As part of our usual preparations for games like the one we've all been waiting all year to see Saturday, when top 15 Alabama comes to town, we asked our friends at Roll Bama Roll a few questions. Erik Evans was nice enough to answer them for us, and you can find more from him at Roll Bama Roll, or on twitter, @gothlaw. Erik asked me a few questions too, and you can catch my answers to them here.
1) It's been almost three years since Bama last won a national title, and six since their last undefeated season. Is it time for a new coach since Nick clearly can't get it done, PAWL? Seriously though, after so much recruiting success under Saban, is there a sense that recent results should be better than they've been, and how do those heightened expectations impact the fans?
Managing unrealistic expectations has become a yearly issue in Tuscaloosa and for Nick Saban specifically. These unrealistic expectations have resulted in things as minor as a patented Saban ass-chewing via press conference, all the way to an absolute willingness to listen to Texas (yes, it happened.) In 2010, after a fairly disappointing 10-3 campaign, those most upset were Nick Saban and the Alabama players. In 2013, with a team that objectively was the best in the nation, the ones who flew the coop were the fans. The reaction to the Auburn loss, a loss aided by poor Alabama coaching by the way, led as much to the Texas back-channeling as anything.
But then something amazing happened: Oddly, the best manager of fan expectations since has not been Saban, it has certainly not been introspection, nor even an objective look at the team relative to its schedule....it's been Ms. Terry -- Nick's wife. The scolding she gave fans after the '13 Iron Bowl really refocused the Alabama base. Last year's squad had absolutely no business winning the SEC with all of its issues re: health, QB questions, defensive losses, etc. I don't know a person on this earth who wasn't giddy after winning the SEC. Was it disappointing to lose to Ohio State in a game the Tide led 21-6? Of course. But, sometimes, after a good red-rawing, you appreciate things more. We loved last season.
This year, Alabama is on the cusp of something special with its defense -- most fans sense that, but there is an undercurrent of impatience when we look at our offensive line issues, WR drops, QB play and uncertain identity.
2) Why has former Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin's offense struggled this season, and what has caused the turnover issues that seem to be plaguing the quarterbacks?
I wouldn't exactly call it "struggling." The Tide rang up 35 or more points, and hit well over 500 yards, against both Wisconsin and Ole Miss, both ranked in the Top 15, both with Top 10 defenses. Are they aesthetic points? Nope. Not even close. But, when viewed against the corpus of the schedule, it is impressive. Know how many points Ole Miss gave up before or after that game? It doesn't total what Alabama put on them. How many points has Wisconsin allowed since being shellacked in Arlington? Three...in three games. There is winning pretty, with the lovely visual of the deep pass, explosive plays, etc. Then, there's just looking up in the 4th quarter and realizing Alabama has somehow reached an ugly 38 points in the game. 2015's squad definitely falls in the latter category.
I guess you're wondering why it's not the "Kiffin, hands in the air, TD" kind of offense, though? The answer is simple, but in three parts: Against two scrubs, Alabama played entirely different offenses, including a wing-t variant; they were scrimmages with uncertain plays and new faces everywhere. The latter addresses point two and three -- the leading returning pass-catcher in 2015 was seldom-used TE OJ Howard. You don't lose a record-setting QB, two NFL offensive linemen, three WRs, including the Heisman runner-up/Biletnikoff winner and get better somehow. Those things have culminated in occasional poor execution in the passing game, which is also attributable to some issues regarding pass rush. This offensive line has not gelled, which has not helped the QBs, and the WR drops have hurt just as badly.
3) Is there a QB controversy in Tuscaloosa?
Absolutely not. Ride or die, this is Jacob Coker's team. For what it's worth, players note they have seen an improvement in his play since he doesn't have to look over his shoulder for Cooper Bateman. But, many of Coker's issues have stemmed from trying to do too much, with too little help, and being put in bad positions by either play-calling, OL play, or down and distance.
Against Ole Miss, in which he almost led a comeback while ailing from the flu, he was brilliant and bone-headedly terrible with the ball in alternate possessions. In the SEC, he ranks 10th in QB efficiency and is second in INTs. That arises from two things. 1. As noted above, the Tide pass-blocking has been less than stellar, with RT Dominck Jackson particularly struggling. 2. Just terrible decisions arising from his preferred blitz checkdown...throw deep into the middle of the field and pray. At least three of his five interceptions have come that way. There's also the intangible confidence factor: He does get down easily. When you give him too much to think about, with routes which take too long to develop, and then a lack of confidence that a receiver will actually come down with the pass, bad things happen. Just last week, three sure TDs were dropped, for instance. In the waning drive of the Ole Miss game, the Tide driving for the win, all three were dropped.
But, against Wisconsin and in the second half of ULM, games in which Alabama moved the pocket, let him use his athleticism and minimize his decision-making he was sharp, accurate, mobile and more than capable of doing damage. Alabama needs those play calls and that Jake Coker. That's a tall order for a team down its best receiver in Robert Foster.
4) The SEC is headlined right now by a trio of elite rushers with two being showcased Saturday, and arguably the best pairing of RBs on any team in the country on the field. Do you want to make a case for why Derrick Henry is better than Nick Chubb and Leonard Fournette? And what makes Henry and Kenyan Drake more dynamic than Georgia's Chubb and Sony Michel?
I am going to get pilloried for this (sort of.) There's actually not much of a difference, and, what difference exists in UGA's favor arises from much weaker competition, better commitment to the run, and the fact that the Dawgs have a better offensive line.
Would I rather have Chubb? Not really, aside from his sheer athleticism. Would I rather have Kenyon Drake over Sonny Michel? Again, not really, aside from Drake's better speed. Flip a coin. These running games are mirror images. Would I rather have the UGA offensive line and schedule? Absolutely. That said, this is Leonard Fournette's world, and for now we're all just living in it.
And, all of THAT said, we're terribly shortchanging Jalen Hurd, who has a dummy for a coach, and Alex Collins, who has no passing game to help, right? We won't even bring up Peyton Barber, who for all of his limited abilities and a dummy HC, may be the best player on the API offense at the moment. It's just a great year for SEC running backs.
5) In a matchup of strength vs. strength, does the Crimson Tide run defense need to load the box against Georgia's backs? Does Georgia have to be able to hit Malcolm Mitchell and others over the top to have a chance to win as Ole Miss did with their big plays?
Alabama does not need to load the box against the impressive Georgia running game, and can actually play its base defense for a change. The Tide defensive line goes legitimately nine-deep, of those, seven are coveted by the NFL. We know about A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, Jarren Reed, etc. But, the linchpin of the Tide's run defense will be true freshman Daron Payne. This kid came in and stoned double-teams against Wisconsin. He's a future All-American and a monster. If, for some reason, a hole is developing, then All-American Reggie Ragland, who may have the best nose for the run anywhere in the country, is waiting in the middle...with Rashaan Evans, Shaun Dion Hamilton, the hateful Reuben Foster, etc. Take your pick -- this is the best front seven in football and can shut down the run, any run, with those guys.
As for hitting players over the top? I don't think UGA has to have success in the deep passing game to win. Georgia can win by physically getting ahead of the chains, being creative with getting Michel in space, mixing it up and hitting the edge with Chubb and Marshall, and above all by nickel and diming their way with TEs, short slants, quick outs, etc. Those are all things that Ole Miss, Auburn, A&M, Kentucky, and the other high school lunatics in the SEC cannot do. In case you missed it, I respect Georgia's commitment to honest, balanced, fundamentally well-coached football.
This will be a war up front. I am terribly aroused.
6) Junior Adam Griffith missed his first four field goal attempts this season before making good on his most recent three tries. When combined with a punter who's averaging under 40 yards per kick, is special teams an area of concern Saturday? Or containing Isaiah McKenzie in the return game?
Alabama's special teams are...special.
Adam Griffith, now in his junior year, played all of last season, and part of this one, with a busted back. Can you imagine trying to kick with a busted vertebrae? He has a great mental space, a strong leg, and has looked excellent the past two weeks. I'm really, honestly not worried about him now. JK Scott, considered the best punter in America going into this season, has been of greater concern. For whatever reason, he tweaked his mechanics in the offseason, and the results have been less than stellar. An error in what should be a field position game could be the difference in the game.
The return game terrifies us the most, I'd think. Alabama has given up freebies since special teams "coach" Bobby Williams started suckling at the Saban teat in 2008. Isaiah McKenzie is obviously the biggest concern. Scott will have to be on his game with directional punts; Griffith will need to bury the KOs; the return teams will have to hold the point of attack and clog the lanes; and, above all, the Tide's penchant for weird turnovers must be eliminated.
As for Alabama's return game? It's practically been non-existent this season. One without turnovers, and one where Cyrus Jones knows where he's at on the field when he fair catches a ball, would be both optimal and a huge improvement.
UGA holds a tremendous advantage in special teams play.
7. And, lastly, a game and score prediction?
Alabama cannot fall behind in this game by more than a touchdown and it cannot lose the turnover battle. It is that simple. The crowd will be ridiculous, the competition equal, the stakes so high for the Tide. So, the following is predicated on an equal +/- turnover ratio: When the adrenaline breaks down, and it's a slogging 60 minute affair that will be won or lost in the trenches, we know how Jake Coker responds, how he plays, what are his strengths and weaknesses. We know nothing about Greyson Lambert and how he will respond if the game is put in his hands against one of the best defenses in the country. If he's ahead of the chains? Richt will dial up plays to help him succeed. But, will a run-first UGA be ahead of the chains enough to help him with his short passing game? That's a greater question.
I expect UGA will get explosive plays, particularly with the TEs and moving Michel around. The heart and soul of this offense (both of them) is on the ground. And I do not think UGA can win that battle. The Dawgs move the ball well between the 20s but have to settle for FGs instead of TDs. Alabama, meanwhile, isn't as consistent, but has a few excellent drives, especially late, that outpace the Dawgs' efforts. In the end, the Judas Goat of Alabama PK Adam Griffith earns redemption in the 4th, and Alabama hangs on to an old-fashioned, nasty smashmouth 17-16 win.