I had a chance to exchange football pleasantries with one of my favorite folks in the college football world this week ahead of the SEC Championship Game. Erik Evans is the manager of Roll ‘Bama Roll, SB Nation’s excellent Alabama site. Erik’s been doing this for about as long as I have, which is not a compliment. He is as knowledgeable, sincere, and entertaining as anyone on the SEC beat, and that damn sure is a compliment.
I asked Erik about the Tide’s few small weaknesses, their sickeningly short injury list, and heavy metal. Check it out.
MD: So far as we know, is Tua reasonably close to 100% healthy? Please say no.
EE: Before last week, I’d have said that he’s not the fully armed and operational battle station we’ve come to expect. After injuring his knee against Arkansas you can tell it was bothering him, even after he had been cleared to play: he wasn’t stepping into his throws, he was overflying receivers relying just on his arm, and he was uncharacteristically quick with the trigger instead of letting plays develop. But, despite coaching claims of him being near 100%, Tua said repeatedly that the bulky knee brace bothered him.
Fast forward to the first half of the Iron Bowl, when he finally ditched the brace and went with a sleeve. There were a few bad throws early, but his mobility seemed to be back (as evidenced when he trucked Jamel Dean on a physical touchdown run, and on several occasions dodging the pass rush). Certainly by the 3rd quarter, his mechanics looked to be picture-perfect again. He was trusting his line, being decisive without rushing, and stepping into his throws. And they were a beaut, Clark.
Soooo, yeah. I’d say he’s fully at 100%.
(At least you didn’t ask me about Quinnen Williams. The recipient of a garbage chop by the Citadel, he was hobbled the rest of that game and practically invisible last week -- and you can’t blame him, the way Auburn was playing, that was a career decision. If that reticence endures this week, it could be almost as bad as a banged up Tua -- UGA is going to test that interior run defense all night.)
MD: The Tide receiving corps is absolutely loaded. Jerry Jeudy has gone over the 1,000 yard mark. Freshman Jaylan Waddle has over 600 yards receiving, as does Henry Ruggs (to go with his 10 touchdowns). Is the media’s focus on Tagovailoa underselling just how deep and talented that group is?
EE: You know, I don’t think that this group is getting undersold on the national level. At least when I listen to the talking heads, it’s always framed in terms of Tagovailoa “and the outstanding sophomore receivers.” Jerry Jeudy is a Biletnikoff finalist. Derek Kief is getting name-dropped. And even our baby Percy Harvin, freshman Jaylen Waddle, is getting noticed.
It’s always nice when a scrappy underdog like Alabama finally gets some positive press!
But, if we’re going to play the disrespect card, let’s go with TE/H-Back Irv Smith Jr. He’s not the world’s greatest blocker (okay, he’s pretty bad at it), but he is an athletic, fast guy with soft hands and a knack for getting open -- very much emblematic of the new breed of NFL pass-catchers like Travis Kelce, Evan Ingram, Jimmie Graham, etc. Irv’s stats this year were comparable to Hockenson and better than Fant’s. But because he’s a deep threat, and because Alabama goes five-deep at pass-catcher, he doesn’t have the same number of grabs as those guys. He and his A&M doppleganger, Jace Sternberger, have been shamefully overlooked. Seriously, how does Sternberger at least not make the cut as a Mackey finalist? But, I digress...
MD: If Quinnen Williams doesn’t personally maul the UGA offense back into the Stone Age, which of your various 310 pound mutants along the front seven is most likely to? I assume Isaiah Buggs could do it on one good knee, but I’m willing to listen to other options.
EE: Alabama got some unexpected good news this week. Terrell Lewis, last seen sacking Jake Fromm in overtime, had an ACL tear earlier in the fall. But he rehabbed like a monster and returned to practice this week. He won’t be an every down player, but he’s a great pass rusher that we’ll see some. His absence has been spelled by the emergence of Christian Miller who has quietly rang up 8 sacks, 11 TFL, and 11 QB hurries.
Isaiah Buggs’ knee injury is a big hit on the line. He came into the Iron Bowl leading the team with 9 1/2 sacks, and was second in TFL. He has been the one to most benefit from Q’s play, and hopefully he’s at 100% (This may surprise you, but Auburn was playing trash, cheap football that led to an ijury.) On the other side, big 6’7” Raekwon Davis is the other obvious player to watch on the line. His productivity has fallen off a cliff,as the strong-side has emerged as a force. Offenses are picking their poison, and that’s been to his detriment. Still, throw in Anfernee Jennings, Dylan Moses, and Mack Wilson too and you have a very good pass-rushing front seven.
MD: Assuming, purely for the sake of argument, that Alabama’s defense has a weakness (despite being ranked 3rd nationally in scoring and 6th in yardage allowed) what would it be? Caring too much? Hitting on 17 at the blackjack table?
EE: C’mon, man. Kirby learned it from Saban, so ‘Dawg fans should know by now that the Process holds on a hard 14. There are some limitations on the defense, and as the in-resident Anti-Gump, I shall enumerate them.
The obvious one is a beat up secondary. The Tide is missing one safety and one corner for the season. Starting dimeback Jared Mayden also decided that he wanted to take off a Barner’s head near the close of the Iron Bowl (understandable, I know.) So, his timeout for targeting makes a thin secondary a bit thinner for a half.
An area that still hasn’t gotten cleaned up is coverage in the linebacking corps. It’s just not a good coverage group, and particularly when they bumble around in zone. Mack Wilson has been especially undisciplined, as witnessed most recently against Auburn when he surrendered a huge play on third down to rush the passer rather than play his coverage.
The depth also isn’t what you’d like to see. There is a significant drop-off between the 1s and the 2s at most positions. It also goes without saying, but the learning curve for Tosh Lupoi at DC has been noticeable: He is not Jeremy Pruitt or Kirby Smart -- yet. But we hold out hope. Finally, the less immediately-noticeable issue is that this team can be ran on; it will take a lot of patience, and a lot of talent, but I think you saw early in the season, and then again with Auburn and the Citadel, that a team willing to run right at the interior can have some success. Now, the latter performances may be constrained by DGAF and being gassed and losing Q. But, it has to be adjusted for, certainly. When was the last time Alabama was merely third in the SEC in rushing defense? Good thing Georgia doesn’t run the ball a lot or anything!
So, for a Top 6 defense, it’s more mortal than you’d expect. Who knew losing eight starters could have such an impact! (Narrator voice: everyone.)
MD: The Tide special teams have occasionally been not-so-special this season (although, goshamighty at the kickoff returns...). Is that a worry in this one, or is the Tide’s decided edge in the other two phases of the game just too overwhelming for the kicking game to make a difference?
EE: Fortunately, Alabama hasn’t really had to rely on punting and playing field position much this year -- you know, playing percentage football. That’s good too, because mercy, has the punting been bad. And, the point-after attempts are ghastly. Alabama has missed eight of them this year. The rest of the conference combined has missed four. LOL. But, that obscures the fact that field goal kicking has been really solid: Bulovas has hit 75% of his attempts this year, 75% over 40, 75% under 40, and he’s 3-for-3 between 40-49 yards. He likes kicking long ones. And that shows too on his kick offs. His strong leg buries the ball near inside the return-tempting 2-3 yard line.
Still, let’s not make this a field goal contest, shall we? I still wake up with goose bumps remembering Andy Pappanastos’ flop-sweat last year.
MD: What is the most plausible scenario that culminates in ‘Bama actually losing this game? Put another way, what would have to go wrong for the Tide not to advance as a 13.5 point (as of this writing) favorite?
EE: It’s really the same formula that has always worked, and I mean, it’s the same one that’s worked against Georgia the past 2-3 years since the teams are so similar: Attack them vertically, force turnovers, equal their physicality, and avoid drive-killing penalties. You have to play loose, play aggressive, and be willing to pop pads for 60 minutes. And, in a new wrinkle against this team, I think you also have to shorten the game -- the latter being the formula that LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State did pretty well for a half. There is almost never too little time on the clock for the ‘Bama offense to move the ball into scoring position, so more than usual, that stout Georgia running game is going to have to earn its pay Saturday.
MD: You understand how much we respect y’all right? Could you make sure Coach Saban knows too?
EE: I tried to relay the message to him, but it was intercepted by Butch Jones carrying an armful of donuts to the coaching lounge. I fear Armani Bear may now believe that Georgia is #DisrespectingTheTide (Ed. note: Dammit.)
MD: If this Alabama team were a metal band, which one would it be?
EE: Interesting question. Under Saban, I’m going to go with Metallica: It’s a name that everyone recognizes. It began as a primal, aggressive bunch but one that has been unafraid to evolve with the times -- and even embrace its softer side. With the adoption of RPOs, the hurry-up, spread option concepts, and boasting the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense, one might even say that they sold out. Yet, after all this time, they’re still topping the charts, so they’re doing something right with the younger generation who remain blissfully unaware of how much brutal fun it was before.
MD: Because I too signed my name in blood in the Book of the Blogger, and thereby pledged fealty to the time-honored Q&A format, what is your score prediction?
EE: I’m not trying to diss the ‘‘Dawgs -- I’m not. It’s the most complete team Alabama will have faced. But I also don’t think this is as good of a matchup as the classic our alma maters played 11 months ago. Alabama hasn’t had a game within 22 points all season, and it’s played three of its last four against Top 10 defenses. The difference is the offense. This offense is a tough road to hoe for a Georgia defense that’s good, but which can be forgiven if it’s overwhelmed by the presence of 5-6 scoring threats on every play and a transcendent player that throws guys open, creates with his legs, exploits every mistake -- and can force other teams into making them. This whole quarterback-having thing is pretty fun, if I’m forced to confess it. So, Georgia gets most of its damage done early fed by a home crowd and big plays; it drives the field a few times; but at the end of the day it can’t match the Tide offense score-for-score as the game settles in. Call it 38-16. Nothing to be ashamed of by either team, but nothing unexpected either.
Thanks again to Erik for his always-thoughtful answers to my questions. If you’d like you can also find my responses to his questions about the Red and Black over at Roll ‘Bama Roll.
By the by......You’ve officially got 24 hours until game time. Use them wisely. And....