By Jess Nicholas
If one were to take a look at the respective stat sheets for Alabama and Arkansas State after the first week of the season, it might be enough to send Bama fans running for the nearest pill bottle full of proton pump inhibitors.
Arkansas State comes into this game the owner of the No. 1 passing offense in all of FBS. The Red Wolves have college football’s top tier’s No. 5 total offense, and is tied for 1st nationally in fourth-down efficiency, red zone efficiency and fourth-down defense.
And then you look at the box score from Week 1 and realize they played Southeast Missouri State.
Arkansas State is a quality Sun Belt team to be sure, picked by many to win the conference. But this is a team that returns just four defensive starters from a unit that was already overwhelmed against most opponents, while the offense needs to establish a running game and develop continuity on the offensive line. Alabama isn’t exactly the best team to try to do those things against.
The Crimson Tide come into the game fresh off a resounding defeat of Louisville, a team put together much the same way this one is: talented quarterback, elite wide receivers, and not much else.
Alabama saw last week the same thing it will see this week: a steady diet of passes out of a spread-based offense. Head coach Blake Anderson and offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner will attempt to take advantage of Alabama’s young secondary, and any running will be done simply as a change of pace. Alabama comes into the game boasting a highly-skilled and multiple offense led by the most dynamic quarterback the school has had in decades.
ASU senior Justice Hansen threw for nearly 4,000 yards last year and 37 touchdowns, but he also threw 16 interceptions. It’s more of the same in 2018, as he opened the year by throwing 6 touchdowns and an interception against SeMo. Hansen piled up 423 yards in that game and also rushed 6 times for 31 yards. Hansen needs to work on his accuracy and vision a bit, but he’s a 6’4” presence in the pocket and he’s got a strong, athletic build and could very well get an NFL Combine invitation this upcoming winter. Logan Bonner is a quality backup but won’t play in this game unless it gets out of hand one way or another.
For Alabama, it’s now Tua Tagovailoa’s show to run. Jalen Hurts played against Louisville and likely will again in this game, but he’ll do so as strictly a backup rather than a competitor for the starting job. Tagovailoa’s work against Louisville saw him picking up right where he left off against Georgia in January. Alabama won’t throw as much as Arkansas State will but that doesn’t mean the better passer resides in Jonesboro, Ark. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas State didn’t really have a rushing attack in 2017 and it doesn’t really have one in 2018, either. Warren Wand saw the ball 8 times for 42 yards against SeMo and only 138 times the whole of the 2017 season. At 5’5” and 184 pounds, he’s barely serviceable against a team like Alabama. Backup Marcel Murray is a similar player, and Armond Weh-Weh the designated “big back” of the three at 6’0”, 210. Together, the three carried 30 times for 136 yards (4.5 avg.) and no scores against Southeast Missouri State. Alabama is so far ahead in this category it’s not even worth discussing.
The Crimson Tide has four running backs that will likely all be in the NFL some day. Damien Harris is explosive as a running back and is also good at catching the ball. Backup Joshua Jacobs is the football equivalent of thermite, while reserves Najee Harris and Brian Robinson dwarf the ASU backs yet are also faster. Advantage: Alabama
This is a reasonably close call and if it weren’t for a couple of breakout performances in Alabama’s game against Louisville tipping the scales a bit, we could pick ASU here and be justified. Justin McInnis has a pro future ahead of him, and so too might Dahu Green, but Green suffered an ankle injury against SeMo and might not be available to return. Kendrick Edwards gives Arkansas three receivers at 6’5” or better. Tight end Javonis Isaac is a new starter but was effective in Week 1 and bears watching. Kirk Merritt, Darveon Brown and Omar Bayless give the Red Wolves plenty of depth at the spot, and four members of the receiver corps are transfers either from the JUCO ranks or from larger D-1A programs.
Alabama will start Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III at receiver, with Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges the primary tight ends. The emergence of Jaylen Waddle against Louisville is what allows Alabama to pull ahead here, because the Red Wolves have no analog for Waddle’s explosive, compact, yet powerful play. Derek Kief, Tyrell Shavers, Xavian Marks and Chadarius Townsend fill out the reserve receiver roles, while Major Tennison, Kedrick James and Miller Forristall beef up the tight end depth chart. Alabama has more numbers here and the starters are comparable. Advantage: Alabama
Last year’s line finished near the bottom of FBS in the number of sacks allowed, was mediocre in tackles for loss allowed, and was almost wholly ineffective at opening up running lanes. Over the offseason, two starters lost their jobs while Red Wolf coaches tried to figure out the right mix. Jacob Still returns at center and Lanard Bonner at left tackle, but there are new starting guards in Jacob Atnip and Marvis Brown. Nour-Eddine Seidnaly will start at right tackle, although former starter Trey Elliott is still fighting for that job. Cam Davis, Dalton Ford and Klint Harvey give ASU some experience off the bench but it might not do them any good.
Alabama will start Ross Pierschbacher at center, flanked by Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills at the tackles and Lester Cotton at left guard. Alex Leatherwood started the first game at right guard, but there was some noise early in the week that Deonte Brown might be pushing Leatherwood for that spot. Scott Lashley and Richie Petitbon will back up the tackles, while Josh Casher is the other reserve guard besides Brown and Chris Owens the spare center. Like running back, there really is no contest here. Advantage: Alabama
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