By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 15, 2017
Games like this one are some of the most difficult to analyze, because everyone is thinking about a certain outcome but won’t dare speak of it.
Mercer, a school whose program lay dormant from 1942 to 2013, is a Southern Conference member of the former Division-IAA, now called FCS. The Bears are 5-5 in 2017, put a small scare into Auburn earlier in the year, and lost by just 1 point to Wofford, which now sits at 9-1 and leads the Southern Conference standings. And absolutely none of those accolades mean the Alabama fans who trek to Tuscaloosa this Saturday to watch this game are expecting anything other than a blowout Bama win.
Alabama doesn’t schedule a team like Mercer to dip its toe into the Southern Conference and see how warm the water is. Alabama schedules a team like Mercer to that it can have an easy win on the Senior Day immediately preceding the Auburn game, and rest up some of its stars in the process. And that’s just what Alabama will try to do, and probably will do this Saturday.
The Crimson Tide is a hurting team right now, without many of its defensive stars already and probably a couple more to be held out for this game. Mercer, which had a taste of near-fame with its strong showing in a 24-10 loss to Auburn, would dearly love to catch Alabama napping.
After watching Mercer’s base sets, it’s easy to see why Alabama scheduled this game. Mercer runs a spread-option attack with tempo, not much different from Auburn’s choice of offense. The Bears have some balance to the attack, but that’s not exactly a compliment: Mercer ranks 62nd in rushing and 68th in passing out of 123 teams in FCS. They don’t turn the ball over much, and the Bears do rank a respectable 38th in passing efficiency, but there’s not much explosiveness here. The base set is a single back, three wideouts and a hybrid tight end/H-back. Alabama counters with the 9th-ranked rushing attack in FBS and the 19th overall offense. Against Mississippi State, the gloves came off a bit, demonstrating what Alabama is capable of doing when the chips are down.
Mercer’s Kaelan Riley is the (very) poor man’s Jalen Hurts. Riley, a redshirt freshman, is 165-of-269 (61.3%) for 1,986 yards, 13 touchdowns and 7 interceptions on the year. He’s also rushed 74 times for a total of 183 yards (2.5 avg.), which includes 107 yards lost to sacks and tackles behind the line. In Riley’s case, it’s mostly runs that didn’t get back to the line of scrimmage, as the Bears rank a nice 25th in sacks allowed. At 6’3” and 222 pounds, Riley is the same size as most Division-IA quarterbacks the Crimson Tide faces. His backup, Tanner Brumby, hasn’t seen much action, but is a perfect 4-of-4 passing on the year and has displayed good running ability.
Alabama will start Jalen Hurts, but he likely won’t play more than a quarter or two, if that. Hurts showed his value to Alabama’s offense against Mississippi State and losing him to injury would be a season-killer. Backup Tua Tagovailoa will probably see most of the snaps in this game. Given it’s Senior Day, Alabama also might find a few snaps at the end for Austin Johnson. Nick Saban could surprise everyone and keep Hurts in the game for the majority of the snaps, but that would seem short-sighted no matter how close the score is. Even if Hurts wasn’t available for this game, Alabama would still hold an edge. Advantage: Alabama
Mercer has surprising size at the running back position for an FCS school. Starter Tee Mitchell is 5’10”, 203 pounds, and backups C.J. Leggett and Alex Lakes are 5’9”, 217 and 5’11”, 221, respectively. What’s missing is the productivity. Mitchell has 138 carries for 569 yards, just a 4.1-yard average. Leggett, who originally signed with Georgia Tech but was then dismissed from the program, averages even fewer yards per carry; he missed the Bears’ last game against Western Carolina. Lakes has the highest average per carry, but it’s just 4.5 yards, pointing to an offensive line that needs improvement. There is no fullback.
Alabama will use some combination of Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Joshua Jacobs, Najee Harris, Brian Robinson and Ronnie Clark in this game. Scarbrough appeared to pull up lame late against Mississippi State, and with his injury history, probably won’t play a lot this week, if at all. Jacobs is finally 100 percent and Alabama probably won’t risk that here. Bet on seeing a lot of Najee Harris and Brian Robinson back for the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Marquise Irvin is the star here. With his SEC-level size and good hands and speed, he’s the one offensive target Alabama must absolutely stop. Irvin has caught 514 yards of passes on 39 receptions this year, a 13.2-yard average. Limitations at quarterback have stifled his potential productivity. Chandler Curtis and Avery Ward start at the other two spots; Ward has decent height and speed himself. Tucker Cannon provides depth. The other name to watch besides Irvin is TE/H-back Sam Walker, who the Bears utilize in a number of ways. He only averages about 10 yards a catch but is a key to the offense. Running back Tee Mitchell is also good for 3-4 catches a game. No one else on the roster has more than 3 receptions on the year.
Alabama will start Calvin Ridley, Cameron Sims and Robert Foster, with Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III providing depth. Ridley is probably not long for this game, and Ruggs was nicked up against MSU, meaning fans will see a heavy dose of Derek Kief and Xavian Marks in this game and perhaps some of the walk-ons as well, such as Austin Johnson or Jonathan Rice.
Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr. will split tight end and H-back, with Major Tennison and Kedrick James likely seeing time. With it being senior day, walk-ons Hunter Bryant and Jacob Parker figure to be in line for a few snaps eventually. Wide receiver is probably Mercer’s strongest offensive grouping, but Alabama is miles better even with Ridley in potential injury management. Advantage: Alabama
This unit has struggled for the Bears, and the starting lineup remains in flux even at this point in the season. Caleb Yates, Austin Sanders, Thomas Marchman and Jake Flath all have at least 8 starts and each has played in all 10 games. The fifth starter will likely be either Conner Krieger, Dawson Ellis or Alex Comer. Aside from Krieger and Ellis, raw size isn’t as much an issue here as technique and ability.
Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, with J.C. Hassenauer at left guard (replacing the injured Ross Pierschbacher) and Lester Cotton at right guard. Matt Womack will start at right tackle. Jonah Williams isn’t 100 percent, but he’s still expected to start at left tackle. How long he lasts before giving way to either Alex Leatherwood or Scott Lashley is another matter. Expect to see a lot of Deonte Brown, Jedrick Wills, Chris Owens and Josh Casher, and perhaps some of Richie Petitbon as well. Even without Pierschbacher, Alabama dominates this category; this is the weakest unit on the field for Mercer. Advantage: Alabama
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