By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 15, 2016
Week 12 in the SEC has become known as “Creampuff Saturday,” as most schools schedule easily winnable games against lower-division opponents and seek to rest starters before rivalry games take place in the season’s final week.
Alabama will almost certainly win its game against Tennessee-Chattanooga, but the Mocs aren’t as dreadful as some FCS schools that will be collecting a paycheck this week.
Chattanooga is 8-2 and a respected offensive and defensive force in Division-IAA’s Southern Conference, and serve as a decent analog for Week 13 opponent Auburn. This is a talented offensive team with good balance, good coaching and the desire to make a name for itself.
But Alabama is the top-ranked team in the country for a reason. The talent differential between these two teams is mighty. Here’s a preview of what to expect when Chattanooga comes to town Saturday night to face the Crimson Tide.
Like most lower-division teams that lack the ability to recruit the best athletes at tight end and along the line of scrimmage, the Mocs will employ a one-back, spread-type offense triggered by a dual-threat quarterback. UTC ranks 25th in FCS in total offense, 18th in rushing, 61st in passing and 15th in scoring at 36.1 points per game. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 23rd in total offense, 12th in rushing, 62nd in passing and 14th in scoring at 41.2 points per game. While Alabama is doing it at the FBS level, it’s somewhat amazing how close these two teams rank offensively in their respective divisions.
UTC’s Alejandro Bennifield – who is a well-built player at 6’2”, 225 pounds – is somewhat reminiscent of Mississippi State’s backup QB Damian Williams in build and skill set. Bennifield is 156-of-241 (64.7%) for 2,067 yards, 23 touchdowns and 7 interceptions on the year, and has also rushed for 257 yards on 85 attempts (3.0 avg.) and scored 5 touchdowns on the ground. The rushing statistics are a bit misleading, as Bennifield has lost a whopping 131 yards on sacks and other negative runs – mostly negative rushing attempts, as the Mocs don’t give up many sacks. Bennifield is up for several awards at the FCS level and is a good leader. Tyler Roberson, the backup, actually has more rushing yardage than Bennifield, but has thrown only 8 passes. Expect to see him in packages and maybe even as a dedicated runner in this game.
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts is coming off a career day against Mississippi State, accounting for 400-plus yards of total offense including hitting triple digits both on the ground and through the air. Backup Cooper Bateman is a better passer than UTC’s Roberson but not as talented as a runner. This position is arguably the strength of the Mocs’ team, but Alabama is still better here. Advantage: Alabama
Derrick Craine and Richardre Bagley form an effective 1-2 punch, with Craine the inside runner and Bagley the scatback. Craine has carried 121 times for 772 yards (6.4 avg.) and 9 touchdowns, while Bagley has toted the ball 92 times for 508 yards (5.5 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. Both are good receivers; they’ve combined for 26 catches, 5 touchdowns and an average of about 10 yards per catch. Alex Trotter offers depth but he’s significantly behind the other two in terms of quality. There is no fullback.
Alabama will start Damien Harris, but look for Harris to quickly give way to Joshua Jacobs, who was a bane to Mississippi State last week. Harris is nursing multiple injuries, as is Bo Scarbrough, who probably won’t play at all. Depending on how much Harris is needed, look for Derrick Gore and Ronnie Clark to get carries. This actually comes out fairly close given the health status of Harris and Scarbrough, and if Harris wasn’t available at all, Chattanooga might win the edge here based on depth alone. Advantage: Alabama
The UTC starting trio of Xavier Borishade, C.J. Board and James Stovall make for a very attractive grouping at the FCS level. They’ve combined for 14 touchdowns and averaging more than 15 yards per catch as a group, and have size comparable to FBS receivers. The big question will be speed relative to Alabama’s defensive backs, but receiver is one place an FCS school can compete. Depth is also in good shape, with Alphonso Stewart, DeJuan McQuarters and Bingo Morton a capable second unit. Alabama will counter with Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter as its starters, and Cameron Sims, Derek Kief, Trayvon Diggs and Robert Foster as the top backups.
Alabama is already ahead here based on the playmaking ability of Stewart and Ridley, although it’s not a wide margin. But where Alabama pulls strongly ahead is on the strength of its edge at tight end. O.J. Howard, who has essentially taken over at Y for Hale Hentges, and the emerging Miller Forristall at H-back combined for more catches last week against Mississippi State than UTC tight ends Malcolm Colvin and Bailey Lenoir have had all year. On top of that, both Howard and Forristall, along with Hentges, Irv Smith Jr. and Brandon Greene, are better blockers than anyone UTC has. Alabama got its reserves into the action more last week than it had all year, and if Hurts continues to spread the ball around in the future, Alabama will be very difficult to defend. Again, like running back, UTC has some players to watch, but Alabama is just on a different plateau. Advantage: Alabama
Here’s where the difference in divisions really shows up. Aside from Georgia transfer Josh Cardiello, the Mocs don’t have anyone that really could play much at the FBS level. The remaining starters – Malcolm White, Corey Levin, Jacob Revis and Hunter Townson – all have to take a deep breath to top the 300-pound mark, as does Cardiello. UTC ranks 14th in sacks allowed and 24th in tackles for loss allowed, good numbers both despite Bennifield having an issue with negative plays from the quarterback position. It’s just a question of how well this group will match up against Alabama’s defensive line, and the answer is, not likely very well.
Alabama will start Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams at tackle, Bradley Bozeman at center and Ross Pierschbacher at left guard. Right guard is a revolving door right now, with Lester Cotton in no-man’s land of needing snaps and experience, but also dealing with post-concussion issues. Alphonse Taylor’s own post-concussion issues appear to be season-threatening at the moment, if not career-threatening. Korren Kirven got the start against Mississippi State and rotated there with Josh Casher, and both did a good job. Look for some combination of Kirven, Casher and Cotton this week. Others who could see action in this game include tackle Matt Womack, center J.C. Hassenauer and guards Brandon Kennedy and Dallas Warmack. Big edge to the Tide here. Advantage: Alabama
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