Thanks to the folks over at Roll Bama Roll for answering some questions about their boa constrictor of a football team. Hope we can make a good showing against them, but who knows. We’re just lowly ole little brother Auburn.
So, Alabama is really good. For the hype that the Tide received coming into the season, has it been met?
I actually think it’s been exceeded. We all expected the offense to be good, with the trio of sophomore receivers returning, Damien Harris returning, and the offensive line replacing only two starters with former 5-star recruits. Oh, and a QB that won a national championship in overtime. But I don’t think even the most ardent of Bama fans expected Tua to end up being this good. The defense lost the entire secondary and over half of the front seven, so we expected a step back. Add in pretty much an entirely new coaching staff aside from Saban, and we all had some uncertainty going in. The defense struggled early this season, but has really come into it’s own the last few weeks (though obviously you have to temper that with the fact that LSU and Miss St. have some pretty atrocious offenses).
Obviously, everyone is looking at Tua and the health of his knee. He seems fine, and poised to win you guys another Heisman. If he does somehow go out, what’s the confidence of Bama fans in Jalen or Mac Jones to win an Iron Bowl/SEC Championship Game?
I think we could win the Iron Bowl and maybe the SEC championship with a fully healthy Jalen Hurts, but it would be a lot tighter than with Tua back there. Unfortunately, Jalen is not fully healthy, as he’s still coming off his ankle surgery. We aren’t going very far in the playoffs without Tua though, so please don’t hurt him this week.
Mac Jones on the other hand... The freshman just isn’t ready. We aren’t winning anything if he is forced to be the guy for the majority of the game.
The offensive lineup around Tua has been great, and there seem to be a lot more weapons than in years past where the attack almost seemed like it depended on the deep ball to Cooper or Ridley. Who are the most important skill players you’ve got?
This year has been interesting in that regard. There’s always been one focal skill player on pretty much every Alabama team, except maybe the 2012 year when Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon had a nearly 50-50 split. At receiver, Jerry Jeudy, Devonte Smith, and Henry Ruggs all came in the same class and worked on the second team with Tua all 2017, then graduated to first team at the same time that he did. Ruggs and Smith were more of a factor than Jeudy in 2017, but have both dealt with some nagging injuries this year that let Jeudy take the lead, statistically. At running back, you would have thought that senior Damien Harris would be the go-to man this year, but it seems that Saban has been intentionally spelling him a lot all year to keep him fresh-- for late in the game, late in the season, and likely for the pros as well. Josh Jacobs, a change-of-pace guy that dealt with injuries his whole career, has really stepped up and become an all-around back. He catches the ball well, blocks better than any running back, and has added a good bit of power to his previously only elusive game. Then, there’s sophomore Najee Harris, the physical beast who was once the #1 recruit in the nation. As a pure runner, Najee is better than the other two, and is nearly impossible to tackle one on one. His spotty blocking has kept him behind the other two on the depth chart, but he’s always a danger to come in the 2nd or 3rd quarter and grind out some grueling 8-yard gains and give the offense a spark.
All that said, I think I’d actually say that freshman receiver Jaylen Waddle might be the most important. The diminutive speedster was expected to come in as an unrefined athlete who excelled at juking people, but needed work as a true receiver. Instead, he’s seemed to have become Tua’s most trusted target in critical situations. He may not have the most catches or yards, but he’s consistently made tough catches and squirted through traffic for a first down in the most important moments.
Looking at the results so far, the defense has been fine and they’ve always had a big cushion to play with. It’s never been imperative that they make a stop to save the game. How effective are they compared to some of the early-Saban lockdown units?
For probably the first time in Saban’s entire tenure, the linebackers are not the leading position group of the defense. Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses have been good and flashed talent, but they haven’t truly been difference makers. The outside linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller have been solid if unspectacular, and are really missing Terrell Lewis, the physical freak of a pass rusher who tore his ACL just before the season started. The secondary has been much better than expected, especially true freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. Safety Deionte Thompson has been absolutely stellar at defending the deep centerfield, and strong safety Xavier McKinney has been excellent in run support and blitzes. Saivion Smith has had some struggles after replacing Trevon Diggs, who went out earlier this season with a broken leg. He’s talented with the ball in the air, but has really struggled in run defense and tackling on the perimeter.
Then there’s Quinnen Williams. The undersized nose tackle has been nothing short of a revelation. He started the season well, and has gotten better and better every single game. Sometimes, a guy just gets in the zone. And Quinnen is in the zone. He’s been nearly unblockable lately, leaving Gary Danielson laughing and speechless. Whether it’s been stopping a run or messing with the QB, Williams has been an absolute terror. And that kind of disruption up front can hide all sorts of minor problems that a defense might actually have.
Twitter has had fun with #BamaKickers because there have been some missed extra points and the like. If the game somehow comes down to special teams, how confident are Tide fans in the team’s ability to convert a game-winning kick, and why has this been such a problem for Saban over the years?
Ha, if it comes down to special teams, it’s game over. The fans have absolutely 0 confidence. Every year, I think that the field goal kicking has to get better than last season, and every year, it just gets worse. It’s pretty comical at this point. I’m not sure why Saban hasn’t totally given up kicking field goals. If the Tide had went for 2 after every touchdown this year, they’d only have to convert 44% of the time to score more that the kickers have trying to hit extra points. And you can’t tell me that Tua and company wouldn’t be better than 44% from the 2 yard line.
As for why? It’s just psychology at this point. It all started in 2011 when Cade Foster missed like three different should-be game winners in the “game of the century” 9-6 loss against LSU. It’s just gone downhill ever since. The kick six didn’t exactly help either, as you well know. Any kicker that kicks for Alabama now has all that history in the back of their mind, and it won’t go away. And every kicker that messes up just adds to the baggage to pass along to the next one. Until we get some sociopath of a kicker to break the streak, it will probably just keep on going.
You’re Nick Saban. What’s your biggest worry heading into the Iron Bowl?
The tackling on the perimeter defense. Auburn has some major speed, and the corners have been a bit suspect on keeping contain and forcing runners back in to the linebackers. Plus the linebackers have a little bit of a history with struggling with misdirection.
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line is dealing with some injuries, with left guard Deonte Brown likely out with a Turf Toe, and right guard Alex Leatherwood is day-to-day with a bum ankle. The line REALLY struggled against Mississippi State without Brown, and it very nearly got Tua killed. Fortunately, the Bulldogs’ offense was quite offensive to watch, so it wasn’t a big issue. But if Auburn’s defensive line can exploit that, while the offense takes advantage of the secondary’s tackling, it might be a long night for the Tide.
How does this game play out and what’s your score prediction?
Ultimately, I think Tua is finally healthy and comfortable. And as long as he’s healthy and comfortable, I can’t see Alabama losing another game. The Tide offense will start hot and jump to an early 14-0 lead before Auburn’s defense settles in and forces a turnover and a couple of stops. Auburn gets a score out of it, but Alabama answers with another touchdown in a 2-minute drill, going into halftime with a 21-7 lead. The second half is a little more bland. Alabama hits a big play early in the half for a touchdown, and follows up quickly with a defensive score off a turnover. Auburn mounts up and puts together a drive in the 4th quarter to make it 35-14, but doesn’t manage to score again as the Tide works to drain the clock.