By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 13, 2011
Alabama is readying for North Texas, but exactly how much of a contest this will actually be is debatable.
While no opponent should ever be completely overlooked, the set of circumstances that would have to converge to give the North Texas Mean Green a chance in this game is so unlikely, it’s hard to consider exactly what those circumstances are, or how they would all happen simultaneously.
North Texas has a new head coach, Dan McCarney. McCarney was once thought to be a hot prospect from his days at Iowa State, but the difficulties of consistently recruiting talent to the state of Iowa caught up with him. He was fired, and most recently found himself in the SEC at Florida on the Gators’ defensive staff. North Texas represents an opportunity for McCarney to rehabilitate his resume.
Unfortunately, a new coach means a new system, and North Texas is moving away from Todd Dodge’s air-raid spread to something resembling normalcy. In the process, the offense is still a bit discombobulated and not likely to jell until much later in the year. Defensively, this was one of the worst teams in the nation in 2010 and things aren’t any better so far this season.
Alabama’s main challenge here is to keep its key players healthy before the real meat of the schedule arrives next week in the form of Arkansas.
North Texas is shifting from a full-time four-wide attack to a one-back spread with three wideouts and a tight end. To get that alignment, the Mean Green essentially had to create a tight end from players already on the roster. This is a team that will still pass to set up the run, but it won’t be as heavily weighted to the pass as in past seasons. An inexperienced offensive line is the primary concern. For Alabama, the Tide counters with its two-tight-end base formation, but Alabama will use plenty of three-wide sets as well. Don’t look for many new wrinkles from Alabama this week.
Derek Thompson and Brent Osborn will both play for the Mean Green. Both are sophomores. Thompson has gotten the bulk of the work so far, and both players have respectable stats. They’ve combined to complete 40 of 69 passes (58.0%) for 376 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 pick. Neither stands out, but if Todd Dodge was known for anything over his career, it was identifying and developing good quarterbacks. This is likely the best opposing quarterback(s) Alabama has seen so far in 2011. The Crimson Tide will play both A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims, and Blake Sims might get some time as well before it’s all said and done. McCarron was solid in his first two starts and appears to have grabbed the starting job. Only a meltdown from McCarron this week could send Phillip Sims back into the starting role. While Thompson and Osborn are good quarterbacks, neither has McCarron’s arm, and McCarron has done more against bigger-name opponents thus far. Advantage: Alabama
The sorry state of Mean Green rushing is evidenced by this stat line for leading rusher Lance Dunbar: 36 carries, 105 yards, 2.9 ypc, 1 TD. When the starting tailback can’t get even 3 yards per carry, there is an issue. Backup Bradin Byrd has better numbers, but has carried the ball only 9 times so far. The next leading rusher is QB Derek Thompson from trying to escape getting killed in the backfield. There is no fullback. Alabama counters with Trent Richardson, who put forth a solid effort at Penn State last week, backed up by Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler. Lacy is starting to establish himself as more than just a competent backup to the much-hyped Richardson. Blake Sims figures to play in this game and things might actually get down to walk-ons Ben Howell and Nick Tinker before the day is over. Although Alabama has no full-time fullback, Jalston Fowler occasionally lines up as one. This category isn’t even remotely close. Advantage: Alabama
It’s no surprise that North Texas has good wideouts given the emphasis on the spread attack the last few seasons. Tyler Stradford had plenty of experience coming into 2011 and was expected to be the bellcow, but he has been passed by younger players. The top two receivers are senior Michael Outlaw and electrifying sophomore Brelan Chancellor, who is tiny but possesses great speed. Chris Bynes and Willie Taylor offer depth, and North Texas makes great use of its running backs as receivers. JUCO transfer Andrew Power and converted linebacker Daniel Prior are the options at tight end, and both have caught passes so far this season. Alabama answers with Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks at receiver along with Michael Williams and Brad Smelley at tight end. This will be Hanks’ first action of the season. DeAndrew White, Brandon Gibson, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell have formed a competent supporting cast so far this season along with true freshman Christion Jones. The will-he-or-won’t-he-play soap opera surrounding Duron Carter continues to play out; don’t bet on him playing until you actually see him out there. Chris Underwood, Brandon Lewis, Harrison Jones and Brian Vogler offer depth at tight end, while Hardie Buck figures to get his jersey dirty at receiver in this game. Outlaw and Chancellor are quality options for North Texas, but Alabama has better depth and the tight end comparison is strongly in the Tide’s favor. Advantage: Alabama
There have been plenty of questions about Alabama’s offensive line this year, but those pale in comparison to what North Texas is going through at the moment. Pass blocking has been acceptable, but the Mean Green can’t block air when it comes to running the football. Injuries are also an issue, as starting center J.J. Johnson missed the Mean Green’s most recent game and might miss the Alabama game as well. The right side of the line is the veteran side, with senior Matt Tomlinson at tackle and Aaron Fortenberry at guard. On the left are two freshmen, guard Mason Y’Barbo and tackle Antonio Johnson. With Johnson sidelined, expect to see a lot of Cyril Lemon and Coleman Feeley in the game, along with plenty of lineup shuffling. Alabama counters with Barrett Jones at left tackle and D.J. Fluker at right tackle, Anthony Steen and Chance Warmack at the guard positions and William Vlachos at center. If the Penn State game was any indication, this is the lineup Alabama has settled on, meaning Cyrus Kouandjio will understudy behind Jones at left tackle and his brother, Arie Kouandjio, will back up Fluker. Alfred McCullough and John Michael Boswell are veteran backup guards, while Kellen Williams will play center. No contest here. Advantage: Alabama
North Texas runs a 4-3 front, but the Mean Green hasn’t stopped anyone yet in 2011. North Texas is among the nation’s worst in all major defensive statistics, which can’t excite McCarney, a defensive coach. The Mean Green’s strengths are off the edge, but the middle of the defense is terribly inexperienced. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over-under scheme that has been positively stifling so far. So far, Alabama’s defense hasn’t shown a weakness.
Ends Brandon Akpunku and K.C. Obi are good pass rushers, particularly Akpunku. Alabama has seen both players before. Neither, however, are very good against the run, which is bad news for North Texas, as they’ll be getting plenty of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy in this game. The tackles are unsettled. Tevinn Cantly and Brandon McCoy figure to see most of the time, but Ryan Boutwell and Richard Abbe will provide depth. Aaron Bellazin, Frank Gaines and Alexander Lincoln provide depth at end. Alabama will counter with Josh Chapman in the middle and Jesse Williams and Damion Square at end. Quinton Dial will get plenty of snaps at end, while Nick Gentry, Ed Stinson and Undra Billingsley provide depth. Expect to see Brandon Ivory in this game along with Jeoffrey Pagan, Chris Bonds and perhaps William Ming as well. Advantage: Alabama
Jeremy Phillips is a returning starter a weakside linebacker for North Texas, but beyond that the landscape is fairly barren. Zach Orr and Sean January are battling for middle linebacker, while Will Wright and Forlando Johnson are competing at strongside backer. Freshman Michael Stojkovic adds depth. Alabama will play Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson at inside linebacker, with Jerrell Harris at strongside and Courtney Upshaw at Jack. Harris won’t see much time in this one, though, given North Texas’ expected offensive alignment. Alex Watkins played well in relief of Upshaw last week in pass-rushing situations and appears to have all his speed back after a knee injury in the spring. Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest should both see plenty of time. Advantage: Alabama
North Texas was decent in pass defense in 2010, and has three of four starters back in 2011, but so far the results haven’t been up to expectations. Royce Hill and D’Leon McCord are veterans at corner, while John Shorter and Ryan Downing also have plenty of experience at safety. All four are seniors. So is reserve corner Steven Ford and reserve safety Brad Graham, and the other reserve safety, DaWaylon Cook, is a junior. Sophomore Hilbert Jackson adds depth at cornerback. Alabama counters with Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner at corner and Mark Barron, Robert Lester and Will Lowery at safety. North Texas’ cornerbacks have good size (both are 6’1”) and there’s no lack of experience, so the question is whether the problem is with new defensive coordinator Clint Bowen or if the Mean Green simply has had two bad games. Either way, Alabama can’t sleep on this unit, but the Crimson Tide still holds the edge. Advantage: Alabama
Once again, Alabama will be facing a quality punter in Will Atterberry. He’s averaging 46.6 yards per kick and the Mean Green is 17th nationally in net punting. Moreover, Brelan Chancellor is one of the country’s best kickoff return men. Unfortunately for North Texas, placekicker Zach Olen is highly inconsistent, and the North Texas punt return unit is one of the country’s worst. Alabama counters with Cody Mandell at punter and Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley at placekicker. Mandell had a rough week in State College after enjoying a solid opener, but the kicking combination of Shelley and Foster are doing fine. Alabama has also been consistently good in all phases of the return game and the coverage teams are sound. Atterberry is clearly a better punter, but Alabama holds a clear edge most everywhere else. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories. In terms of unit matchups, Alabama controls both OL-DL matchups completely. Suffice to say this game will (or at least should) be one-sided.
The primary consideration for the Crimson Tide will be keeping the starters healthy. North Texas thus far has stopped no one on defense and threatened no one on offense. The Mean Green is a program in transition, and was one of the least-talented Division-IA schools even before Todd Dodge got canned.
Look for Alabama to open a large lead early and get the reserves into the game as quickly as possible, then make plans for Arkansas next Saturday.
North Texas 7
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