Hello again, Canes fam! We’re back for our first opponent Q&A of the 2021 season.
I returned the favor and answered some of Brent’s questions about Miami. You an check that out right here:
And now, with no further ado, let’s learn a bit about the Tide from Brent’s learned perspective. Here we go:
QUESTION 1: Nick Saban has elevated Alabama into being the dominant program in CFB. How much longer will he stay on your sidelines?
Roll Bama Roll (RBR): Two years ago, I figured he was done by now. Saban just seemed... tired. But 2020 seemed to rejuvenate him. I think it was the challenge of Covid combined with wanting to prove that the losses at the end of 2019 were a fluke. Now with the NIL and conference changes hitting, I think he might be getting all excited about some new challenges coming. He does need one more national title at Alabama to pass Paul Bryant’s record, and while he’d never say it, I think Saban wants to topple that one. All in all, I’d guess he has a good 4-5 years left. If you’re into conspiracies, Alabama has a home-and-home scheduled with West Virginia in 2026 and 2027. Might he be aiming to end his coaching career with a visit back to his home state?
QUESTION 2: What are your expectations for new starting QB Bryce Young, both in this game and over the course of this season?
RBR: Bryce was an uber-hyped recruit that many thought would send Mac Jones to the bench before 2020 even started. That didn’t happen, and Young wound up getting sacked nearly everytime he came into the game in the 4th quarter in 2020. He’s gotten a lot of hype this offseason though, and for pretty much the first time in 13 years, there’s not been a real competition for the starting QB when there wasn’t a returner. Young’s got a LOT of talent, but Alabama is breaking in an entirely new wide receiver group, a revamped OL, a new offensive coordinator, and a new running back. I absolutely expect a bit of a drop off from the fireworks we’ve seen the last three years with Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones throwing to four different first-round picks at wide receiver. And as for the season opener, I expect the offense to be called very conservatively. He’ll have a high completion rate... and a low yards per completion.
QUESTION 3: Though the roster is littered with blue chip players, who are the names to know along the OL and RB?
RBR: At running back, 5th year senior Brian Robinson is expected to be the starter. He’s... fine. But watch out for sophomore Jase McClellan. The Texas native averaged an utterly ridiculous 10 yards per carry as a backup in 2020, and blends size, explosive acceleration, and uncanny balance in a way that could turn him into a superstar sooner rather than later. There’s also Trey Sanders, who was the #1 running back recruit a few years ago. He missed his freshman season with a foot injury, and then missed most of last year after he broke his hip in a car accident. We Alabama fans still don’t really know what to expect from him, but he’s supposedly been very involved in fall camp.
On the offensive line, left tackle Evan Neal is 6’7” 350, and carries almost no fat.
Though Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson got all the media and awards last year, I thought Neal was the best player on the line. As long as he doesn’t regress when swapping from right tackle to left tackle, I fully expect Neal to be a top-5 overall type draft pick.
Alabama has elevated their program in recent years on the backs of players from Florida (see; nearly every superstar WR since 2010). Which Sunshine State Natives on the roster this year do you expect to make an impact for the Tide?
Basically every wide receiver that Alabama has recruiting in the last two cycles has been from Florida! Sophomore Traeshon Holden seems to be the one most likely to have chemistry with Bryce Young, but I don’t really expect him to be a full-time guy. Freshman Agiye Hall was the star of the spring game... But I’ve not heard a peep about him in fall camp. At defensive back, junior safety Jordan Battle is slated to be the leader of the defense, and, as long as he can stop getting targeting penalties, he should wind up as an All-SEC caliber player. Senior corner Josh Jobe is another solid starter from Florida, and the previously mentioned Evan Neal is too. Finally, sophomore defensive tackle Tim Smith is a rotational interior pass rusher who flashed as a true freshman and could very well make a big impact this year.
QUESTION 4: Apart from (or including) the names you just listed, who are the impact players to know on defense for this game?
RBR: All of the linebackers.
Seriously, Alabama’s had a bit of a drought of linebackers since 2017 (including a disastrously thin 2019 group), and Nick Saban has stockpiled and recruited them like crazy the last three recruiting classes... And it’s finally paid off. Chris Allen is a 5th year senior who’s a solid complementary edge rusher and run stopper, and he’s bookended by sophomore Will Anderson, who’s been getting a lot of hype as potentially the best pass rusher in the nation. Anderson was an absolute monster in the final stretch of games last season, and has apparently been wrecking the Tide’s offense in practice all month long.
At inside linebacker, junior Christian Harris returns for his third year as a speedy Will linebacker that hits like a truck. And then there’s Henry To’oTo’o. The junior transfer from Tennessee was a Freshman All-American and an All-SEC performer the last two years, and is stepping in as the Tide’s Mike linebacker. His smarts and leadership have apparently already won over the coaches and his teammates, and should add the final complementary and stabilizing piece to make this group great.
QUESTION 5: Schematically, what do you anticipate Alabama will do in this game?
RBR: Offensively, I mentioned above that I think the passing game will be very conservative. Bill O’Brien loves his stick routes, and I think we see a lot of high-percentage throws from Bryce Young to make sure nothing too catastrophic happens. Toss the ball out there, see if any of the new receivers are able to make stuff happen after the catch, and just keep running the ball with a deep stable of running backs. It won’t be the high-octane attack fans have gotten used to the past three years, but it should be fairly efficient at ball control... As long as a receiver or two are able to step up and make some plays. And I’ll touch on defense on the next scheme.
QUESTION 6: What do you think Saban and Co. will dial up on defense to disrupt D’Eriq King and Miami’s offense?
RBR: Under defensive coordinator Pete Golding, Alabama has been slowly transitioning to more of a base 3-3-5 stack (or 2-4-5 on passing downs) over the past couple of seasons, as opposed to the base 3-4 with nickel packages that we saw in Saban’s first decade. Alabama typically runs with three safeties: Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, and Malachi Moore/Brian Branch who can all really bring some hitting power while relying on the two outside corners to do their own thing on the sidelines. With QBs who have proven ability as a scrambling threat, Golding will typically dial back the blitzes and drop everyone into zones, betting on his linebackers and 3rd safety to track down any scrambles and limit the damage. His defense has tended to give up more yards to inside runs and third down passes across the middle than what Alabama fans have come to expect from the last decade, but his defenses have also been very opportunistic when it comes to creating turnovers.
I expect him to blitz King early and often to test out his comfort level returning from injury, and if King shows he’s ready to run, then Golding will likely slow back the rush and transition into more of soft zone to force him to sustain a lot of small conversions.
QUESTION 7: What scenario would have to occur to have Miami beat Alabama in the opener?
RBR: Other than Evan Neal, the Alabama offensive line has a lot of question marks. If they can’t run block a Miami defensive front, then Bill O’Brien is going to have to rely on Bryce Young going into sandlot mode with a bunch of unproven receivers. I can’t, in any scenario, see this turning into a high-scoring shootout with the Tide’s defensive experience and talent, but I could absolutely see it turning into a low-scoring slog if the Alabama offense suffers much worse growing pains than we thought. And in that scenario, one random busted play like an open guy on a scramble drill, a sack-fumble, or a blocked punt/FG (Alabama is breaking in a new punter, snapper, and holder) can make all the difference.
QUESTION 8: Final question: How do you see the game playing out? Who wins and drop me a score prediction
RBR: Alabama tends to win and win big in season openers, and while I generally like the Hurricanes, I’m not going to bet against Saban’s track record of the last 13 years. I do think some of my fears from above about the Alabama offense are real, though, and Miami has some impact players in the secondary that I think are going to keep the Tide from scoring big on gimme plays. I think Alabama jumps out to an early lead with a defensive score and pushes it to a comfy lead by halftime. Miami makes a good effort comeback in the 3rd though as the Alabama offense gets stuck and brings it to a one score game.
Alabama pulls away again in the 4th to win 31-14.
Thanks to Brent for joining us for the Q&A this week. You can check out his work, and the work of other talented writers covering Alabama athletics, over at Roll Bama Roll.