This is it. This is the game for which we were all waiting. It has finally arrived, and I couldn't be more nervous. Sure, I think we have a chance, but this game defines the season. I think that to argue any differently is a display of cowardice. If you don't think our season is defined by this game, then you aren't hoping to go to Atlanta. You're hoping to win 5 or 6 SEC games and make our way back to the Cotton Bowl. Well I'm not. I'm hoping to beat Bama after a resurgence of our offense and discover a team identity that leads us through the rest of our schedule unbeaten.
Do I think it will happen? Find out after the jump.
If we are to beat Alabama, we're going to have to continue playing the caliber of defense we have displayed so far. We're only allowing 10.8 points per game (ranking second in the SEC), and the most points scored against us through four games is sixteen. Yeah. Our defense is out of control. They go hard on every snap, and that's what we need against Alabama's weakness (if you can call it that) which is their offense.
Our defensive line needs to put consistent pressure on the opposing offensive line which, though much better than anticipated, is still the weak link in Bama's chain. Unfortunately for Rebel fans, Juco transfer LT James Carpenter has stepped in quite nicely for departed first round draft pick Andre Smith, and the Tide is running behind freshman RG Barrett Jones all day. Still, those linemen haven't seen Greg Hardy, Kentrell Lockett, and Jerrell Powe. We have to catch them off guard and capitalize. If we lose this battle, there's no way we can possibly beat them.
Also, we need to rattle quarterback Greg McElroy with complex blitz packages. McElroy has been much better than we had hoped this season, but he has also been very streaky when rattled. He started very poorly against Virginia Tech, and he had a stretch against Kentucky that saw him falter as well. If we can get an effective pass rush, we could get him off-balance and make him overthink things. hell, it worked for South Carolina against us... Also, I don't have much to say about receivers, but if you think that Julio Jones isn't going to bring in at least one big catch, you have never evaluated the height of our corners. I love those guys, and they're playing good football, but it's just so difficult to stop a 6'6" WR who looks like an oversized linebacker from catching the football on a deep and well-placed fade.
But Alabama isn't built on the pass. They're built on the run, and they do it very well. Alabama ranks third in rushing offense with 228 yards per game coming on the ground. Not only are Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson incredible at breaking tackles, but the offensive linemen, tight ends, and fullbacks are very good at clearing holes for the backs to run through. Several times in watching Alabama play, I have seen a play begin poorly for the Tide only to see the offensive line overcome the opposing defense and drive defenders out of the way for Grant or Richardson.
And now for the offense...
I think that the key to moving the ball against Alabama right now is to run right at them. The 3-4 defense's fault is that it is susceptible to inside runs in some situations. While Terrance Cody is a good NT for the 3-4 due to pure size, I think he's vastly overrated as a player, and I don't know how much of an impact he'll have on the game. He does his job to an extent in that he requires a double team, but it appears that double teams are always enough to stop him. In the 3-4, you want your NT to be active even witha double team and force some disruption on the play.
It's difficult to speculate what Alabama's linebackers will look like o Saturday since Nick Saban has said openly that he plans to shuffle them to figure out where each player is at his best. Certainly, Rolando McClain will be on the field, and we will do our best to run away from him. McClain makes big plays, and he's also excellent at bringing the ball carrier down at the point of contact. He's not as good as Eric Norwood in terms of being a physical freak that has to be watched for on every play, but McClain could be the difference in the game.
Nick Saban has figured out the Wild Rebel. We can run it a little bit, but don't expect it to save us if we're trying to hold a lead. Saban has practiced defending against the Wild Rebel from every formation his defense runs. When we do call on Dexter to line up at QB, expect the defense to communicate with one another and adjust. They're active, and they stop it.
The passing game will have to grow by leaps and bounds for the Rebels to contend. One plus about facing a 3-4 defense is that elite pass-rushing defensive ends don't exist in the formation. However, that can be even more confusing for offensive lines. Because you don't know where the pressure will come from, offensive linemen often end up blocking no one and seeing linebackers, corners, or safeties come through untouched. We can't let that happen, but it's likely to occur a few times in the game.
I think that our receivers are better than their secondary. That's not a slight on their secondary. Javier Arenas is an excellent corner, as is Kareem Johnson. It still makes me cring to hear Oxford native and strong safety Justin Woodall's name being called for the Tide. i certainly respect Alabama's secondary, but I also have a lot of respect for Shay Hodge, Dexter McCluster, and Patrick Patterson (though we are severely underusing him this season). I think that those three are right there with the best receiving corps (plural) in the SEC. Whether Jevan can get them the ball is another story.
Honestly, I expect our offense to perform a little worse than they did in the first half of the game against Vandy. I don't think we'll see a repeat of the South Carolina game (that saw Jevan go 7/21). Our defense will be tested more than they have all season, and they'll come up strong. Unfortunately, I don't think it will be enough to win the game.
Alabama by 8.