By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 13, 2017
It’s no secret Alabama likes to use the second and third games on its schedule to bring in a couple of opponents whose primary job it is to make the Crimson Tide feel good about itself once the games are over.
But occasionally, one of those two teams will be better than expected. Such may be the case with the 2017 edition of the Colorado State Rams, who come into this game 2-1, and with one of those two victories certainly qualifying as a surprise. In its opener, the Rams defeated Oregon State – not a terrible shock in and of itself, but the margin of victory was 29 points, with CSU winning 58-27.
The Beavers have since barely skimmed by Portland State, and were then trounced by Minnesota. Nevertheless, Colorado State proved it could move the ball and take advantage of errors. And even though CSU lost the next week to rival Colorado, the defense rose to the occasion and kept the score a respectable 17-3.
This is a team that still bears Jim McElwain’s mark to some degree, and with Mike Bobo now helming the program and former Alabama player, graduate assistant and former Georgia assistant Will Friend serving as its offensive coordinator, the Rams have a bit of SEC flair to their methodologies. It won’t be enough to beat Alabama, but it might be enough to keep the score down in that no-man’s land of discomfort.
This is still McElwain’s basic offense, with a twist from Bobo that incorporates the fullback position his mentor, Mark Richt, is so fond of. Colorado State is currently 22nd in total offense, 57th in rushing offense and 16th in passing offense nationally. The base three-wide, one-back set is the same basic format Alabama employs. The question is whether the Rams’ offensive line can hold up to Alabama’s defensive pressure. For Alabama, the Crimson Tide ranks 26th in rushing offense after two games, but passing offense and total offense numbers have languished. Look for a game plan similar to the one Alabama used against Fresno State – low on flash, high on deliberateness.
Nick Stevens is a senior coming off a breakthrough season in which he took over for an injured Collin Hill and threw 19 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions going down the stretch. Stevens is a good athlete and a surprisingly effective runner, even if that’s not his main forte. As a passer in 2017, though, he leaves something to be desired: He’s nearly equaled his 2016 interception numbers (just one more will do it), and he’s completing a respectable-but-not-outstanding 59.5% of his passes at 7.8 yards per attempt. It’s good enough to beat the teams CSU should beat, but what about the Alabamas of the word? Hill is back as well, giving Colorado State a clear advantage in experience, but he has yet to throw a pass in 2017.
Alabama counters with Jalen Hurts, who bounced back nicely against Fresno State from a rough start in the opener. Against the Bulldogs, he was back to his old dual-threat self, and much of his functionality in this game will depend on how well he runs the ball. Tua Tagovailoa got his first collegiate action last week and looked quite competent, but his running ability is closer to CSU’s Stevens than Hurts, and with the OL troubles Alabama has, that might not be enough. Despite the clear edge in experience, Hurts is the best quarterback by far out of either group. That should be enough for Alabama to carry this category. Advantage: Alabama
Dalyn Dawkins was an acceptable starting running back in 2016, but scored just 4 touchdowns and was never quite the explosive threat the Rams needed. He’s off to about the same start this year, averaging about 60 yards a game, 4.5 yards per carry and scoring a couple of times. Backups Izzy Matthews and Rashaad Boddie have been arguably more effective, especially Boddie.
The point here is that there’s not quite enough talent to push this group into SEC territory just yet. But there certainly is on the other side, where Damien Harris has gotten off to a strong start despite limited carries in both the first two games. Bo Scarbrough has been effective in short-yardage work, although not as explosive as he was at the end of last year. Najee Harris got his first significant carries against Fresno State and responded by displaying some of the explosiveness fans had seen in spring work.
Alabama should also get Joshua Jacobs back for this game, which ought to offer a nice bump to both the running and passing games. While Alabama does not use a fullback, Colorado State does. Adam Prentice and Nate Ryken are both fine blockers but neither has touched the ball yet in 2017. Colorado State has good talent and depth for its level, but Alabama is simply on a higher plane. Advantage: Alabama
CSU has a legitimate star in Michael Gallup, who tallied 1,272 yards and 14 touchdowns last year and who is off to a hot start gain in 2017 (26 receptions in 3 games, for 304 yards and a touchdown). Co-starters Bisi Johnson and Detrich Clark both have cracked the triple-digit mark in yardage and will keep Alabama’s secondary occupied. Tight end Dalton Fackrell appears good for a catch or two a game. Receiver depth is in OK shape, with Trey Smith and Warren Jackson getting most of the work there. Colorado State also makes good use of its running backs as receivers.
Alabama began to move away from throwing everything to Calvin Ridley last week, making use of seniors Robert Foster and Cameron Sims as more than just decoys. The tight end position is also being utilized, in the form of passes to Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr. What isn’t clear yet is whether Alabama’s struggles in the passing game so far have anything to do with the receivers themselves failing to get open. Florida State shut down Alabama’s group, but an inexperienced Fresno State secondary had trouble.
There’s also the issue of Gallup, who would be no worse than Alabama’s third receiver if he were on the team, and possibly it’s B-option to Ridley. As long as Gallup and Ridley are that close, the results the Rams have put up so far are simply too much to overlook. Advantage: Colorado State
The Rams have talent here that goes beyond what you would typically expect of a Mountain West schools. Both center Jake Bennett and LT Zack Golditch have NFL aspirations, particularly Bennett, who could be one of the top three centers taken in April. The rest of the line is a bit of an unknown. The right side, guard Nicho Garcia and tackle Ben Knox, are both transfers. Senior Trae Moxley starts at right guard. Junior Colby Meeks will be the team’s super-sub at the inside positions, while Salofi Gaoa is the top tackle.
The biggest issue for the Rams is depth – they have none. There’s a big falloff back to Gaoa from the starters, and Meeks can’t relieve two starters at once. On top of that, Knox is favoring a knee injury, which would force Moxley to tackle and Meeks into the game at guard, with only one other player, Tyler Bjorklund, considered capable of playing guard. Alabama, though, has its own issues.
Against Fresno State, the tackle combination of Jonah Williams and Matt Womack did much better than in Week 1, but this time, it was the center and guards that needed help. Bradley Bozeman will start in the middle flanked by Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton. Cotton may be limited by a minor foot injury, which would bring Josh Casher into the game if it flares back up again. Brandon Kennedy is the backup center and true freshmen Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood offer depth at tackle. There’s no question Alabama has better depth – as many as 15 legitimate options across the 5 positions – but is Alabama better overall? Maybe. The injury situation at CSU pushes it over to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
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