Alabama is a team known for starting the season with a bang. This year's opener comes at a time of great uncertainty for the Crimson Tide, a team that surprised many (outside of the Bama fan base, of course) by making the first ever College Football Playoffs in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
If the 2012 Tide was the championship heir apparent, the 2014 was the plucky little engine that could. While it may seem an exercise in folly to consider that Alabama, at any time in the Saban era, was an underdog, there was a sense last year that the 2014 team over-achieved. After all, the always-stellar defense was reloading and replacing one of the most dynamic players in recent memory (inside linebacker C.J. Mosely). The secondary, after perpetual shelling in the previous year, was anything but a sure bet. And under center, the Tide had a former running back to lead the team.
Flash forward to the end of 2014. The defense gelled. Reggie Ragland did his best to fill the shoes left by his predecessor, making quite the name for himself in the meantime. The secondary, while still a work in progress, showed signs of improvement. And Blake Sims became the holder of many of Alabama's passing records, becoming not only a prolific producer of offense, but a great leader and fan favorite as well.
That said, many considered the end of the Alabama season anti-climactic. Unable to figure out the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first round of the playoffs, all of that effort in 2014 went for naught. After all, for a team as successful as the Crimson Tide has been in recent memory, a 10 win season just somehow felt a little like failure.
In 2015, there is a new ruler of college football, and it's not Alabama. It's not even an SEC rival who sits atop the throne. As salty as the taste of defeat may be for followers of the Southeastern Conference, the Big 10 finds itself on top of the football landscape, and after an embarrassing bowl season, the SEC can no longer stake claim as the preeminent conference in the game. There is a rivalry setting up between the armies of the north and the south, and in this first installment of 2015, the combatants wear not the blue and the gray, but rather shades of red.
Enter the 2015 Crimson Tide squad. While there remains uncertainty, there remains a steadfast constant. The Alabama defense appears to be ready to stake its claim as one of the best in the nation, with a ferocious defensive line, uber-talented roster of linebackers and a secondary that looks to be dramatically improved from previous incarnations. Yes, there are questions at quarterback. And the wide receiver corps is probably the most inexperienced of the Saban tenure. But therein lies the Bama championship formula of old: control offenses with a smothering defense, run the damn ball and let the quarterback manage the game while remaining mistake free.
Can this formula work once again for the Tide? Will the Crimson Empire re-emerge as a force capable of unseating Ohio State and others who may come for its previously donned championship mantle? Can Wisconsin take the next step in asserting Big 10 dominance over the football kingdom? The first test comes (thankfully) this Saturday, as Alabama takes on a bit of a doppelganger in the Wisconsin Badgers. Let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the Wisconsin defense
When it comes to the Alabama offense this season, one has to have a better handle on what to expect than in 2014. Back then, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was the new kid on the houndstooth block, and it was unsure how he would utilize the immensely talented offensive roster against SEC defenses. A year later, it's clear Kiffin can coach, and given the stable of talent present at Alabama, he can do so at a high level.
While there remains no defined quarterback heading into Saturday's game, that shouldn't be cause for pause (at least not to great extent). Alabama has started the season without a defined starter before, and in that instance, the quarterback competition led to the AJ McCarron Era at Alabama. Think back to 2009 when an unknown "game manager" form Texas (Greg McElroy) was called upon to play mistake-free and feed the ball to a stable of running backs working behind a solid offensive line.
There are similarities to be sure, as none of the likely QB options (specifically Jacob Coker, Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman) are the kind of players that will be given McCarron's free hand with the offense. What they can do, however, is use Kiffin's scheme to leverage the short and certain pass plays, along what should be a solid running game with Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and newcomer Damien Harris, into prolonged drives that eat clock and allow the defense to stay fresh.
Against Wisconsin, even for a veteran QB, that short order will be a difficult task. While many know Wisconsin as an offensive powerhouse, a running team cast in the old school Big 10 mold, the Badgers have what will be one of the best defenses in their league (and that includes both Ohio State and Michigan State). They bring a host of veterans, and they have one of the nation's best defensive coordinators in Dave Aranda.
Look no further than what the Badger defense did to the vaunted Auburn offense in the 2015 Outback Bowl. They dominated the Auburn attack more fully than any other team not based in Tuscaloosa last season. Aranda's scheme was genius, and the Badgers leveraged a talented corps of linebackers and safeties to great effect, limiting the Tigers to a single big play (a 66 yard pass to be exact). Sure, Auburn got their rushing yards, but the Badgers narrowed the gaps and man-handled the Auburn line. The Buckeyes aren't the only giant-killers in the Big 10 conference, as Wisconsin effectively did to the Tigers what few of their SEC rivals did during the course of the regular season.
Against Alabama, expect to see the Badgers take chances by loading the box and attempting to force the run inside. Alabama's quarterback quandary is well-documented, and if Wisconsin decides to roll the dice, they can sell out against Bama's formidable run by bringing a safety into the box and leaving their excellent corners in man. After all, regardless of Alabama's ultimate choice beneath center, none of the candidates has much live-fire experience, let alone surgical precision. The Badgers trust their defensive backs, and with good reason. Corners Soujourn Shelton and Darius Hillary are seasoned and steady. Safety Michael Caputo is a banger in the mold of former Tide safety Vinnie Sunseri, but with much better cover skills (especially when used to float the middle in "robber" mode). For an inexperienced quarterback still trying to adapt to the speed of the game, facing this trio in the defensive back field is a daunting prospect at best.
Wisconsin is built to handle the type of running game the Crimson Tide employs, as the unit is equally skilled at defending both spread and pro-style rushing attacks. Alabama uses primarily zone blocking techniques in the running game, a scheme which relies on space creation and the domination of the point of attack. The Badger defense is adept at shrinking gaps through scheme and athletic, rangy players in the front seven, with a healthy dose of secondary help to boot.
Alabama's offensive line is itself somewhat green on the whole, with sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson and senior Ryan Kelly having considerable playing time. Beyond that, however, the line is a patchwork: a talented patchwork, but a patchwork nonetheless. The Crimson Tide simply must assert its will at the point of attack, as the running game will be required to get whomever starts for the Tide at QB to get a feel for the game and get rid of early yips. It will be critical the newcomers execute the game plan, as the Badgers can take advantage of any weakness at the point of attack.
If Alabama has trouble gelling the offensive line, particularly on the right side, it could be difficult for the conventional running game to gain much traction. That situation will lead to three-and-outs, a proposition that will keep Bama's defense on the field, tiring them and creating opportunities for the Badger offense. Even with tons of depth, one of Alabama's problems last season was the inability to get off the field on third downs. Opponents routinely converted, which led to winded defenders. As was proven time after time, winded defenders make critical errors, and critical errors lead to scores against quality opponents. Bama would do well to execute extended drives capped by scores, as doing so would keep the defense fresh and demoralize the Badgers defensively and offensively.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, if there is one questionable part of the Wisconsin defense, it is the defensive line. The Badgers, like Bama, run a base 3-4 package, and they generally employ at least one outside linebacker as a proxy defensive end responsible for pass rush and forcing the run. Junior Arthur Goldberg and sophomore Chikwe Obasih are nice players as 3-4 DEs, and sophomore Conor Sheehy is solid if not overly experienced. Beyond that trio, the Badgers have little quality depth, which will be cause for concern as the game wears on, especially if the contest devolves into a ground-and-pound battle of attrition.
The strongest unit for the Badgers is their linebacking corps, where outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert provide a dynamic tandem utilized as aggressive pass rushers and rangy run-stuffers. They are backed by the steady junior Leon Jacobs and newcoming head-turner T.J. Edwards, a freshman who set Camp Randall aflame this spring with his explosiveness and high potential.
All of these bodies will be needed to stop the Tide's bludgeon, otherwise known as Henry. If Wisconsin can penetrate the line, or at least hold ground, Henry (aka El Tractorcito) will struggle early on. Henry is a momentum back who needs five to seven clean steps to reach maximum effectiveness. Once he hits his stride, the 245 pound back is a steam roller. A defense that wants to stop Henry hits him early and interferes with his flow. Wisconsin did just that against Auburn's stable of backs in the Outback Bowl, putting hands on them and rarely letting them get through the line cleanly. The slowed backs were then cleaned up by the Badgers nasty inside linebackers and (safety) Caputo. Expect Wisconsin to employ a similar strategy against Henry.
The same cannot be said about the Tide's other main back, Kenyan Drake. Drake is Bama's best chance of disrupting the Badger front seven early, as his combination of speed, versatility and agility will be a nightmare for Wisconsin's defense, which is predicated on forcing action inside into the teeth of its run defense. Drake has a habit of making something out of nothing, especially when he uses his world class speed to bounce outside of the tackles when there's a reverse-flow, against the grain situation in play. He's an instinctual runner who is rarely hemmed up. Drake should be the go-to back early on, though the Badger defense will likely attempt to string him out down the line while the speedy safeties close on the shifty back.
Though a strategy involving Drake early and Henry late makes sense, Kiffin has shown a frightening propensity for doing the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment (ala the Ohio State game), even when all logic would dictate another course of action. One can imagine a situation in which Kiffin employs Henry early and despite a lack of success, continues to attempt to sledgehammer the Badger defense in hopes of eventually wearing them down. Failing to take advantages of mismatches (like those created by tight end O.J. Howard against linebackers and smaller safeties) could turn the game into a run-based, low-scoring slugfest, which could go either way against an offense like the one Wisconsin fields. After all, in a 6-6 defensive ball game, a single field goal could be the deciding factor. (Think back to the 2011 Game of the Century...though Bama controlled the game for the most part, the result was a 9-6 loss nonetheless.)
Don't expect Bama to test the Wisconsin secondary too much early on, as even though the Badgers will likely use man coverage with a safety over the top, Saban has shown in the past that he doesn't want to put his quarterback in a position to make costly mistakes early. As the game wears on, Bama will take a shot or two down field to the slippery ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster, as both have the ability to get open and are sure-handed targets. O.J. Howard (as always) could be a game-changer as well, taking advantage of mismatches for short to medium yardage.
The Tide passing game will most likely manifest itself early in short slants, screens and mid-range passes to the edges just to keep things safe. Though new to the Tide, graduate transfer Richard Mullaney is reliable and has excellent hands, and Chris Black is an electrifying known commodity in the slot. Drake will definitely be utilized as a receiver as well, whether on screens or on the edges. This plays to Wisconsin's weakness, as aside from part-time free safety Tanner McEvoy, the Badgers don't have a ton of lateral speed on their defense.
Expect Bama to pound it early and leverage the short pass, with a heavy dose of Drake. As the game wears on and the lack of depth begins to plague the tiring Badgers, expect Henry to beat the Badger D into submission. Sprinkle in a shot downfield late, particularly when Coker is under center, as he throws a nice deep ball that could put the nail in the coffin for the outmanned Badgers.
Alabama defense versus Wisconsin offense
While the Wisconsin defense can at least hang with the Tide offense and provide an even match early on, the same is not likely for the Wisconsin offense. In 2014, many considered the Badger O "Melvin Gordon and everyone else," which in truth, was a pretty fair assessment of the importance of the current NFL back to the Wisky attack. Backed up by Corey Clement, Gordon and the run game averaged 320 yards per game (third best in the nation) and 6.9 yards per carry in 2014.
Sure, Gordon is gone. But what is more damning to the 2015 team is the fact that three of his primary blockers are also gone. While left tackle Tyler Marz and center Dan Voltz return, the remaining spots have been a work in progress since the spring. Wisconsin is known as a stockpile of prime offensive line talent, but experience is what this line lacks. In fact, heading into Saturday's game, the right side of the line is yet to be determined, with newcomers Walker Williams, Hayden Biegel and Micah Kapoi battling for the right guard and right tackle positions. It appears that Michael Dieter has pinned down the left guard spot between the steady veterans Marz and Voltz, but there is no telling how the line will gel against the most vicious defensive line they'll face this season.
The Alabama defensive line is easily the strength of the unit (and possibly the team). Loaded out with four- and five-star talent and experience in Saban's huge defensive line rotation, there is little Wisconsin can do that Bama's line has not seen in the past. With A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Darren Lake, D.J. Pettway and a list of names to long to call here, Wisconsin will have its hands full, particularly where its rubber meets the road in the ground game. Alabama's defensive line is reminiscent of the 1992 championship unit that was impenetrable, and while it remains to be seen how good this line can be, it is a given that any team wishing to run the ball against the crimson wall will bite off a big chunk of pain.
Bama's linebackers, outside of Ragland, are relatively green in regard to starts. But they are talented beyond their years, and all of them have seen live-fire on special teams and in the defensive rotation, so there is little worry there. The jacks are experienced, with Ryan Anderson and Denzel Devall returning to wreak havoc in the pass rush. Joining Ragland inside will be a combination of Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dillon Lee (among others). This unit should excel versus the run, and Saturday's game will be the perfect test of their skill.
Make no mistake: Clement is a quality back who will go on to great things at Wisconsin. He's powerful and shifty, and is the heir apparent to the Wisconsin running back mantle. Presumed backup Dare Ogunbowale is also solid. Each will get carries, and Clement is too good to be completely contained. He'll get his yards, though they'll likely come in small chunks. Alabama's front seven will prevent the kind of prolonged, consistent running uccess that the Badgers will need to execute their offensive game plan and as a result, the entire offense will struggle.
That said, if Bama's offense has a nightmare outing and stagnates, even a single breakaway touchdown run or over-the-top pass can mean the difference in victory and loss. Bama's defense is only as good as its offense allows it to be. If the Tide O continually goes three and out and fails to generate scoring, there's only so much the defense can do. A single big play for the Badger offense (which the Tide gave up in droves against lesser opponents in 2014) could literally be the deciding factor in a closely contested game.
When Wisconsin's vaunted running game struggles, there won't be much the Badgers can do to pick up the pace through the air. Quarterback Joel Stave, while not inexperienced, has proven inconsistent in past years. He has a penchant for turning the ball over (10 interceptions to nine touchdowns in 2014), and he's rarely faced a team with as much pure defensive talent as the Tide. Alabama's secondary looks to be improved (even with the loss of All-American safety Landon Collins to the draft), and with three five-star corners learning the ropes alongside proven veteran Cyrus Jones, one can expect passing against Bama to be a difficult proposition at best.
Even if the defensive backs experience a bit of a learning curve against Wisconsin's unproven wide receiver rotation (outside of talent Alex Erickson and 6'6" dual-threat athlete McEvoy), expect the Tide pass rush to terrorize Stave when he drops into the pocket. Remember the Bama defensive front mentioned above? Match them up against Wisconsin's youthful offensive line and one gets the recipe for domination. The Badger receiving corps may be of little consequence if the Tide line does its job.
Wisconsin likely get the nod here in the kicking game, as they return proven option Raphael Gaglianone at place kicker. Gaglianone went 19 for 22 on field goals in 2014, and he is a known commodity that could come in handy if the game becomes a low-scoring slugfest due to offensive ineptitude. It's not that Alabama option at kicker, Adam Griffith, is not talented. However, Griffith is coming off a back injury in 2014 that kept him at less than peak shape for most of the season. Though he and the coaching staff believe he's at 100 percent heading into 2015, the place kicking game has to be cause for concern, at least until Griffith proves he back and better than ever.
In the punting department, no team in the country can match talents with Alabama. With J.K. Scott handling the punting duties, Bama is in good shape, as the mortar-legged sophomore is truly a field-flipping weapon for the Crimson Tide. That could come in handy if the Tide offense bogs down early, as Scott is known for routinely hammering 60 yard punts that keep opponents starting offensive series deep in their own respective territories.
The Badgers have reliable Drew Meyer. But let's face it, he ain't J.K. Scott. Advantage: Alabama.
In the Badger return game, Natrell Jamerson and Alex Erickson will handle the kick and punt return duties, respectively. The Tide will field Cyrus Jones as punt returner, and Drake and Stewart on kick returns. Though talented all, none of the above are proven returners (with the exception of Erickson). Grade this one a draw.
While the Tide is a double-digit favorite, there are multiple feasible scenarios that could lead to a Bama loss. Say the Tide offense struggles to assert the running game against a stubborn Wisky D, and Saban fails to trust the quarterback-to-be enough to hand him the reigns. That type of situation definitely plays to Wisconsin's favor, as it requires not that the Badgers be stunning offensively, but simply hang on for the big play that wins the game.
Another scenario could see the Alabama secondary once again struggle, with Stave going "Garcia" on the Tide defense with the best game of his career. The Badgers have the running game to set up the play-action, and if the Tide's defensive backs struggle (particularly against the talented Erickson and McEvoy), the Badgers could bounce out to an early lead while the Tide offense tries to find it's rhythm against a tough, veteran defense.
Don't take the outcome of this game for granted. Many took for granted that Bama would pummel Ohio State en route to another national championship. The Buckeyes, after all, were starting a third string quarterback, their offensive coordinator was bound for Houston and Urban Meyer had lost his previous two battles with Saban. Tide faithful had every reason to believe a win was in the cards, but it was not to be.
Think of Wisconsin as OSU-lite. They have a solid, some would say great, defense. They have stockpiled talent at running back and a talented (even if young) offensive line. They have a veteran quarterback who, one would assume, has learned from his past mistakes. This will not be a cake walk. Make no mistake, a neutral site contest against a quality opponent like Wisconsin can definitely end in a less than favorable outcome. Just ask Auburn.
Alas, the time is come for the end of prognostication. The time for acting is at hand. Guesses and forecasts will mean nothing in just a few short hours. The Crimson Tide will set its course. Will the bearing be for number 16? Or merely for another 10 win season?
Time will tell. Hope for the best.