After a long regular season that featured the first win over Georgia since 2016, a plethora of Heisman worthy moments from Kyle Trask, and a pair of disappointing losses, including last week to LSU, the Florida Gators will be in Atlanta this weekend to play the Alabama Crimson Tide for their ninth SEC championship and first since 2008.
To learn more about the mighty Tide ahead of Saturday’s clash, I asked Brent Taylor of Roll Bama Roll a few questions about Alabama’s team and what he expects to see this weekend.
This has been a very, well, Alabama year for Alabama: The Tide has dominated almost everyone on its schedule and boast an incredible amount of talent on both sides of the ball. How would you rate this season so far?
While Alabama fans typically think we’re going to be the best every season, don’t let any of them tell you they expected the Tide to play this well. After losing 4 first round draft picks from the offense (QB, 2 WR, and OT) as well as both edge rushers and all but one player from the secondary from 2019, most expected there to be some growing pains this year. Particularly with an All-SEC schedule. Instead, they have, like you said, dominated pretty much every aspect of the game (except that one time they forgot how to defend against Ole Miss) all season long. It’s gotta be an A+ there.
Alabama’s offense has been unstoppable all year, with quarterback Mac Jones, receiver Devonta Smith, and running back Najee Harris all having dominant seasons. How has this offense been so effective and who is the key to this unit?
This is going to be a bit of a cop-out, but I think the key to this offense is the offensive line. It’s the best group I’ve seen since the 2012 season when Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon both went over 1000 rushing yards. Pretty much any playcall looks good when the line is blocking up a whole bunch of running room for Najee or Mac Jones gets 3-4 seconds to throw the ball. Najee keeps drives alive with his maddeningly consistent 6-yard runs (seriously, he’s averaging 5.9 YPC over his career, and has only 3 runs longer than 30 yards this season, and a career long of 42). Meanwhile, Devonta Smith has been absolutely unstoppable, whether it’s beating someone deep, getting open on short-area route-running, or making contested catches. And the most impressive part, to me, has been how Steve Sarkisian calls the games. Mac Jones really likes to chuck it deep. But if a defense wants to sit back in off coverage (like Arkansas with their 3-deep safety look), Sark and Mac are more than happy to check down over and over and over again. This offense is able to go for fireworks early in the game and then shift into a boa constrictor mode in the second half to quickly end the game. It’s been the most versatile and balanced offense I’ve seen in the Saban era.
Follow-up: Do you think any of those three will win, or deserve to win, the Heisman trophy?
I think Devonta Smith is the most deserving. He’s been utterly unguardable and untackleable the entire season. I watched the Amari Cooper year in 2014 when he got to the top-3 in Heisman voting, and Smith has been more dominant than Coop was. That he’s picked up all of the receiving slack from losing Jaylen Waddle early in the season should be reason enough, and it’s only added to his resume that he’s started returning punts for huge chunks of yards every time as well. Plus I think he has about 6 pass breakups that should have been interceptions if he hadn’t bailed out his QB. That said, as long as Alabama wins this game, Mac is more likely to win I think. Every person in the media will tell you Smith deserves it more, and then will go and vote for Mac because he’s the QB on the best offense in the nation.
Finally, I wouldn’t consider Najee Harris for the Heisman. He’s been great for sure, but the running game has not been quite as utterly deadly as the passing game in this offense.
The defense had some issues early on, especially against Ole Miss, but has been red-hot of late, with six straight games allowing under 20 points. How good is this defense, and who are the playmakers on the defensive side of the ball?
Man, that is the question. Alabama’s defense uncharacteristically struggled in 2018 and 2019, then came out white hot against Missouri in the opener until the 4th quarter. Then they struggled against Texas A&M, particularly letting Ainias Smith and Jaylen Wydermyer get wide open multiple times on really bad coverage busts, and then turned around and had that 50-point fiasco against Ole Miss. A rough first half against Georgia the following week had Alabama fans in full defcon 2, and then something just... flipped. They shut out Georgia in the second half and have only allowed 53 points in 6 games since (three of which saw them preventing any touchdowns at all). That said, it hasn’t been a murderer’s row of good offenses. We’re all quite terrified that they revert back to what we saw against Ole Miss this week against a dynamic Florida offense.
As for the playmakers, the three cornerbacks have been phenomenal. Pat Surtain II and Josh Jobe have barely allowed any completions down the sidelines all season, and both are bigger dudes who have made some bone-jarring tackles in run support. Nickel corner and true freshman Malachi Moore has been a revelation as well. He’s fast, energetic, and always around the ball. I’d also add defensive tackle Christian Barmore and freshman LB/DE Will Anderson as a couple of dudes who have been getting more and more active in the pass rush every single week.
From the outside, it looks like Alabama is a near perfect team. Are there any potential weak spots?
Well, they’ve definitely had some recurring issues on defense. The outside linebackers have struggled a bit with containing outside zone runs, and safety Daniel Wright has a bad tendency to have a high-speed whiff coming down to make the tackle after a back gets past the linebackers. Next, the inside linebackers have been consistently a step slow on covering running backs out to the flats, though that one has improved recently. Safety Daniel Wright has had a bit of a problem with covering tight ends down the middle of the field. And then Wright has had some issues with biting on double moves from receivers coming into his deep zone. Are you sensing a common theme here?
Finally, what do you expect to see on Saturday?
Most everyone with half a mind for watching football is expecting Alabama to score north of 40 points on a leaky Gator defense, and Florida to put up 30 or so on Alabama with their passing game firepower. My brain tells me that 42-28 Alabama should be a really good estimate based on what we’ve seen all season from the two teams. But my heart thinks this game may turn stupid since everyone in the nation is expecting 70 points.
So let’s get crazy here: We go into half time with a 6-3 Alabama lead, and the Tide ultimately wins it 30-10.
Thank you again to Brent for his insight. You can check out my answers to his Q&A over at Roll Bama Roll and follow Brent and Roll Bama Roll on Twitter for more on the Alabama side of Saturday night’s championship game.