Fresno State will base from a 4-3 defense, one that was strong against the pass in 2016 (5th nationally) but who couldn’t stop anyone on the ground (123rd), leading one to question whether the strong pass defense numbers were the result of no one particularly needing to throw the ball to win. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme took heavy casualties in the opener against Florida State, but otherwise looked like the same group of mashers that it always is under Nick Saban.
With Fresno State converting away from three-man fronts, look for some struggle here as old dogs have to learn new tricks. At least there is plenty of experience to go around – all four starters are seniors, as is one of the top backups. Nathan Madsen and Malik Forrester will start at the tackle positions, with Tobenna Okeke and Robert Stanley at the ends. Stephen Van Hook will be the top backup at end, while Patrick Belony, Kevin Atkins and Jasad Haynes will supplement the tackle position. Size is not Fresno State’s long suit, and the middle of the defensive line is where the problems really lie. Fresno is also grasping at straws somewhat to fill out a depth chart that is in need of a talent upgrade off the bench.
Alabama will counter with Da’Ron Payne in the middle, flanked by Da’Shawn Hand on one side and some combination of Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis on the other. Hand is also being tried as an edge end in Alabama’s four-man fronts this week due to the injuries at linebacker. Quinnen Williams and Joshua Frazier played well in reserve roles last week; expect to see more of them, along with Jamar King and Johnny Dwight. This one isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
Fresno State is still feeling this one out. James Bailey is a known quantity at strongside linebacker, but the other two positions are still fairly open. Robert Stanley was supposed to take the weakside spot, but he was moved to end, and Justin Green, a defensive end in the spring, was swapped into the linebacker spot. Jeffrey Allison has settled into the middle linebacker post, and he’s a manhole cover at 5’11”, 255. But lateral mobility is an issue. TO that end, Nela Otukolo and Kesomi Mafi, the latter of whom is smaller than some SEC free safeties, are still competing at that position along with Trent Soechting. Alabama has its own issues, though. Rashaan Evans is likely out for this game, which leaves the inside linebacker positions to Shaun Dion Hamilton and Keith Holcombe, both of whom played spectacularly against Florida State. Mack Wilson played a ton against FSU off the bench, and will be asked to do the same this week.
With all the injuries and moving around, true freshman Dylan Moses likely becomes the other inside player off the bench. Joshua McMillon and yet another true freshman, Markail Benton, offer depth. The real losses, though, occurred on the outside, where both Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller are done for the year with arm injuries. In their place is a walk-on, Jamey Mosley, and sophomore Mekhi Brown, who has very limited experience on special teams. Anfernee Jennings will also miss significant time, anywhere from two weeks to a month, meaning Alabama lost its lone “big” Jack linebacker. For that reason, defensive ends Da’Shawn Hand and LaBryan Ray have been working as situational substitutes this week.
A pair of true freshmen who saw no action in the opener, Christopher Allen and VanDarius Cowan, will probably play in this game as Mosley’s and Brown’s regular substitutes. Redshirt freshman Ben Davis could also see action. Somewhat unbelievably, Alabama still wins this category, mostly off the strength of Hamilton, Holcombe and Wilson inside. But all eyes will be on the new players. Advantage: Alabama
Fresno State excelled in pass coverage last year, but lost three starters. The lone returning starter, DeShawn Potts, switched positions, moving from strong to free safety. Juju Hughes, a cornerback a year ago, is the new strong safety. Johnny Johnson Jr. and Jaron Bryant are the cornerbacks. Bryant hast the size to be a bad matchup for some receivers, but Johnson, a UCLA transfer, is smaller than the coaches would prefer. He was a part-time player at UCLA, typically a third corner. Jackson Finch will be the extra safety, while Anthoula Kelly will probably settle in as the top backup corner.
Alabama will start Ronnie Harrison, Laurence Jones and Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety, and Anthony Averett will man the right corner spot. The question is whether the Crimson Tide will give a start in this game to Levi Wallace, who took over at left corner early against Florida State from Trevon Diggs. If so, Alabama will have two walk-on starters in this game, Wallace and linebacker Jamey Mosley. Wallace was an instant upgrade the moment he hit the field against Florida State and recorded a key interception, but it’s almost a too-good-to-be-true story and one has to wonder whether Wallace can keep up the pace over an entire season.
Deionte Thompson offers safety depth, while Tony Brown will play a bunch as a corner-safety combo. Alabama shut down Florida State’s passing attack, and while the Tide will get a nice challenge from Fresno State’s receiver group, they should hold serve. Advantage: Alabama
It says something that Fresno State had an experienced kicker returning – senior Kody Kroening, a Groza Award semifinalist a year ago – and opted to make a change there, going with fellow senior Jimmy Camacho. There may not be much depth on this team, but Fresno certainly has kicker covered. Blake Cusick will handle the punting duties. DeJonte O’Neal and Da’Mari Scott head up the return units.
Alabama will use J.K. Scott as its punter, kickoff specialist and holder, and he does at least two of those things very well. Scott’s holds against Florida State, though, could have used some work, and may have been the direct cause of one of kicker Andy Pappanastos’ misses. Pappanastos hit 3 of 5 attempts against the Seminoles, making all three from within 40 yards and missing the two he tried from beyond that distance.
The return game and coverage units didn’t get a chance to show what they could do, but there are so many athletes on the Alabama team that it shouldn’t be an issue. The big question is whether Pappanastos – or true freshman Joseph Bulovas, who almost won the job in fall camp – can improve his consistency, and Scott has to improve as a holder. Until that time, Alabama will trail most opponents in this category. Advantage: Fresno State
Alabama leads in six categories, Fresno State in two. The wide receiver category is almost too close to call, and Alabama could easily prove the victor there. The Crimson Tide strongly controls both OL-DL matchups.
What everyone is looking for here is really the requisite game-one-to-game-two improvement that coaches talk about so often. Alabama needs to find two reliable performers at outside linebacker, but it needs improvement from its offensive tackles, its offensive playcalling, a half-dozen little points of its special teams game, and all receivers not named Calvin Ridley need to step up.
For Fresno State, just getting out of this game alive will be an accomplishment, and continuing to put work in on its changing offensive and defensive systems in order that they pay dividends down the road against Mountain West opponents is crucial.
Fresno State isn’t winning this game. The Bulldogs could, however, make Alabama uncomfortable if the Crimson Tide’s defense proves too affected by the loss of Lewis and Miller to keep up the pace it set against Florida State.
Fresno State 7
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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