By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 18, 2015
At some point this week, if it hasn’t already happened, some young reporter – or maybe even an old one – will ask Alabama head coach Nick Saban about Charleston Southern, framed in the context of how long Saban expects to have his starting units in the game.
And then Saban will stare at him so intently, his head will explode like something out of the movie “Scanners.”
If praising a future opponent was an art form, Saban is Rembrandt. But when that future opponent is an FCS school like Charleston Southern, such platitudes sometimes ring false.
To Charleston’s credit, the Buccaneers are 9-1, lead the Big South Conference and are ranked 8th in the former Division-IAA. The Buccaneers run a highly modified version of a hurry-up, no-huddle option offense that tends to give Alabama’s defense fits at times. While Alabama is expected to win this game going away, it might take longer than anyone would prefer to see a Bama lead grow.
On the other hand, Alabama is presumably one of the top four teams in the country – so says an NCAA committee every week – and with Charleston Southern starting up its own playoff run beginning next Saturday, it may not be just Alabama that wants to get its starters out of the game quickly.
It’s no mystery why Alabama scheduled Charleston Southern here. The Buccaneers’ offense makes a good analog for the Auburn offense Alabama will see a week from now, even though there are differences in the two systems. The Bucs are a quality opponent without being a real threat. If Alabama does mope around too much in this game, it could be a repeat of 2011, when the Crimson Tide let then-FCS Georgia Southern hang around almost too long, in a game that could have cost Bama a repeat shot at LSU had voters been turned off by the Tide’s performance. Ultimately, the goal is to get to the Auburn game with no further injuries, and with a convincing win in Alabama’s back pocket.
Charleston Southern’s offense is quarterback-driven, an option variant of the spread system that uses tempo to confuse defenses. The Buccaneers rank 13th in FCS in rushing offense, but only 94th in passing offense. Balance is not a strong suit. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that has become increasingly dependent on the running game. Alabama is 35th in FBS in rushing offense and 74th in passing offense.
Austin Brown calls the shots for the Buccaneers and does a good job moving the ball on the ground, but his passing numbers are suspect. Including yardage lost to sacks, Brown has carried 70 times for 141 yards (2.0 avg.) and 1 touchdown. Through the air, he’s completed a borderline 56.3% of his passes (103-of-183) for 1,356 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. If Brown has some success running the ball, he might be able to parlay that into clearer passing lanes, but don’t bet on it. He’s simply not a game-changer. Backup Kyle Copeland has thrown only about one-fifth the number of passes that Brown has, but he has superior rushing stats. Copeland averages 4.7 yards per carry and has more total rushing yards than Brown.
Alabama counters with Jake Coker, who should eclipse the 2,000-yard passing mark for the season – if he plays in this game at all. Coker injured a shoulder toward the end of the Mississippi State game, an injury that has its beginnings in an earlier contest. Even if he starts, don’t expect Alabama to expose him to a lot of damage, and there’s a good chance he gets lifted early for backup Cooper Bateman. Depending on how fast Alabama builds a lead, Alec Morris could get some playing time in this game. Charleston Southern actually has superior depth, but Coker is a much better option than Brown, unless he’s completely hobbled by his injury. Advantage: Alabama
The combination of Darius Hammond and Mike Holloway give Charleston Southern a nice one-two punch. Hammond has carried 120 times for 734 yards (6.1 avg.) and 6 touchdowns, while Holloway has toted the ball 87 times for 515 yards (5.9 avg.) and 9 touchdowns. Depth is in good shape; third-teamer Ben Robinson has rushed 55 times for 398 yards (7.2 avg.) and 4 touchdowns. That’s as good a set of numbers as anyone Alabama has faced this year. The Crimson Tide comes into this game hobbled, as Kenyan Drake broke his arm on kickoff coverage against Mississippi State and won’t be available this week. Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will back up starter Derrick Henry (240 carries, 1,458 yards, 6.1 avg., 19 TD), and walk-on Derrick Gore may get some work down the stretch, along with Ronnie Clark.
Charleston Southern doesn’t use a traditional fullback in its offense. Alabama has Michael Nysewander, a blocking specialist who figures to see quite a bit of time in this game. Don’t sleep on the ability of Charleston Southern’s backs; several SEC teams wish they had this stable of runners. The real issue is a lack of size, as Charleston Southern’s backs would be considered scatbacks if they were on Alabama’s roster. Drake will be hard to replace, but Alabama should be able to do it. Advantage: Alabama
Injuries continue to haunt Alabama, as the loss of Kenyan Drake also robs the Crimson Tide of a good slot receiver option. Calvin Ridley, Richard Mullaney and ArDarius Stewart will continue to start, with Cameron Sims and Derek Kief now the two top reserves. Production, however, mostly ends with the three starters. Daylon Charlot was not dressed out the last two weeks, giving rise to the possibility that Alabama might seek a medical redshirt for him. If Charlot is out, Parker Barrineau would be the next one up. O.J. Howard, Brandon Greene, Dakota Ball, Hale Hentges and Ty Flournoy-Smith will handle the tight end spot.
Charleston Southern has depth issues of its own; Nathan Perera is a fine first option (37 catches, 560 yards, 15.1 avg., 4 TD), but the Buccaneers need more help from Colton Korn and Kenny Dinkins. Nathan Prater gets the call at tight end, but there is virtually no depth behind him. Neither team is in optimal shape at the moment, but Alabama’s Ridley beats Charleston Southern’s Perera when the chips are down. Advantage: Alabama
Here’s where the differences between the two teams are most notably found. Charleston Southern has only one 300-pound lineman on the field, Benny Timmons, and he barely eclipses the number. He and Erik Austell will start at tackle, with Zachary Sibrava and Frank Cerone working at the guard slots. Jackson Williamson gets the call at center. This group averages about 280-285 pounds per man, and will have extreme difficulty working against Alabama’s defensive line.
Alabama will start Ryan Kelly at center, flanked by Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor at the guard spots and Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson at tackle. Bradley Bozeman and Dallas Warmack provide depth at guard, J.C. Hassenauer at center and Korren Kirven at tackle. Brandon Greene might also play tackle, moving in from tight end. Even as inconsistent as Alabama’s line has been this year – the Tide regressed at Mississippi State after a strong performance versus LSU – there’s really no comparison between the big men Alabama can field and those that play for the Buccaneers. Advantage: Alabama
Charleston Southern bases from a flexible three- or four-man front, and against FCS opposition, they’ve had great success. This is the top-rated defense overall in FCS, as well as one ranked 5th in raw pass defense, 9th in both scoring defense and rushing defense, and 18th in pass efficiency defense. There is talent here, even if it is outsized. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that has become stifling up front. Alabama’s defensive line has proven to be a sacking machine and one that snuffs out opposing running games. Alabama is 2nd in rushing defense, 4th in total defense, and 7th in both scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. Only in raw pass defense (40th) is Alabama not at the top of its game.
The size issue continues on this side of the line for Charleston Southern. Tackle Ramel Hambrick-Crawford is the only interior player with decent size (285 pounds); the rest are lightweights. Anthony Ellis has 6.5 sacks and Alabama will have to account for him. RaSean Ray, Mike Taylor and Caleb Batchelor will all rotate through the end positions. Johnny Robinson adds depth.
Alabama counters with its anti-spread package, which means either Jarran Reed or A’Shawn Robinson in the middle, with Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand playing at end. Daron Payne, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier provide depth inside. O.J. Smith should get to play in this game if everything goes well. Really no comparison here, it’s truly a men-vs.-boys situation. Advantage: Alabama
Four players will rotate through three slots for the Buccaneers. Aaron Brown, Solomon Brown, Zane Cruz and Zack Johnson are all undersized, but active players. The largest of the group, Zane Cruz, only goes about 215 pounds and is the closest thing the Buccaneers have to a Jack linebacker. The rest hover in the 6’0”, 205-pound range. Solomon Brown has proved adept at rushing the passer, notching 5 sacks on the year. The four have combined for 28 tackles for loss.
Alabama will use Reggie Ragland, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster inside, with Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Rashaan Evans and Dillon Lee outside. If things go as planned, expect to see Keith Holcombe get some time at inside linebacker, with Christian Miller working at Jack linebacker and perhaps Walker Jones getting some playing time, too. Charleston Southern’s group has been effective, but Alabama is a different kind of opponent altogether. Advantage: Alabama
This unit comes the closest to approximating the size and speed of an FBS team of any Charleston Southern has. Malcolm Jackson is a PBU machine, breaking up 12 passes on the year. Troy McGowens starts opposite him. Corbin Jackson and D.J. Curl get the call at the safety spots. Shadarius Hopkins offers depth, along with Lorenzo Mathis, Ray Rowe and Keegan Karim. Other than Malcolm Jackson, however, the team is short on ballhawks and playmakers.
Alabama will start Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corners, with Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith starting at safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick is likely out for this game, meaning Maurice Smith, Tony Brown and Jabriel Washington will rotate at the Star position. Ronnie Harrison will also play in Alabama’s multi-DB packages. Look for Anthony Averett and Bradley Sylve to possibly factor in the game at cornerback as well, while Shawn Burgess-Becker should see some time at safety. Advantage: Alabama
Charleston Southern has been strong on punt returns, but kickoff returns have been dismal and the Buccaneers struggle in punting the football. Truett Burns and David Kennedy have shared the punting duties this year and neither averages 40 yards a kick. Placekicking has been of similar concern; Tyler Tekac and Bryan Jordan have split the job, and the two have combined to miss 5 extra points and almost half their field goal tries.
While Alabama has been erratic, the Crimson Tide is nowhere near this bad. Punter J.K. Scott is a stalwart, and kicker Adam Griffith has been on a hot streak as of late, especially on kickoffs. He’ll probably get plenty of practice in that endeavor Saturday. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories. The Crimson Tide also strongly controls both OL-DL matchups.
Charleston Southern has played one FBS team this year, losing 44-16 to Troy in Week 2. Troy, incidentally, is 3-7 on the year and has scored less than 20 points in five of its ten games and 21 in a sixth game.
Bottom line, this game shouldn’t be close. Injuries are the chief concern here. Alabama didn’t make it cleanly out of Starkville last week; it must do so this week to set up games with Auburn and then Florida. It’s hard to see how Charleston Southern can be competitive unless Alabama simply doesn’t show up to play on defense, a very unlikely scenario given the man who is the de facto coordinator of the Crimson Tide defense – namely, Nick Saban himself.
Charleston So. 0
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN