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Hope For the Best: Colorado State edition

A potential contender for the Mountain West crown, can the retooled Rams really make a game out of it against Alabama?

Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl - Colorado State v Nevada
With QB Nick Stevens, a bevy of good receivers, and a stellar offensive line, CSU has the ability to test Alabama’s pass defense.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After opening the season with a hard-fought victory over a quality Florida State Seminoles squad, the Crimson Tide had a walk-though last week against the hapless Fresno State Bulldogs, who have now lost all but two of their previous 14 games.

Despite the mismatch against the Bulldogs, however, the Tide’s errors were still present. Finding fault in a game as lop-sided as the Tide’s victory over Fresno seems somewhat silly, to be truthful. But anyone with honest eyes who watched Alabama’s dominant-yet-flawed performance could see the ghosts of failures past rearing their ugly heads. Nagging issues that many hoped would have been worked out in the offseason, particularly involving consistency along the offensive line and in the passing game, appear to remain.

Still, Alabama, at this point in the season, looks like the best team in the nation. But it’s early, and the Tide’s greatest tests likely remain further down the road. Is this very young Alabama team just going through the normal growing pains as it acclimates to live-fire competition? The Tide have many new faces in the starting line-up this season after stalwarts left for the NFL and a rash of injuries on defense. Is the offense still adjusting to a new coordinator, who is himself adjusting to the college game after years at the pro level? Though Daboll has been in place since spring, one had to expect some warm-up as he learned the ropes, and his players learned his expectations. Are the injuries that have run roughshod through the Tide defense the type that have season-long implications, or can the Alabama depth mitigate those losses and maintain the lofty standards upon which the defense prides itself? The Tide is loaded with talent, but its talent plus consistency of performance that has made Saban’s Alabama great.

Despite a dominant performance last week, and what will surely be another dominant performance this week against an outgunned Colorado State team, Alabama still has questions to answer. It’s not time to hit the panic button by any stretch, as even the most highly-regarded teams this season have looked mortal at times. Alabama is still the lead horse.

In the meantime, will this weekend’s game against Colorado State serve as further proof that Alabama is rounding into form prior to league play? Or will it be cause for additional consternation due to the Tide’s habit of playing down to competition against weaker opponents. Though Colorado State isn’t an SEC powerhouse, they are among the class of the Mountain West with an explosive offense and a signal caller who Saban himself said was likely the best QB the Tide has played to date. This game isn’t a gimme by any stretch, though there’s little doubt that the Tide will win even an imperfect contest.

The Rams are not Fresno State. CSU went to a bowl game last year, though admittedly, they lost while giving up 61 points to Idaho. Head coach Mike Bobo understands physical SEC play, and even if he doesn’t have the players to turn the Rams into Georgia-West, he has elevated the standard for CSU and built upon the short tenure of former Bama OC Jim McElwain.

The Tide should once again roll in this one. But through the looking glass, will Alabama’s performance reveal the beast waiting to tear from its shell? Or will it reveal additional, or maybe more substantial, chinks in the Bama’s armor? Time will tell…let’s take a closer look.

The Alabama offense versus the Colorado State defense

As was the case last week, Alabama’s offense is a huge mismatch for the Colorado State defense, and it’s not just about the difference between a Power-5 program and a MWC program. Alabama’s specific players are well-suited to dominate the defensive personnel Ram defensive coordinator Marty English has at his disposal.

Alabama’s front, despite the myriad small-scale issues that have kept the offense from running at full throttle the last two weeks, is huge and skilled. While they don’t always assert their will at the point of attack, the Rams don’t have the defensive personnel to take advantage of any such lapses. In fact, the Ram defensive personnel are, quite frankly, ill-suited to the kind of defense that English runs. They are operating out of a base 3-4 with a Buck linebacker and four defensive backs under most circumstances. To do that, a defense typically has a block-eating behemoth at the nose position, a more athletic but still large 300-pound tackle, and a large edge-setting end. The thought is that those players have the strength and girth to clog the middle by soaking up blocks, thus allowing the linebackers behind them to flow to the gaps and fill against the run. The ends set the edge to contain the run, forcing runners into the traffic jam in the middle, and everything works like a machine…in theory.

The problem with that for a team like Colorado State is that the biggest starters on the line are seniors Darnell Thompson (6-4, 280 pounds) and Jakob Buys (6-4, 280 pounds), both of whom top out at 280 pounds. There is one player close to 300 pounds in the two-deep, sophomore Colton Foster (6-3, 295 pounds), but it’s clear that the line doesn’t have the size that is traditionally required for a well-oiled 3-4 defense. CSU will have a hard time anchoring the middle and remaining stationary against the Tide’s interior, and the ends will labor to set the edge against the Tide’s athletic ends and a tight end corps that relishes its role in run blocking.

How will this affect the Rams’ ability to stop Alabama’s primary weapon, the ground game? In brief, the CSU will have little to no chance of limiting, let alone stopping, the Crimson Tide’s burgeoning, always-potent running attack. And it’s not just Alabama…the Rams returned eight starters from last year’s defense, and the 2016 edition of that unit was horrible against the run. They were 98th out of 128 teams in the raw statistics, allowing 214 yards per game. Advanced metrics indicated the situation was even worse, as the Rams ranked 101st in run defense S&P+. While it’s true that this Ram defense is more seasoned than last year’s unit, it’s also true that they are still primarily the same defense. An expectation that the run defense will be vastly improved this year is not a realistic one.

Against Alabama, this will be the hole in the dam that bursts forth an eventual deluge. Alabama’s offense, regardless who is holding the reins, is about establishing the run. And it should be, as Alabama has the deepest, most talented stable of backs in the country, and an offensive line with the physical prowess to become dominant when they put everything together. While Alabama may work on the passing game a little more against CSU, there’s a good chance that they will also enjoy pounding away at the light CSU front with their battering rams. The right side of Alabama’s line, with a now-injured Lester Cotton and Matt Womack doing work, has been dramatically improved in run blocking thus far. Womack held off super-freshman Jedrick Wills, and has made the most of the extra time, developing into a road-grader on the right. If Alabama continues to see his develop, and Cotton’s injury proves minor, that could be a very special dynamic for the Tide running game in time.

It's also worth noting that in practice this week, the staff tinkered with the lineup on the right side a little, possibly to accommodate an ailing Cotton, or maybe to see what kinds of combination can be mustered. Right tackle Matt Womack spent some time at right guard with Wills at tackle. In that look, Scott Lashley took a few reps behind Wills at tackle. Versatile utility lineman Josh Casher also subbed in for Cotton with Womack at tackle. It’s apparent the coaching staff is well-aware of the inconsistencies that have plagued the O line through the first two weeks. Saban referenced it several times this week, adding that while the line play is steadily improving, it has more to do with finishing than anything else. Against CSU, that will be an important dynamic to watch, since the physical aspect of the game should fall well within Alabama’s favor, making a focus technical work possible.

To make matters more complicated for English and his defense, not only is there a size disparity up front, but there is an extreme talent disparity on the back end of the defense. The Ram secondary is good enough to hold their own against Mountain West competition, but against Alabama’s battery of five-star freak show receivers? It’s not happening. Calvin Ridley and Company will eat the Ram secondary alive. CSU had only eight interception in all of 2016, good for 93rd nationally. This season, they have recorded seven interceptions in two games, so maybe that secondary is rounding into shape. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the defensive backs can find shelter from the barrage of talent the Tide will utilize at wide receiver, so even if the Rams have success with takeaways, it likely won’t be a sustainable dynamic.

The passing game will also benefit by getting the ball to the running backs in space, particularly Bo Scarbrough. The big back is not just all thunder, as he’s a phenomenal receiver with ridiculous speed. Daboll, with his pedigree working with the Patriots of the NFL, certainly knows how to use backs in the passing game, and one can expect to see more of that as the season goes on, beginning with CSU.

Continued criticism has lobbed at Jalen Hurts in the early season, but it’s largely unfounded, as his progress is clear. He’ll get a chance to further demonstrate that forward momentum this Saturday. With the Ram secondary outmatched and a defensive line that is not likely to win the shoving match with the Tide O line in pass pro, Hurts should have plenty of time to read the field, run through his progressions, and spread the ball around. The young quarterback is at his best when he sees the myriad targets running around him and distributes the ball accordingly. After looking mostly to Ridley in the opener, Hurts spread the ball well against Fresno. Expect more of that this weekend as he continues to build his comfort level with the playmakers around him.

Alabama’s mission is clear: continue to polish the Daboll offense, get Hurts and his receivers more repetition, and let the O line continue to build confidence in pass protection and run blocking. The defense is the weakness of the CSU squad, and they’ll likely pay dearly for that this Saturday.

The Alabama defense versus the Colorado State offense

As mediocre as the Ram defense has been as of late, the offense under Bobo’s regime has been quite effective, bordering on explosive. The Ram offense isn’t super flashy statistically speaking, but rather seeks balance in its play-calling. Last season, they were closer to an even split between the run and the pass (217.8 yards per game ground, 244.7 yards per game passing), but this year, through three games, senior quarterback Nick Stevens (6-3, 215 pounds) and his corps of receivers is shouldering the load for the Ram offense.

Operating out of a pro-style scheme that incorporates hurry-up and spread concepts, Stevens has been prolific since earning his job back halfway through 2016. In his final seven games of 2016, despite getting little support from his defense, the quarterback was 119 for 173 for 1,859 yards, 19 touchdowns, and three interceptions. He’s off to a slower start this year however, throwing for 987 yards thus far with six touchdowns and four interceptions. That said, Stevens knows the offense and makes plays, thanks in part to a WR corps that returned all major contributors from a year ago, including junior Olabisi Johnson (6-0, 195 pounds), senior Michael Gallup (6-1, 210 pounds), and senior Detrich Clark (5-10, 180 pounds). All three starters are good, solid receivers, but the Tide secondary will get its biggest challenge from Gallup, who is projected as one of the top-five WR prospects in next spring’s NFL Draft. Alabama will be tested by tempo and the skill of Stevens and the receivers, and that preparation could be important against opponents on the Tide’s schedule.

The Rams will also need help from the running game to make a dent in the Bama D, as the Tide’s secondary will tee off on the passing game if there is little threat of a significant run from the Rams. The Rams have solid talent and big bodies up front, with a line that averages 305 pounds and an assortment of backs who all bring a little something different to the table. Senior Dalyn Dawkins (5-9, 185 pounds) is the starter, and he is a heavy contributor both on the ground and through the air. Dawkins is fast and shifty, and he averages 4.5 yards per carry. He’s also a weapon when Stevens target him with a pass, as in 2017 so far, he’s caught five passes for 69 yards with a touchdown.

Where Dawkins is a jitterbug back, the other two are hammers. Junior Isaiah Matthews (6-0, 220 pounds) and freshman Rashaad Boddie (6-0, 225 pounds) are bangers to be sure, and while each man has decent speed, they are best at running between the tackles behind that big offensive line.

When it comes to the running game, against Alabama, wanting to establish the run and actually doing it are two separate things. Alabama’s front, even after the injuries, has remained a force of run-stuffing beauty, and there’s no reason to believe that will change against Colorado State, which will have a better running game than the last opponent Fresno State. The linebackers who stepped into the fray after the injuries at Jack and Sam in the first game performed admirably last week, especially Keith Holcombe.

The problem for Colorado State is that their offense will try to execute a quick-tempo, spread-ish, SEC-lite offense against a team that was built to stop those kinds of teams. Alabama has become a lighter, fleeter defense in the last five years, but they’re a unit that still possesses the physicality to line up and whip an opponent at the point of attack. The Tide’s success against the run under Saban has been legendary, and there’s little the Ram offense can do on the ground that Alabama hasn’t seen…and subsequently stopped.

The only vector for Colorado State success would have to be through the air, where the skill position talent most closely approaches the talent that will line up across the line of scrimmage from them. Even still, as good as the receivers for CSU are, they are walking into a buzz saw with the Tide’s secondary. The Tide’s defensive backs will be challenged by CSU’s scheme and receivers, but in the end, a team that depends on its passing game alone has a hard row to hoe in beating the Tide outright.

One positive that will work in the Rams’ favor while helping to further steel the Tide’s pass rush is the stellar pass protection offered by the Colorado State offensive line. They are big, and they are quite effective at keeping the passer upright and out of harm’s way. Last season, for example, a unit that largely returns this season ranked eighth nationally in sacks allowed, giving up an average of one sack per game. This year, through three games, they’ve given up two sacks per game roughly, seven total in three games. That’s solid pass pro for a quarterback who isn’t a dual-threat guy, and is indicative of the challenge Da’Ron Payne and his fellow combatants in the front seven will have this week in pressuring Stevens.

Speaking of the pass rush, Alabama has some work to do there as well, as no one has emerged as that dominant, every-down pass rushing force that was provided by guys like Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen, and Ryan Anderson last year. Raekwon Davis has potential, and Da’Shawn Hand was hyped as the second coming of Allen, slightly deferred. But so far, though Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has done a great job creating manufactured pressure with blitzes, Alabama still needs that guy who can be counted upon to disrupt the passer on nearly every down. To keep Stevens honest and keep him from picking the Tide apart with short, quick release passes out of three-step drops, the defensive line and linebackers need to penetrate and rattle the quarterback with consistent pressure. CSU has a line that can give Alabama problems in that regard, so it will be interesting to see how the Bama defense rallies to the challenge.

Expect the passing game to be the lone highpoint for the Rams offensive, and even it may not be that successful against Alabama over the long haul. Stevens will complete some nice passes, and any substantial gains will most certainly come through the air. That said, even though CSU has little chance of winning this game outright, to even come close they’ll have to run the ball well. Here is a telling stat: last season, when the Rams gained more than 200 yards on the ground in a game, they were 7-0…when they didn’t, they were 0-6.

That will be a tall task, and it speaks to the challenge facing a much better offense than the Tide faced from Fresno. That said, Alabama’s defense can learn a lot about itself from the test that it will face Saturday night, as the Rams aren’t the average, ill-equipped payday offense. They are tough and potentially explosive, so the Tide must handle them with care.

Special Teams

Andy Pappanastos seems to have taken the bull by the horns in the quest to find Alabama’s next place kicker. He was consistent against Fresno, and after the travails of the Tide’s kicking game over the last several years, consistent is a bit of a comfort to the Tide faithful.

J.K. Scott is still “he of the super-leg,” and we all know what role he will play in the future. Against Colorado State, his role will likely be limited, as there’s no reason to expect that the Tide will be forced to punt an inordinate number of times. Still, it’s comforting to know that Scott will not only hold the rope in the punting game, but he is actually a field-flipping weapon who can change the timbre of a game.

CSU’s punting duties are handled by freshman Ryan Stonehouse, who may be the second coming of Alabama’s Scott (who is himself, by the way, a Colorado native). Stonehouse, much like Scott did as a freshman, if having a breakout year thus far, averaging 47.11 yards per punt, with a long of 59 yards.

The Ram placekicker is junior Wyatt Bryan, who is perfect on the season in field goal attempts with a 5-for-5 record. Those kicks have largely come at close range, however, as his long for the season is only 41 yards.

Once again, though a loss is likely not in the cards for Alabama against Colorado State, this game can be instructive for the Tide players and coaching staff. In a positive sense, the Tide will get a bigger test than the one it passed last week while sharpening its weapons for the impending SEC gauntlet. The Ram offense will test the Bama D mightily, and that’s a test that can only help the Tide prepare for more critical games awaiting on the schedule.

That can be a good thing, as Alabama still has issues to work out along the offensive line, and the pass rush will get quality work against an excellent pass blocking unit for the Rams. Repetition breeds confidence, and as Hurts and the receivers better synch their timing to Daboll’s scheme, only good things can happen.

However, there is always the Sword of Damocles hanging over these types of contests for the Tide. Injuries can happen at any time, and they can happen against any opponent. One injury to a key player can change the entire trajectory of a season. After the loss of several such keys in the first game, Alabama can ill afford to suffer the bite of that viper yet again.

So once again, Alabama finds itself a heavy favorite preparing to play a team that is likely outclassed at every turn. In doing so, they will learn much about the rockiness of the road that remains before them, and they’ll learn if they have the endurance and perseverance it will take to traverse it. Hope for the best…