Welcome to the 2015 edition of the world-famous “What to Watch For” from the Bama Lighthouse! I figure if Fat Johnnie can claim world-famous status with their red-hot hot dogs then we here at the Lighthouse can place the same claim on our What to Watch For! According to the handy-dandy metrics that are provided by the Lighthouse site, our readers truly span the globe as we’ve been read from California to Japan and numerous places in between. Can Fat Johnnie say the same? We think not! So, please accept this sincere paragraph of gratitude to our illustrious readers! Our readership continues to grow and for that, we thank you. So, welcome back – and thank God for football season!
Alabama vs Wisconsin
The national pundits have Alabama’s 2015 schedule ranked as the toughest schedule in the nation and, believe it or not, Wisconsin is a significant factor in that ranking. While most Bama fans will pooh-pooh the matchup with Wisky, our super smart and learned readers will know better. Listen, I don’t want to Badger you all with a bunch of stats and stuff, but I do have to mention a few noteworthy items. For instance, did you know that Wisconsin and Alabama are two of only five programs that have averaged 10 wins per year over the last six seasons? Or, did you know that Alabama has never beaten Wisconsin (ok, we lost 15-0 to Wisky in 1928 which is the only time these two teams have met). And, did you know that under QB Joel Stave the Badgers went 8-1 over their final nine games last year? The only loss was that abysmal 59-0 trouncing by Ohio State but it turned out that Ohio State was pretty good last year.
As a quick aside, we were walking into the Superdome to see the Bama playoff game last year after watching Wisconsin upset Auburn in overtime. It dawned on me that everything that I had assumed the game and about Ohio State was based on Wisconsin being a bad football team. And, everything that I had assumed about Alabama was based on the SEC West being the greatest football conference in all the land. But, as I walked into the Dome, it dawned on me that Wisconsin should have beaten LSU last year and they did beat Auburn – two teams that Alabama struggled with to say the least. And, oh by the way, Ohio State worked Wisconsin over like nothing I’ve seen before which meant Ohio State was infinitely better than what I was giving them credit for. The rest, as they say, is history as Ohio State ended our dreams of a 16th national championship.
But, back to Wisconsin. This IS your father’s Wisconsin team that you have been accustomed to seeing since the dawn of the Barry Alvarez era. New coach Paul Chryst played for Alvarez and was the OC for Bret Bielema during their Rose Bowl runs with Russell Wilson and Scott Tolzien – both of whom are now in the NFL. Chryst’s style is the classic ground and pound Wisconsin style which should play into the hands of Bama’s vaunted Rip-Tide front seven. How will it turn out? Closer than we want it to be, but let’s take a look at how we will devour these cheeseheads…
Alabama on Offense
This section is honestly deserving of its very own lengthy article. First, I’ll ask you to take a moment and step back from the screen and ask yourself this question: what is Alabama’s offensive identity? The stated identity is that we want to be a physical team that people fear. The actual identity of last year’s offense was anything but that. Last year’s team passed for 278 yards a game while running for 207 – a shocking development considering that Blake Sims’ best attribute going into the season was his legs. Last season, Lane Kiffin’s offense posted some incredible stats but his play calling consistently left fans muttering “why didn’t we run the ball more?” Running the football isn’t exactly Lane’s forte and it’s certainly not the way you show the world how well you can develop a QB. With Lane wanting to be a head coach again, it would be far more impressive for his resume if he were to turn Jake Coker, Cooper Bateman or Alec Morris into Peyton Manning. So, one of my many questions about this year’s Bama offense is whether or not Lane Kiffin be happy running the football?
Most Tide fans that call into the talk shows or post on the message boards are expecting Alabama to very literally run the ball right over the little Badgers from Wisconsin. Well, defensively Wisky employs a very sound 3-4 defense that does an outstanding job with their run fits. They simply don’t allow many creases for opposing running backs to exploit. Last year, LSU gained a paltry 2.7 yards per carry against the plucky Badgers. And before you blow this stat off, please realize that LSU averaged more rushing yardage than Alabama did last season. Oh, and just another little tidbit for you – most pundits believe Wisconsin’s defense will actually be better this year.
Do Run, Run, Run: The best thing Alabama can do for the inexperienced Coker/Bateman/Morris/Cornwell/Barnett/Namath is to run the football. Bama’s OL is anchored by the best left tackle in football (Cam Robinson) and one of the best centers in college football in Ryan Kelly. However, the Tide will trot out three new starters at LG, RG and RT. Additionally, Alabama doesn’t appear to have a true blocking TE (I do miss you, Michael Williams) or a true blocking FB (where hath you gone Jalston Fowler) so I have to question Alabama’s ability to run the football. It will not be easy, even with Alabama averaging 6’5, 313 across the front.
Dowhatchalike: You don’t need to have a Digital Underground network to know that Lane Kiffin would prefer throwing the football. In this game, we do believe in order to move the football Kiffin is going to be required to find some throws that (insert QB name here) can complete because grounding and pounding simply will not work without the threat of a pass. Look for Alabama to use 3 & 4 wide receiver sets to spread out the Badger defense and get them out of their vaunted 3-4 defense. Once Wisky slides into a nickel or dime set, look for Henry to find more creases in the line. Ohio State and Auburn had success running the football out of spread formations so look for Alabama to do the same, particularly since Alabama doesn’t have a blocking TE or true FB.
Running on Empty: Now, you do realize that if Alabama cannot blast thru the 3-4 or the odd 2-2-7 formations, then your worst nightmare will be coming true. An offensive line that is better at run blocking will be asked to pass block. A lot. A QB who wasn’t good enough to separate himself from a pack of QBs will be asked to carry this pack of Elephants on his back – or, rather, his right arm. And, he’ll be throwing to a passel of inexperienced wide receivers who may or may not be running the right routes. If Alabama isn’t able to just throw when they want to but are instead throwing because they have to, then this will not be a pretty sight. Alabama will be forced to win this thing on defense and special teams (and this is a logical scenario).
One on One, I Wanna Play that Game Tonight: Wisky likes to crash their safeties down to the line of scrimmage – it’s what makes their run fits so constricting. But, in order to do that, it forces their corners to play a ton of man to man coverage. At the scrimmage, Bama’s receivers were having difficulty separating from bump and run coverage so it will be imperative that they win at the line of scrimmage. Look for ArDarius Stewart to win a lot of his one on one battles outside (though both of the Badger corners are said to be outstanding).
Offensive Players to Watch
- ArDarius Stewart – Stewart is fast, shifty and has excellent hands. We saw him emerge as a playmaker last season and we suspect that he’ll lead the team in catches from the wide receiver position.
- Kenyan Drake – Drake is fully recovered from his leg injury and is just as fast as he ever was. Kiffin had grandiose plans for Drake to become his new Reggie Bush and we think that getting Drake out in space against the Badgers will be a key element of the game plan.
- OJ Howard – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but OJ Howard should be a difference maker at TE as he will absolutely own any individual matchups against the Badgers in the passing game. The real question for this game and this season is whether or not his inadequacies as a blocker can somehow be overcome. Simply put, if he can’t block then he’s going to become too much of a liability to put out there. And, you can’t just put him in on passing downs b/c the offense would become entirely too predictable. Thinking about this as I type – OJ Howard is THE pivotal player on the team this season. His success or failure as a blocking TE in the running game will determine how far this offense can go.
- Dominick Jackson – You may not be familiar with Jackson’s work but he’s an absolute wrecking ball when he blocks for the running game. He’s not nearly as adept as a pass blocker but when he’s run blocking, there’s carnage. He’s fun to watch…
- Richard Mullaney – I suspect #16 will show up more than a few times. He’s gained the confidence of the QBs and has shown outstanding hands in camp. During the scrimmage, Chris Black was limited so Mullaney got the reps and impressed.
- Damien Harris – Get used to this name and this kid. This true freshman is ahead of every single back that Nick Saban has had at this age.
Final Offensive Thoughts
None of the offenses that I watched last night seemed to be clicking on many cylinders, and that is very typical of the first game of the season. Between having a new QB, new WRs, three new offensive lineman and going up against a top ranked defense, I’d say it should be a low scoring affair for the Tide. The only way this changes is if the defense/special teams puts up points or if Bama finds a quarterback who can succeed in the passing game. Wisky just isn’t a wall of balsa wood – they play tough D. Last year, Blake Sims had an average QBR rating of 84. Last season Wisconsin held opposing QBs to a miniscule 34 QBR (and they are said to be better this year). Kids, they play very good defense.
Alabama on Defense
This is where Alabama is expected to dominate the game as if they were Rhonda Rousey in the ring with you or me! With a front seven that boasts a two deep of at least a dozen future NFL stars, Alabama should absolutely be able to slam the door shut on the Badger running game and that’s the key to defeating Wisconsin. Paul Chryst was the OC for Scott Tolzien and Russell Wilson so he knows how to make his QB successful – a trait that he’ll certainly need this season. Senior QB Joel Stave completed just 53% of his passes in 2014 after completing 62% the year before. Frankly put, Stave was awful last year. In his four matchups against ranked opponents Stave completed 49.5% of his throws and threw more picks than touchdowns so while Chyrst has had the Midas touch in years gone by, he’ll damn near need to be Goldfinger with Stave.
The focal point of their attack will come from 5’11, 215 lb Corey Clement, who is yet another in a long line of successful Wisconsin running backs. He has very good strength and is very fast, as well. As the Bama D constricts around the Wisky running game, the Badgers will have to take to the air to move the ball. Their WRs do not possess elite speed but they do have much more size than the Bama DBs. Jordan Fredrick is 6’4, Robert Wheelwright is 6’3 and they’ll split out their QB turned safety, turned WR, Tanner McEvoy who is 6’6! If Alabama gets hurt in the passing game, it will be because of the height of the Badger receivers. We all know jump balls are not our friend and this is a group that can snag some jump balls.
Thankfully, Wisconsin is trotting out three lambs to slaughter along the offensive line. That’s right, three Badger newbies will be making their first start against what is considered to be the best defensive line in college football (and in the NFC South). Alabama will likely be asked to play their favored 3-4 defense throughout the game and, unless Chryst is feeling plucky, the Tide should be able to substitute the way that Nick likes (Wisconsin typically does not use a hurry up offense). Therefore, the strengths of the Alabama defense should negate the strengths of the Badger offense and the Tide will force Wisky to put the ball in the air all night long. With Stave chucking it around, it’s quite literally a 50/50 proposition how any pass will turn out.
Highway to Hell: Wisconsin running back Corey Clement is used to seeing huge open highways in front of him as he averages 7 yards per carry. However, with Bama’s front seven slaughtering the Badger lambs, Clement should be on the highway to hell Saturday night. Look for some knockout shots from Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland to get you up out of your seats!
All Night Long: A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed should absolutely dominate. All. Night. Long.
Thunderstruck: The one concern I have in the running game is asking former corners Geno Smith and Eddie Jackson to come down in run support. They won’t bring the hammer like Landon Collins or Mark Barron. In fact, I have images of Roman Harper getting body slammed by Darren McFadden in my head. Suffice it to say, Jackson and Smith haven’t been asked to take on many 220 lb backs in their careers.
Right Round: Wisconsin’s offense shouldn’t offer up many opportunities for Rashaan Evans or Tim Williams to get into the game. However, on third and longs look for this dynamic pass rushing duo to spin the Badger tackles right round like a record…
I Wish I Was a Little Bit Taller: Cyrus Jones is our best cover corner but if he’s matched against the 6’6 McEvoy then that won’t matter a bunch. In fact, this is one of the taller sets of wide receivers Jones has faced so it will be interesting to see how many fades and back shoulder passes he’s asked to defend.
Defensive Players to Watch
- Ryan Anderson and Denzell Devall are going to be huge, huge factors in this game. They’ll be responsible for the edge and Wisky does love to run fly sweeps with their receivers and second string backs. They can be deadly so holding the edge will be huge.
- Marlon Humphrey will get his first start at corner and I suspect he’ll be tested. He looked good during the scrimmages so look for him to make a play.
- Surprisingly, Daron Payne is expected to see a decent amount of time at nose tackle during this game. He and Darren Lake may get more than their usual number of opportunities to make some plays. They won’t see the light of day against spread teams but they’ll be heavily (pun intended) counted on against the likes of Wisconsin, LSU and Arkansas.
- Reuben Foster looked outstanding at the scrimmage and this will be the type of game that will show him off to the world. Look out world!
- Any defensive watch list has to include Reggie Ragland, who has become the next great Bama linebacker. This game will suit his skills perfectly.
Final Defensive Thoughts
This one is a lot easier to predict than the Bama offense. The Tide defense should shut down Wisconsin’s running game and force them to become what they are not – a passing team. When forced to pass, their best bet is to throw the ball up in the air and let one of their Frisbee catching trees go up and get it. That’s a tough way to make a living but I think it should be good for a few points.
Wisconsin is the type of club who gives you nothing. You have to earn every yard and every point because they are extremely sound defensively. Thankfully, Alabama’s defense should get an opportunity to go back in time and conjur up thoughts of the 2011 defense because the style of this game should be perfect for them. You need an exceptional line and exceptional quarterback to threaten the 2015 Bama defense and Wisconsin has neither.
Two weeks ago, Nick Saban said this year’s team will have to win games on the strength of their defense and special teams because the offense was going to run the ball and focus on not turning the ball over. Alabama can play this style of game and beat Wisconsin simply because Wisconsin won’t be able to move the football or score a lot of points. Look for a sluggish game from the offense but a dominant performance from the defense.
Final Score: Alabama 20 Wisconsin 10