West Virginia versus Alabama. That's a dream matchup right there.
A prolific offense versus a stout defense. Speed versus physicality. Holgorsen versus Saban.
If college football fans were lucky enough to get this dream matchup, who would win?
Here's one breakdown of the Mountaineers' offense versus the Crimson Tide's defense.
Quarterback Geno Smith has had the luxury of very good pass protection all season. The mitigating factor in all of this is that Smith, if faced with a heavy pass rush, can take off running and avoid loss of yardage.
But if you watch the game film, Smith usually takes off running only after he's been given enough time to go through all of his reads. Would he have that same three- or four-second cushion against the Crimson Tide's defensive line? Doubtful.
Alabama's front three—defensive tackle Jesse Williams and defensive ends Ed Stinson and Damion Square—did a good job against Ole Miss last week, as the Alabama defense recorded five sacks. However, the defense did allow the Rebels to score the two times they got in the red zone.
The problem against a quarterback such as Geno Smith is that he doesn't need a lot of time in the pocket, because he has such a quick release and goes through his progressions at lightning speed.
By the time January rolls around, Alabama's defensive line will be much more seasoned, and it should be able to apply pressure on Smith. However, the play-action passing game will also keep that Tide defense honest.
Blitzing the Mountaineers' O-line might not be as productive as one thinks; Smith is very well-versed on reading defenses, and he will change the play when he comes to the line. Will he escape the pass rush? Most of the time, yes. The Tide will get a few licks in and slow him down every now and then, but I don't think the pass rush will be the major issue.
If any unit is more critical to Alabama beating West Virginia in the BCS title game, it is the linebacker unit, because that unit has to help the defensive backs cover receivers. In other words, the linebackers have to play great pass defense.
At this point in the season, I'm sold on the backers against the run, but not against the pass. C.J. Mosley, Trey Depriest and Adrian Hubbard are solid on the pass rush and defending the run, but their tackling fundamentals (so far) have to concern head coach Nick Saban.
Geno Smith will send his receivers on seam routes, and if the linebackers get confused in zone coverage, there's going to be open receivers in the middle of the field.
Which of these factors is the most important in this dream match-up?
The secondary is the one unit that has surprised me the most so far. Once thought inexperienced and young, this unit has exceeded all of my expectations. Last week against Ole Miss, the defensive backs forced three interceptions. Can they keep up with Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods?
If Dee Milliner and Deion Belue (injury status unknown) can keep the receivers in front of them, the Tide should be fine—they just can't give up the big play. So far, they've done a good job of limiting quarterbacks to short-to-intermediate passes. Unfortunately, Smith has no deficiencies in either short-, intermediate- or long-range passes, so while the defensive backs will keep the sideline routes contained, Smith will exploit the middle of the field.
Vinnie Sunseri is going to be a very busy safety, especially if the linebackers don't cover their zones against West Virginia's five-receiver sets.
The rush defense is a strength of this Alabama defense; the Tide give up an average of 65.8 rushing yards per game. That stingy defense should probably frustrate the Mountaineers' running game, which currently averages a paltry 157 yards per game. Why is this so important?
If, and it's a big "if", Alabama can consistently force Smith to throw earlier than he wants, then the Mountaineers will have to run the ball at some point in the game. While West Virginia isn't known for its rushing attack, it could get some pop from Smith on some draw plays. But when you have a one-dimensional offense and that offense has a bad day, you're in trouble. If you can't run the ball, you can't chew up the clock, can't nurse a lead and can't give your defense a rest.
The bottom line is that Smith probably won't have a lot of opportunities for a big play, but he will have some fun in the middle of the field. He'll get some pressure from the line in the first half, and he'll have to throw a lot since the Mountaineers won't be able to run the ball on Alabama.
How fast the linebackers adjust to Smith's audibles will be critical. They will expect a lot of passes, but that could benefit the Mountaineers—some misdirections or draws could yield some big yardage for the Mountaineers when the linebackers key in on receivers.
What's pivotal for Alabama is the second half. How beat up and gassed will the Mountaineers' offensive line be after playing against the Tide's physical line? Alabama should win the war in the trenches, and eventually Smith's pass protection will break down.
Alabama will be on its heels in the first half, but in the second half it will claim victory in a close game if these two teams face each other for the BCS title.