By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 1, 2015
For Wisconsin, a game against Alabama in Week 1 is a bit like engaging in a demolition derby – against a Ross Winans steam locomotive, rather than an old sedan.
Alabama has been, ever since Nick Saban’s arrival, a machine. It doesn’t always move fast, but it moves deliberately, it’s hard to stop and almost impossible to overpower. And while Alabama has made forays into what many observers like to call “modern football” – i.e., the hurry-up, no-huddle offenses and their variants – Alabama wins with brawn and depth.
Shortly after Barry Alvarez’s arrival in Madison, Wisc., the Badgers became somewhat of the Alabama of the Big Ten – Gene Stallings’ Alabama, that is. Wisconsin throws the ball only when a judge orders it. Otherwise, Wisconsin is content to bury its opponents under a pile of rubble, occasionally lobbing the ball to a receiver just to keep them interested. While Wisconsin finished the 2014 season with an impressive 11-3 record, the Badgers had their hands full with any team it couldn’t physically intimidate. Most notably, Wisconsin fell 59-0 to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Alabama comes into this game in the middle of another offensive retooling. Nick Saban has been coy about both his starting quarterback and the direction his offense will take now that dual-threat extraordinaire Blake Sims has exhausted his eligibility. Alabama won’t win a national championship in Dallas on Saturday, but it could very well lose one if the Crimson Tide can’t shut down the Badgers’ prolific rushing attack. And part of that process involves having an offense that can at least get out of its own way.
Both teams claim to run a pro-style offense, but Wisconsin’s bears the more familiar look of two wide receivers, a tight end and a fullback. Alabama will run a multiple pro-style attack based out of either a three-wide alignment or an Ace package front, which includes two tight ends. Wisconsin led the Big Ten in rushing offense last year and was 3rd nationally, but a ranking of 116th in passing offense pulled the overall average down. Alabama was balanced almost to a fault, and should be more ground-oriented in 2015 than it was a year ago.
There is something to be said for senior experience, and Joel Stave has it for Wisconsin. But Stave’s 2014 passing numbers weren’t pretty. Stave was just 110-of-206 (53.4%) for 1,350 yards, 10 touchdown and 9 interceptions. His best attribute is that he plays within himself and isn’t at fault when Wisconsin loses. He’s a former walk-on and overachiever who has good leadership qualities, but not necessarily the talent to lead the team to big victories. Junior Bart Houston will back him up. Houston attempted only 3 passes in 2014 but did run twice for 8 yards (4.0 avg.). Alabama will counter with, most likely, Jake Coker, backed up by either Cooper Bateman or Alec Morris. Coker was Blake Sims’ backup in 2014 and got a couple of chances to replace Sims with games still reasonably close, following injuries. He seemed to do a good job in relief, but failed to really grab the horns of the open position either in the spring or in fall camp. Cooper Bateman, an athletic quarterback with a weaker arm than Coker, and pure pro-style, drop-back quarterback Alec Morris are competing for the job. It would not be a surprise to see at least two and possibly all three quarterbacks in this game. Word over the past week is that Bateman had moved past Morris for the second-team job. Even though at least Coker and Bateman have better physical games than Stave, until Alabama establishes a starter and proves him under fire, the Badgers have the edge here. Advantage: Wisconsin
Junior Corey Clement is the standard 5’11”, 220-pound Wisconsin bruiser that seems to be an annual fixture in Madison. Clement carried 147 times for 949 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2014. He replaces Melvin Gordon, the latest Badger to finish his career as a Heisman candidate. Clement should shine in the featured back’s role. His backups will be either Dare Ogunbowale, who at 5’10” and 200 pounds passes for a scatback in terms of Wisconsin running backs, or freshman Taiwan Deal, a Clement lookalike. All three backs had solid fall camps. Derek Watt and Austin Ramesh enter the season as the top fullbacks. The position is essentially a blocking back only, as evidenced by Watt leading the fullback group with 1 carry for 2 yards in 2014. Ramesh has some receiving skills, but Watt is a blocker only. Alabama will counter with Derrick Henry, whose 6’4” height and 240-pound build had defenders wondering whether a tight end was running the ball in 2014. True freshmen Damien Harris and senior running back/slotback Kenyan Drake will offer depth. Alabama will probably only use those three, although sophomore walk-on Derrick Gore had a nice fall camp and could see some time. Alabama will use Michael Nysewander at fullback when needed. This one is hard to call because Wisconsin’s offensive strategy often overloads the running back position and inflates the production a bit, but the Badgers have better depth at the moment and narrowly lead here. Advantage: Wisconsin
It’s not every day a team can lose its top two wide receivers – one of those being Amari Cooper – and still hold the edge over a veteran unit, but that’s what is happening here. Wisconsin struggled to find a mix it liked in fall camp, eventually settling on returning starter Alex Erickson (55 catches, 772 yards, 14.0 avg., 3 TD in 2014) and Tanner McEvoy, who has experience in games at receiver, quarterback and safety, where he played in the spring. McEvoy will give Wisconsin a physical presence at receiver thanks to his 6’6” frame, but neither he nor Erickson are speed burners. All three of Wisconsin’s backups – Robert Wheelwright, Reggie Love and Jordan Fredrick – have good height, but Fredrick led this group with 13 catches for 126 yards (9.7 avg.) and 0 touchdowns last year, while the other two combined for 3 catches. The tight end position was troubling enough that Troy Fumagalli almost unseated returning starter Austin Traylor for the job, but Traylor held on in the end. Traylor isn’t a force in the passing game, however. Alabama will start ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster; both were little-used backups in 2014. But Oregon State transfer Richard Mullaney, who will start in the slot, has plenty of experience and was one of the best possession receivers in the PAC-12 last year. Depth is strongly in Alabama’s favor, with star signees Calvin Ridley and Daylon Charlot joining veterans Chris Black, Derek Kief and Raheem Falkins and another signee, Deionte Thompson. At tight end, Dakota Ball was the surprise winner of the competition to replace Brian Vogler. He’ll be Alabama’s on-the-line (“Y”) tight end, backed up by true freshman Hale Hentges, while O.J. Howard and Ty Flournoy-Smith will split time at the H position. Alabama will have to respect Erickson and can’t sleep on McEvoy, but the Crimson Tide holds a solid edge in speed and athleticism. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams are replacing three starters, and both return their 2014 centers and left tackles. For Wisconsin, Tyler Marz gets the call at left tackle with Dan Voltz returning at center. Michael Deiter appears to have won the left guard job from Ray Ball, while Walker Williams starts at right guard and Hayden Biegel starts at right tackle. Depth is perilously thin, as Williams is the top backup tackle as well. Micah Kapoi will provide depth at center and right guard, while Jacob Maxwell offers help outside. For Alabama, Cam Robinson returns at left tackle and Ryan Kelly at center; both are potential all-stars. Dominick Jackson nailed down the right tackle job in camp, while redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher won the left guard slot. Alphonse Taylor and Bradley Bozeman continue to fight for the right guard slot. Brandon Greene moved back to tackle from tight end and will probably be the third tackle; true freshman Lester Cotton is listed as Robinson’s backup. Bozeman will likely back up the center position along with J.C. Hassenauer. Dallas Warmack and Isaac Luatua provide depth at guard. Alabama’s returning starters are better, its new starters are better and its depth situation is far better. Advantage: Alabama
The Badgers have historically done a good job under coordinator Dave Aranda, who stayed on under the new regime. Wisconsin will operate from a 3-4 front. The Badgers are particularly strong in the back end, where all four starters return. Wisconsin ranked 4th against the pass, 23rd against the run and 4th in total defense in 2014. This won’t be an easy trip for Alabama. The Crimson Tide counter with its 3-4 over/under scheme that was vulnerable in pass defense in 2014, but looks much improved for 2015. Able to stay in regular defense against Wisconsin will allow Alabama to make the most use of its line combinations, which are myriad.
Wisconsin took a big hit in the middle with the loss of its nosetackle and strongside end. Replacing them are Arthur Goldberg at end and Conor Sheehy at nosetackle. The problem here is a lack of size. Goldberg (296 pounds) is actually bigger than Sheehy (272 pounds), meaning Wisconsin, in its base set, will be using the equivalent of former Crimson Tide pass-rush specialist Nick Gentry. There is nothing small about Sheehy’s backup, however; Jeremy Patterson is 6’4” and 335 pounds. It remains to be seen how much he plays, or why he couldn’t unseat the smaller Sheehy in fall camp. Chikwe Obasih returns at the other end position. He, too, is undersized for a 3-4 end. Alec James and Jake Keefer will backup the outside positions. Neither player is particularly big, which raises the question of stamina. Alabama, if it starts in a 3-4, will go with Darren Lake in the middle flanked by Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson on the edges. When Robinson moves inside, Jonathan Allen will take his place at end. Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway will provide depth outside along with Da’Shawn Hand. Josh Frazier and Daron Payne will provide depth in the middle. Alabama’s defensive line is the best in college football in 2015, and with the transition issues Wisconsin has in the middle, the Tide takes this one comfortably. Advantage: Alabama
Again, Wisconsin is dealing with the loss of two starters inside. Freshman T.J. Edwards and junior Leon Jacobs will be the new starters inside, while veterans Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert return at the two outside linebacker posts. Freshmen Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr provide depth inside, while sophomore Jake Cichy and senior Jesse Hayes will back up the outside posts. The Badgers will have to overcome a lot of youth at key positions in the middle of the field. Alabama counters with veterans Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster at the inside positions and seniors Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall at the outside posts. Alabama’s outside depth is almost neverending; Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson will back up Devall, while quarterback terrorizers Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller will switch out with Lee. Shaun Dion Hamilton gives Alabama some experience at middle linebacker, while redshirt freshman Keith Holcombe will back up the other inside slot. Advantage: Alabama
It’s tough to call this one accurately because if results matter, then Wisconsin takes this one easily. Wisconsin’s secondary was a shutdown group for much of 2014. All four starters return – Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton at corner, Michael Caputo and Luben Figaro at safety. But Figaro was beaten out in fall camp by Leo Musso, suggesting Alabama isn’t the only one that’s improving and becoming more competitive. D’Cota Dixon offers depth at safety, while Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson will provide depth at cornerback. The issue here comes when athleticism and level of competition is taken into consideration. Alabama far outranks Wisconsin in that regard. Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey will start at the corners, while Geno Smith and Eddie Jackson get the call at safety. Depth is strongly in Alabama’s favor, with Bradley Sylve, Tony Brown, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett and Maurice Smith providing depth at corner and Jabriel Washington, Laurence Jones, Ronnie Harrison and Shawn Burgess-Becker backing up the safety positions. Given what has been seen at Alabama scrimmages this spring and fall, look for Alabama to return to the top few slots of the leaderboard in regards to pass defense numbers. Advantage: Alabama
Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone was 19-of-22 on field goal tries in 2014, including 5-of-7 from beyond 40 yards. Alabama would dearly love to have those numbers. Punter Drew Meyer is a four-year starter. Alex Erickson will return punts, if for nothing else than dependability. Natrell Jamerson and Robert Wheelwright give Wisconsin some speed at kick returner. Alabama’s J.K. Scott is the better punter, and Cyrus Jones should be a more dynamic return man. But until Alabama knows what it’s getting from placekicker Adam Griffith, it’s hard to give the Tide the edge here. Advantage: Wisconsin
Alabama leads in five categories, Wisconsin in three. But Alabama could just as easily have led in all eight. Wisconsin’s edges are not significant.
In regards to lines of scrimmage, Alabama controls both those matchups, especially in regards to its defensive line vs. the Wisconsin offensive line. Wisconsin absolutely must run the ball to be successful, and if Alabama is able to load up to stop the run, the game could get ugly for the Badgers.
Where Alabama must be cautious is in the passing game. Wisconsin’s secondary is to be respected, and poor quarterbacking – especially if turnovers are involved – could get Alabama beat. While Wisconsin winning this game would be considered a huge upset, it’s not an upset that is completely off the table in terms of plausibility. Especially if the improvement seen thus far in Alabama’s secondary proves to be a mirage.
If Alabama is serious about a title run in 2015 – and it has the defensive personnel to make one – then it needs to get off to a strong start here. Look for a slow start, but if Alabama sticks to plan, it should wear down Wisconsin in the end.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN