New Mexico State’s 2021 season has been a story of competitiveness, but not a story of winning. The Aggies, who come into this game at 1-8, have only a win over FCS South Carolina State to show for a season that has been, to say the least, an exercise in frustration.
There have been few true blowouts on the Aggie schedule — the average loss has been by 17.9 points, mostly from just running out of steam — a feat in itself for a low-budget outfit that doesn’t even have a conference affiliation. Whether New Mexico State can translate that into competitiveness for more than a quarter against one of the nation’s best teams is another matter entirely.
Alabama comes into this game fresh off near-disaster against LSU, a game that saw Alabama go to the last play to keep the Tigers at bay and win 20-14. This week, everyone associated with the Alabama program is hoping the toughest question will be when to pull the starters and give the backups a turn.
As has become the case in recent years, NMSU runs what is now considered a default alignment of three wideouts, a tight end and a single running back. The Aggies rank highly in passing offense (23rd nationally), but just 122nd in rushing offense for a total offense ranking of just 87th. Passing efficiency is an atrocious 114th and the Aggies are tied at 99th in scoring largely as a result of it. Expect a lot of RPO action from mobile quarterbacks, but not much else of a running threat. Alabama brings in its multiple, pro-style attack that was forced to pass to win last week – meaning don’t be surprised to see Alabama try to fix its problems running the ball through additional reps.
Jonah Johnson will start for New Mexico State. He is a dual-threat talent who ranks second on the team in rushing, but due to high sack numbers, he’s averaging just around 1.0 yard per carry. He does have 4 touchdowns on the ground, however, making him a bit dangerous in red zone situations. As a passer, he carries a QB rating of just 109.8 (Alabama’s Bryce Young rates out at 174.0) and has almost as many interceptions (7) as touchdowns (8). His backup, now that Weston Eget seems to be a scratch for the remainder of the year, is Dino Maldonado, who has far more efficient numbers across the board despite not getting nearly as many reps. Johnson’s most notable attribute is his size; he’s 6’3” and almost 240 pounds and looks like a defensive end. Alabama will start Young, who could threaten the 3,000-yard mark for the year in this game, while backups Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe both have a pretty good shot at playing in this game. It’s not even remotely close. Advantage: Alabama
Juwaun Price has put up good numbers for New Mexico State, all things considered; he has carried 92 times for 487 yards (5.3 avg.) and 6 touchdowns on the year. He’s smaller than the typical SEC back at around 5’9”, 190, so don’t expect to see a lot of him on inside power runs. Backups O’Maury Samuels and Alex Escobar are borderline at best and both average less than 4 yards per carry. Samuels is a Michigan transfer. NMSU has no running back on the roster at 200 pounds or more. Alabama will start Brian Robinson Jr., who is coming off his worst game of the year and is likely looking for an opportunity to show scouts his LSU performance was just a blip on the screen. Roydell Williams and Trey Sanders will back him up, with Christian Leary and Demouy Kennedy also in the conversation this week given the opponent. Despite what LSU was able to do with Robinson last week, this is another category that isn’t very close. Advantage: Alabama
New Mexico State has uncommon depth at wideout, with six players recording double-digit catch totals. A seventh, Dominic Gicinto, had 9 catches on the season before being lost with a wrist injury. The likely starters are Jared Wyatt, Cole Harrity and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda, with Justice Powers, Terrell Warner, P.J. Johnson III and Andre Bodison providing depth. Bodison is a large-frame receiver that could present some matchup problems, while Garcia-Castaneda offers a vertical threat. Wyatt is the leading receiver. All but Harrity are bigger receivers, and on average NMSU might be larger than several SEC teams. There are plenty of tight ends on the roster, too, but only Thomaz Whitford has seen any action as a pass-catcher. Alabama start John Metchie III, Jameson Williams and Slade Bolden, while Traeshon Holden and JoJo Earle provide primary depth. Metchie is of similar build and plays a similar role to NMSU’s Wyatt, but Williams is a weapon that the Aggies don’t have. Alabama seems to have stopped playing a lot of Ace unless Kendall Randolph is involved as a blocking specialist; Cameron Latu has separated himself from Jahleel Billingsley in the rotation. Williams looks set to go over the 1,000-yard mark sometime in the next two weeks, and his high average-per-catch numbers are due to his elite speed. Alabama still leads, but this one is closer than a lot of intra-SEC comparisons Alabama is involved in, and is by far the closest comparison between two units on the board for this game. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s line didn’t have a banner day against LSU by a long shot, but NMSU’s line is a problem spot. The Aggies rank 117th in sacks allowed against much poorer competition, and 99th in tackles for loss allowed. Alabama’s numbers in the same category are 82nd and 53rd. NMSU will start a familiar face at center in Ole Miss graduate transfer Eli Johnson. Gabriel Preciado and freshman Carson Pharris will be the guards and the tackles are Stephawn Townsend and Sage Doxtater. Size isn’t an issue here other than maybe in Townsend’s case, where he is the size of a typical guard at a mid-level conference like C-USA. Doro Omerhi started most of the season at right tackle in place of Townsend but appears to be the swing tackle now. Isaiah Mursulat will back up both guards and center. Alabama will start Javion Cohen and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at the guards and Evan Neal at left tackle, but the rest of the line is uncertain, not great news at this late stage in the season. Darrian Dalcourt, the starting center, was knocked out of the LSU game early and didn’t return. Regular RT Chris Owens moved over to center, but struggled there. It didn’t help Owens’ prospects that redshirt freshman Damieon George Jr. came in at right tackle and outplayed him. This week, Owens could be back at right tackle with Seth McLaughlin getting the start in the middle, or Owens could start at center and George at right tackle – or Dalcourt could even return. We expect Dalcourt to sit given the competition, however. Alabama isn’t in a great spot, but the numbers make it clear which unit is better. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams run a 3-4 over/under scheme, but Alabama has been far more effective. The Aggies rank 120th in total defense, 98th in rushing defense, 123rd in raw pass defense and 127th in pass efficiency defense, a dismal situation all around. Alabama brings in the 11th-ranked defense in the country, which includes the 5th-best rushing defense. Against the pass, Alabama is 46th in raw pass defense and 60th in pass efficiency defense.
The Aggies are weak up the middle, and position battles continue even now. Donavan King and Justin Segura are a bit small for tackle/end combos (especially the 250-pound King) in a 3-4, but they’re all the Aggies have. At nosetackle, one freshman, Lama Lavea, has apparently wrested the starting job from another freshman, Garrett Bishop. Dassani Freeman and Lazarus Williams are the backup ends. The second unit has better size than the starters, but have lacked punch. The Aggies rank just 109th in sacks and 92nd in tackles for loss. Alabama will start Phidarian Mathis at tackle, with D.J. Dale, Tim Smith and Stephon Wynn Jr. providing depth, and LaBryan Ray and Justin Eboigbe at the ends, with Byron Young and Jamil Burroughs the primary backups. Mathis is coming off a monster game against LSU, while Eboigbe, Young and Ray have been solid outside. This one isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
It isn’t often that the primary playmaker on a 3-4 defense is the strongside linebacker, but New Mexico State boasts a legitimate threat in SAM linebacker Chris Ojoh. Ojoh has 10 tackles for a loss of an eye-popping 59 yards on the year, as well as 5 sacks. He has added 4 QB hurries, a PBU and 2 forced fumbles. His size (6’1”, 225) is nothing special, but he has fantastic quickness and Alabama will need to account for him on each snap. The rest of the unit is fairly pedestrian. Michael Bowe Jr. has the Jack spot nailed down, but the inside group is basically four guys whose names could be pulled from a punchbowl prior to kickoff. Nick Giacolone, Trevor Brohard, Eric Marsh and Josh Ferguson each have multiple starts on the year, but NMSU hasn’t found the right mix yet. For Alabama, Will Anderson Jr. anchors the unit as the Jack although he lines up on the strongside more often than not. Henry To’o To’o and Christian Harris are coming off their best games at Alabama and will start inside, while the other outside position will either be freshman Dallas Turner, who has emerged strongly over the past month, or Drew Sanders, who is coming back from a hand injury. Chris Braswell offers depth outside, while Jaylen Moody and Shane Lee are the primary backups inside. Ojoh could probably find a home on several SEC rosters, maybe even Alabama’s, but the rest of the group is no comparison at all. Advantage: Alabama
There’s a linebacker playing strong safety, if that tells you anything. Dalton Bowles has seven starts in the secondary despite being listed on all rosters as a linebacker. He’ll split the position with Christopher Bell and Dylan Early, opposite regular free safety Caleb Mills, There’s a similar situation at corner, where one starter (D.J. McCullough) has been a fixture all year, but the other position is split between Syrus Dumas and Torren Union. B.J. Sculark may be in that conversation now, too. Mills and McCullough are the leaders, but Dumas has decent ball skills as well. Alabama will start Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis at the corners, with Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and Daniel Wright at the high safeties and Malachi Moore and Brian Branch at Star and dime. Ga’Quincy McKinstry offers depth at corner, but Marcus Banks no longer does, as he entered the transfer portal this week. That clears the way for JUCO transfer Khyree Jackson to move up, and possibly true freshman safety/corner Terrian Arnold as well. Alabama hasn’t been its usual self in the back end this year, but the Crimson Tide is in a far better position than is NMSU. Advantage: Alabama
The punters are about equal, with New Mexico State’s Josh Carlson and Alabama’s James Burnip both hovering around mediocrity. At kicker, Will Reichard had a bad week due mostly to problems in the snap-hold sequence between Kneeland Hibbett and Paul Tyson. He still ranks above the Aggies’ Ethan Albertson, although Albertson has good leg strength and can hit from pretty much the same places Reichard can, although the consistency isn’t quite there. The big issue for the Aggies is the coverage units, which are both poor. Kickoff and punt returns have also been substandard. Alabama has big edges in both of those and mild edges at both kicking slots, making this one not close at all. Advantage: Alabama
It’s a straight-eight for Alabama, and neither OL-DL cross-matchup is competitive. Unlike most of New Mexico State’s games this season, this one will be a blowout.
Most of what concerns Alabama this week is keeping the starters healthy and getting a gameplan together for Arkansas and then Auburn. As for the Aggies of New Mexico State, the receivers can challenge Alabama’s DBs, but can the NMSU quarterbacks get them the ball consistently, especially in the face of Alabama’s pass rush? That’s the question.
It bears mentioning that Alabama has played one other one-win FBS school this year, Southern Miss, and it was in that game that Alabama nearly lost Will Anderson to a badly executed block. Playing teams on the order of Southern Miss and New Mexico State often leads to the unintended consequence of players getting hurt by the opposition simply because the opposition isn’t good enough to play with sound technique. As such, Alabama would do well to get the starters out at the first opportunity.
Unfortunately for Alabama, an emotional win over LSU last week typically means a letdown in the week that follows. Don’t be surprised if it takes Alabama a while to get going, but the Crimson Tide should win this game going away.
New Mexico St. 10
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN