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Hope for the Best: The Citadel edition

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In this case, the hope is that there are no further injuries as the Tide heads into the most important few weeks of the season

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Alabama
Alabama is its own greatest opponent now.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban looked like someone had slapped him in the face.

When some misguided reporter had the gall to ask the Alabama head coach if he planned to play his dinged-up prized starting quarterback this Saturday against the lowly FCS payday opponent The Citadel, Saban looked as though he could have chewed up broken glass. His inflammatory response indicated that yes, he would be playing his starting quarterback Saturday morning, and that any assertion to the contrary was ridiculous.

He went on to elaborate in his Wednesday press conference that if he sat a great player to prevent injury, then other elite players would get the notion that maybe they didn’t need to play either. Then nobody would want to play, and the team might as well forfeit and take a loss to keep everyone healthy. While that logical leap is questionable, it belies the steadfast Saban ideal that the most important opponent is the next opponent, and that champions are born not out of a desire to compete against the other team but rather to compete against the limiting factors within one’s own self.

It’s an old-school way of viewing the game and pursuing success, to be sure. It’s also part of the formula that makes Saban the greatest college football coach of the modern era.

That great football coach has assembled one of the greatest teams the game has ever seen in the 2018 season. Bama fatigue has never been stronger than it is at the moment, as even the most ardent haters and detractors of the Crimson Tide program seem to have resigned themselves to yet another Tide championship. It appears inevitable, and barring some cataclysmic collapse, the Tide will set historical marks with this year’s team.

With all the rat poison tainting the public opinion of the Crimson Tide, it appears that the only true enemy of Saban’s greatest team could be the one that wears crimson. Alabama must find a way to stay hungry…nay, ravenous…even while it enjoys the historical spoils of a flawless campaign that has broken the will of those who stand against the Tide. If Bama players succumb to the siren’s call of praise and arrogance, they could easily fall from their lofty spot of glory like the wax-winged Icarus of lore. But if they remain steadfast and determined to be the best version of themselves, then there’s likely no team that can stand between them and another title.

That said, the magnetic draw of apathy will be strong this weekend as Alabama plays The Citadel, a team that has a losing record this season at the FCS level. The Bulldogs have a lot going for them, but the fact is they are third from last in their own conference. There is absolutely no chance that Alabama will lose to them, even if the Tide started Diane Tagovailoa instead of her heralded son at quarterback. The Tide will come out with a win, and that’s a guarantee.

But will playing an inferior opponent lull Alabama into a slumber just before the pivotal game against Auburn next weekend? The Tigers have whimpered into the closing chapter of the season wounded, but there’s no doubt a win over Alabama would salvage their season and earn their head coach an eleventy-million dollar pay raise.

Alabama has gained momentum with each passing week. Though the offense has lost its edge slightly against the best defenses it’s played this year at LSU and against Mississippi State, there’s no doubt that Tagovailoa’s knee injury played a large role in that dynamic. The defense has become more ferocious as the season moved along and has now emerged as a top-10 unit in most of the defensive measurables after pitching two straight shutouts against ranked teams.

A game against an opponent like The Citadel can be a momentum killer, even if the scoreboard doesn’t reflect it. Alabama can ill-afford that to happen at this point in the season, with games against Auburn and SEC East Champion Georgia looming.

There’s also the specter of injury. The Tide knew there would be shallow depth for much of the season, and for the most part they’ve navigated those trouble waters well. But Bama is really just an injury or two away from having substantial problems at several positions. The concern against a triple-option opponent like The Citadel is staying healthy enough to finish the season strong.

Will Alabama continue to hone its championship steel despite facing a mere FCS squire this week? Can the Tide emerge healthy on both sides of the ball without sacrificing reps for key players? Can the Tide defense adapt to the first triple-option offense they’ve seen in years? Will Mac Jones have a career day against what’s a pretty rough pass defense, even by FCS standards?

We’ll soon see…let’s take a closer look.

The Alabama offense versus the Citadel defense

There’s no need to parse words at this point. The Alabama offense will do as it wants against a mediocre FCS defense this weekend, and anything short of that would be an absolute shock.

Schematically, there’s not much to dissect here. The Bulldogs run an interesting scheme that features some specialty hybrid players. They use a linebacker-end hybrid much like Alabama’s Jack as a pass rush specialist, and they have a LB-safety hybrid called the Bandit that plays a heavy nickel-type role in sun support and coverage. It’s a multiple front that lines up in 4-3 looks and 3-4 looks with some nickel against passing teams. The defense is built to stop the run-based offenses common at the FCS level with some quarters and Cover-2 coverages thrown in on the back end when they face teams that can pass effectively.

Expect Alabama to work more on establishing the run and dominating the point of attack. Bama left tackled Jonah Williams, usually affable and cerebral, bristled slightly this week when reporters asked him about criticism of the Tide’s performance last Saturday in which another set of Bulldogs sacked Tagovailoa four times and apparently reinjured his knee. His demeanor indicated a chip on the shoulder of the Tide line, and with that in mind, there’s good reason to believe that Alabama will run the ball and dominate The Citadel in the trenches. The size mismatch there heavily favors the Tide, but Alabama can work on timing and execution to open holes and give the running game momentum that it’ll need against Auburn and more specifically, Georgia (Georgia’s run defense has been notoriously porous this season, as LSU put up nearly 300 yards on the Bulldogs).

Josh Jacobs is emerging as a true weapon in the Alabama offense, and the Tide already has proven running back commodities in Damien Harris and Najee Harris. You’ll see plenty of Brian Robinson in this game as well. (Hell, you may see Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis toting the rock before it’s over.)

Jones will likely be under center much of the game, but that’s not a bad thing. He’s the most viable back-up with Jalen Hurts continuing to recuperate from surgery, so all live-fire reps for the untested quarterback are good live-fire reps.

That said, none of that matters. Alabama’s offense runs as a finely-tuned precision machine when the starters are in. After Saban’s protestations this week, one can imagine that Tua and the ones will see three series or so before deferring to the back-ups. If Tagovailoa plays three series, the Tide will score three touchdowns. There’s nothing scary about the Bulldog defense after staring down the barrel of the LSU and MSU defenses the last two weeks, and the Tide won’t shy away from precision execution this week. They’ll run through a few series to preserve their timing and stay limber, then let the twos and threes take over for the balance of the game.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s customary for the Tide to run a glorified scrimmage the week before the Iron Bowl. All that Alabama must do is run its offense and stay healthy this week. Easy enough, right?

The Alabama defense against the Citadel offense

The last time Alabama played a lesser opponent with a triple-option offense was…interesting?

It was 2011, and the Tide matched off with paycheck opponent Georgia Southern. Though the Tide won 45-21, the vaunted 2011 defense gave up a shocking 302 yards of rushing to the Eagles’ triple-option. Saban reminded the world of the issues created by the triple-option earlier this week, saying that preparation is difficult. The system itself is difficult because few teams still run it and defenses lack familiarity with the reads and tendencies. Compounding that is the fact that scout teams can’t replicate the speed of polished triple-option attacks in practice because proper execution of the system requires specific player types.

Still, expecting the Tide defense to wither in the face of an FCS option offense is a little ridiculous. Alabama finally has it’s per-game rushing average allowed under 100 yards for the first time this season after holding LSU to 12 yards on the ground and MSYU to 41. Alabama will dominate the Bulldogs offense easily with the second-string if everyone does his job and maintains the pride in performance that Saban demands of his players.

That said, playing against a triple-option offense can give the Tide some needed reps against teams that stretch the run to the perimeter, and it’s also a good primer for read-option offenses such as Michigan that Bama may meet in the playoffs. Before pointing out that the read-option and triple-option are two vastly different offenses, understand that the type of heads-up, lateral flow required to read one can benefit a defense in stopping the other. Bama has tremendous vertical speed on defense, but lateral speed is something that has been a work in progress as the Tide has developed excellent sideline-to-sideline pursuit speed over the course of the season.

The exercise will be a beneficial one for as long as it lasts, as the Bulldogs have some excellent athletes in their skill positions that know how to fluidly run their system. Still, if The Citadel breaks 100 yards rushing in the game, it will be a surprise and Saban will have his talking point for the coming week.

Much has been made about protecting Tagovailoa from injury in this game, but it’s just as important that the Tide defense stays healthy heading into the toughest games of the season. Triple-option offenses feature a plentitude of cut blocks that can wreck knees inadvertently. Because of a lack of seasoned depth in many positions, the Tide cannot afford an injury to a starter in the front seven. That’s especially true at inside linebacker, where beyond Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson, the depth picture is somewhat startling. The secondary has been the most injury-riddled portion of the defense, and they too are thin right now. Emerging with a healthy first-string roster is as important for the defense as it is for the offense this weekend, so expect to see a lot of unfamiliar faces getting quality reps as the game wears on.

Special Teams

Alabama made a field goal last week…a long one. Praise Him.

The punting was pretty nice as well, with Mike Bernier pinning the Bulldogs inside their own five last week. The kicking game has made an amazing amount of progress since Week 1.

The return game continues to be neutral. No one will kick to Jaylen Waddle, and the kickoff returns have been solid between him and Josh Jacobs.

The Bulldogs have a solid placekicker in Jacob Grodek, who is 8-of-9 on the season with a long of 44 yards. The punter is Matthew Campbell, and he averages 44 yards per punt with a long of 56. The punt and kick returns are done by committee, though Rod Johnson has one 94-yard kick return for a touchdown and leads all returners with an average of 25.5 yards per return.

The Tide team that crushed the upset hopes of the Tigers and Bulldogs in the last two weeks is good enough to beat anyone in the nation and everyone knows it. Alabama remains the chief contender for the national title, and it’s just that simple. Alabama has tough opponents remaining before ascending to the playoffs. Auburn is decent and as dangerous as a wounded cat, and Georgia may be diminished from last season but still retains enough bite to be a problem. But when this Alabama team is humming on all cylinders, there may be no legitimate challenger that can dethrone the king.

Therefore, heading into the pivotal games of the 2018 season, Alabama must maintain the fervor and energy of the LSU and MSU games. That will indeed be a challenge against a withering opponent like The Citadel, but Alabama will need to continue that positive momentum unabated as it faces a damaged rival next week and a revenge-hungry Georgia team in the SEC Championship Game.

Alabama is a more talented team than the one they’ll face next Saturday, and even Georgia’s accomplishments to date pale in comparison to those of the Tide. But it will be the mental state, not the talent level, of the men in crimson that will dictate their fate in those games, and the remainder of the season for that matter. If Alabama plays like champions and remains resilient in the face of adversity, then a return to the playoffs will be in the cards.

This week, there is no need for a detailed breakdown of schemes or personnel, as everyone, including the players, knows the true challenge that befalls the Tide in this game. It’s not anything that The Citadel will do that will shape the course of Alabama’s season. It’s what the Crimson Tide does that will determine their greatness, play in and play out.

That will be true in every remaining game of the 2018 season. The Citadel is but cannon fodder while the barbarians at the gate await. Auburn and Georgia will be worthy challengers, to be sure, and they’ll be coming for the Tide to ruin Alabama’s dream season, intoxicated by their dreams of storming the walls of Bama’s once-impenetrable bastion and planting their heathen flags as new kings of the empire that Alabama built.

Bark as those challengers may, ultimately their baying is of little consequence. Alabama’s only enemy, this week and beyond, is itself...hope for the best.