By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 18, 2013
Colorado State is in its second season under head coach and former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.
Unfortunately for Rams fans, the program has several seasons to go before CSU’s talent level can hope to approach what McElwain left behind in Tuscaloosa.
Whether Alabama scheduled this game because it needed a soft spot on its schedule, or whether it was a favor to McElwain from his former boss, no one can say for sure. What is certain is that Alabama’s biggest challenge this week will be in staying interested long enough to finish the game without head coach Nick Saban going off on some poor soul for a perceived lack of effort.
Simply put, the Colorado State program is in bad shape. McElwain will get multiple seasons to turn things around, but it is a far cry back to the glory years of Sonny Lubick’s tenure, to say nothing of McElwain ever bringing enough talent into the program to allow it to compete with most BCS teams. CSU is struggling on both offense and defense at the moment, despite having a rather weak schedule to open the year. Alabama, meanwhile, is banged up after a trip to College Station, Texas, and the game against Colorado State couldn’t come at a better time.
The most interesting aspect of this game, from an Alabama fan’s perspective, will be watching the substitution patterns as Alabama auditions new players in several roles that will be open this week due to injuries.
Colorado State’s offensive scheme will be familiar to Alabama fans, as it’s the one currently in use in Tuscaloosa. McElwain took the idea of a balanced, pro-style scheme with him to Fort Collins, but the Rams currently lack the talent to run it well. Colorado State ranks 73rd in rushing offense and 86th in passing offense, numbers that don’t figure to improve against the Crimson Tide defense. Depth is, predictably, also an issue for McElwain. Alabama counters with its same version of McElwain’s offense, albeit turbocharged thanks to the amount of speed and size to which the Crimson Tide has access. Because of its slow start in the opener against Virginia Tech, Alabama’s rankings don’t differ much from Colorado State, although the Tide does have much better offensive efficiency statistics – and has done it against better competition than has CSU.
Junior Garrett Grayson has been the lone triggerman so far for the Rams. His numbers have been acceptable – 55 of 98 (56.1%) for 606 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions – but Grayson isn’t considered a dynamic playmaker. The fact Grayson has been the lone participant so far is a mild surprise given that there was competition in the spring between him and sophomore Conner Smith. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, whose masterful performance against Texas A&M went largely unnoticed because of the many exploits of Johnny Manziel. By virtue of having one more game than McCarron, Grayson’s statistics are a bit better, but there’s no doubt who the winner of this comparison is – it’s the guy with three national championship rings already in the drawers of his bedroom. McCarron is backed up by Blake Sims, and it’s almost a given that Sims will get into this game. Redshirt freshman Alec Morris might also see playing time, depending on how far out in front Alabama gets. If neither Sims nor Morris makes it into this game, Alabama has bigger problems on its hands. Advantage: Alabama
This is probably the strength of the Ram offense, as Colorado State has the kind of depth one usually finds in a team from a much larger conference. Starting tailback Chris Nwoke (47 carries, 236 yards, 5.0 avg., 1 TD) has above-average size for a Mountain West team (6’1”, 220 pounds) and attacks holes with vigor. Junior college transfer Kapri Bibbs isn’t much smaller than Nwoke, and he has good burst. He’s carried 35 times for 197 yards (5.6 avg.) and 3 touchdowns. He and Nwoke will operate in a two-back rotation much the same as Alabama will with its starter and backup. Behind Bibbs, Donnell Alexander (14 carries, 49 yards, 3.5 avg., 1 TD) adds depth. Alabama counters with T.J. Yeldon (42 carries, 224 yards, 5.3 avg., 2 TD), who was a key performer against Virginia Tech and Texas A&M, but who also needs to stop being a ball-security footnote in big games. The depth situation behind Yeldon is unclear; Kenyan Drake returned from a one-game suspension to put together a solid performance in College Station (7 carries, 50 yards, 7.1 avg., 1 TD), but Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart remain in the mix. So, too, do true freshmen Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry. All of them will likely play this week as Alabama tries to rest starters and get a look at newer players. Neither team uses a full-time fullback, although Fowler appearing in a hybrid H-back role for Alabama has been a success thus far. Colorado State would actually rank higher here than several SEC teams, but the Tide still hold a commanding lead. Advantage: Alabama
This might be the game Amari Cooper finally breaks out for Alabama. Cooper’s sophomore season has started slowly, as he’s mostly been a supporting player to the likes of Kevin Norwood and DeAndrew White, the latter of whom is Alabama’s leading receiver at the moment. Norwood is extremely unlikely to play in this game after suffering a foot injury against Texas A&M, so look for Kenny Bell to slide into his starting spot. Christion Jones will figure heavily in the gameplan. Redshirt freshman Chris Black should get his first significant work, as could walk-on Parker Barrineau. The third game of the year is typically the division line for true freshmen yet to play; if Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster don’t make it into this game, they likely won’t for the balance of the season unless more injuries pop up. Along with Barrineau, fellow walk-on Ty Reed could get playing time. Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard formed a formidable tight end duo against the Aggies, and both will play this week along with blocking specialists Harrison Jones and Brandon Greene. Redshirt freshman Kurt Freitag could also get some work. For Colorado State, 6 receivers have already caught 7 or more passes. Freshmen Jordon Vaden (8 catches, 105 yards, 13.1 avg., 1 TD) and Rashard Higgins (9 catches, 100 yards, 11.1 avg., 1 TD) lead the group. Both are 6’3”, which will give Alabama cornerbacks good practice for Ole Miss’ tall receivers who are set to visit the following week. Thomas Coffman and Joe Hansley provide depth at receiver; both are average-sized players reminiscent of Darius Hanks. The real question is whether an ankle injury will keep Hansley out of the game. Robert Ruiz will likely step in if Hansley can’t go. Colorado State will use two tight ends for the majority of its sets, and both Crockett Gillmore and Kivon Cartwright are solid players. Gillmore in particular, at 6’6” and 260 pounds, could be a matchup problem. The top group for the Rams isn’t bad, but Alabama has better depth and far more explosiveness in the starting group. Advantage: Alabama
The big question is which Alabama line will show up – the one that struggled against the Hokies in Week 1, or the one that dominated the Aggie defensive line in Week 2. Alabama will likely go to war without right guard Anthony Steen, who suffered a concussion against Texas A&M and hasn’t worked in any practice drills this week. If Steen sits, senior Kellen Williams will draw the start there. Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd will start at left and right tackle, respectively, while Arie Kouandjio starts at left guard and Ryan Kelly at center. Williams played the last two series for Alabama against the Aggies and did a solid job, but Steen’s raw power will be missed. With Williams moving inside, Alabama will have to rely on Leon Brown as the backup at both tackle slots. Alphonse Taylor and Isaac Luatua will back up the guards, while Chad Lindsey will be the second-team center. Colorado State counters with a line of four senior starters and one junior. Weston Richburg starts at center, flanked by guards Jordan Gragert and Ty Sambrailo and tackles Jared Biard and Brandon Hayes. Mason Myers and Mason Hathaway are the top backups. Biard, the left tackle, is probably the best of the bunch. While that kind of experience is hard to overlook, especially since Alabama has a starter out and hasn’t shown proven consistency yet, the overall talent level and depth situation is still in Alabama’s favor. It’s enough of a track record that we’ll take Bama on faith. Advantage: Alabama
The Rams not only share a similar offensive style to the Tide’s, the similarities continue on the defensive side of the ball. Alabama employs a multiple-front, 3-4 over/under scheme, while Colorado State will use a more straightforward 4-3 look, but occasionally will move to the 3-1-3 front favored by Tide defensive coaches. Unfortunately for the Rams, defensive scheme has been secondary to plain old ineffectiveness. The Rams rank 88th in both pass defense categories, 93rd in total defense and 83rd in stopping the run. This despite a schedule that has included Colorado, Tulsa and Cal Poly. Alabama’s unit completely shut down Virginia Tech in the opener, but had trouble with Manziel last week and, as a result, saw its defensive rankings skyrocket from the single digits to something much worse. The limited sample size at this point in the season makes it difficult to look at only the raw numbers, but there’s no doubt which team has the talent advantage.
This is a work in progress for Colorado State, with the current lineup much different from the one the Rams employed in the spring. Huge Calvin Tonga (6’3”, 335) has stepped in to solidify the nosetackle position, while Curtis Wilson starts alongside him. Sophomores Terry Jackson and LaRyan King provide depth. At end, senior Eli Edwards seems to have grabbed one slot, while Shaquil Barrett, who is the closest thing Colorado State has to a Jack linebacker, is the team’s best pass rusher. Barrett has already amassed 7 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, along with a pass breakup. He has good quickness and instincts and Alabama will need to watch him. Joe Kawulok, Austin Berk and Martavius Foster are also in the mix. Alabama counters with Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan at the ends. It’s hard to get a feel for what the substitution patterns are, given the injury to Dalvin Tomlinson and the specialty packages which dominated the gameplan against Texas A&M. LaMichael Fanning and A’Shawn Robinson seem to be the next wave of reserve ends, with Darren Lake the top backup at nose. All will see time in this game in addition to Jonathan Allen. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see names like Dakota Ball and Anthony Orr getting their first game action in this one, either. Stinson’s performances over the first two weeks have been very strong, but Alabama needs more consistency from the middle of the defense. Barrett has been the most effective player on either side, but Alabama has better depth and Stinson is on the verge of breaking out. Advantage: Alabama
When Shaquil Barrett isn’t playing end, he’s playing a hybrid linebacker spot. He’s been effective in both roles. The other three spots are manned by Aaron Davis, Max Morgan and Cory James. Size is not the Rams’ strong point; not including the hybrid end Barrett, James, at 235 pounds, is the biggest of the group and the numbers go down from there. Davis leads the team in tackles with 25, but has just 1 tackle for loss – 1 more than either Morgan or James. The Rams have simply had problems making plays behind the line of scrimmage. CSU has played quite a few players here in the early going, with Nu’uvali Fa’apito, Nolan Peralta and Ken Hulbert the top names. True freshman Deonte Clyburn will be one to watch in future years, along with Bryan Ohene. Alabama counters with C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest in the middle and the rotation of Adrian Hubbard, Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson out the outside. Reuben Foster, Reggie Ragland and Tana Patrick provide depth up the middle, while Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee are available at outside linebacker. Alabama needs to get Hubbard on track in order for this unit to take the next step. While Alabama has had struggles here and there, the lack of effectiveness of Colorado State’s unit, coupled with the size disadvantage, makes this a relatively easy call. Advantage: Alabama
Neither team’s group has been particularly consistent, although Alabama did have to traverse the Johnny Manziel minefield. The most accomplished player for CSU is cornerback Shaq Bell, who would probably start for Alabama if he could make the immediate switch. Bernard Blake will start at the other corner slot, with Trent Matthews and Kevin Pierre-Louis getting the call at safety. DeAndre Elliot plays enough to be considered a starter for all practical purposes. Alabama counters with Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix at safety, and who knows what at corner. Deion Belue is the undisputed leader of the cornerback group, but a turf toe injury might keep him out of this game. Alabama is said to be trying out several new combinations in the defensive backfield. One would think John Fulton and Cyrus Jones would continue to have roles of some kind, but Geno Smith and Bradley Sylve are in the mix along with Maurice Smith and Jabriel Washington. Nick Perry, Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams provide depth at safety. Were it not for the exploits of Sunseri, Colorado State might have taken this category thanks to the play of Bell, but the rest of Colorado State’s group has just as many questions as Alabama’s. In the end, raw talent wins out. Advantage: Alabama
Jared Roberts has already nailed 6 field goals for Colorado State in as many tries. Overall, the Rams’ special teams hold up to any test. The Rams rank 21st and 7th, respectfully, in punt and kickoff returns and 33rd in net punting. Punter Hayden Hunt is one of the best in the business, and the Rams do a good job on coverage. Alabama punter Cody Mandell is one of the best in the country, and the return units, fronted by Christion Jones and Dee Hart, have been solid. Cade Foster is kicking off well and has yet to miss a kick – but all of his kicks have been extra points. Because Foster is unproven on field goals and Colorado State’s Roberts has proven himself, give this one to the Rams. Advantage: Colorado State
Alabama leads in seven categories, Colorado State in one. Alabama, however, controls both OL/DL matchups.
In the end, this simply boils down to talent – or, in Colorado State’s case, a lack thereof. The Rams aren’t a completely terrible team, but the Rams have to stretch to find playmakers, while all Alabama has to do is look at the next guy on the bench. The sprinkling of stars – Shaq Bell, Shaquil Barrett, Chris Nwoke – isn’t enough to offset the waves of playmakers Alabama figures to bring into this game.
The key for Alabama is to simply stay to the script. It’s natural for a letdown to follow such an emotional, focus-heavy game as the Texas A&M win, and it would surprise no one for Alabama to get off to a slow start in this game. Jim McElwain will make Colorado State better in time, but for now, this is a team trying to prove its relevancy to the sport. Staying with Alabama for three quarters would do just that, but even if Alabama does start the game slowly, don’t look for Bama to take more than a quarter or so to get in gear.
Colorado St. 10