Happy Monday, folks. We have officially made it to the extraordinarily difficult heart of the SEC schedule. When the ball is kicked on Saturday it will be October, marking the first time since 2007 that Alabama has opened the second month with a less-than-perfect record. This week the Tide travels to Athens to play the Georgia Bulldogs in a game that they aren't supposed to win, the first time they have competed in such a contest since 2009. It is make or break time for the team, and we will have you covered in detail as usual. We'll start with some recap stuff from last weekend's tune-up before moving on to the big one:
Louisiana-Monroe couldn't do anything offensively against Alabama's stout defensive line. A four-man defensive front got pressure throughout the game, had 3 ½ sacks and really limited what ULM quarterback Garrett Smith wanted to do. Jarran Reed and Da'Shawn Hand were especially effective against the Warhawks. ULM's running game fared even worse. The Tide's defensive line is clearly the strength of the team and makes up for offensive deficiencies.
The defensive line showed out against the Warhawks, turning in as dominant a performance as you will ever see. Needless to say, this week will present a challenge unlike anything they have seen through the first third of the season. This is the deepest and most talented unit on the team, one which will largely determine the Tide's fate going forward.
Reggie Ragland, the emotional leader of Alabama's defense, had a simple message for his teammates: "No one's scoring on us." It was a direct challenge to a squad that gave up 43 points in a loss to Ole Miss last week though the Tide's offense and special teams did the defense no favors. Alabama's defense has long been the lifeblood of the program, and Ragland was eager for the defense to impose its will again.
The importance of on-field leadership simply can't be overstated, and Reggie Ragland fills this role masterfully on the defensive side. Whether he has an equal counterpart on the other side of the ball is another matter.
Drake fumbled a kickoff against the Rebels and, according to Saban, "got hurt a little bit." Harris — one of the prized members of the Tide's most recent recruiting class — has done a "good job back there" in practice, Saban said. Harris did not have a chance to return any kicks against ULM.
Relieving Drake of his kickoff return duties in order to protect him makes good sense. That Nick Saban is willing to trust a true freshman in this role speaks volumes about Damien Harris.
The eye test would suggest that Alabama is ranked a bit too low, though you can't argue with positioning when you don't take care of business. The Tide would likely make a huge jump with a win on Saturday. In any event, it's hard to quibble with Utah's ranking after they crushed Oregon in Autzen.
Go teach the Bulldogs to behave:
Georgia will open as a 1-point favorite over Alabama on Sunday afternoon, a Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook spokesman told ESPN. If Georgia remains the favorite for Saturday's kickoff, it will end Alabama's streak as a favorite for 72 consecutive games, stretching over five years. It's the longest streak in college football history.
Depending on the money this week, Alabama may or may not be an underdog at kickoff. As mentioned previously, this would mark the first time Alabama was not favored in a game since the 2009 SEC Championship Game. I'd be fine with a similar result.
"When it comes to running the ball, I feel like we could be on the edge a little better against Alabama," Holley said. "When it comes to Georgia, we couldn't, because they're a faster outside defense. When it comes to getting downhill, I feel like Alabama is better at filling the gap than Georgia is, because they're bigger. Their defensive line can fill gaps better than Georgia. That's from my perspective."
This is probably an accurate assessment. In keeping with the "run the ball" mantra, Alabama RB Derrick Henry outweighs three of Georgia's starting linebackers. For the most part, testing the edges would play right into the smaller, faster defense's hands. Coming into the season, Georgia's greatest concern was talent and depth along the defensive front. They tend to run only two deep up there with a fairly significant drop-off from the first group to the second. True freshman Trenton Thompson was the #1 overall recruit in the 2015 class and has been working his way into the rotation. He will likely be counted on at some point in the game, but if there was ever a game to try and wear down a defensive line, this would be it. Georgia has not yet faced an opponent with the ability to exploit this area.
The Tide needs to be able to find the tough yards between the tackles in this one, then test a young Georgia secondary that has appeared to be shaky at times. They have been adept at intercepting the football however, so Jake Coker will need to proceed with caution.
-- Derrick Henry is No. 2 in scoring with an average of 12.0 points per game. Georgia's Chubb and Sony Michel are tied for fourth at 10.5 points per game.
-- Alabama LB Reggie Ragland is No. 7 in tackles, averaging 8.5 per game.
-- Alabama's six lost interceptions is tied for No. 108th.
Talk about strength vs. strength. Anyone who doesn't savor the thought of Chubb colliding with Ragland and Reuben Foster hates football and is likely a communist.
Alabama wide receiver ArDarius Stewart said he hopes the Crimson Tide is the underdog at Georgia. "It's always fun," Stewart said. "You want to go out and show what you can do. (When) you're the underdog, you go out in practice, work harder, and you're going to see it on the field."
Pretty telling quote from ArDarius here. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, the players are clearly affected to some degree by their current ranking and the things the media is saying about them. The team that is best able to manage the hype will likely emerge victorious. Hopefully the Tide comes out ready to prove that rumors of its demise are premature.
But they also have a package of plays in which they actually call a run and block for it but have the option of passing on the same play. And Georgia hit big on such plays several times, with Greyson Lambert pulling the ball out of Chubb's belly and raising up to hit Malcolm Mitchell, Terry Godwin or one of the Bulldogs' tight ends over the middle of the field.
They were often very, very open, and Lambert was hitting them on the money.
"It all just depends on that defense and their scheme," said Lambert, who established an NCAA record by hitting 96 percent of more than 20 attempts. "If they stack the box, we've got answers; and if they play off, we've got answers. So it just kind of depends on what they do. And we'll be moving at a tempo where it makes them decide really quickly and gives us kind of an advantage, hopefully."
If I'm Kirby Smart, I'm playing man coverage with Cyrus Jones matched up on Malcolm Mitchell at all times and playing two-gap up front to stuff the run and force the "pull" read on these RPOs. I'll live with Greyson Lambert attempting quick passes against tight coverage all day. Fortunately, Lambert is not the most mobile guy and doesn't really require a spy. He has been able to utilize his backs and tight ends in the passing game, which is concerning since pass coverage seems to be the relative weakness of the Alabama LB corps. In particular, RB Sony Michel has proven to offer a home run threat when catching it out of the backfield.
To Lambert's quote, this is where Alabama has to be able to lean on that vaunted defensive line. If the Tide is to win, the talent up front will provide the benefit of stacking the box without actually having done so. Alabama fans are hoping that the Jimmies and Joes in Crimson will be good enough to counteract any X's and O's that OC Brian Schottenheimer will throw at them without any significant change in strategy.
John Theus was on the field at the end too. What stands out to him isn't the final play, though, but the aftermath.
"I think it a lot of the older guys harder than me. Because I was a freshman, and I don't think I realized the magnitude of it right then," said Theus, a freshman in 2012. "But it was definitely heartbreaking. I remembering being in that locker room, grown men crying and stuff. You make that play, you're on to the national championship."
The players who were around for the end of the 2012 SEC Championship game will undoubtedly be seeking some level of redemption, though I doubt that any such motivation significantly alters the outcome.
Last but not least:
"We're trying to cover him up with as much love as we can, and let him know that we care, let him know that we're here to help," Richt said. "We're just gonna continue to pray, and I know the Bulldog nation is behind him as well. There may come a time where there may be some needs. Not exactly sure yet. But it does come to that I'm going to be calling all Dawgs to get involved and to help out."
In case you missed it, a player from Southern University suffered a fractured spine during the course of normal play in Georgia's game this past weekend. He is still at a hospital in Athens recovering and will need surgery to repair the injuries. Things didn't look good initially, but the latest reports have him able to talk, laugh, and utilize both arms. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.
That's about it for now. It's do or die time. They don't get any bigger or more fun than this.