With Clemson finally in New Orleans for Sugar Bowl prep we’ve begun to turn our attention to Alabama. Once again the guys over at Roll Bama Roll were kind enough to answer a few questions. Erik sat down to give us some excellent answers on the state of Alabama football this year.
STS: So for someone who hasn't seen much of Alabama this year, how would you describe the 2017 version of the Crimson Tide?
RBR: An unfinished product. In the offseason, Saban noted that this team had the potential to be "very, very good," but it came with a caveat: the offense would have to lead the way while the defense found itself. After placing nine members of the front seven in the NFL over the past two years, the team's leaders were going to be a deep linebacking corps and a veteran secondary. The secondary has lived up to its end of the bargain, but a preseason injury to mammoth DL Raekwon Davis, injuries to DEs DaShawn Hand and LaBryan Ray, and then losing seven linebackers over the season, has resulted in patchwork lineups and scheming from one week to the other. Add to that new OC Brian Daboll trying to mesh the pro spread with the spread option, learn his way as a playcaller, and then teach Jalen Hurts how to be a passer, and it seems like it's been a season of a dozen spring games. I would argue that no one knows what this team really is, even in January of 2018.
STS: Watching the Iron Bowl, one thing that struck me as odd was how many self-inflicted errors Alabama committed. Has that been the norm this year or was the Iron Bowl just a bit of an oddity?
RBR: Since Alabama resumed playing Auburn in 1948, and particularly since 1993 when the series moved to home-and-homes, what you saw is what you get. Close to 80% of the time, the favored team wins the rivalry. But, it's the doozies, the named Iron Bowls, that Auburn usually wins. You can set your clock to it: About every three or four meetings, and especially in Auburn, Alabama will implode. Let's not sell Auburn short either: That is a very good team that is coached well: Malzahn did a great job converting every small Alabama mistake (and those of Georgia, for that matter) into points as well as manufacturing his own breaks. For all the reputation of the Swamp or Death Valley, there is no tougher meaningful road game than the one in Jordan-Hare. It was anomaly for the season, but was anticipated, if not predictable, in the longer series history.
STS: One of the big questions this offseason was how Jalen Hurts would progress as a QB, especially with making reads and staying in the pocket to throw the ball. Has he improved in that this year or is the key to beating Hurts to contain him and force him to make a throw?
RBR: Good luck forcing him to throw. Seriously, he's 27 starts deep into his Alabama career and he's still gun-shy about pulling the trigger. He's gotten some knock for not looking at his secondary receivers, but this year he's not had consistent help in that department either. I just don't think the unit is executing very well: They don't get off the jams as well as their size would suggest and too many don't come back to the ball. Nor are they as physical as in years' past. When Calvin Ridley has been covered up or is bracketed, they have had inopportune drops or inexplicable mental errors. This team misses Coach Billy Napier. Aside from that, Hurts has done a better job of going through his reads this season...to some extent. The offense is more focused on intermediate passing than throwing those balls close to the LOS, and he's learning how to read defenses with varying degrees of success. But, that takes us back to the first sentence: Hurts is so risk-averse that it sometimes seems like he has to be invited to throw. It's hard to get a read on his progression when he won't trust his arm.
STS: Y'all have had a lot of injuries, especially at LB, what is Alabama's injury outlook heading into the Sugar Bowl.
RBR: Injury God giveth, Injury God taketh away. Even as Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis are returning, and Hand, Rashaan Evans, and others are getting healthy, Alabama lost senior Strong Safety Hootie Jones. Superstar LB in waiting, Dylan Moses, is also gone for the year. And, then there was the brutal blow, losing Shaun Dion Hamilton for a second-straight season-ending injury. The offense is mainly healthy, with swing-back Joshua Jacobs finally healthy after a season-long hamstring that limited him. And it looks like LG Ross Pierschbacher is healthy again (He was concussed in the Iron Bowl.) So, the Tide is down two starters and one key contributor, all on defense, and maybe have two lingering injuries on offense, but those seem to be corrected now. Considering where this team was two months ago, I'll take it.
STS: For the third year in a row now we are discussing a member of the Crimson Tide coaching staff leaving. The first time around it didn't seem to affect Alabama, last year not so much. Do you see any issues with Pruitt's new job at Tennessee affecting this game?
RBR: Actually, no. Pruitt has done a very good job of not trying to coach two teams out of one office. He was absent for the better part of a week early in the prep period. But, those were the practices that Alabama had blocked out for back-to-basics position camps and the other coaches concentrated on fundamentals drills. When it was time to move beyond individual groups to game-planning for this one, Pruitt was back in business and dialed in. The obvious analogy is that of Kirby Smart's departure. But, honestly, this one feels much more like Jim McElwain leaving following the 2011 BCS Championship -- you know he's half-gone, but it's not been distracting either. It also helps that this is still Nick Saban's defense: Jeremy Pruitt learned it from him. Pruitt is still the padawan looking up to our Obi Wan.
STS: What's your big concern from Clemson's offense in this game?
RBR: Besides pick plays? (I kid...not really...I kind of mean it.) Seriously, the key to beating Alabama, aside from a having a stifling defensive line, has been, remains, and will likely always be about having an accurate quarterback that can extend plays and hit vertical passes. Deshaun Watson was about the worst possible matchup for a Nick Saban defense. Not only did he possess a skills set uniquely tailored to beat Alabama, he also had some of the best performances of his career when it mattered the most. Kelly Bryant has that mobility in spades, and he has the big arm you'd fear. He's not a generational talent like Watson is, but that doesn't mean he can't be put in position to succeed. With Alabama's LB corps only now trying to find some chemistry, and with the Tide down a safety, I think Clemson doesn't really need to reinvent the wheel for this game (nor will it.) It can work with it what it has and with what the offense does well already: Pound the ball, play the first three quarters to win the fourth, let Bryant make plays with his legs, hit deep shots when the defense breaks down, play smart, and take chances when they're there. Call it selective assassination; call it good-old-fashioned high-percentage football; call it playing within the offense. In either case, these two teams will probably attack one another the same way. It's not the high contrast of, say, 2015: These squads look a lot alike in 2017.
STS: If you're Brent Venables how do you attack the Alabama offense this year?
RBR: I would attack it the same way that other teams have tried to do (LSU and Auburn did it the best): play disciplined at the line of scrimmage and from sideline to sideline; when pressure comes, overload the right side, where the linemen are little heavier-footed; try and get pressure with just the defensive front; bracket Calvin Ridley; take away the deep post and cheap scores; make Jalen Hurts beat you with five- and six-yard pickups consistently for four quarters. Still, that's easier said than done. For all of our grumbling, Alabama's offense is extremely well-balanced: It is 10th in the country, 6th in S&P+ passing. The running game, sitting at 14th, has been the "underperforming" unit, and that's more a function of having Hurts pass more this season and Daboll learning his craft.
STS: Watching film, one thing that has struck me about Alabama, and I really hesitate to say this because I know what Saban is like when he has time to prepare, is that they seem almost vulnerable in a way you normally don't associate with Alabama. Is that accurate? Or is it just a function of Alabama's loss coming against the best team they've played to date?
RBR: Despite Alabama playing its worst game in two years, Auburn wasn't the best team Alabama faced in 2017. The best team, top-to-bottom, was a completely healthy FSU with 9 months to prepare. An injury to Deandre Francois against Alabama ruined their season (then, Jimbo basically mailed it in by October.) After the FSU player revolt, I think you saw the last two games what the 'Noles can do when they give a damn: They were devastating. That throat-clearing aside, there is vulnerability this season, to be sure. And they're not latent issues either. In addition to a third offense in three years, and three offensive coordinators in 11 months, the passing game has been a season-long work in progress. On the defensive side of the ball, the team has missed far too many tackles this season for comfort. And, like Clemson, the kick and punt return games are basically nonexistent. The former is something to just be worked through with time; the defense is a function of keeping a rotation healthy enough to develop chemistry; and the latter -- well, I've got nothing. Still, having vulnerabilities and being able to exploit them are very different things; Alabama remains its own worst enemy. Against teams with comparable talent, it must eliminate the season-long execution errors arising at the worst times. And that has been the most frustrating part of 'Bama mistakes. Players are usually there, they just look mortal.
STS: Three important questions, Are you going to be flying OJ Howard in, has Alabama been told Hunter Renfrow is on Clemson's team, and did refs call any holding against y'all?
RBR: 1. No, Howard won't show up. After being underworked at Alabama, he is letting Jameis Winston waste his career (seriously, how do you only target that guy 20 times in 16 games? He saw more work in Crimson.) But, there is a kid named Irv Smith to keep an eye on: He's got great hands, great speed, and is already more physical than Howard, if not the athletic freak that OJ is. 2. Everyone is well aware of Hunter Renfrow. Hunter Renfrow loves false metal. Hunter Renfrow drinks Pepsi for the taste. Hunter Renfrow thinks a taco is a sandwich. Hunter Renfrow prefers the 2013 reboot of Red Dawn. He is, in short, a monster and he should feel bad. But, since there's not a certain CB with his head already in the NFL draft, I expect coverage to be better this year, with Minkah Fitzpatrick manning him up in most nickel situations. 3. Tough question. Lemme check the stats. Yep. Alabama has been called for more holds than the number of times Clemson has been flagged for offensive pass interference, if that's the question.
STS: Finally, what's your feeling about the game this year?
RBR: Clemson is moving slower this year; about 7-8 fewer plays per game than last season. It's also running the ball more with a deeper, if not more talented, stable of backs. Alabama has been working on getting back to basics: running game, putting the QB in manageable situations, playing well at the point of attack. This game is going to be much closer to vest than the last two. The total is 47, and that seems a little high, to be honest. The Auburn-Clemson game should be a good preview of this one: a really physical, one-score affair decided by which team can establish the run and get the occasional long-ish play in the passing game. Round Three will be a very different, but no less enjoyable, game than the first two bouts. For old-school football enthusiasts, it may be the best of the bunch too.