Sugar Bowl Preview: What to Look for From a Weakened Alabama Offense

Ingram WorleyCorrespondent IDecember 30, 2008

On Sunday afternoon, I sat down to put together an article on how I felt Alabama would be able to attack the Utah defense in the Sugar Bowl this Friday. 

At the time, Alabama's game plan seemed pretty easy to predict. 

I felt Alabama would stick with between-the-tackle running plays, mixed with some play-action to take advantage of certain one-on-one matchups in the secondary.  Alabama would depend on the ground game to wear down Utah's defensive front. 

Without a doubt, Alabama's strongest point was the offensive line, and I felt that would be the difference in the game.

What a change a day can make. 

On Monday came the troubling suspension of All-American Andre Smith.  Regardless of Alabama's depth on the offensive line, the removal of the cornerstone of the line would have an affect.  By all accounts, Andre Smith is the best lineman in the country.   

The knee-jerk reaction to the news was to go back and look at the one game this year that Alabama played without Smith.

In a 20-6 victory against Tulane in Tuscaloosa, Alabama had by far its worst offensive output of the season.  As much as I would like to chalk this up to coincidence, common sense says otherwise.

However, a closer look at the statistics in the game showed that Alabama's air attack suffered more than the running game. 

Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram combined for 20 carried for 119 yards-nearly six yards per carry. 

John Parker Wilson, on the other hand, could only manage a meager 73 yards through the air, completing 11 passes in 23 attempts. 

Looking back at the game, what I remember above all else was the pressure applied to Wilson.  Without question, he was harassed more in that game than any other this season.  

Obviously, if your backs are ripping off six yards per carry, you would assume that the team would ride that trend and run the ball 40 or more times.  Alabama did not. 

The tailbacks ran the ball a season-low 20 times, which leads me to believe that Smith's absence resulted in a change in the game plan.  Without him, Alabama felt they needed to force the ball into the air.

Therein lies the question: what did Alabama learn from this?

I assume that the brain trusts in Tuscaloosa and Utah have taken a hard look at the film from the Tulane game.  If Utah expects a similar offensive game plan to the one Alabama brought to the Tulane game, I believe that they will be mistaken. 

I expect Alabama to stick with the bread and butter of the offense and run the ball-maybe even more than usual.  Chances are that Utah's plan on defense has been amended for the loss of Smith. 

I would guess that the Utes will not commit as many defensive players to the box, and focus a bit more on Julio Jones, attempting to limit his touches. 

I will not pretend that the loss of Smith creates any sort of advantage for Alabama.  However, the offense should have a chance to capitalize on the change in focus. 

If Alabama can stick with the running game, I think they will have a chance to move the ball and force Utah to defend the middle, which could open up the outside again. 

I believe if the statistics at game's end show Alabama putting the ball in the air 30-plus times, they will lose.  If Coffee and Ingram combine to carry the ball less than 25 times, I don't like Alabama's chances. 

Everyone expects that the loss of the devastating run-blocking of Andre Smith will force Alabama to "open it up".  I expect the opposite.

Therefore, Alabama needs to surprise everyone by changing nothing, as odd as that may sound.

I've heard it said that it is wise to "dance with the one that brought you."  Here's to hoping that Alabama takes this saying to heart. 

As an afterthought, I checked to see what the Smith suspension may have changed in the Las Vegas point spread. 

What was the loss of Smith worth in points?  Two? Three? More? The answer surprised me.  The line on the game is the same now as it was on Sunday. 

Is this some sort of oversight?  It is not as if the Smith suspension is secret information.  Therefore, what are we to take it to mean that the betting line did not move because of this breaking news? 

Everyone can form their own opinion on this.  My opinion is that this loss will not have nearly the affect that many people think it will.

If Alabama can "stick to their guns," I believe they leave New Orleans with a double-digit victory.