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Hope for the Best: UT-Chattanooga

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Truth bomb: Alabama will not lose to UT-Chattanooga. But can the Tide use this game as a final tune-up for a championship run?

NCAA Football: Chattanooga at Florida State
Derrick Craine is the Mocs’ leading rusher...good luck on that this weekend.
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

The term “cupcake” is thrown around when referring to games such as the one Alabama will play this weekend against UT-Chattanooga in Bryant Denny Stadium. The confectionary descriptor has become a parlance of the times in a sporting contest when a mighty FBS team matches up against an undermanned, underequipped FCS program like the one that will visit Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

After all, a cupcake is a dessert, a reward after the main course. In that regard, it is fitting the Tide will play the Mocs a mere two weeks after the most brutal, challenging game of the schedule against LSU and the stingy Tiger defense. After that trial (and a drubbing of Mississippi State), this week’s cupcake could be considered a reward well-earned, indeed.

Perhaps a more fitting way of describing Saturday’s game, however, would be to call it an “appetizer” game. For if the Tide coaches are wise, they’ll use it more as a way of preparing the Tide’s palate for the stretch run ahead of them rather than a reward for what lies in the rear-view mirror.

With the events of last weekend, the Tide has already clinched the SEC West. No matter what happens in the game against Auburn, Bama will play for yet another SEC Championship in Atlanta. It could also be argued that regardless of the outcome of that game, even if Alabama splits the Auburn/ SECCG, the team will still find itself in the College Football Playoffs after 10 consecutive wins in the 2016 season. This week’s match-up will provide the Tide players and staff with one more opportunity to try new things without penalty, or to put a final polish on that which it has done so well to date.

In essence, the game against UT-Chattanooga will provide Alabama with one last scrimmage to get its collective mind right for what remains ahead of them on the road to 17. After this weekend, there will be only four games between Bama and another National Championship, and this will be the last chance the Tide will have to work out the kinks and focus on the task at hand.

Will the Mocs knock off Alabama? Of course not. It’s not feasible to think that the game will even be competitive. But can the Mocs put up enough of a fight to allow Alabama to prep for the coming stint of all-important games? Yes, if the Tide takes advantage.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?...

The Alabama offense versus the UT-Chattanooga defense

Though the result of the game may never be in question, the most intriguing match-up will likely pit Alabama’s yet-to-peak offense against the Southern Conference’s most stingy defense. The Mocs, while not sporting a defense the likes of the one sported by the Bayou Bengals, have had their conference’s best defense statistically for the last three seasons running. With defensive coordinator Adam Braithwaite calling the shots under head coach Russ Huesman for the last six years, the Moc defense has been formidable at the FCS level, terrorizing offenses with their 4-2-5 base scheme and a wealth of

What does this mean for the game against Alabama? It means the Tide should get a chance to work on a few things against a defense that can at least offer some form of competitive resistance. Chief among those points to polish for Alabama will be the passing game. There’s no doubt Alabama can run the ball well, as they’ve done that numerous times against more talented defenses than the one the Mocs will bring to the table on Saturday. Alabama could run through the Moc defense like a boar-hog through butcher paper, but it would be something akin to watching sixth-grade schoolyard bully pulp a kindergartner. And, in taking that tack, Alabama wouldn’t be getting better, since the running game is already operating at a high level as the strength of the Tide offensive attack.

Everyone, including the Mocs, knows that Alabama can run at will on the UTC defense. Alabama wouldn’t have to get fancy: Lane Kiffin probably wouldn’t even have to do his usual due diligence in probing and stretching the front with horizontal passes to loosen the lanes. Bama could line up, run its standard inside zone blocking with the first, second, and third string tailbacks (along with Hurts), and run for as many yards as their hearts desired.

But one would expect that is not necessarily in the game plan this Saturday, as doing so would not help Alabama get better. And if we know anything about Alabama teams coached by Nick Saban, it’s that they are always seeking to get better, chasing the crimson dragon of improvement the way Ahab chased the White Whale.

How does Alabama use their match-up against an outclassed UTC team to improve? Offensively, they do it by looking to the passing game. While many believe Alabama can simply run its way to a national title this season (and that may very well be true), the more likely scenario is that at some point in the next four games, an opponent is going to force Alabama’s Hurts to beat them with his arm. Hurts has been fantastic to date, but if there’s one weakness in his game on the whole, it’s that he still hasn’t developed touch on his intermediate and deep passes, and he still struggles with timing when it comes to hitting his receivers in stride at the best possible moment. He holds the ball a little too long once deciding to pass. His reads, while improving, are still a little too slow to take maximum advantage of his wide receivers’ elusiveness. When he does make the right reads in a timely fashion, his accuracy can be all over the place.

These ills won’t be fixed in a single game, but games like the one the Tide will play Saturday offer the perfect opportunity to get a little more practice in before the stakes are raised exponentially. Since there is literally no threat of losing the game, Alabama can focus on the air attack more, knowing that they can always employ the running game to get all the touchdowns they will need to salt the game away. Since UTC plays a lot of nickel sets, this will provide Hurts with a bit of a test in reading the extra defensive back and executing against a loaded back field.

That said, the task will not be overly challenging, as not only do the Moc corners lack the size to realistically challenge Bama’s big receiving corps, but they are also green. The Mocs have two freshmen and a sophomore at the top of the depth chart at corner, and though they do have some solid, good-sized safeties, there are opportunities to be exploited against the Moc defensive backs.

To get the most bang for the buck, so to speak, Kiffin should put the ball in Hurts’ hands and let him make plays. Everyone knows Kiffin loves the passing game. While he’s had to dampen that enthusiasm for the air at Alabama under Saban’s iron fist, Kiffin always prefers to throw the ball. This week will give him a chance to call as many passes as he’d like without consequence, and one can only imagine he has a Waffle House placemat full of crafty passing plays he’s been dying to call all year that will be unfurled in this game.

The benefit for Hurts will be great, as he will not only get reps at the mechanical and physical components of improving his passing game, but one can also expect that executing the passing game at a high level against a game defense will give him additional confidence in his own reads. If he goes out and shreds the Mocs the way he ripped Mississippi State last week, the calls for passing game improvement will largely be quelled for the moment. Future opponents won’t feel that they merely have to find a way to limit the Tide run to stay competitive against them. The emergence of a passing game, even against the likes of MSU and UTC, will give future opponents something to think about, and it will increase the level of respect defenses must give when matching up with the Tide offense.

A productive passing game will make the running game more productive, since Alabama operates with a lot of RPOs coupled with the zone read option. Both of those offensive tactics are more impactful when there is a legitimate passing threat. In terms of the zone read, the threat of a pass, even a short-gain affair like the pop pass or bubble screen sometimes used with that style of offense, is enough to give pause to defenders and create a true triple option threat. If a team never passes, or can’t pass effectively, the RPO becomes a moot point, since a defense can assume that call will stay on the ground. The presence of a passing game introduces that element of surprise and unpredictability, and is the reason such tactics are successful.

If Alabama wants to improve offensively this week, they will take advantage of the match-ups in the passing game and air it out. There are numerous practical and strategic reasons to cut Kiffin loose regarding passing attempts, and if Hurts can build on last weekend’s success, the Tide’s offensive mission will be accomplished.

The Alabama defense versus the UT-Chattanooga offense

If one thinks the Bama offense versus the Moc defense is a one-sided affair, then the Tide defense against the Moc offense is something akin to watching a panther toy with a recently-captured field mouse. Alabama’s defense has proven itself largely impenetrable by some of the best offenses FBS has to offer. While Mississippi State is having a rough year overall, the offense the Tide savaged last week was a top-50 unit in many categories. LSU had one of the nation’s best running attacks, and the Tide shut former Heisman contender Leonard Fournette down absolutely. The previous week, the Tide manhandled a Texas A&M offense that itself was (at the time) a top-25 unit nationwide in terms of offensive S&P+.

Given those credentials, there’s no reason to believe that the Mocs will have any shred of success against the Tide defense this Saturday. It’s not a reflection on UTC at all, as their offense has been prolific against fellow FCS teams this season. Junior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield (6-2, 220 pounds) has had a nice year throwing the ball, completing 156 passes for 2067 yards with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 23:7. While not a dual-threat quarterback the likes of Bama’s Hurts, he has added on 257 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

The Moc offense strives for balance, with a solid ground game powered by a “running back-by-committee” philosophy. Senior Derrick Craine (5-10, 205 pounds) is a fireplug of a runner who leads the Mocs with 772 yards on the season (96.5 yards per game) and nine touchdowns. Junior scatback Richardre Bagley (5-9, 180 pounds) spells him, giving the running game a nice thunder-and-lightning combination behind an offensive line that boasts three 300+ pounders.

In the end, however, whatever offensive coordinator Jeff Durden tries to do against Alabama’s defense will be largely unsuccessful, at least in the early moments when Bama’s first-string is in the game. Because of their importance to the Tide’s title run, don’t expect to see those defensive starters out on the field for long. They’ll get playing time to stay sharp, that much is certain. But Saban has already had injuries touch what may be the best defense of his Alabama tenure, and Alabama’s chances of a return trip to the national championship would be diminished by an injury to a key defensive starter. Therefore, expect to see a lot of the second- and third-string players on the field after the first quarter.

Though the Mocs have a balanced offense in most regards, balance doesn’t matter to the Alabama defense. They can shut down the run like a machine, and though the passing game offers elite quarterbacks slightly more daylight, there’s no reason to believe that Bennifield will be able to take advantage of it. While the Moc line has good size for an FCS unit, the truth of the matter is that Alabama’s defensive front has more than adequate size at the pressure points inside, with elite pass rushing talent on the edges. If the Mocs elect to have Bennifield pass from the pocket, he’ll likely experience the same fate as Nick Fitzgerald last week, and Dany Etling the week before, and Trevor Knight the week before that. He’ll be pounded and punished by the Tide pass rush. In this season, there are three things one can county upon: death, taxes, and Jonathan Allen sacks.

As desperate a situation as the passing game may be, it is still the only way the Mocs can make a decent showing against the Tide. Because no one…no one…runs on this Alabama defense. The Tide still has the top-ranked run defense in the country, allowing less than 70 yards per game on the ground. And those stats have been built against some of the elite rushing teams in the SEC, a conference that is built upon the running game. The thought of the Mocs moving the ball on the ground is just not a realistic one.

For UTC, it is likely that any attempts at offense will prove futile. But there should be no head-hanging about that fact. More explosive offenses have tried and failed…miserably. Alabama’s heart is the defense, and there’s really no reason to believe that the beat won’t go on this Saturday against an undermanned Chattanooga team.

Special Teams

Adam Griffith is working into his late-season form for Alabama, which is a good thing. The trajectory has been similar in recent campaigns, as Griffith starts shaky only to right the ship by season’s end. Let’s hope he has the pieces put together, as the Tide may need him if it gets locked in another feisty defensive battle like the scuffle they experienced in Baton Rouge a few weeks ago.

J.K. Scott continues his punting excellence, and was glaringly omitted from the Ray Guy Award finalists list this past week. If there’s a better punter who plays a more critical role in his team’s strategy than Scott, I’ll eat my hat. Not only does he produce in the metrics department, but without him, the Tide wouldn’t be able to maintain its anaconda-like grip on field position. Shame on the Ray Guy selectors, as they really took their eyes off the ball on that one.

Alabama will let anybody return punts and kicks these days, it appears. However, the most likely weapon at returner at this point appears to be Trevon Diggs, followed by Xavian Marks. Both returners seem to be working through the decision-making process, but that is common for first-time return men. It’s a huge responsibility that can literally turn the tide in a game, so a little trepidation on behalf of a return man is to be expected. However, familiarity breeds comfort, and comfort breeds performance, so expect Diggs and Marks to become more dynamic as they become more accustomed to their roles. They certainly have the physical skills to be explosive.

UTC punting duties are handled by freshman Colin Brewer, while senior place kicker Enrique Ribiero has been solid for the Mocs. Punts are returned by receiver C.J. Board (6-2, 180 pounds), while kick return duties are handled by Dime defender Trevor Wright (6-1, 180 pounds) and Bagley.

With the outcome of Saturday’s game largely a foregone conclusion, the important takeaway for Alabama will be the opportunity for improvement. The Tide will not get another chance to work on critical components of the offense such as the passing game before the four-game run to another possible national championship. With a freshman quarterback under center, the reps he gains this Saturday could further cement his confidence, much to the chagrin of future opponents.

While Kiffin may continue to hold a few offensive cards close to his vest against an opponent that could easily be beaten with a vanilla approach, the opportunity to develop Hurts as a passer this Saturday demands that the Tide air the ball out a little.

Of course, any emphasis on improvement in a game of such little consequence is always tempered by the risk of injury to key payers, a dynamic that could impact the trajectory of the entire season. If Hurts were to suffer an injury, the Tide’s chances of winning a 17th national championship would be severely tarnished. Expect Kiffin to dial back the zone read keeper calls for Hurts to keep him fresh. Even an injury to a key wide receiver or back could harm the Tide’s chances of escaping the opening round of the playoffs. And the defense, while incredible in the first string, has little margin of error at most positions in terms of depth.

Therefore, the Tide coaching staff must walk a tight-rope this Saturday: seize the opportunity for improvement, but don’t leave starters in so long as to risk injury. Despite the level of competition, it can be a white-knuckled affair to be sure. With the outcome of the game likely never to be in jeopardy, expect the usually conservative Saban to err on the side of caution, pull his starters after a few series, and let the bench get deserved playing time.

Can Alabama put the final polish on its passing game against an outgunned defense? Will Alabama use this last opportunity to hone tactics and execution? Will the Tide emerge from its lightly-contested battle against the Mocs largely intact and uninjured?

We will find out soon…hope for the best.