By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 7, 2015
It’s hard convincing people that a mid-major program like Middle Tennessee State could be a threat to Alabama, especially at this point in the Crimson Tide’s development. MTSU is a recent addition to Conference USA after playing either at lower divisions or in the lowly Sun Belt up to now.
But MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill is a Bobby Bowden disciple, a good recruiter and former assistant at Clemson and South Carolina. His defensive coordinator, Tyrone Nix, has been around for years and also has SEC experience. Offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner is a young assistant to watch, whose experience at Valdosta State and Murray State exposed him to high-flying offenses.
On the other hand, it is not unusual for MTSU to not fill all of its allotted scholarship slots. The Blue Raiders are typically thinner than most teams and try to rely on the newest innovations in offense or defense to corner the element of surprise. Unfortunately, the raw talent level just isn’t there often enough for the Blue Raiders to seal the deal.
Alabama will be using this game to work on fixing the few small issues that cropped up against Wisconsin. Ole Miss comes to town next week, and the Crimson Tide needs to be firing on all cylinders for that one.
For all of its offensive innovation in previous years, it’s interesting that the Blue Raiders now run what has become the standard for most smaller teams – three wideouts, a tight end, a single running back. Six starters return from a season ago, but like Alabama, the Blue Raiders may have an issue picking a quarterback. MTSU was overloaded to the run in 2014, but showed good balance against overmatched Jackson State in the opener. MTSU ran up 282 yards on the ground and 351 through the air. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style system that showed a lot more taste for tempo in base sets against Wisconsin than recent games would have suggested. Alabama was also balanced in its opener, but because of the level of competition Alabama faced, the statistics didn’t match up to MTSU’s.
Both teams have a quarterback competition going on, but in both cases, the competition may be over. For MTSU, Brent Stockstill, the son of head coach Rick Stockstill, took the job from returning starter Austin Grammer in fall camp. Grammer is a dual-threat player who was 2-of-3 (66.7%) for 15 yards in the opener, and also rushed 3 times for 14 yards (4.7 avg.). Stockstill, on the other hand, never ran the ball, but he had a banner afternoon throwing it – 23-of-29 (79.3%) for 336 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception. Stockstill is a drop-back passer, but still a decent athlete, although a lot will depend on how well MTSU can keep him protected against Alabama. The Crimson Tide will start Jake Coker (15 for 21, 71.4%, 213 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT), but Cooper Bateman (7 for 8, 87.5%, 51 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) will likely play before the game gets out of hand. Coker showed good skill running the team and managing the offense, and made few errors. His deep passes need work, however, so Alabama might test what is a veteran Blue Raider secondary. Bateman, who has better running ability (2 carries, 4 yards, 2.0 avg.) but less of an arm, also had a nice debut against Wisconsin in what was his first work at a position other than holder. Alec Morris, a drop-back passer who finished fall camp third on the depth chart, played against the Badgers but didn’t throw a pass; he could figure in this game late if Alabama gets a sizable lead. It’s hard to say exactly how good Stockstill is or isn’t, given Jackson State barely qualifies as opposition. Coker gets the call based on potential. Advantage: Alabama
The Blue Raiders might not have a feature back, but they do have depth. Jordan Parker and Shane Tucker will split most of the carries. Neither was particularly stellar against Jackson State (16 carries, 68 yards, 4.3 avg., 1 TD for Parker; 14 carries, 61 yards, 4.4 avg., 0 TD for Tucker). But both have good size, especially Parker, who is pushing 220 pounds. Scatbacks Ruben Garnett (10 carries, 45 yards, 4.5 avg., 1 TD) and Jeremiah Bryson (9 carries, 33 yards, 3.7 avg., 2 TD) provide depth behind them. The Blue Raiders will also use their backs as receivers. When the Blue Raiders need a fullback, Alabama transfer Corey McCarron will be the player they call upon. Alabama counters with Derrick Henry, whose 147 yards in the opener eclipsed both of the Blue Raiders’ top backs combined, and speed option Kenyan Drake. True freshman Damien Harris showed good ability late in the game against Wisconsin as well. Michael Nysewander will serve as Alabama’s situational fullback. Running the ball is what MTSU did best in 2014 (ranked 30th overall) but it doesn’t appear the talent level here is equivalent. Advantage: Alabama
For now, the most polished playmaker on either team may be MTSU’s Ed’Marques Battles, an experienced senior who has caught 8 passes for 123 yards (15.4 avg.) and 2 touchdowns already. Battles is also a key component of the Blue Raiders’ special teams units. Beyond that, however, Alabama is in control of this matchup. Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney combined to essentially equal Battles’ production in the opener. With Mullaney’s experience at Oregon State and the raw talent of Foster, Stewart and backups Calvin Ridley and Cameron Sims, Alabama has a good nucleus of talent. The tight end combination of O.J. Howard, Ty Flournoy-Smith and Dakota Ball also outranks MTSU’s Terry Pettis, although Pettis is a threat in the receiving game. In addition to Battles, MTSU will use Christian Collis and freshman Richie James; James’ debut versus Jackson State portends a long, impactful career. Demetrius Frazier and Rod Ducksworth provide depth. MTSU has talent, but it’s top-heavy. Alabama has better depth and the talent level is more consistent throughout. Advantage: Alabama
The Blue Raiders allowed just 1 sack in the opener, but pass protection has been erratic in recent years and the Blue Raiders are breaking in two new starters at tackle. Size is an issue for the Blue Raiders outside of tackle Maurquice Shakir, who goes 322 pounds. The other starters are struggling to get to 300. Josh Chester will start in the middle flanked by guards Jaylen Hunter and Daniel Stephens. True freshman Chandler Brewer of Florence claimed a starting job in fall camp. The backup center, Jesse Moffitt, is a freshman. So is reserve tackle Robert Behanan. Veteran Hunter Rogers adds some experience. Alabama will counter with Ryan Kelly at center flanked by guards Alphonse Taylor and Ross Pierschbacher and tackles Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson. Pass blocking on the edges was a sore spot for Alabama in the opener against Wisconsin, but the Crimson Tide dominated in the running game. J.C. Hassenauer will spell Kelly at center, while Bradley Bozeman and Dallas Warmack will serve as the reserve guards. Lester Cotton and Brandon Greene are the backup tackles. Both teams have some work to do, but Alabama’s superior depth and overall talent make this an easy call. Advantage: Alabama
Tyrone Nix at one time was one of the rising starts of the defensive coaching universe. After some tough times at South Carolina and Ole Miss, however, he found himself at MTSU, where has been since 2012. Nix’s 4-3 base scheme struggled in 2014, as the Blue Raiders gave up 452 yards per game, ranking them 105th in total defense. The pass defense – 111th overall at 270 yards per game – was the main culprit, but the Blue Raiders also struggled against the run (80th). The Blue Raiders have struggled with personnel, particularly at the speed positions on defense, and depth is not great. Alabama will run its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme that held Wisconsin in a chokehold right up to the point the Crimson Tide brought its reserves into the game.
It’s almost not worth discussing. Alabama’s DL may be the best in college football, at least against the run. The Tide goes three deep or more at each position. Against Wisconsin, Darren Lake started in the middle, with A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed on the edges. Against MTSU, Robinson should slide inside, with Jonathan Allen, who disrupted the Badger passing game, coming from the weakside. Josh Frazier and Daron Payne offer depth inside, while Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand provide depth outside. O.J. Smith should also see time in this game. The Blue Raiders will start Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale at end; both are new starters. Returning starters Patrick McNeil and Shaquille Huff fill the tackle slots. McNeil and Huff both have nosetackle-esque builds, but they’re not great pass rushers against top competition and aren’t particularly quick. JUCO transfer Peter Bailey is the third end, and much is expected of him from a QB pressure standpoint, although he didn’t show it against Jackson State. Raynard Felton and Jimal McBride will back up the inside, while Ykeem Wells provides help at end. The Blue Raiders will be better this season if they can build some depth, but for now this is no contest. Advantage: Alabama
There’s plenty of experience here, but that might not automatically translate into production for the Blue Raiders. The starters are all seniors – Cavellis Luckett in the middle, T.T. Barber and Trey Wafford outside. Barber was a starter in 2014 while the other two were top reserves. The player to watch may be redshirt freshman Darius Harris, who had a strong debut against Jackson State and who could unseat Wafford if he keeps up his current level of play. D.J. Sanders provides depth along with true freshman Chris Melton. Alabama will start Reggie Ragland inside next to either Shaun Dion Hamilton or Reuben Foster, with Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee starting outside. The Tide’s depth situation will allow for several different packages outside, with Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller all seeing time. Walker Jones and Keith Holcombe provide depth in the middle. It’s hard to say just how much improvement MTSU showed given the ineptitude of Jackson State, but things do seem to be looking up in Murfreesboro. Alabama, however, still has the superior players here. Advantage: Alabama
Things haven’t improved much for the Blue Raiders yet. MTSU gave up 271 yards through the air to Jackson State, landing the Blue Raiders 91st in the country for Week 1. Jared Singletary and Jeremy Cutrer were the starters in Week 1, but the spot Cutrer holds was up for grabs for the better part of a year and MTSU is still trying to figure out who it can trust. Kevin Byard and Xavier Walker return at safety. Byard is a ballhawk, but inconsistent; MTSU needs a better option than Walker. JUCO transfer Dontavious Heard should start to play more at corner, while Chris Brown is also a candidate there. Quay Watt and Richie Bisaccia provide depth at safety. Alabama, too, needs to improve over its Week 1 performance, particularly at the safety position held by Geno Matias-Smith and the nickel and dime safeties. The corner positions, held by Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey, are fairly locked up; Humphrey still has some learning to do. Minkah Fitzpatrick offers depth both at corner and safety, while Eddie Jackson will start across from Matias-Smith. Maurice Smith, Bradley Sylve, Ronnie Harrison and Jabriel Washington will offer depth. Alabama’s secondary is a work in progress. So is MTSU’s, but Alabama has more to work with. Advantage: Alabama
Cody Clark made 10 extra points for MTSU in its opener, but Clark’s 2014 season was erratic and he nearly lost his job in the spring after a poor camp. He isn’t a proven commodity. Then again, neither is Alabama’s Adam Griffith, who missed two easy field goals in a dome setting in Week 1 but hit all his PATs as well. Alabama’s J.K. Scott got off to a rough start at punter, but he looked like a JUGS machine compared to what’s going on in Murfreesboro: Two freshmen, Matt Bonadies and Trevor Owens, are fighting for the job, and neither player is winning. Bonadies kicked once for 38 yards, while Owens punting twice for a 26-yard average against Jackson State. Jeremiah Bryson and Ed’Marques Battles will return kicks; Bryson’s Week 1 effort makes him a player to watch. Cyrus Jones did a nice job returning punts for Alabama, but kick returns were atrocious. To put it bluntly, neither team really can call this a strength, but Alabama’s Scott at least gives the Crimson Tide a proven commodity at punter. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories. The Crimson Tide also has a strong edge in the matchup of its OL vs. the MTSU DL, and the Crimson Tide holds an almost insurmountable lead in a comparison of its DL to the Blue Raider offensive line.
In short, Alabama should win this game by four or five scores, but Alabama has had a knack for struggling against poor opponents in Weeks 2 and 3 of the Nick Saban era. The Blue Raiders certainly have confidence – at least on offense – coming off the big win over Jackson State, and will be looking to shock the world in Tuscaloosa.
If Alabama were to completely ignore game prep for this affair, the Blue Raiders do have enough horses and the proper leadership from the sidelines to be a problem for the Crimson Tide. But it’s highly unlikely Alabama falters so badly in preparation. The Crimson Tide simply needs to stay within the game plan, keep injuries and mistakes to a minimum and let its playmakers do the rest.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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