As we continue our “opposition research” for the Alabama game, we thought it best to go to a source as close to the program as possible without being too close. You never know what kind of folk youâ€™ll run in to down in Crimson Tide territory, so best to keep a layer of protection for yourself.
With that in mind, we reached out to Alabamaâ€™s SB Nation site, Roll Bama Roll, with a few questions and they were kind enough to give us some of the most insightful answers weâ€™ve likely ever had before. Thatâ€™s good news here, so enjoy the Q&A and hopefully youâ€™ll learn as much as we did in the process.
Joining us in answering questions is staff writer Lucas Rhoden, who you can follow on Twitter at @LBRhoden. Now on to the Qâ€™s and the Aâ€™s.
MadTown Badgers:Â What is the Biggest Strength/Weakness of the Tide Heading in to the Opener?
Roll Bama Roll:Â Alabamaâ€™s biggest strength lies in the front seven on defense. The defensive line and linebacking corps are both experienced and talented, so much so that Alabamaâ€™s two-deep in the front seven reads more like a three-deep. Aâ€™Shawn Robinson is a monster who you will see go in the first round of the NFL draft this season, barring injury. Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway back Robinson up. Both of those guys are starting material, and made significant contributions to the defense last year.Â
Alabamaâ€™s base defensive scheme is hard to describe in traditional terms. It most closely resembles TCUâ€™s 4-2-5, but Saban likes to change around personnel in different situations. This exotic scheme allows Saban to combine different personnel for different downs and distances. Robinson is the run-stopper, Allen is the traditional all-around DE and Pettway is a good pass rushing end.
Darren Lake and Daron Payne are listed as co-starters at noseguard. They will only see the field on early downs to try and stop the run. Lake contributed last year, and Payne is a highly-coveted true freshman that has impressed in camp. Robinson will most likely slide to the NG position on passing downs.
Jarran Reed is the starter at the opposite end. Reed is more of an all-around DE than Robinson, and cut weight this offseason to become a better pass rusher. It should be noted that all of Alabamaâ€™s defensive line have worked on conditioning to respond to the HUNH offenses that have given the Tide trouble in the past. The line should put more pressure on quarterbacks this season than in past seasons.
Most pundits are going to point at Alabamaâ€™s QB situation and say that is the Tideâ€™s biggest weakness. Most pundits are wrong. Alabamaâ€™s QB situation will be fine (more on that in a second). The Tideâ€™s biggest weakness will be at the safety spots. Eddie Jackson is transitioning from corner to safety. Jackson is rangy and has good ball skills, but last season while recovering from a torn ACL Â he could never regain the ability he flashed in his freshman year. Jackson is probably a more natural fit at safety than corner due to his size. Still, Jackson is unproven and could have a short leash with talented youngsters Ronnie Harrison and Shawn Burgess-Becker waiting in the wings.
Geno Smith is the safety opposite Jackson. Smith is an experienced fifth-year senior who has contributed to the Tide in the past. Smith is kind of an underwhelming player for Alabama to start on defense. Smith is solid, but he is not the kind of player that gets NFL scouts salivating. Smith will need to improve his play to account for the inevitable growing pains that will come with Jackson making the transition to a new position.
MTB:Â Who is Bamaâ€™s Quarterback…You Know, Since Saban Wonâ€™t Tell Us?
RBR:Â Alabamaâ€™s starter for the Wisconsin game will be Jake Coker. That makes many Tide fans and national pundits uncomfortable picking Alabama to have another championship season. In reality, it is not an issue. Alabamaâ€™s QB situation is the second most overanalyzed issue of 2015 behind Donald Trumpâ€™s Presidential campaign. Look at what Alabama has done with the last three first year starters at QB.
- Greg McElroy, 2009: 14-0, SEC Championship, National Championship
- A.J. McCarron, 2011: 12-1, National Championship
- Blake Sims, 2014: 12-2, SEC Championship, CFB Playoff Berth
Thatâ€™s a combined record of 38-3 with two SEC and National Championships to show for it. Obviously, that is not a guarantee for success this year, but Saban consistently finds ways to get inexperienced QBs to succeed. In 2009 and 2011 it was a run heavy offense with a strong play-action attack. In 2014 it was screens and slants. Saban and Kiffin will identify Cokerâ€™s strengths and utilize them. Alabama minimizes the importance of the QB position by playing only to his strengths. Saban did not make McElroy and McCarron throw the ball 30 times a game. He did not make Sims stay in the pocket and go through complex, pro-style progressions. He will find Cokerâ€™s strengths and ask him to do no more than is required. Alabama has the talent to have a game-manager under center.
MTB: Just How Similar Do You See These Two Teams As Being? On our end it seems as if there are a lot of similar questions, just with different levels of players filling those holes.Â
RBR:Â These would be very similar teams had this game happened in 2011 or 2012. Alabama is drastically different on offense than it was the last time the Tide won a championship. Schematically, this game will feature two opposites.
The problems these teams are facing are similar. These teams are collectively replacing the top two skill position players in the nation from last season in Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper. Both teams have had some turnover on the offensive line. I expect both teams to answer the questions surrounding them, albeit at different levels.
MTB: Which Offensive/Defensive Players Are the Biggest Threats to the Badgers, and Why?
RBR:Â Kenyan Drake is the biggest offensive threat for Alabama. His skillset is remarkably varied. Drake is a halfback with great hands. Drake can rip off huge gains on the ground, and he can split out wide. Drake catches passes out of the backfield. Drake is an explosive athlete that Kiffin will move around the field. Drake is a matchup nightmare. He reminds me of Reggie Bush in build, ability and skillset. Derrick Henry will be Alabamaâ€™s primary running back, but I expect Kiffin to try to get Drake 15 touches in this game. Drake is the kind of athlete that can change the game on one play.
Reggie Ragland is the biggest defensive threat for the Tide. Alabama will try to use their base defense to stop the Badgersâ€™ rushing attack. That defense requires the linebackers to clean up and make tackles after the defensive line has won at the point of attack. Alabama does not put in an effort to make tackles for loss. Saban would rather hold the opponent into no gain or short gains to force third downs. Alabama wants to force Wisconsin into obvious passing situations on third down. Saban would rather face 3rd and 7 situations than gamble with a run blitz on early downs. Ragland will be the key factor in determining the Tideâ€™s success. If Wisconsin is forced into third and long or third and intermediate situations, it will be a long night for the Badgers.
MTB: Prediction and Why?
RBR:Â Prediction: Alabama - 35, Wisconsin - 17Â Â Â Â
I do not see this game going the Badgersâ€™ way, but this game will play closer than the score suggests. I was a very low on the Crimson Tide in the spring and thought this was a sure loss, but now I am very bullish. I think Alabamaâ€™s defense returns to a similar level that 2009 or 2012â€™s championship defenses were at. Alabama will face some growing pains at QB in this game, but I do not think they will hamstring Alabama enough to give Wisconsin the advantage. Paul Chryst is a good coach, but this is his first year back in Madison, so Wisconsin will have to make adjustments as well.
This game reminds me a lot of the ugly 2013 Alabama-Virginia Tech season opener in Atlanta. McCarron looked terrible that day, Alabama could not run the ball and VT controlled the line of scrimmage, but the Tide still won 35-10. That is just what Alabama does. I think Wisconsin looks good defensively and shows flashes on offense, but Alabamaâ€™s defense forces three or four turnovers. Alabama is built to stop traditional, run-first offenses, and Wisconsin just does not pose a threat to the Tide schematically. I think the Crimson Tide get out to an early two touchdown lead on the backs of Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry. Alabama maintains the lead, but never looks dominant. Look for a late defensive score from the Tide to seal this game.