By Jess Nicholas,
Aug. 28, 2014
Just about the time West Virginia head coach Dana Holgersen was being anointed as the next big thing in college coaches, the 2013 season happened.
West Virginia went 4-8 in 2013, and the problems were evident right off the bat, as West Virginia struggled to beat William & Mary in the opener, 24-17, then had losses to Oklahoma and Maryland by a combined score of 53-7, sandwiching a win over FBS pretender Georgia State. The offense than Holgorsen took such great pride in having developed suddenly didn’t work.
It’s unlikely West Virginia will struggle as much in 2014. The Mountaineers used three quarterbacks in 2013 and all three had the same number of passing touchdowns as they each had interceptions. But the real problem was on defense – never a particular concern for Holgorsen – where the Mountaineers’ philosophy appeared to be one of letting the other team score quickly so as to get the ball back to their offense.
Alabama comes into this game with a new look on offense, and not just because Lane Kiffin is calling the plays. Alabama will be more mobile (and likely less accurate) at quarterback, more in tune with the ground game, and hopefully stiffer on defense, particularly in the front seven. West Virginia ought to be improved – and for Holgorsen’s sake, better be – but it will take a mountainous effort for WVU to beat the Crimson Tide.
What West Virginia runs is Holgorsen’s take on the standard Big 12 spread offense. The Mountaineers were a respectable 34th in the country in rushing offense last season, but just 82nd in passing offense and, most telling of all, 79th in scoring offense thanks to bottom-end effeciency. West Virginia bases from a three-wide set, but does make good use of a hybrid H-back. The offense works off misdirection and matchups, screens and tempo, but is not a HUNH in theory – unless Holgorsen has been watching Sugar Bowl tape and has decided to mimic Oklahoma. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that will probably get back to basics a bit more this season. Expect to see Alabama tilt toward the run, as it breaks in a new quarterback and left tackle.
West Virginia will leave things to Clint Trickett, a former Florida State backup – where else have we heard that one? – who struggled last year while sharing the job with two other people. One of those, Paul Millard, is back and still competing for the job. Trickett has the job at the moment mostly because the coaches feel he can make better decisions. His arm strength is sub-par and he’s not a very adept runner. The same can be said of Millard. Alabama, on the other hand, brings plenty of athleticism to the table in the form of likely starter Blake Sims and backup Jake Coker. Sims, who was A.J. McCarron’s backup in 2013, may be the best runner Alabama has ever had at the position. But his decision-making has been uneven in past action, and while his arm strength is above average, his release mechanics are not. Coker, who many expected to win the job early in fall camp after his transfer from Florida State, instead struggled to pick up the offense in fall camp. He’ll get plenty of on-the-job training in the first month of the season, either because Alabama is blowing out lesser opponents or Sims is struggling. Coker has a great arm, but accuracy problems and poor decisions showed that it did indeed hurt him to miss spring practice with the team. Neither side really inspires a lot of confidence, so go with the group that has more real game experience to this point. Advantage: West Virginia
Charles Sims is gone, which leaves Dreamius Smith, Andrew Buie and Wendell Smallwood as the top options. Smith was the primary backup to Sims last year and has a good mix of size and speed, while Buie was the 2012 starter who missed the entire 2013 season. Buie is a scatback and is at his best when he can pressure the corner. Smallwood is somewhat in between the two, closer to Smith in build, and a decent inside runner. This is a solid group, but can’t touch Alabama’s primary trio of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. Yeldon is a Heisman hopeful, Henry a physical freak and Drake faster and shiftier than any of West Virginia’s backs despite being bigger than two of them. Alabama will use a fullback at time, as Jalston Fowler will see virtually all of the action there. Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones add depth at tailback, while Michael Nysewander and Corey McCarron back up Fowler. Advantage: Alabama
There is some talent coming back for West Virginia, but no breakout player. Daikiel Shorts and Kevin White will probably be the primary options, and they combined for just over 1,000 yards last year. H-back Cody Clay is a decent option, as are spare receivers K.J. Myers, Mario Alford, Vernon Davis Jr. and Devonte Mathis. Jordan Thompson rounds out the top group. Alabama has three premier receivers at the top of its depth chart, Amari Cooper, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. Depth is solid, although Alabama will utilize a couple of players, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart, who have yet to play in a college game. Cameron Sims, Chris Black, Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau add depth. At tight end, Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard will split time depending on the role, with Dakota Ball and Malcolm Faciane backing them up. West Virginia has some good options, but the top of Alabama’s depth chart helps separate the two units. Advantage: Alabama
One of the areas of West Virginia’s team that must get better is the offensive line. The Mountaineers were unable to ever really get a consistent ground attack going, and they gave up far too many sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Tyler Orlosky will start at center flanked by guards Mark Glowinski and Quinton Spain and tackles Adam Pankey and Marquis Lucas. There is good size here, with all starters over the 300-pound mark, but the depth situation is spotty. Glowinski and Spain are the only full-time starters back from a year ago. Alabama will start Ryan Kelly in the middle, with Arie Kouandjio and Alphonse Taylor at the guards and Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd at the tackles. Most eyes have been trained on the true freshman Robinson and his assignment of protecting the quarterback’s backside, but the real question may be guard play. Kouandjio was a weak link at times in 2013, and Taylor is starting in place of the injured Leon Brown. Brown may be available for this game, and if he is, will back up Taylor, with true freshman Ross Pierschbacher backing up Kouandjio. Bradley Bozeman is the likely backup center, with Dominick Jackson and Grant Hill the reserve tackles. Jackson could play guard as well. Both teams have questions, but Alabama has the superior talent. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama bases from its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme, while West Virginia also utilizes a three-man front most often, either in a 3-4 or a 3-3-5 set. Alabama, however, will be in its 3-3-5, 4-2-5, 4-1-6 and 3-2-6 alignments for most of the game as a result of having to face a spread offense. In 2013, Alabama put up solid numbers despite having little push from the front and an ever-expanding injury list in the secondary. West Virginia had problems stopping anything, ranking 90th or worse in all major defensive categories.
Big bodies must be at a premium in coal country, because the Mountaineers have very few of them. Nose tackle Kyle Rose checks in at 6’4”, 295, more than big enough to handle the job. But tackle Dontrill Hyman is 285 and tackle/end Shaquille Riddick a paltry 244. Numbers like those are common when defensing spread teams, but Alabama doesn’t run a spread. The three starters had just 8 starts between them in 2013, and the second team, made up of Christian Brown in the middle and Noble Nwachukwu and Eric Kinsey outside, had even less experience. Alabama will counter with A’Shawn Robinson in the middle, flanked by D.J. Pettway and Jonathan Allen coming off the edge. Alabama’s depth is far better than West Virginia’s, with Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake offering experienced depth inside and Dalvin Tomlinson, Jarran Reed, Dee Liner and Da’Shawn Hand available at end. While Alabama’s ends are mostly greenhorns, the raw talent of players like Hand and Reed have coaches and fans alike salivating. This one isn’t close at all. Advantage: Alabama
Again, it’s a size thing. K.J. Dillon is listed as a safety on the West Virginia roster, but he’ll play a rover linebacker role not unlike Auburn’s Robenson Therezie. As for the rest, Brandon Golson and Nick Kwiatkoski will start inside, with Wes Tonkery on the edge. The average weight here is probably somewhere around 220 pounds. The backups go even lighter – Edward Muldrow is around 215, while Dillon’s backup at rover, Cullen Christian, doesn’t top the 200-pound mark. But Alabama is not without its troubles. Alabama was already going to be somewhat inexperienced, with Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster fighting over the weakside linebacker spot, and then Trey DePriest got suspended for this game. Foster will move to the middle; neither he nor Ragland have really ever played with a game on the line. The backups are redshirt freshman Walker Jones and true freshman Shaun Dion Hamilton. Things are better on the outside, where Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall will start. Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson will be the primary backups, although freshman Rashaan Evans will probably play, as might Tim Williams. The issue for Alabama is that personnel groupings will force the Tide to take Devall and/or Dickson off the field most of the time and leave things up to the newbies in the middle. Hard to call this for now, so it comes down to talent. Advantage: Alabama
Karl Joseph is a quality safety, if a little undersized. The rest of the unit, though, needs improvement, experience or both. Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut will start at the corners, with Dravon Henry next to Joseph at safety. West Virginia allowed too many yards and too many big plays in 2013, a bad combination. At least the unit goes a full two-deep; Travis Bell gives the Mountaineers good experience off the bench at corner, while Jarrod Harper, Jeremy Tyler and Ricky Rumph have experience to basically match the starters. Alabama will counter with Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve at the corners and Landon Collins and Nick Perry at the safeties. Geno Smith will probably play as much or more than Perry at free safety if he’s healthy enough. By virtue of having to play so many people in 2013 when injuries mounted up, Alabama can bring experienced talent like Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith off the bench at corner, or Jarrick Williams in to play safety. Jabriel Washington took a step forward and may be in the rotation, and true freshmen Marlon Humphrey, Tony Brown and Laurence Jones could also see playing time. Alabama has superior talent and the edge in depth, but the presence of Collins alone would probably be enough to tilt the scales. Advantage: Alabama
Josh Lambert had a decent year kicking for West Virginia, making about two-thirds of his kicks. Punter Jared O’Toole was a weapon, averaging more than 44 yards per attempt. West Virginia strongly controls this category, although the presence of Christion Jones for Alabama gets the Crimson Tide to no worse than neutral in the return game. Alabama has more athletes available, so return coverage ought to tilt toward the Tide. At the kicking slots, Adam Griffith will get the call at placekicker, while true freshman J.K. Scott will start at punter. Scott has looked impressive this fall, as has Griffith – although Griffith’s spring performance was disappointing. Alabama might yet be OK here, but the Tide hasn’t proven anything yet. Advantage: West Virginia
Alabama leads in six categories, West Virginia in two. Alabama should strongly control the matchup of its DL vs. the West Virginia OL, and figures to hold a solid edge going the other way as well.
The quarterback uncertainty, however, makes Alabama at least a bit nervous. West Virginia is better, too, than the 4-8 record showed in 2013. The Mountaineers were a ranked team in the preseason with a lot of potential and expectations, but failed to live up to either. Quite frankly, Dana Holgorsen did a poor job leading the team, and this team has something to prove.
Alabama still, though, should comfortably win this game. The problems will come if the Crimson Tide quarterbacks are a complete disaster, or if Alabama’s defense still can’t figure out spread-based teams. If either of those things happen, this won’t be a championship contending year.
West Virginia 10