseeable future, it will fall upon the true freshman's shoulders to do his best Cooper impression moving forward, as the position will be his to lose moving forward.
The running game is what it is. It can be sledgehammer-like and efficient, or it can hit with the force of a tack hammer. The backs are a known quantity, that much is certain. But once again, Alabama is struggling to assert its will at the point of attack, especially when facing lighter defenders. The familiar refrain of "run right at ‘em" has proven ineffective, as Bama ran right at the Ole Miss' undersized front seven and paid the price with a sub-4 yard per carry average through large chunks of the game.
While the Bama mystique leads one to believe the Tide can run the ball over anyone, such is simply not the case in this day with this offensive line. Alabama's right side of the line is inconsistent and struggles mightily in run blocking the zone schemes, which is somewhat puzzling. While Dominick Jackson has been the goat in the first two games, he showed improvement against Ole Miss. His line mates Alphonse Taylor at right guard and Ross Pierschbacher at left guard, however, showed some regression against the Rebels' uber-fast front. Sure, it's not reasonable to think that young linemen are going to be able to corral the likes of Robert Nkemdiche and Marquis Haynes on every play, but the two guards got the wrong end of the whuppin' stick on too many occasions. The same could be said for Bama's talented senior center Ryan Kelly, who didn't play his best game against the Rebels.
Fortunately, the Tide will get more reps against a similar defense (with lesser talent) this week against the Warhawks. Though a mid-major at best, the Warhawk defense is fairly salty and the strength of the ULM team, thanks in part to their pesky 3-3-5 defensive scheme. Much like the Rebel defense, this Warhawks unit depends on speed, and to a larger degree, subterfuge in order to create mismatches and trap offenses. Gerrard Johnson is a light nose tackle at 6'1" and 290 pounds, but his quickness is well-documented. He is wonderful at what the defensive scheme asks him to do: namely, hitting a gap with speed and disrupting the offensive backfield.
The usually steady center Ryan Kelly had his own struggles against the Rebels, and Johnson is the kind of athletic, quick D lineman that has given him fits in the past. This will the most interesting face-off when Bama has the ball, as the nose tackle in the 33 stack defense is critical. If the nose can't tie up blockers and disrupt offensive timing, the job of the linebackers in the scheme become exponentially more difficult. If Kelly plays with a chip on his shoulder after his breakdowns, Johnson's impact will be limited. If you hear the nose tackle's name called routinely Saturday, it will be because Kelly is having another tough outing.
ULM can expect a heavy dose of the run game, as despite the protestation from fans, the Tide's offense has actually been fairly balanced in routine game situations. That said, the Tide threw the ball a school-record 59 times against the Rebels, with the Tide going to the air often after falling behind. Expect Kiffin to get Coker in rhythm early with the short and intermediate passing game, as the quarterback simply must learn to take what defenses offer rather than forcing the ball recklessly.
Another observation...Coker seemed to look more at home as a passer, with better mechanics, when rolling the pocket, particularly to the right. While many see Coker primarily as an upright, pocket passer with a laser arm, given his nice form on the move and the Tide's ability to set up play-action with the run, it may be wise for Kiffin to give Coker a moving pocket at times to increase his comfort level and allow him to find rhythm. Such a tactic could also help the offensive line in pass blocking, though the line will not be facing an Ole Miss-caliber pass rush against ULM.
Though ULM has a little talent in the secondary in safety Mitch Lane and corner Lenzy Pipkins, expect Alabama to get the passing game on track by picking apart the constant nickel they'll face from the Warhawks. If receivers run sharp routes and develop timing with Coker, it should be an easy outing for the Tide offense. If not, more passing game ugliness could ensue this week.
The Alabama defense versus the ULM offense
The Alabama defense was roughed-up last week against Ole Miss, but in large part, their performance was a function of a struggling offense that kept the defensive unit on the field for long stretches of the game against an uptempo offense. Early on, Alabama's defensive line had great penetration, and when they weren't in the backfield, the defensive linemen had their hands in the air, knocking down no less than four Chad Kelly passes.
The secondary, however, struggled mightily with the Ole Miss receivers. Make no mistake, the Rebels have a talented arsenal not matched by ULM. Despite the efficiency of freshman quarterback Garrett Smith, who is a 79 percent passer with 576 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in 2015, Alabama's secondary should get a week of solid (but non-threatening) practice against another uptempo passing attack.
ULM sports a duo of wide receivers in Rashon Ceasar and Ajalen Holley who represent the bulk of the Warhawks' passing offense. The duo has accumulated over 3000 career yards receiving together, though they are rarely what oine would consider explosive in the ULM passing game. Expect to see a lot of short throws into the flats, high-percentage, low-yield passes that serve as a proxy running game. With all of the struggles the Bama secondary has had early in the season, this week shouldn't present much of a tall order. Short passes may be completed, but ULM's big play passing threat is nearly as sedate as Alabama's has been in the young season.
Speaking of sedate, the Warhawk running attack has been lethargic at best for the last two seasons. To date, 2015 hasn't shown great improvement, as the offensive line replaces three starters. Returning are veteran senior center Colby Mitchell (6'2", 280 pounds) and junior right guard Jimmy Chung (6'2", 287 pounds). That said, it is also important to note that the tonnage of ULM's offensive line is somewhat lacking by SEC standards, with only one regular weighing more than 300 pounds (left tackle Brandon Bridger, who is 6'4", 316 pounds). Against an Alabama defensive line that averages 310 depending on the rotation, that size will create a mismatch that the Warhawks simply won't be able to overcome. Expect Bama's defense to dominate the point of attack.
While the offensive line represents a large part of the running game struggles for ULM, none of the backs have done anything to separate themselves, either. The Warhawks wield a trio of backs, including senior DeVontae McNeal (5'11", 211 pounds), sophomore Kaylon Watson (6'1", 220 pounds) and freshman Ben Luckett (5'11", 216 pounds). McNeal was the leading returning rusher, as he picked up a mere 205 yards and two touchdowns in 2014. However, in 2015, Luckett has been the most productive option, rushing for 84 yards and a touchdown with a 7.0 yards per carry average. (The other two backs average 1.7 ypc and 3.2 ypc, respectively. A unproductive running game can't expect things to get much better against Alabama solid run defense, so the Warhawk rushing attack will be of little consequence in Saturday's game.
Needless to say, Alabama's defense should have little trouble with the Warhawk offensive attack, uptempo or not. Without a running game to keep the Tide guessing, Alabama will be able to run a lot of nickel and give the defensive backs some quality reps against live competition.
For whatever reason, despite all of the talent the Tide has to put on special teams, the Alabama special teams units, as a whole, continue to be a raging pallet fire. Despite the ugly situation, the failure of special teams and the subsequent impact on play-calling must be examined after last week's failures.
First, there's the kicking game. On numerous occasions, it appeared Saban was strapped into fourth down attempts when traditionally, he would rather take a field goal and play defense. Whenever Alabama crossed the 50, the obvious fourth down option was a conversion attempt rather than a field goal, which says a great deal about the confidence the coaching staff has in either of the place kicking options.
Because of this, Saban's decision-making was altered. Rather than conservatively taking the three points and waiting for a break, the Tide was forced to turn the ball over despite driving into enemy territory. This happened twice in the first half versus Ole Miss, and in both situations, one could sense that given his druthers and a capable kicking game, Saban would have put points on the board rather than take a shot on fourth down. (Incidentally, two converted field goals, or six points, represented the difference in the final score.)
Next, there is the return game. Two fumbled returns (one on the initial play of the game) are almost always going to result in a loss. Not only did the fumbles cost Alabama points and field position, but they also cost the Tide valuable momentum, something that can be the difference in a closely-contested conference game like the one that played out at Bryant Denny Stadium last week. If you think special teams are an afterthought, think of how different the conclusion could have been if Alabama had not coughed up the ball on those two plays.
In a word, something has to change. Until it does, special teams gaffes like those witnessed last Saturday will continue to cost the Tide games.
On the scoreboard, there will likely be no contest between ULM and the Tide this weekend. However, the game is important as a barometer for what the Bama faithful can expect from this year's incarnation of the Crimson Tide. A lethargic, lackadaisical response with a close score against a team that should be dominated will be very telling. A dominant, error-free performance and an offense beginning to develop consistency will give Alabama great momentum heading into another challenging conference match-up with Georgia next week.
Will the Tide rise and wash over the errors of the previous week? Or will those errors remain as rocky shoals waiting to dash the hulls of potential future successes? Will Saban and company right the ship? Or will the boat continue to rock on the stormy seas of SEC play?
Time will tell...hope for the best.