State of the SEC West: The Contenders, Part Two of Three—Alabama
My continuance of a three-part series discussing the LSU Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Auburn Tigers as candidates for the SEC West title. Part Two.
The Crimson Tide are the easy pick as a wild card in the West during the early part of this season. Everyone has said that next year is the year they'll be ready. I must agree.
Though they look awfully good right now, let's remember that they haven't won a game in November since 2006. The Tide always starts hot. It's the second half of the season that always nips at the heels of the Tide and inevitably brings them down.
The question has been about one thing the last couple of years in Tuscaloosa: depth—or lack thereof, rather. The Tide has the talent in its starters to hang with just about anyone...but not enough talent/experience in its backups.
With the addition of Nick Saban as head coach, Alabama has played younger and younger guys—freshmen who fit the system or simply outplay their older counterparts. Saban doesn't discriminate with age. This explains why 15 freshmen have already played through the first four games of this season for the Crimson Tide.
If Alabama stays healthy for the rest of the season (as they have been nearly without injury so far this season, which is unheard of) and the freshmen continue to play at a high level without making key mistakes, the Tide, just like LSU, could run the table. That road won't be easy.
Here, I will give special focus to the UA/UGA game since it is the game of the week.
Alabama has to face No. 3 Georgia in Athens this week. Georgia is one of the best all-around teams in the country and may be the best in the SEC. We will find out this weekend where both teams stand.
The thing that ultimately dropped the Bulldogs from first to third wasn't lackadaisical play on their part—it was the injuries they have suffered in the trenches. Their best offensive and defensive linemen were both lost to start the season (Sturdivant and Owens, respectively).
The game all starts with the trench warfare going on up front. If Georgia can't block NT "Mount" Cody with freshman Ben Jones and a fellow double-teamer, they will be forced keep the ball outside, which they will do with screens and sweeps to Knowshon Moreno anyway.
But what happens when Georgia needs a crucial 3rd-and-2? The Tide will surely be ready for a call that won't involve the A-gap. Thus, the play of the UA linebackers will have a lot to do with how the Tide performs.
Georgia has a special weapon outside of Moreno and backup Caleb King, though. They have a man named Stafford. The kid will force corners to keep close coverage throughout the game, putting yet more pressure on the linebackers in the flats and over the short middle of the field.
If the corners allow the WRs of Georgia to slip behind them at all, expect Matt Stafford to heave it as far as he has to without hesitation—and he has the rifle arm to do it, too. Don't forget about the WR play of the Bulldogs either. True freshman A.J. Green has been superior early on, while senior Mohamed Massaquoi solidly goes about his business.
The key for the Georgia offense is to gain solid yardage on the ground to open up that passing game, and to make sure Stafford doesn't throw picks. But the Alabama defense should be ready for whatever they throw at them. The Tide is young on D, but they're smart and quick.
Alabama will face the same issues as Georgia, except with more question marks. Among them: 1) Will they be able to rack up 200 yards on the ground against a super fast Georgia D? Probably not, but 125-150 are needed.
2) Will they be able to throw the ball around in this new offense when they're forced to? There have been moments of promise and moments for concern. Julio needs to break out, and JPW needs to be consistent and accurate.
Another question is whether the Bulldog defense, which is built for speed to play against spread attacks such as that used by East Division rival Florida, can handle an Alabama offense that runs straight at them and punches them in the mouth.
Can Georgia be physical enough in their front seven to slow this Alabama rushing attack? The answer is unpredictable. I think Alabama will get the 140 yards they need. Their offensive line is too good and the backs are too strong not to reach at least the century mark in rushing yardage. However, Georgia has the No. 1 rush defense in the SEC (guess who is second...the Tide).
This game essentially comes down to the overall offense and special teams of each squad. Both teams have great coaching: Richt is underrated and Saban is of the Parcells camp (along with Belichick and co.).
The advantage of offense goes to Georgia. They are more proven on both sides of the ball. But the special teams advantage goes to Alabama. Expect Julio to return kicks with Arenas again this week.
Though less proven, Alabama has shown more character and confidence this year and may just surprise with an upset in Athens. Time will tell, and it will be fun to watch.
I have to pick Georgia by one score in this game. They're more proven. Provided their offensive line can adequately support the rest of the offense, they should pull this one out. If they can't...who knows?
As far as Alabama's West crown hopes go after facing the Bulldogs, it's important to note that that dreaded month of November includes a road game vs. LSU and a season-ender against hated rival Auburn.
I spoke already about the LSU game when I dissected LSU in Part One of this little mini-series. In case you missed it, I picked LSU in a close one. I will better predict the outcome of that game after seeing what both UA and UGA are really made of this week.
The Auburn contest will be even tougher to predict than the LSU and Georgia games because Auburn has even more question marks than Alabama. It is a home game, which is good for the Tide faithful. Another loss to Auburn might break the hearts of those who bleed Houndstooth.
The questions Auburn doesn't have to answer: the defense. No matter how they appeared against LSU, they are as solid as ever. Tony Franklin's offense better start putting points on the board and the line better start blocking in order to keep the defense off the field so much.
That's how bad that offense is at Auburn: They not only screw themselves, they screw the usually stellar defense too. It won't be long until they're putting the ball in the hands of those stable backs 30-plus times per game again.
Tuberville's patience is about to wear out. Auburn doesn't have the ideal personnel or the mentality to run the spread. They need to get back to what makes Auburn, Auburn.
Who knows how both Alabama and Auburn will end up come Nov. 29, but if I had to pick a team to win now, it would easily be Alabama. But it is early, oh so early in the SEC season.
Alabama's record prediction: 10-2 (6-2)
Part Three will be tomorrow, concerning the Auburn Tigers.
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