There’s an oft-quoted package of stats that point to Nick Saban’s prowess for facing former assistants (he’s undefeated) and winning so-called “revenge games” (he’s not undefeated, but pretty darned close).
Saturday, Alabama gets its first chance to atone for the 2010 loss to a South Carolina team coached by Steve Spurrier, and featuring Alshon Jeffery and Stephen Garcia among its high-powered playmakers. Alabama entered the game with a young team, thin on defense and still trying to make do with an offense that could best be described as “deliberate.” The Gamecocks beat Alabama 35-21, the most surprising upset of any of Saban’s post-2007 Alabama teams, then promptly fell to Kentucky the following week 31-28 to cut short any talk of playing for championships. Still, the Gamecocks did represent the SEC East in Atlanta that year.
In 2019, there isn’t much about the two teams that is similar to 2010. Head coach Will Muschamp is not Steve Spurrier (plus, he’s a former Saban assistant; see: Saban, undefeated). Alshon Jeffery is nowhere around. And most importantly, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is just a smidge more dynamic in this offense than Greg McElroy was in the 2010 version.
Still, there’s a fear among some Alabama fans that the Crimson Tide is walking into a trap of sorts. As South Carolina replaces injured starting quarterback Jake Bentley with a freshman, Ryan Hilinski, could the magic that powered Stephen Garcia to lead the 2010 Gamecocks over Bama repeat itself?
South Carolina and Alabama both try to accomplish the same goals with largely identical personnel groupings. Both teams utilize a multiple, pro-style attack featuring three wide receivers in the base set, multiple tight ends and a single running back. We’re still too early in the season to get an accurate read on each team’s eventual abilities, especially given that both teams have their stats skewed by a cupcake game in 2019. So far, South Carolina has run the ball (8th nationally) far better than it has passed it (81st), but even though the Gamecocks have a veteran running back group, the explosiveness isn’t likely to be there against better opponents. Alabama has been more pass-heavy (17th vs. 31st rushing) in the early going.
Jake Bentley’s game was predicated on having enough escapability to give him time to create, but his early work in 2019 was disappointing. He’d been sacked three times in two games and was completing just over half his pass attempts. Gamecock fans frustrated with his mercurial performances are probably not too worried about his absence. Hilinski is more of a standard pocket passer, although he’s not a statue. He’s completed 80 percent of his passes this year, including 280 yards passing and 2 touchdowns, but to be fair, those stats were put up against a terrible Charleston Southern team. With Hilinski moving up to the starting role, dual-threat QB Dakereon Joyner, a redshirt freshman, ascends to the backup spot. He threw just one pass last week, but amassed 53 yards rushing including a long TD run. Alabama will start Tua Tagovailoa, who has been sharp as expected the first two weeks. With a QBR of 204.3, he’s helped Alabama to a ranking of 8th in passing efficiency. Mac Jones has been the backup the first two games and looks far more ready to run the team in a pinch than he did a year ago. It’s hard to say how good Hilinski is or isn’t – he was picked off once last week, and Charleston Southern is laughably bad this year, losing two games by a collective score of 118-23 – but we know how good Tagovailoa is. Advantage: Alabama
As a team, South Carolina is averaging 9 yards per carry. Of the six top rushers, four are averaging at least 13.1 yards per carry and the other two are both over 7 ypc. But this is the Charleston Southern effect talking. Against North Carolina in the opener, Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster were still respectable – Feaster had 13 carries for 74 yards; Dowdle 11 carries for 65 yards. The question is what kind of potential do these two have against top rushing defenses. Both are good-sized backs – roughly 6’1” and 215 pounds each – and experienced, as both are seniors. Until now, Dowdle has been OK in the starting role, but not explosive. Feaster was brought in from Clemson the give South Carolina a special touch of speed and breakaway ability. Kevin Harris and Mon Denson provide depth. Alabama will counter with Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr., neither of which has exactly lived up to billing so far. Harris has been acceptable, averaging 5 yards per carry over 24 attempts, but he’ll have to show an improved ability to break tackles this week. Robinson has been completely hemmed up, rushing for a 3.3-yard average and looking slow. It’s unclear how much Jonathan Ford or Keilan Robinson will play as a changeup to one of the starters, but their ability to hit the holes faster has been noticeable. On paper, Alabama should control this category, but results mean something. Given the experience of Dowdle and Feaster, we’ll defer to the numbers until Alabama’s backs prove themselves. Advantage: South Carolina
Senior Bryan Edwards probably could threaten Alabama’s playing rotation as the sixth or seventh guy, but that’s about it. That’s not to say South Carolina isn’t talented here; it’s just that Alabama is on such a higher level than … well, everyone else in the SEC, if not the country. Edwards has 6 receptions so far for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the rest of the group has been middling. Shi Smith, Josh Vann and OrTre Smith form the rest of South Carolina’s A-group, but collectively, they average less than 10 yards per catch. Of greater concern for Alabama is the tight end group, led by Kyle Markway. He has 6 catches so far for 74 yards and a touchdown. There is decent depth, too, with KeShawn Toney, Chandler Farrell and Nick Muse also available. Backup quarterback Dakereon Joyner also might appear in dual-QB packages, and he can catch. For the Crimson Tide, it’s the familiar group of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle, with John Metchie, Tyrell Shavers and Slade Bolden backing them up. Alabama is at a disadvantage at tight end, at least in run blocking, as Miller Forristall and Major Tennison need to work on that part of their games. As receivers, though, both are legitimate threats. Giles Amos and Cameron Latu might get more work this week, and Jahleel Billingsley saw action, too, against New Mexico State. Even accounting for the Gamecocks having an edge at tight end, the overall comparison goes strongly to Bama just because of how good Jeudy and Co. are at the top of the wideout depth chart, plus Shi Smith is injured to some extent and won’t be 100 percent for the Gamecocks. Advantage: Alabama
South Carolina could have two freshman starting on the line depending on the health of right guard Eric Douglas. Douglas is listed as questionable with an undisclosed injury; if he’s out, Jovaughn Gwyn would step in next to freshman center Hank Manos. Donell Stanley is set to start at left guard, with Sadarius Hutcherson and Dylan Wonnum the tackles. So far, South Carolina’s stats aren’t bad – 45th in sacks allowed, 14th in tackles for loss allowed – but again, the Charleston Southern factor looms large. Alabama ranks 7th and 14th (tied with South Carolina) in those same categories, but the Bama rushing offense has been highly erratic and much of it is due to communication and execution issues inside this personnel group. We expect Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills to start at the tackles, but the other three slots are uncertain. Landon Dickerson figures to start somewhere; if Chris Owens is back at center, Dickerson will probably slide to one of the two guard spots. If he goes left, Matt Womack will probably start again at right guard. If Dickerson goes right, Evan Neal will likely start again at left guard. If Dickerson stays in the middle, Neal and Womack will likely start again just as they did last week. Others who could affect the rotation are Emil Ekiyor (if healthy) and true freshman center Darrian Dalcourt, who has drawn solid reviews for spot work over the first two weeks. Another name to watch is Pierce Quick, who could eventually figure in at guard or tackle. Neither team’s OL is playing at an optimal level at the moment, but Alabama has shown to be better at pass blocking and that will probably mean more given the inexperience at quarterback for South Carolina. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams run the same version of the 3-4 over/under defense Saban made famous, and perhaps no other team runs such a pure copy of it as does the Gamecocks. Can’t fault Will Muschamp for recognizing the best when he sees it. The difference is Alabama has been better at it so far in 2019. Alabama ranks inside the top 16 in all major defensive categories but one, rushing defense (35th). South Carolina, meanwhile, tops out at 36th in scoring defense and everything else is ranked between 42nd and 81st. In addition, South Carolina has been lax on 3rd-down, 4th-down and red zone defense. This is mostly a talent problem for the Gamecocks, not a problem with the scheme or the coaching.
South Carolina is thin on the line, but strong up the middle with Javon Kinlaw, one of the best nosetackles in FBS. Kinlaw takes up a lot of space against the run and also can rush the passer, making him a difficult assignment for an inexperienced offensive line. The two ends, Aaron Sterling and Kobe Smith, however, are a bit more pedestrian. Of the three main reserves, Kevin Pickens has been the most active. He’ll back up Kinlaw at nose but also plays a lot of tackle in nickel. Rick Sandidge and Kingsley Enagbare will back up Smith and Sterling, but the Gamecocks need better production there. Sterling is also nursing a knee injury and his status is a bit uncertain. Alabama’s defensive line has been a pleasant surprise, considering the lack of experience. True freshman D.J. Dale starts in the middle, flanked by LaBryan Ray and Raekwon Davis. Reserves Phidarian Mathis, Stephon Wynn Jr., Tevita Musika, Byron Young and Christian Barmore all can play key roles. This might be the week Justin Eboigbe debuts; he was originally supposed to back up Ray at the tackle/end combo position before an injury. Fellow true freshman Antonio Alfano has been suspended from the team. Kinlaw is probably the most advanced lineman right now on either team, but Alabama’s supporting cast is a lot better. Advantage: Alabama
Inside linebackers T.J. Brunson and Ernest Jones are 1-2 on the team’s tackle chart, but the productivity isn’t there. The outside duo of D.J. Wonnum and Sherrod Greene has flashed with a few big plays so far, but Greene won’t have a huge role in this game and Wonnum is mid-pack among SEC outside linebackers. Of the Gamecocks’ reserves, only backup Jack linebacker Damani Staley has shown much. This unit was a problem spot last year and South Carolina was hoping for better results, more quickly, than have been shown. For Alabama, the true freshman combo of Shane Lee and Christian Harris inside continues to pay dividends, while Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis both have the power and speed to crash down from the outside and create havoc. Like South Carolina, though, the backups haven’t made much of an impact yet, with Christopher Allen probably turning the most heads so far. Alabama didn’t get to do much linebacker development last week, as New Mexico State’s four-wide base set kept most of Bama’s linebackers shelved. Based on resumes coming into the season, this isn’t a particularly close category, with Alabama holding a decisive edge. Advantage: Alabama
J.T. Ibe and Jaylin Dickerson were both supposed to play key roles for South Carolina at safety, but Dickerson hasn’t played yet due to an undisclosed injury and Ibe may have aggravated an earlier pectoral injury last week against Charleston Southern. Expect Ibe to play, but Dickerson was not present on South Carolina’s two-deep this week. Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu will start at the corners, with Ibe set to go at safety along with Jamyest Williams. If Ibe can’t go, Jammie Robinson will move over from the nickel safety position, with R.J. Roderick filling in any gaps. Alabama will have Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II at the corners and Xavier McKinney and Jared Mayden at the safeties. Josh Jobe, Shyheim Carter and true freshman Jordan Battle seem to be separating themselves a bit from the rest of the pack, although Daniel Wright is still hanging in the rotation at safety. For Alabama, this is an example of having so much talent and depth that it just overwhelms the opposition. The fact South Carolina has numbers that are mediocre, at best, against two uninspiring opponents is even more reason to call this one from the Crimson Tide. Advantage: Alabama
South Carolina has been very respectable in punting, all kick returns and on kickoff return defense. The punt return defense needs work, but the real issue is at kicker, where three players have split kickoff and placement duties. Will Tommie is one of the kickoff specialists and also got some work kicking extra points. Alexander Woznick is the other kickoff specialist. Parker White has been the field goal kicker so far. He’s hit all three of his kicks from intermediate distances but missed on his lone long kick. Alabama has been OK on returns, but exemplary on return defense, leading the nation in defending kickoffs thanks largely to kicker Will Reichard, who has been an automatic touchback when kicking off. Reichard hit both of his kicks from nearly 50 yards out last week after missing two from similar distances in the opener. The biggest question for Alabama comes at punter, where the coaches are trying to decide between exposing Reichard to hits as the team’s punter, or having 2018 holdover Skyler DeLong handle the job. Given that DeLong’s and Reichard’s distances have been fairly even so far, look for DeLong to continue in the roll. It’s a slight edge overall to Alabama but in reality this is as close to a push as they come. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, South Carolina in one, but offensive line, running back and special teams could all go either way. Alabama should control both OL-DL cross-matchups, however, which figure to be the key to winning this game.
Unless Ryan Hilinski really is Stephen Garcia re-imagined, Alabama is probably 30 points better than South Carolina even in Columbia. Fans worried about an upset loss aren’t trying to make up a bettor’s line of 7 points here; we’re talking about four or five times that margin.
Where Alabama can get itself into trouble is by not stopping the Gamecock running game. If Hilinski is given time to work through the mental challenges of this game, he certainly has the arm talent to make Alabama pay. But if Alabama does manage to clamp down on South Carolina’s offense, the Gamecock defense has little chance of keeping Jeudy, Ruggs and friends stifled for an entire afternoon.
This game will be a good measuring stick for Alabama in its quest for yet another conference championship and potential national title run. But fans shouldn’t get carried away if the margin is substantial, because that’s what is expected. The Garcia specter looms over the Alabama program, but if every South Carolina quarterback is going to be treated like Payton Manning in Bama fans’ eyes, every UA-USC game in the future is going to be treated as a potential upset when the actual possibility for one, at least this week, is quite low.
South Carolina 13
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN