Earlier in October we talked about the "Go-To Play" for each of the teams sitting in the BCS Top Five. Now, as we enter the final month of the season we have a slightly reshuffled Top Five and each team is looking to finish the drill. Out of the Top Five only one team has a loss: LSU and the Bayou Bengals are hoping to gain traction with voters by beating Alabama this Saturday.
Florida's out, LSU is in. Oregon's down at four and both Kansas State and Notre Dame have pushed ahead of the Ducks. However, one thing remains a constant, Alabama sits at the top.
So, how would I go about beating each of these teams?
Well, with Alabama and with Notre Dame, we've already hit on a blueprint to be successful. Ultimately it boils down to matchups, weaknesses and finding a way to exploit those weaknesses. Each team has them and while they are not all glaring, they can ultimately cost the team a shot at the title.
For each team the smart play is to know where they are vulnerable and then work to find a solution. Certainly, it's late in the season to change personnel, and you can't just create gigantic bodies out of thin air to remedy a legitimate physical deficiency. However, as we look at the weaknesses, regardless of how small, we'll check out some fixes, Band-Aids of sorts, to grease the wheels on the wagon of success.
We'll start with Alabama. This team is, simply put, a machine. They're about as close to perfect as you'll see this season and therein lies their problem. They're conditioned to do things the right way, thus a little unpredictability throws them off and creates problems.
Not big problems mind you. They don't suddenly become West Virginia defensively when you drop a shred of the unknown on them. Rather they leave small seams that, if a team is capable, can be exploited. That unpredictability has a name, and that name is a run-threat quarterback.
Don't confuse a run-threat at quarterback with a running quarterback. Running quarterback is in the Crimson Tide instruction manual, right after statue at quarterback, and they know how to mash out a guy like Denard Robinson. The run-threat at quarterback is the guy who doesn't have running as his only weapon, rather he can throw and run enough to be formidable at each.
How do you stop it?
It's not easy. Unlike other teams that have legitimate physical and talent deficiencies, this is something that's a product of Alabama being so disciplined and well-coached. In other words, you don't want to change Alabama because of instances that this impacts them are so few and far between.
Saban already works to fix this on his own. He plays a lot of Cover 2 against run-threat quarterbacks and at times uses a spy to be able to mix in man coverage. Truth be told, those are the two fixes. You don't want to blitz, because then you're vulnerable in the pass game and should the quarterback break contain, he's able to get loose for even bigger yardage. As is usually the case, CNS is one step ahead of the game.
It doesn't always work but it is as close as the team will get to solving that riddle without ultimately changing it truly is.
Which brings us to the No. 2 team in the country, a squad with a clear identity, Kansas State. They are Bill Snyder's baby and they're led by Collin Klein, a quarterback who does everything for his team. Unlike Alabama, the Wildcats have a very tangible weakness from a talent perspective. Yes, K-State is disciplined and they play hard and they do all of the right things. But look just as far as Oklahoma to see the point that's being made.
Sure, the Wildcats escaped with a win. However, their showing against the Sooners, a team with real talent, was less than ideal. Take away the fumble return for six and Bill Snyder's team is looking for another way to win that ball game.
How do you fix not having elite athletes? Stay disciplined. Make those athletes beat you. College football players, by and large, aren't very good. They make mistakes, get impatient and when that happens, if you're just doing the right thing play after play, then you'll be in a position to succeed.
For Kansas State this isn't a "quick fix" for a game or two. This is a way of life. You've heard the phrase "work smarter, not harder." Well, in the case of Kansas State, the Wildcats work smarter AND harder; because they have to. This is a team that has to consistently be in the right place at the right time because being a step off or a bit late would expose its inability to recover.
As for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, their weakness isn't really physical. They have all the pieces you need to be successful. Tough line play, skill position players that have great measurables and a focused, physical approach to the game.
In the case of the Irish, experience is their major flaw, but drawback is disappearing as the season wears on. The Irish are fixing their own weakness right before our eyes. In the secondary, what were big play opportunities for the Miami Hurricanes were eliminated against the Oklahoma Sooners. Everett Golson, the kid who threw two interceptions and got pulled against Michigan, finished the game in Norman and showed an ability to get things done with his arm and his legs.
Watching a team grow up is an interesting thing. Especially when that team sees its big weakness, inexperience, slowly melt away.
Next up are the fourth-ranked Oregon Ducks. Inexperience has not been the Ducks weakness this season. Hell, like Alabama, this Oregon team has shown little in the way of a true weakness in 2012. Which means, like Alabama, we've got to draw on what we know.
In the case of Oregon, that means seeing how they play against a team with a truly talented defensive line. We know they can outrun a fast team. We know they can shut down an Air Raid attack team. What we still have are huge questions about whether the Ducks can handle a wrecking crew of a defensive line.
Oregon's not going to magically get an offensive line that's built to blow elite defenders off the ball. They make their hay by shielding against defenders, zone blocking and letting their backs pick a hole to burst through. That's who Oregon is. They have a running back in Kenjon Barner who feeds off the freedom that zone blocking affords him. They have a playmaker in De'Anthony Thomas who milks the cutback lanes afforded through the zone scheme. They have a quarterback who works well with the zone-read principles.
In the words of the great philosopher Sean Carter, "You can't change a player's game in the ninth inning." Or in the case of Oregon, you don't expect the Ducks to be something different than what they are. So to give them opportunities for success you have to work within the scheme you have: Don't have the centers and guards climb to the second level as quickly against elite defensive linemen. Instead, have the offensive line try to dive into the action, allow them to use cut or combination blocks to achieve success.
The beauty of zone blocking is you don't have to win every battle, you just have to give your back an opportunity to be find a crease. If they can get a defensive end routed up field, cut a defensive tackle to get him on the ground, combo a nose and climb to the linebacker, they can create a seam for Barner to find success.
And, we'll wrap up with the Bayou Bengals. Pretty easy answer here as to what their flaw is—the lack of a reliable passing game. Their offensive line is porous. The quarterback is a slow, lumbering guy who is a statue once he gets his feet set in the pocket. The receivers drop balls. There really is just so much wrong with this team's throwing game, it almost seems best to abandon it.
Which is about what LSU has done when they needed to get first downs, yards or points.
To combat this deficiency the best move for LSU is to make it less of a problem. Instead of having an erratic quarterback throwing low-percentage, downfield passes to unreliable receivers, go instead the long hand-off route. Swing passes. Screen game. Smoke routes—all things that get the ball into the receivers hands in the easiest way possible.
Another route to take would be to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers in other ways. Handing the ball off limits the amount of pass-blocking that the offensive line has to do, and it adds some diversity to the offense. This is truly a temporary fix, because LSU, as it has shown this season, does not have a true answer to the quarterback issues it is having.
Every team has a weakness. For some it is a glaring deficiency. For others it is a talent problem that likely will never be solved given the circumstance. Whatever the situation is that creates the weaknesses teams have to work to minimize them in order to succeed this season.