2007. Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama. The Savior of Alabama Football had returned from his stint in the NFL to reconquer the kingdom of college and restore rightful ruler Alabama to its throne.
Things began promisingly enough. Then the unthinkable happened.
The Tide, favored by 25 points and playing at home in Tuscaloosa, choked. Mind you, the 2007 Crimson Tide was not the loaded behemoth of a football team we see today. But still no one gave Louisiana Monroe any chance of winning 21-14 in Bama’s backyard.
And yet, it happened. It happened when Appalachian State knocked off Michigan that same year. It happened this season, when Old Dominion knocked off the 13th ranked Virginia Tech Hokies. In other words, if the outcome of a game was decided by the point spread before it was played, there’d be no reason to play the game at all.
That said, Louisiana Lafayette’s sojourn into the heart of football darkness this weekend likely won’t turn out in similar fashion. All the aforementioned teams had systemic problems that doomed them to ultimate failure. This Alabama Crimson Tide team, however, has been an amazing sight to behold. They’re not without flaw, to be sure. But the truly incredible thing is that despite those flaws, Alabama has hammered everyone they’ve played to date. In fact, it doesn’t look like there’s a team in the country that could hang within 10 of this Tide team on any given field on any given Saturday.
The season is young and looks can deceive. But is Louisiana Lafayette the team that’s going to knock Alabama from its championship stride? Doubtful.
What they can do, however, is present Alabama with a unique challenge. At this point, it appears that the Tide’s greatest opponent this season wears crimson. The only team that can beat Alabama right now is Alabama. Can the Tide’s still-young roster manage the low-light of playing a Sunbelt team in the midst of its SEC schedule? Alabama teams of the past had a habit of playing down to the level of their competition. Can this Bama team rise above that tendency and dominate all comers equally?
Schematically, the Ragin’ Cajuns present an interesting conundrum. Coached by former Tide offensive assistant (and OC at Clemson and Arizona State) Billy Napier, the Ragin’ Cajuns play a typically balanced, hurry-up spread. They don’t just sling the ball around, but they run it, too. With a solid quarterback in Andre Nunez (6-3, 205 pounds) and a trio of banging tailbacks, the Ragin’ Cajuns have the weapons to execute a balanced system and spread the Tide defense out. Alabama has struggled with the run this season uncharacteristically, and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle what ULL runs at them.
Defensively, while Tua Tagovailoa and the Tide have been explosive thus far, the Cajuns operate out of a unique 33 Stack defense that the Tide rarely sees. That means there will be eight men in or near the box a lot of the time, giving the Tide offensive line a chance to iron out some of the run game kinks they’ve experienced thus far. Alabama needs to develop the killer instinct in the running game, and if they can do it against the jumbled mass that is the interior of the Cajuns’ defense, that will give them good practice for more athletically talented defenses they’ll encounter down the road.
Defensive coordinator Ron Roberts is a steely veteran of small-college southern football, and he’ll give Tua something he hasn’t seen very much: an unconventional front and a barrage of coverages disguised by personnel.
So, while no one gives ULL much of a chance of pulling off an upset in Tuscaloosa, they can offer enough resistance to help the Tide improve in a few key areas. Can Alabama get some running game momentum against the Cajuns? Or will that 33 Stack defense prove daunting to the Tide’s ground game? Will Tua be able to process Roberts’ coverage variations and let his superior receivers torch coverages? Or will ULL do enough in the backfield to throw the sophomore off his game and disrupt his timing?. We’ll know soon…let’s take a closer look.
The Alabama Offense Versus the Louisiana Lafayette Defense
While many believe that the Crimson Tide will plow over the ULL defense like an errant traffic cone on I-65, it’s not automatic. Alabama will need to do a few things at a high level to enjoy success against a defense that could come into its own at any time and become a mirror image of Roberts’ stingy championship defenses of the past.
Roberts took the helm after Napier’s first DC hire, Karl Scott, left to become the secondary coach at Alabama. He’s had most of the year to install his system, but for his defense to work well, he needs a lot of players versed in the system who can execute it at a high level. That’s the goal he is working towards now, and he’s doing it with young players in the two-deep who will give him some staying power once the system is set.
Through four games this season, it’s been a rough ride for the ULL defense. The run defense has struggled mightily, and it shows up in the stats. ULL is ranked 126th in rushing defense, 107th in scoring defense, 57th in pass defense, and 111th in total defense. Those are really bad numbers overall and are indicative of a defense that can’t prevent an opposing offense from slapping them silly.
In their lone match-up against a quality opponent to date, they were absolutely trounced by Mississippi State to the tune of 56-10. Nick Fitzgerald threw for 243 yards and ran for another 107 before being pulled from the game, which portends an early departure for Alabama’s Tagovailoa as well.
There’s not much reason to expect that the Ragin’ Cajuns will do much to impede the progress of the Crimson Tide offense this week, but it will provide Alabama with some critical live-fire action against an opponent that really poses little threat of an upset. It will also provide the Tide offense with a chance to go up against a defensive scheme that they don’t see much. Not that it’s a criticism, but Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts can both benefit from the mental exercise of finding the weak spots in a variety of defenses and experiencing how Mike Locksley’s offense can take advantage of them.
Most importantly, the game will give Alabama a low-risk way of working on a running attack that struggled a great deal against a solid Texas A&M front last week. The Tide’s rushing game has been somewhat anemic, partially because of Alabama’s preference for the pass with Tua under center. However, one can’t blame Alabama’s uncharacteristically low 204.8 rushing yards per game (42nd nationally) on run-pass balance alone. The offensive line is breaking in two new starters on the right side, and the cohesion between all five linemen still appears to be a work in progress. It appears at times that the Tide line isn’t imposing its will on opponent fronts, and that’s something that will have to change as they enter the “man-ball” portion of the SEC schedule. There’s no time like the present, as ULL offers a good test in the middle with a crowd of bodies clogging running lanes. Plenty of folks to block, and plenty of opportunities to iron out the run game timing. Expect to see a lot more of the running game this week as the Tide seeks to re-establish its dominance on the ground.
The ULL pass defense isn’t bad, as they only give up 207 yards per game through the air. But the Tide’s offense is averaging 334.8 yards per game passing, good for 13th nationally. That’s a mismatch from the get-go that Saban will likely not exploit for the entirety of the game. He’ll surely let Tagovailoa play a quarter to get his rhythm, spell in Hurts to keep him sharp, then bring in Mac Jones to mop up the second half. The passing game is not what needs work right now for the Tide offense. The running game does. Locksley knows that and has likely built a game plan that will feature Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs this Saturday.
There’s little mystery about how this showdown will go down. Alabama’s offense will flex its muscles, then work on the running game. The Tide will get deep into its roster, which will provide valuable reps to players who may be needed for the title run. Nothing wrong with that, even if the Tide doesn’t cover by seven touchdowns as predicted by Vegas.
The Tide Defense Versus the Louisiana Lafayette Offense
Frankly, Alabama’s defense needs a lot of work before the meat of the conference schedule begins. Make no mistake, they’re good. But are they great in the cast of past Tide defenses? That potential is there, but to date there is a lot of room for improvement before they can claim the mantle of Tide defenses past.
Statistics can become skewed, and there is a little of that in Alabama’s current defensive performance. After all, the Tide’s starting defense has yet to play four quarters this season because Alabama’s explosive offense has put the team so far ahead that the ones weren’t needed throughout. That will change as the level of competition increases. But given that statistical flaw, the numbers for Alabama are far from the norm, as the Tide defense is usually in the top-10 nationally in all major defensive categories at this point in the season.
That’s not the case this year. Alabama ranks 26th in total defense, giving up 325 yards per game. Sure, they’ve played some dynamic offensive teams in Ole Miss and Texas A&M. But Alabama plays those teams every year. Still, the Tide’s stats are uncharacteristic for a team that prides itself on defense.
Everyone has raved about the performance of the Tide’s secondary this season. And rightly so, as they’ve looked awfully good before the eye test. But Alabama’s pass defense is ranked 69th nationally, allowing 216.5 yards per game. Those stats may be inflated by garbage-time substitutions. But that still isn’t the standard Saban has set for his defensive backfield during his tenure in Tuscaloosa. While Alabama has had years in which they struggled against opposing passing games, the Tide usually ranks in the top-25 in pass defense.
Alabama is always great against the run. One would be hard-pressed to remember a time that the Tide defense was ranked outside of the top-5 nationally in rushing defense. It’s a hallmark of Saban’s system that stopping the run comes first. It’s not that this Tide unit is terrible in run defense, especially considering it is breaking in a new nose and two new starters at inside linebacker. But the Tide is giving up more than 108 yards per game, good for 23rd nationally. For a team that typically averages under 80 yards per game allowed on the ground, that is quite a departure.
Under Napier, the ULL offense has been pretty solid in most regards, as he strives for balance and operates out of a spread scheme. While the offensive coordinator is Rob Sale, one must imagine that Napier, a former OC himself, has had a hand in crafting the offense he wants to run in his first year at ULL. It’s a balanced attack that produces 415.7 yards per game, which ranks 65th in FBS football. While the quarterback Nunez has been steady enough as a 72.3 percent passer with a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the passing game has lacked production, generating only 541 yards through the air.
ULL uses a trio of wide receivers, though one, the WR-Y, is a receiver in name only. The Cajuns line up 6-6, 265-pound sophomore Johnny Lumpkin at the Y, a natural tight end playing the role of a receiver. The other starters are junior Jamarcus Bradley (6-1, 195 pounds) at X and senior Ryheem Malone (5-9, 187 pounds) at Z. They’re backed up by capable reserves in senior Keenan Barnes (6-3, 206 pounds) and Earnest Patterson (5-7, 175 pounds). They’re able enough (if not spectacular) within the confines of the system. Barnes leads all receivers in averaging 14.3 yards per catch and 47.67 yards per game while Bradley has 13.8 yards per catch and 41.67 yards per game. True tight end Matt Barnes is a favorite target of Nunez, as he averages 16.67 yards per game and has a touchdown to his credit.
That said, the ground game is the best offensive weapon that ULL possesses, and Napier knows how to use it. He a trio of backs, with the first two being bangers (sophomores Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell) and the third-stringer offering a quick-step change of pace (junior Raymond Calais). Ragas (5-11, 227 pounds) and Mitchell (5-11, 221 pounds) are both wrecking balls with low centers of gravity. The ULL offense will bang them between the tackles before alternating with the electrifying Calais (5-9, 180 pounds), as he can explode around end with shocking speed.
The offensive line should be better, given that all five are juniors and they average more than 300 pounds as a group (right tackle Robert Hunt is massive at 6-5 and 336 pounds). But they struggle to execute and dominate their opponents. Mississippi State counted two sacks against them, which could be a bright point until one considers that the mighty Chanticleer defense of Coastal Carolina had three sacks against the same line last week.
The great thing for the Alabama defense is that the scheme is one with which the Tide should be familiar. It’s not unlike the run-and-pass spread offense that former OC Lane Kiffin ran at Alabama without the trickeration. The Cajuns have pretty decent receivers and a quarterback who can get it to them, but every team the Tide has played this year has had an army of 6 foot-plus receivers and a usually efficient quarterback. The Tide has proven that they can handle big receivers, so that’s not a cause for concern.
For all the aforementioned shortcomings of Alabama’s defense to date, one thing they’ve done exceptionally well is disrupt the passer. Quinnen Williams has been a man on a mission, shedding blocks and remaining a burr in every quarterback’s saddle. The OLBs are picking up their play, as both Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings have looked nearly unstoppable for two weeks running now. The Tide is tied for second nationally in team sacks, with 16 overall through four games. The Alabama front should have a field day with a suspect ULL line, and Nunez will have a tough time maintaining his lofty efficiency rating on Saturday.
ULL can be the Tide’s heavy bag in the running game, as Alabama can wail away with little hope of retribution, landing powerful blow after powerful blow. That’s not an indictment of the ULL backs, as they are quality runners who can break tackles. In fact, if the Tide displays the kind of questionable tackling fundamentals that were evident at times last week, Ragas and Mitchell can take it to the house. They run low and have feet that are in perpetual motion, so the Tide will need to execute at a sound fundamental level to prevent any broken tackle embarrassments.
All in all, the Tide should manhandle the ULL defense and get a grip on its statistical slide so far in 2018. After all, Saban expects his defense to play to a high standard. So far, that standard has not been met, though the potential is certainly there.
Alabama can breathe a sigh of relief regarding the placekicking game, as Joseph Bulovas seems to have found his confidence and has looked powerful and steady on PATs and field goal attempts since snagging the starting job.
It’s unfortunate that the same is not yet true in the punting game, where Skyler DeLong has continued to struggle more from week to week. Saban referenced DeLong’s performance in his Monday press conference this week. When asked about concerns in the punting game, he indicated that the first-year punter has been excellent in practice, getting both good distance and pinpoint accuracy. He also said he thinks that the punter’s performance in games is likely mental, and that in time he expects DeLong to become more confident and play the way he practices. One can hope, as Alabama’s defense needs help in the field position game, and to date, DeLong has not given it to them.
The return game continues to sit largely unused like a loaded spring trap. Everyone knows the potential that both Josh Jacobs and Jaylen Waddle possess. They’ve shown it in flashes this season. That’s why they’ve had few opportunities to show that skill since, as teams elect to keep the ball out of their hands. They can’t elude Alabama’s stellar return duo forever, though, and it’s only a matter of time before the return game explodes for another non-offensive score.
The Cajuns have an Australian punter, freshman Rhys Byrns. Byrns averages 40.7 yards per punt, with a long this season of 51 yards. Not too shabby for a freshman punter. His placekicking counterpart is senior Kyle Pfau, but he has been used sparingly to date, only attempting two field goals (he only connected on one, a 38-yarder).
The shifty running back Calais and speedy receiver Bradley handle rick returns. Calais has seven returns for 161 yards, while Bradley has returned three for 103 yards. Another receiver, Malone, handles punts and he has only returned two for a grand total of two yards.
There’s no mystery that Alabama is likely going to pound on ULL for a quarter or so with the first-string, run the second-string in for a few extra reps, then turn the reins over to the depth of the roster for the game’s remainder. That’s not a sign of disrespect to the opponent…it’s just what Alabama does. To everybody. So far, they’ve not met and opponent that could do much to resist.
But Alabama’s true opponent at this point in the season is itself. Can the Crimson Tide continue to improve and do the things that they need to do to become better? Saban growled at reporters after the A&M victory, asking them to focus on what the Tide has done poorly rather than heaping praise upon his players. After all, showering praise on Saban and his team is akin to heaping hot coals upon his head…it drives him crazy. He has beat the drum of constant improvement this week, stating as late in the week as Wednesday that he challenged the team to perfect their performance in practice, saying that some had done that while others had not.
That’s a tremendous indicator of what Saban thinks about the potential of this Crimson Tide team. As great as they’ve been, as unbeatable as they have appeared, Saban thinks they can be better. He demands it. That’s not a testament to his dogged work ethic. It’s a testament to the talent level and elite program that Saban has developed in Tuscaloosa and the extremely high ceiling he sees for his current team.
Think about it: The Tide is enjoying a historically great offense and fields a defense that is fourth in the nation in scoring defense. Yet, Saban isn’t happy. He expects more from his players. He doesn’t just expect great play or gaudy stats. He expects their absolute best.
If the Tide’s performance to date hasn’t been their best, if there is indeed more that Saban and his staff can wring out of this elite group of disciplined athletes, then Katy bar the door…the rest of the college football world should be on notice, as further resistance is futile.
Joyless Saban Murderball is entering a new era, and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it. ULL included.
Can the Cajuns do enough to confound the Tide offense? Or will Tua, Jalen, and the rest of Alabama’s stars have their way with the ULL defense? Can Alabama’s defense return to the ranks of the nation’s elite by crushing the Cajun insurrection? Can a former protégé will his offense to success against his former head coach? Or will Saban’s defensive Death Star obliterate all hope of rebellion?
We probably already know the answers, but it’s the reason the game is played…hope for the best.