We’ve reached the end of the road for our Behind Enemy Lines Q&A series this season. And the last one is a big one, with a highly interesting matchup in the Citrus Bowl between Michigan and Alabama on deck on New Year’s Day.
We spoke with Brent Taylor from SB Nation’s Roll ‘Bama Roll to give us a bit of insight into the 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide, a 10-2 team that was a few plays away from an undefeated regular season.
Q: Alabama lost two close games this season vs. LSU and Auburn and are currently ranked No. 13. Is Alabama a lot better than that ranking?
I think this stems from the dissonance in CFB rankings as some combination of “power rankings” and actual record. Alabama blew out everyone on their schedule, lost to LSU (the #1 team in the nation) in a game that basically came down to who had the ball on the last possession, and lost with a backup QB and a series of weird and fluky moments to a top 10 team in Auburn. Looking at it that way, it’s hard to argue that Alabama wasn’t a top-5 team in the nation, especially after watching the 4th and 5th ranked teams in Oklahoma and Georgia get eviscerated by LSU. Does anyone in college football anywhere think Alabama would have performed worse than those two teams just did? Yet, it’s also an inarguable fact that Alabama got stuck playing a really week schedule this year and didn’t beat any good teams outside of Texas A&M, so it’s not like they “deserved” a high ranking either.
I’d say just ask Vegas here: Alabama would be favored to win against any team not named LSU or Ohio State, regardless of whether or not their resume deserved them being there.
Q: What star players for the Tide will be sitting out the Citrus Bowl? Do you expect the team to perform at a high clip, or will not being in the College Football Playoff translate into the players giving less than 100%?
From everything we’ve heard, it will just be LB/DE Terrell Lewis and CB Trevon Diggs. Lewis has been tabbed as a potential 1st round draft pick for three years now, but missed basically two full seasons with back-to-back season ending injuries, while Diggs also has 1st round potential and missed a big chunk of 2018 with a broken leg. Both guys have had horrendous injury luck, so it’s hard to blame them. That said, neither one really lived up to their expected potential this year and if they get drafted in the first round, it will be due to size/athleticism potential, rather than actual production.
Diggs has a very capable back-up in Josh Jobe (who’s a much better tackler, but got benched from his starting spot at the start of the season due to letting his frustration out in the form of personal fouls and pass interferences), but Alabama doesn’t really have another proven pass rusher behind Lewis.
As for the motivation aspect, it’s really hard to say. We’ve seen games in the past where Alabama very obviously didn’t prepare for the bowl game after getting left out of the Big Game, but this team has drawn a lot of parallels to the 2010 season-- a team that returned a whole bunch of veteran talent and expected to dominate college football, but wound up losing three games and got shunted to the Capital One Bowl against Michigan State. That team came out on a war path and destroyed the Spartans, turning that into back-to-back National Championships.
I honestly have no idea what Alabama will show up this week. Everyone is saying the right things, but who knows?
Q: Could you give us a scouting report on quarterback Mac Jones? Is he a playmaker?
Mac’s actually the same age/class as Tua Tagovailoa, so Alabama isn’t just throwing some freshman to the wolves. He’s got really nice touch on deep throws, corners, outs, and backshoulder fades-- basically anything toward the sidelines-- but isn’t quite the machine that Tua was on stuff over the middle and hitting checkdowns in stride. He’s definitely fearless, and doesn’t have a problem continuing to chuck the ball down the field, even after throwing two pick-sixes. His biggest issue has been dealing with pressure and blitzes. He’s not slow or anything, but he’s not the most agile guy around, and he seems to think he’s more elusive than he really is. And we’ve seen him make a number of horrific throws over the years when there’s pressure in his face. All-in-all, though, he’s definitely not some lame duck QB that’s just there to hand the ball off.
Q: With Jones at QB, will ‘Bama lean on Najee Harris more, or will the gameplan be the same as usual?
I don’t expect it will change too much. Mac Jones was given the full playbook against Auburn, so I expect the same against Michigan.
Q: What kind of scheme does Alabama run on defense? Who are the top players on that side of the ball?
The defense originated as a base 3-4 defense that used two big middle linebackers and a lengthy Sam linebacker to stop the run along with an edge rusher hybrid player for the 4th linebacker, while the defensive line basically consisted of three gigantic defensive tackles whose entire job was stand in the way of 5 gaps. The secondary typically used two high safeties with the corners in bump-and-run coverage.
As offenses have gone more and more spread, though, Alabama has shifted to a base nickel defense that still brings some of the old 3-4 philosophies. They typically go with a 3-3-5 alignment on normal downs, but with one linebacker lined up as a defensive end and the 5th DB is a corner/safety hybrid. They also go single-high safety a lot more than they did in the past. In passing downs, they typically drop a defensive tackle from the formation and add another linebacker on the edge of the line. If they need a 6th defensive back to combat 4WR sets, they’ll usually put in a 3rd safety and move safety Xavier McKinney to a linebacker position.
McKinney is absolutely the best player on Alabama’s defense, and has spent the entire year saving touchdown after touchdown. He hasn’t been perfect by any means, but is definitely the most sure tackler on the team and has the speed to jump routes multiple times every game. 5th year senior Anfernee Jennings is probably the next best defender. The 260-lb outside linebacker is basically a defensive end in all but name. He’s not the fastest guy around, but he’s excellent in run defense and relentless in pass rushes.
Q: Are Alabama fans excited about Harbaugh and Saban facing one another at all? The national media is certainly pumping up the matchup.
Not really, no. We mostly view Harbaugh as that annoying dude that made the whole “satellite camps” a big issue a few years ago. This far south, we haven’t really heard much of anything about him in a few years.
Q: What’s the biggest strength and weakness for Bama on offense?
The wide receivers and offensive line are the best parts of Alabama’s offense. The four receivers, Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III, and Jaylen Waddle all have the ability to take a screen or slant pass for 80 yards on any given play, and they all like to go deep as well. Jeudy is the best route-runner, Smith has the best hands and likes jumping over people on deep balls, Waddle is the most explosive with the ball in his hands, and Ruggs supposedly runs a 4.25 forty yard dash. It’s almost embarrassing to have so many good players at one position. Meanwhile, the offensive line has been one best we’ve ever had at Alabama, in both pass and run blocking.
As for weaknesses, the tight end position has been absolutely putrid this year. Not only have they been mostly ineffective in the passing game, I couldn’t tell you how many runs have been blown up this year because a TE missed their block. And as much as I love Coach Saban and his ability to adapt old-school mentalities with new-age concepts, you’ll have to pull the TE from his cold, dead hands before he’ll go full-time with four wide receivers.
The Tide has also had issues in the redzone this year. The running game has been great on the rest of the field, but for some reason they’ve struggled to block on the goalline, and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has a bad tendency to abandon the run after the first attempt doesn’t score. And for some reason, they haven’t been great at getting passes in down there either.
Q: What’s the biggest strength and weakness for Bama on defense?
Alabama’s defense has been very good at keeping teams from dropping a bunch of deep passes on them-- a product of a really great safety in Xavier McKinney and two 6’2” cornerbacks with speed in Pat Surtain II and Trevon Diggs. And they’ve typically been good at defending straight runs up the middle, despite the fact that they’re missing both starting middle linebackers, defensive end, and defensive tackle from the beginning of the season.
On the other hand, they’ve been absolutely dreadful at tackling in space. The two true freshman middle linebackers get caught chasing a RB to the sidelines and then juked back to the inside at least three times/game, and all the corners have given up a billion first downs after missing tackles. On top of that, the pass rush has been really streaky, so QBs have plenty of time to hit those long-developing crossing routes that have those freshman linebackers chasing people across the field.
Q: Any predictions for the game?
Michigan’s biggest strength on offense, the deep passing game, is also Alabama’s main defensive strength. So I don’t really expect the Wolverines to score in the 30s-40s like LSU did. But Alabama’s defense is not their defense of old, so I still expect them to move the ball fairly well. Alabama’s offense, on the other hand, has torched every single team they’ve faced all year, including Auburn’s top-5 defense. Even with a back-up QB, I don’t see them with less than 35 points.
So I’ll say final score of 38-28 Alabama