By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 3, 2012
In addition to the adage about the most improvement coming between the first and second games, there is a second adage that proves true far too often: Letdowns can be a killer.
Does Western Kentucky have a chance to knock off Alabama this week in Bryant-Denny Stadium? Probably not, but the Hilltoppers could lead to a mass shortening of fingernail length if they arrive fired up while Alabama goes flat a week after beating a decent Michigan team within an inch of its collective life. Western Kentucky, just a babe in the world of the Football Bowl Subdivision, has been on a steady rise under head coach Willie Taggart, who won’t be at WKU much longer if he keeps developing players at the pace he’s going now.
Western Kentucky plays with a toughness not seen at most schools of its size. The Hilltoppers are unapologetically physical and will bring the fight directly to Alabama’s doorstep. It’s important for Alabama to make its statement early in the game, just as it did against Michigan.
Western Kentucky runs the West Coast offense, but does so with a true dual-threat quarterback. The offensive line is a veteran unit, and the Hilltoppers make the fullback an important part of the base offense. Western Kentucky is replacing most of its receiving corps in 2012, but there is experience all over the field and better talent than its conference pedigree would indicate. Alabama counters with its pro-style attack that, against Michigan, seemed to have morphed back into a traditional I-formation attack rather than the Ace-based offense of former coordinator Jim McElwain. Alabama figures to be multiple, however, showing both looks to the Hilltoppers along with multi-receiver sets.
Western Kentucky’s Kawaun Jakes had a bit of a rough year in 2011, throwing for more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10) and racking up less than 2,000 yards, but he appears to have improved a good bit over the offseason. Jakes is roughly the size of Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, but he has better wheels and can make plays with his feet. Even adjusting for sack yardage, Jakes averaged more than 2 yards per carry in 2011 – good numbers considering the college game subtracts sack yardage from rushing totals, rather than keeping it a separate stat as the NFL chooses to do. Jakes mostly needs not to get rattled and disappear for stretches of games, as he was wont to do the last two years. For Alabama, McCarron had a solid opener against Michigan, showing a little rust on some short passes but looking sharp on his deeper throws. Both starters are backed up by freshmen, James Mauro for WKU and Phillip Ely for Alabama. If things go as planned, Bama fans will get to see Ely throw his first collegiate passes in relief of McCarron – long after the outcome of the game has been decided. Advantage: Alabama
Western Kentucky is replacing one of the most underrated college backs of the past few years, Bobby Rainey, with a pair of juniors, Keshawn Simpson and Antonio Andrews. The position is still a bit undecided at this point, but what is clear is both players have size (around 6’0”, 225 for both) and talent. True freshmen Leon Allen nearly rushed for 100 yards in a half against Austin Peay last week, and rounds out a solid depth chart. Fullback Kadeem Jones is an able blocker, receiver and runner. Alabama counters with Eddie Lacy at tailback followed by some mixture of T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart. Fowler will also play fullback much of the time. Turf toe continues to limit Lacy’s carries, but Yeldon and Fowler showed it might not matter with strong performances against the Wolverines in Week 1. Kenyan Drake also got into the Michigan game late and figures to make an appearance in this one as well. Western Kentucky actually has better running backs than Michigan did, but Alabama is still better. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams replaced both starting wide receivers after 2011 but retained their starting tight ends. The difference is the overall talent pool. The tight ends – Jack Doyle for WKU and Michael Williams for Alabama – are about equal in what they’re able to do in an offense. Doyle might find his way onto an NFL roster next year, for that matter. At receiver, though, Alabama is more settled. Western Kentucky will likely start sophomore Willie McNeal at flanker and true freshman Austin Aikens at split end, but Boe Brand is also a possibility to start. Brand weighs scarcely 160 pounds on a 6’0” frame, and while Aikens had a handful of large-school offers coming out of high school – including at least two from SEC teams – he needs weight training, too. Neil Wilson adds depth. Alabama counters with DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones as the top group, with Amari Cooper, Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson Jr. adding depth. Alabama also has a massive depth advantage at tight end, with Brian Vogler, Harrison Jones and H-back Kelly Johnson all having more game experience than Tim Gorski, Western Kentucky’s freshman reserve. Aikens looks like a future star, but the emphasis is on “future”. Advantage: Alabama
Western Kentucky has arguably the best offensive line in the Sun Belt, but compared to Alabama’s line, the Hilltoppers are in the valley. Right guard Adam Smith is the best of the bunch, and he starts opposite Luis Polanco. Sean Conway is solid at center. The problem spots are tackle, where left tackle Cameron Clemmons is a sophomore and the right tackle position is home to a newcomer, Seth White, a senior with plenty of experience coming off the bench but not in dealing with SEC rushers. The Hilltoppers have some veteran reserves who have good size, including 6’8” reserve tackle Ed Hazelett, 6’8” guard Cliff Burns and freshman tackle Darrell Williams, who would pass the eye test if he was on an SEC roster. Alabama will start Barrett Jones at center flanked by guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen, both of whom had monster games against Michigan. Tackles D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio have tons of ability, but need to clean up some pass protection issues if Week 1 was any indication. Alabama hopes to see plenty of its second team in this game – tackles Kellen Williams and Austin Shepherd, guards Chad Lindsey and Arie Kouandjio and center Ryan Kelly. And the Tide probably will. Advantage: Alabama
Western Kentucky runs a fairly straightforward 4-3 scheme that is surprisingly solid up the middle. Size is an issue all around, though, to the surprise of no one, with the possible exception of inside linebacker. The secondary is flush with experience, although there isn’t a six-footer in the building. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under deathtrap that yielded exactly two plays of note to Michigan in Week 1. Alabama is deep, aggressive, fast and large.
The Hilltoppers are actually in pretty good shape at tackle, where Jamarcus Allen is a poor man’s Josh Chapman. Built to resemble a fireplug, Allen is still a couple of inches shorter and around 20-30 pounds lighter than Chapman was in his Alabama days, but he gets a good push and is tough against the run. Seniors Rammell Lewis and Kenny Martin split the other tackle spot and will rotate almost equally. The end positions are a concern, though, with Cole Tischer and JUCO transfer Calvin Washington splitting one position, while senior Quanterus Smith and T.J. Smith – both of whom are outweighed by every Alabama linebacker on scholarship – go from the other side. Freshman Gavin Rocker adds depth at end, while Jamichael Payne works at tackle. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle, flanked by Ed Stinson and Damion Square outside. Quinton Dial will rotate with both, while Joeffrey Pagan and LaMichael Fanning provide depth there. Brandon Ivory and Wilson Love should see time at nose tackle behind Williams. Although WKU won’t be pushovers, Alabama is on a different plane. Advantage: Alabama
Middle linebacker Andrew Jackson goes around 6’2”, 260 and could play for a lot of SEC teams, maybe even Alabama. Bar’ee Boyd and Xavius Boyd, two brothers, flank him. Together, they form a veteran unit that is the strength of the Hilltopper defense. Senior Tye Golden is the primary backup at the outside positions, while a pair of freshmen, Daqual Randall and Daerius Washington, round out the top group. Alabama counters with the trio of Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Tre DePriest inside, with Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson the outside linebackers. Denzel Devall, Tana Patrick and Dillon Lee should see action in this game, along with perhaps Jonathan Atchison and Anthony Orr. Western Kentucky may very well have better linebackers than the Arkansas team Alabama will face in Week 3, but the Tide should still have the edge. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s first outing of the year was mostly a success, although the secondary was a bit rough around the edges on a couple of long passes. On top of that, starting safety Robert Lester suffered a shoulder stinger and probably won’t play as much in this game as he ordinarily would have. Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix will get most of the work at safety, while Deion Belue, Dee Milliner and Geno Smith see most of the action at corner. John Fulton will also play some at corner, while Nick Perry and Landon Collins figure to get work at safety. Expect to also see some of Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington in this game. Although the secondary isn’t the absolute strength of Western Kentucky’s defense, this is a strong group. Cornerbacks Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright return, while returning starter Kareem Patterson is battling talented junior Kiante Young for the strong safety position. The wild card is the new free safety, Jonathan Dowling, and if WKU coaches aren’t comfortable with him in this game, look for Patterson and Young to be on the field together. Again, Alabama will see worse secondaries in the SEC this year (here’s looking at you, Ole Miss), but the Tide still gets the nod. Advantage: Alabama
UA Campus Police will be watching Western Kentucky closely, making sure the Hilltopper coaching staff doesn’t try to kidnap a Bama kicker. Things are so bad, the Hilltoppers are considering using punter Hendrix Brakefield in this game. Kickers Jesse Roy and Garrett Schwettman were a combined 0-for-3 in the opener, with all three misses coming from inside 39 yards. Roy was 2-for-6 for all of 2011. There’s no word on how good Brakefield might be as a kicker, but he is a good punter. Alabama, meanwhile, lit up the stat sheets against Michigan, thanks mostly to punter Cody Mandell emerging as a weapon. The placekicking, both from short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley and long kicker Cade Foster, was solid. Both teams are good in the return games, although Alabama is probably better in coverage. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories, and also leads in both OL/DL matchups, although not by such a massive amount as to be dismissive of Western Kentucky’s talent there.
But put everything together, and Alabama should roll. Kawaun Jakes won’t find Alabama’s defense to be as porous as that of Austin Peay, and the undersized WKU secondary and defensive line figure to get trucked by Alabama’s strong rushing game. Still, Alabama must guard against doing in its second game what Florida did in its first – lose focus and allow a lesser opponent to hang around long enough to at least make the outcome look ugly.
If Alabama jumps out to the kind of lead it built over Michigan in the opener, the Tide can feel secure emptying the bench in the second half and still coasting to a victory. Western Kentucky doesn’t have the kind of offensive firepower to make up big deficits, at least not against an opponent of Alabama’s caliber.
Western Kentucky 7