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January 2, 2014
Under the Hood: Collision in the Crescent City
Oklahoma, returning to New Orleans for the first time since the heart breaking national title game in January of 2004, is set to take on fellow historic program, Alabama, in a game that could play not only a huge role in the perception of their season but also in where the program is on the national scale. The two long-time powerhouses are both ranked in the BCS top 15 with the Sooners ranked No. 11 while sporting a 10-2 record meanwhile the Crimson Tide stand at 11-1 and is currently No. 3 in the BCS standings. The last time the Tide and Sooners met was Sept. 6, 2013 when Oklahoma - thanks to some famed trickery - downed then Alabama head coach Mike Shula, 20-13. Below we go Under the Hood of Nick Saban's veteran Alabama squad and, in a special feature, take a look at a pair of Crimson Tide games; their Sept. 14 49-42 win over Texas A&M and their 34-28 loss to Auburn on Nov. 30.
He's got a quality arm and stands tall in the pocket, rarely do you see McCarron go over the middle but outside of the hashes he is accurate and consistently puts the ball in places where only his teammates can make a play on the ball and as the game wears on he just gets better and better.
Of course for all of McCarron's talent it's the run game that Alabama is well known for - and deservedly so. For all of the praise of some of the backs before him have received it's safe to say that T.J. Yeldon stands next to any of them without hesitation. Against Auburn Yeldon was a bit knicked up but continued to churn out yardage and though his bread and butter is tough running he is a lot more explosive than most would realize and has a bit of wiggle in his game. Yeldon is the best back Oklahoma has seen this year, by some distance, the Sooners will have to stay assignment sound more than ever with Yeldon, he's great at pressing his running hole and then making a cutback to an open alley.
Though Alabama is big on imposing their will early and trying to break down their opponent this offensive line isn't the same bunch that were a huge piece of carrying the Tide to back to back national titles. The left side of the line in brothers Arie Kouandjio and tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is as good a pairing as you'd have expect from a duo of brothers used to lining up with each other who were also extremely well regarded recruits. Cyrus is a fast-rising NFL prospect and has the look of a first round pick, interestingly though in both games I watched he struggled with penalties and some mental errors. Center replacement Chad Lindsay played solidly against Auburn but isn't a game-changing player at the position. It's a good unit from top to bottom that certainly put up strong numbers against Auburn and A&M but with the bar being set extremely high for Tide offensive linemen in recent years it's a tough plateau to reach. More than anything, the group just doesn't feel quite as physical as years past.
Accompanying the offensive line is a solid duo of tight ends as different as they are effective for Doug Nussmeier's offense. Freshman O.J. Howard has lived up his billing as a five-star recruit, even if he hasn't quite put up massive numbers just yet. He is a pass-catching tight end who can make plays down the seam for the Crimson Tide, he'll be a test from beginning to end for Oklahoma's linebackers and safeties. As a blocker he's hit and miss, literally, but has more than enough talent to handle the job - it's just a matter of learning the finer points. Meanwhile veteran Brian Vogler is primarily a blocker and does a nice job setting the edge for Yeldon and co. Also leading the way is Alabama's do-it-all fullback/hback/tight end Jalston Fowler. Fowler will get carries in short yardage situations, but is primarily a blocker and is a good one but from within the pocket as well as leading on the perimeter and between the tackles.
Among the receivers it's obvious why Amari Cooper receives so much notoriety, he is a walking, talking big play waiting to happen. Doesn't matter who the competition is Cooper has the chance to challenge a defense vertically and unlike a lot of bigger deep threats he does well manipulating his body to make catches. That being said, he has a propensity for inexplicable drops - something of the proverbial receiver who makes the easy ones look tough and the tough ones look easy. The primary receivers outside of Cooper are a steady lot who are all capable of the big play. The sure-handed Kevin Norwood is a steady pass catcher who seems to always be there in McCarron's hour of need. Though something of an understated member of the receiving corps Deandrew White is a highly capabale receiver who not only excels in the short to intermediate passing game but is also a willilng blocker.
For all of the speed on the perimeter for Alabama perhaps none exceeds that of Kenny Bell, who mysteriously left the team earlier this year only to rejoin soon after, and has provided numerous big plays for the team including a 51-yard touchdown against A&M in which his speed was reminiscent of former Sooner Mark Bradley against Oklahoma State in 2004.
Against the Tide, A&M and Auburn rushed for 460-yards on 84 attempts (5.5 yards per carry) and completed 39-of-55 passes for 561-yards (10.2 yards per attempt).
If there is anything that Alabama's well known for under Nick Saban, beyond it's powerful ground game, you'd have to acknowledge it's for one dominating defense after another and statistically, and largely every other fashion, that holds up. What is different about this particular Alabama unit is the reality that it doesn't create loads of pressure without blitz packages. You don't see the massive pocket collapsing players up front like Marcel Dareus and Terrance Cody, among others. It's not a unit that lacks talent but while adept in run defense part of Johnny Manziel's success was that when Alabama did create pressure they generally had to leave their secondary on islands to accomplish it.
The starting trio of Brandon Ivory at nose and defensive ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson are a solid group but have combined for just 2.5 sacks this season as well as six tackles for loss. Now part of that is the design of Alabama's defense but not entirely, which brings up the player that Sooner fans need to keep an eye on, freshman nose tackle A'Shawn Robinson who has more sacks and tackles for loss individually than the trio has combined for. Robinson is an emerging force and along with fellow freshman Jonathan Allen is a sign of bright things to come for the Tide - the more Saban wants to play his veterans, the better it may be for Oklahoma.
At linebacker is where Alabama truly separates itself and, not surprisingly, much of the defensive lines goals are tailored to simply keeping blockers off Trey Depriest, Adrian Hubbard, and All-American C.J. Mosley. Depriest is a steady linebacker who is a better athlete than his squat frame might lead one to believe but there is no doubt he's most comfortable sifting through the trash around the line of scrimmage. Hubbard is a long linebacker who can make plays in pass rush scenarios but in the two games watched dissappeared a bit too frequently from games. Hubbard has real talent but struggled in both games with zone read issues, too often crashing down on the back to allow Manziel and Nick Marshall to run into his departed space.
Mosley was largely taken out of the Auburn game due to the Tigers giving the speedy linebacker much to look at on every snap with their constant movement and deviations upon deviations from their basic play calls. But make no mistake run game or pass game Mosley can make game-changing plays and has done so numerous times throughout his illustrious career.
In the secondary the Tide are a bit lopsided with a pair of safeties overflowing with potential and talent. Leading the way is Haha Clinton-Dix who many feel will be playing his final game for the Tide when he takes the field against the Sooners. He's got a great frame, great range, and the ability to make plays in all facets of the game. A few times it looked as though Clinton-Dix was caught peeking into the backfield and was a bit late in getting over in his zone coverage responsibilities but errors are few and far between for the future NFL first rounder.
Joining him, and the next in line of Alabama's great defensive backs, is Landon Collins. If the name seems familiar, it's because Collins was the player who famously committed to the Tide against his mother's obvious wishes at the Under Armour All-American game a few years ago. Since then Collins has continued to develop from one of the nation's most promising prep prospects to a player that has NFL scouts drooling. His combination of size and speed has helped lessen the blow suffered when senior team leader Vinny Sunseri went down with an injury earlier this year. Collins can get a little lost in space at times in pass coverage but is a quality tackler in the open field and is at his best coming downhill.
Meanwhile at secondary it seems all year that the Tide never quite found the right recipe but then again the ask of replacing perhaps college football's top corner in 2012, Dee Milliner, was always going to prove a mountainous task. The Tide's combo of senior Deion Belue and emerging sophomore Cyrus Jones have been solid with Jones quickly becoming another top flight corner for the Tide. Neither is currently a game-changer and can be attacked but not surprisingly, it's Alabama and it goes without saying that both are quality players by even Alabama's lofty current standard.
In the passing game there will be plays there for Oklahomt to make as the Tide's secondary has had a few issues through the year, most notably as plays have broken down - of course, most notably against Manziel. Oklahoma doesn't have a comparable talent to Mike Evans but if Oklahoma's quarterback tandem can find Jalen Saunders, Sterling Shepard, and LaColtan Bester they've got the speed and open field ability to make the big chunk plays that Oklahoma will have to have against a sturdy Alabama defense.
But whatever they can create through the air will have to be supplemented on the ground if Oklahoma is going to find a way to win as big underdogs. With the misidrection and general confusion mentioned above - think Saunders' fourth down against Oklahoma State - it's possible Oklahoma can take advantage of some of Alabama's over aggression and some of the errors I saw on tape in zone read responsibility. Oklahoma's goal needs to be north of 150-yards rushing, that seems insurmountable but when you look at Auburn's numbers running some similar ideas, stylstically it seems a bit less far-fetched.
For Oklahoma's defense, be prepared to see a lot of variation of formation even with similar personal groupings. One one snap you may see what looks like a four tight end one-back set to only see Alabama move to a Pistol formation with double tight ends and a pair of perimeter receivers all without ever having to shuffle players in and out. Nussmeier and Alabama like versatile players and with that find a lot of mismatches.
Though Alabama's run game is the team's calling that Oklahoma must find a way to slow down the passing game loves to piggyback with tons of playaction and will lull defenses to sleep with crossing routes, short out routes and various calls underneath the safeties. However, just when those safeties start creeping up to provide help Cooper will be found running loose in the secondary and the Sooners secondary doesn't have many who are going to keep stride with Cooper. If they can keep him in check and shrink the field vertically it'll be a huge boost for a defense that is facing numerous challenges that scheme may, or may not, be able to address.
Finally if I'm Oklahoma I do much as I did against Oklahom State - play with the house money in your hand. People too often mistake that for foolish aggressive playcalling but Oklahoma's defense needs to attack early on in series' and try and force Alabama on it's heels. Again, look at the third down rate above; the Tide get ahead of the chains early on and don't worry a lot about 'setting up calls' within a series. There is some element of that but Alabam's focus is entirely on the next first down. That sounds obvious, and to be fair, it is but their playcalling isn't about using all three downs to churn out yardage like one might expect from a power team.
Want proof? Check their second down and short playcalling. Not once in two games did they try and go over the top or even attempt a pass in second and short scenarios against a couple of secondaries with their fair share of issues this year. And considering second and short in football is almost a 50/50 proposition to be an attempted big play of some kind only makes it more interesting. Why? No one could say for sure but to me Alabama knows they can and start over again on the upcoming first down. It would seem Saban, like many defensive-minded coaches, starts thinking about fourth down as soon asfirst down is over.
If Oklahoma can create some pressure against the right side of Alabama's offensive line there is a possibility to put Alabama in some positions they aren't comfortable with and then who knows. The idea of pressure early is also beneficial when it comes to McCarron who, in both games, struggled with accuracy early on but as the game wore on he wore out both the Tigers and Aggies. Oklahoma needs to get after him early if at all possible.
As said above, this is not a perfect Alabama team, but it's the most complete team Oklahoma has faced since the 2008 national championship game.