Now that the non-conference cupcake portion of the Razorbacks' schedule is out of the way, it's time to bring back our weekly Q&A's with a blogger of the Hogs' upcoming opponent. As you may heard, this Saturday's matchup is kind of a big one, so we're especially pleased to share the following Q&A with the guys from the excellent Alabama blog, Roll Bama Roll. (And be sure to check out our answers to their questions.) Enjoy!
Give us the lowdown on new starting quarterback A.J. McCarron. What are his strengths and weaknesses and - to use that familiar high-school-essay question - how does he compare and contrast with Greg McElroy?
We were all pretty worried about the impending QB battle/controversy between McCarron and Phillip Sims, but thankfully that really hasn't materialized and McCarron came into the season as the clear cut choice at starter despite what was a very close race during the spring. Both McCarron and Sims were highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and we've actively tried to bring in guys that are elite level QBs instead of just game managers but let's face it, we're Alabama and we're not going to ask our QBs to win games if we don't have to.
McCarron has so far looked solid, but we haven't had much of a test yet with powerhouses like Kent State and North Texas on the schedule. In both of those games we were clearly experimenting with our personnel a lot on offense; we were giving both McCarron and Sims snaps, shuffling the offensive line early and often, and rotating a lot of receivers (including a true freshman in the first series against North Texas), and I think McCarron suffered some for it. In both of those games he came out as the starter and led solid drives, then quickly lost his rhythm after yielding to Sims and returning later or working behind a shuffled line. The only game that we can really give a fair evaluation of his performance so far is at Penn State. His numbers look good in that game (19-of-31 (61.3%) for 163 yards and 1 TD), but I think the best thing we can say about his performance is that he never genuinely tried to force anything (though that's debatable depending on who you ask), didn't turn the ball over, and looked calm and in command of the offense in the first road start of his career. Again, we're not really going to ask our QBs to win games for us if we don't have to, and so far we haven't had to ask that much of him. But what we have asked him to do he's managed to do without too many first time starter mistakes, and that's about the best you can expect.
The biggest compare/contrast we can talk about between McCarron and McElroy is simply the "arm talent" equation, in which McCarron wins hands down. He wasn't considered an elite caliber QB by all the recruiting services for no reason and he's both capable and willing to make throws downfield that McElroy wouldn't likely dream of. McElroy was the prototypical game manager QB with enough football smarts and just enough arm to be successful at the SEC level, but McCarron is a much more gifted passer. Will that ever really matter is the real question? So far McCarron has done a good job of really playing within the system and not trying to be a gunslinger because we haven't needed him to, and if we can stay true to type and rely on defense and a workhorse backfield to keep grinding out wins we may not really ever need him to be. But the talent is there for the offense to open up with McCarron, I just really think its more a matter of the staff feeling comfortable enough with his decision making to really turn him loose and start trying to generate those big plays out of the passing on a more regular basis.
Once again, the Tide has a potent 1-2 punch in the backfield with running backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. How do you see Saban dividing the playing time between those two on Saturday and during the rest of the season?
Trent Richardson is the clear #1 at running back and he's going to get the lion's share of touches. He's a proven commodity as a rusher, but he's also the best receiver out of the backfield and the most consistent pass blocker as well, so there's no real doubt that he's going to be the workhorse of the group this weekend and the rest of the season.
Of course, that doesn't mean Eddie Lacy isn't going to see his fair share of snaps, too. Saban has been pretty clear about his desire to always have two (or three) capable backs to rotate ever since he got here, and we're certainly seeing that play out again this year. Again, considering the schedule so far, we can really only look at the trip to Penn State to get a good feel for how we'll approach the RB rotation now that we're starting conference play, and in that game Richardson touched the ball 30 times (26 rushes, 4 receptions), with Lacy getting 12 touches (11 rushes, 1 reception). That's pretty consistent with the way Ingram and Richardson rotated over the last few seasons, with Ingram being the clear #1 and Richardson providing the change of pace behind him.
The two things that I'm really looking for this weekend from the running backs are 1) are we going to bring back our Wildcat package and 2) will we make use of a #3 back? We've yet to run a single play from the Wildcat this season despite it having become a pretty big part of the offense over the last two years. Its even more curious considering it takes the QB completely out of the equation and we're more than likely looking for every way possible to keep games out of a first time starter's hands. As for the #3 back, Jalston Fowler has gotten some junk carries against Kent State and North Texas, but he's lined up at fullback some and we have a history of using a third back in certain situations (think Roy Upchurch taking over the second half of the Tennessee game in '08 and catching the game winning TD against Auburn in '09). Whether or not there's a truly defined role for him in this offense remains to be seen, but if we've got something special cooked up for him conference play is the time to show.
The Alabama defense is routinely described as one of the best - maybe the best - in the country. Does this unit have any weaknesses, and, if so, is the Hogs' potent offense well-positioned to take advantage of them?
We have no weaknesses and you have no chance against us.
Ok, there is one thing. We haven't been very good at getting sacks, which is a point of frustration for a lot of fans. Last season we were just simply outmuscled on the line until Courtney Upshaw finally got healthy for the last few games and combined with Marcell Dareus to give us the solid pass rushing bookends we haven't had in forever. Dareus is in the NFL now, but Upshaw is back and finally healthy so we're hoping he'll continue to provide that spark and allow us to finally get some pressure on opposing QBs like we weren't able to do last season.
I'm not overly concerned by this so far for a couple of reasons. First, all three opponents have schemed against the pass rush with quick throws that have kept us from getting to the QB. Second, we've done a good job of at least getting into the backfield and pressuring the QB, something we weren't doing at all last season. And third, we're well ahead of where we were last year as far as being a more physical and aggressive front seven. Though we may not be getting to the QB, at least we're back to stopping teams on first and second down and getting them into 3rd and long situations and forcing the opposing offense to play against our defensive strength (which, as with any Nick Saban/Kirby Smart defense is always supposed to be the secondary). Last season teams were routinely getting 3 and 4 yards per carry and getting into favorable 2nd and 3rd downs and keeping our defense on the field, but with Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial showing good development and NT Josh Chapman finally surrounded by a solid end rotation we've been able to get back to playing to our strengths.
Give us your prediction not only for Saturday but for what the Tide's regular-season record will be at the end of the year.
I think this is going to be an interesting game since the season for all intents and purposes begins for both teams this weekend. Neither team has truly been tested so far, and since the loser of this game is immediately playing catch up in the SEC West and hoping the winner manages to stumble a couple of times on their own, it's a huge game. I'm pretty confident in our chances, if for no other reason Saban's defense just seems particularly suited to stopping Petrino's offense. Y'all are a throw first team, and we're a defense that's built around giving confusing looks and using a lot of different coverages that are designed stymie that sort of attack. Outside of maybe LSU, I genuinely think Alabama is the only team in the conference that is uniquely suited to defend against what y'all do and even though I'm sure y'all will move the ball and score, I'm confident we can play our game against y'all and come out ahead.
As for the rest of the season? There are still so many unknowns on offense, and really until we can see how we perform against y'all I'm not willing to anoint this defense as an OMG BEST EVER type of unit like so many people have during the preseason. I think we've got a favorable schedule and the potential to run the table and get back to Atlanta, but we do have to go to Florida and even with the coaching changes they are still one of the most talented teams in the country, and if LSU is as good as they have looked so far that game could easily be the de facto national championship game. So as much as I hope we can make it back to Atlanta and even New Orleans, and am even quietly optimistic that it's possible, I don't want to get too crazy over it until we actually start playing in conference and can really judge what sort of team we really have.
Under the "good-natured ribbing" category, how painful was it for you to watch Auburn run undefeated to the national championship last year?
It was extremely difficult, not because it was "Auburn", but because it was THAT Auburn. Let's face it, that was a two man team consisting of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, and neither one of them is even remotely likeable unless you're an Auburn fan. If we had watched another Bo Jackson carry them to the MNC? Yeah, it would suck, but you can at least begrudgingly respect Bo Jackson. But last year's Auburn? No. They weren't a particularly good team, the two players that carried them all year were pretty much despicable, and yet still every lucky bounce, break, and call managed to go their way while spouting off about it being a "God thing." But hey, like the good book says, "Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity, for they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb." Thanks Clemson!