Alabama got a sneak peak at its opening opponent when Utah State was one of a handful of teams playing in Week 0. In the Aggies’ case, against Connecticut.
Utah State came out on top in that game 31-20 after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter. UConn isn’t exactly supposed to make waves in college football this year, so the Aggies struggling a bit against a decidedly down-market team could be cause for USU fans’ concern.
What may be cause for Bama’s concern? Utah State ripped off 24 points in the second quarter alone to take the lead for good.
The Aggies finished 2021 in the top 15 in passing offense, but didn’t run the ball well. QB Logan Bonner is expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West. Blake Anderson does a good job of coaching sound football, and the Aggies are coming off an 11-3 season with wins over Washington State and Oregon State.
Having said all that, these are not equivalent teams. Utah State is better than some of the other openers being contested on SEC campuses this week, but if Alabama struggles to put away the Aggies, it may be a sign of trouble ahead.
The Aggies run what is now the typical college offensive set, a one-back look with multiple receivers and a quarterback who is expected to make plays with his feet when protection breaks down. What differs is the execution: Expect trick plays and a lot of deception. Last season, the Aggies scored a lot of points (33rd nationally) but did it almost exclusively through the air. Replacing receivers is just as much a priority for the Aggies as it is for Alabama. As for Bama, it remains to be seen whether Alabama will use more three-wide sets or more Ace-package (double-TE) looks until playmakers emerge at receiver, but the initial depth chart didn’t list multiple tight end groups. The Crimson Tide returns a Heisman winner at quarterback but much of the rest is being rebuilt.
If Logan Bonner was an SEC team’s quarterback, he’d rate a respectable SEC QB, about mid-pack. In comparison to Alabama’s Bryce Young, it’s hard to be fair to Bonner’s skills. Bonner threw for 3,628 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2021, but also pitched 12 interceptions. In the opener against UConn, Bonner went 20-of-29 for 281 yards, 3 touchdowns and no picks. He’s got good scrambling ability but won’t be the most dangerous running quarterback Alabama sees this year. He’s a solid player but Young is on a different level. Young’s 2021 campaign netted him the first Heisman Trophy for an Alabama quarterback in school history, and the only question for him this year is whether he can replicate his 2021 stats without John Metchie and Jameson Williams at wide receiver.
Utah State has the edge in depth, with both Cooper Legas and Wyoming transfer Levi Williams at its disposal; Alabama saw Jalen Milroe hold off true freshman Ty Simpson for the job. Legas saw plenty of action as Bonner’s backup last year, and Williams had multiple starts for the Cowboys. This may actually the closest of the units on the offensive side of the ball due to the Aggies’ experience down the depth chart, but Alabama still has a clear edge. Advantage: Alabama
When Utah State struggled in 2021, it was usually because of this group, which posted a final ranking of 85th nationally. Former Oregon State runner Calvin Tyler Jr. hopes to change that, but he’ll need to continue to build on average numbers from a year ago. The bigger issue is the backup situation is subpar. Pailate Makakona held off John Gentry for the No. 2 spot in the depth chart, but both put up mediocre numbers at best a year ago, averaging far less than 4 yards per carry.
Alabama, meanwhile, has a veritable logjam at running back with holdovers Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Trey Sanders, each of whom got starts in 2021. But the new starter isn’t one of them; it’s do-everything Jahmyr Gibbs, a transfer from Georgia Tech, who lit up the spring and continued to impress during fall camp. Put Utah State’s group at Alabama and Tyler would probably have been behind all four of Alabama’s top rushers. Alabama is also expected to give true freshman Jamarion Miller a look-see at some point. Not even close here. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama fans will recognize a familiar name in Xavier Williams, who transferred late in 2021 to Utah State. Williams had received minor playing time in Alabama’s A-rotation late in 2020 before leaving; he’ll be in a support role here behind other players. Utah State must replace 2,500 yards of receiving production that walked out the door with departed seniors Brandon Bowling and Deven Thompkins. Justin McGriff was tops among returning players; he’ll move from slot to split end this year alongside Maryland transfer Brian Cobbs and holdover Kyle Van Leeuwen.
Terrell Vaughn and NyNy Davis, an Alabama native, round out the top group. In the opener, it was Cobbs who positioned himself as the reliable possession option, while McGriff displayed big-play potential. Cobbs, and especially McGriff (6’6”) tower over defensive backs, but size is an issue everywhere else. Tight end Josh Sterzer was little more than a blocking option in 2021 and is a new starter this year.
Alabama will have a completely new look from top to bottom, starting with Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton. Burton put up about the same numbers for Georgia last year as McGriff did for Utah State, with the obvious caveat that Georgia and Utah State are not particularly analogous. The other two starters will be Traeshon Holden, who took full advantage of his offseason and fall camp, and true freshman Kobe Prentice, who was the fall camp standout of this group after not reporting early in the spring. Ja’Corey Brooks, Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell and Christian Leary will form the second team, while a trio of freshmen – Kendrick Law, Isaiah Bond and converted running back Emmanuel Henderson – provide depth along with Thaiu Jones-Bell.
Alabama likely will not use Cameron Latu at tight end, the lone proven veteran returning from last year’s team, as he is still recovering from a camp injury. Instead, Robbie Ouzts and the improbable story that is sophomore JUCO transfer Miles Kitselman figure to handle things in his absence, with true freshmen Danny Lewis and Amari Niblack providing depth. The experience advantage here favors Utah State, but if Alabama doesn’t hold a talent advantage, something has gone horribly wrong on the last four or five National Signing Days. Bama in a close one. Advantage: Alabama
The Aggies ranked 68th in sacks allowed and 83rd in tackles for loss allowed last year, which went a long way to explaining the number of hits Logan Bonner took at quarterback as well as the struggles running the ball. Four of five starters return, and all five projected starters heading into fall camp were seniors, but that didn’t hold. Anderson is experimenting with new lineups; Chandler Dolphin remains the center and Alfred Edwards the left tackle, but the Aggies tried freshman Weylin Lapuaho at one of the other spots along with Wade Meacham and Jacob South.
The interior three is a much bigger question mark than the tackle slots. Alabama has questions of its own, starting with whether Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen will be up to the task at left tackle. Steen had a solid fall camp according to Nick Saban. Darrian Dalcourt retook the center job from Seth McLaughlin, while Emil Ekiyor Jr. returns at right guard. Sophomore J.C. Latham looks like a future star at right tackle. While center and left tackle remain questions, the real indigestion may be at left guard. Last year’s starter, Javion Cohen, missed a good bit of offseason work dealing with an illness. Sixth-year senior Kendall Randolph is penciled in as the starter for now, but Randolph has been more effective in the past working as a blocking specialist at tight end. Cohen will back him up, and freshman Tyler Booker will back up Ekiyor.
The reserve tackles will be Amari Kight and Damieon George Jr., both of whom had uneven performances in 2021. Neither unit looks very settled, so we’re defaulting to presumed talent level here to make the call. Advantage: Alabama
Utah is committed to a four-man front and will alternate 4-3 and 4-2-5 looks as needed against Alabama. Defensively, the Aggies were below average across the board in 2021 and gave up 266 yards on the ground to UConn last week. The secondary looked much improved, though, and all 11 starters are either juniors or seniors. Alabama will base from its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme, although the Crimson Tide will use five or six defensive backs for probably all downs in this one.
The name to watch here for Utah State is Byron Vaughns, originally a Texas Longhorn who put up good pass rush numbers last year and is considered an NFL prospect. Given the Aggies ranked only 62nd in sacks and 60th in tackles for loss, the fact Vaughns put up all-star numbers tells you where most of the production is coming from. Daniel Grzesiak, another transfer (Nevada), will start opposite him, with Poukesi Vakauta and Hale Motu’apuaka at the tackle spots. Patrick Joyner, a one-time Miami Hurricane, is the third end, while Michigan transfer Phillip Paea will back up the tackles There’s a consistent lack of height across the board for anyone without the word “transfer” attached to their name.
Alabama returns D.J. Dale at nosetackle and Byron Young at defensive end. Getting Phidarian Mathis’ old spot is Tim Smith, while experienced senior Justin Eboigbe figures to be the top backup at both end slots. All eyes will be on true freshman tackle Jaheim Oatis, who was bracketed with Dale as a co-starter on the final depth chart after tearing up the planet in fall camp. Jamil Burroughs, Jah-Marien Latham and Damon Payne Jr. provide depth outside. Advantage: Alabama
Here’s where the lack of size begins to come through. Utah State technically plays a third linebacker at a position called “Striker,” but there’s no one on the Striker depth chart over 190 pounds. In essence, this is a box safety spot. Kaleo Neves came out of nowhere to win the job despite recording no tackles in 14 games last year. Washington transfer M.J. Tafisi and returning starter A.J. Vongphachanh will start at the inside spots.
There’s really no comparison to Alabama’s group. Will Anderson and Dallas Turner form the best OLB/DE tandem in the country. Henry To’o To’o has developed into a dynamic middle linebacker with coverage skills, while Jaylen Moody came back for his final year to start at weakside linebacker. Chris Braswell and Quandarrius Robinson provide depth outside while Deontae Lawson and Kendrick Blackshire are the next wave at inside linebacker. Alabama’s functional depth continues for at least another entire platoon. Bama by a mile here. Advantage: Alabama
Utah State held UConn to 119 yards passing on 13-of-33 (39.4%) attempts in the opener, an impressive improvement for a unit that ranked 70th in pass defense nationally in 2021. Miami transfer Gurvan Hall Jr. joins Hunter Reynolds at safety, while Ajani Carter and Michael Anyanwu, both seniors, start at cornerback.
In most matchups, Alabama would still hold a clear edge here, but there is room for pause given the injury concerns at cornerback. GaQuincy McKinstry holds down one spot, but both Eli Ricks and Khyree Jackson have been banged up in fall camp, so freshman Terrion Arnold could wind up starting there against the Aggies. There are no questions at safety, where Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams start at the deep safety spots, while Brian Branch and Malachi Moore handle Star and dime safety, respectively. Even with Arnold in the lineup, Alabama still holds an edge here, but if Utah State continues to play the way it did in the opener, this one is closer than it first looks. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams return both their kickers, and all four players are competent in their roles. Connor Cole handles placekicking for Utah State and Stephen Kotsanlee the punting, while Will Reichard and James Burnip fill those slots for Alabama. Both teams are also rebuilding their coverage and return units, and here’s where Alabama probably takes the edge just on sheer athleticism alone. Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Jahmyr Gibbs will be the featured returners for Alabama along with Ja’Corey Brooks.
Utah State ranked in the 40s in kickoff returns and return defense, and was in the top 25 in both categories on punts in 2021, but has new personnel back this year. This is the closest call on the whole board, but will give the slight edge to Alabama based on what we’ve seen of Gibbs so far in the role, plus what Reichard brings to the table when he’s thrown into a clutch situation. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads off the 2022 season with a straight-8 analysis. The Crimson Tide also holds decisive edges in both OL-DL cross-matchups, which is the where things really start to tilt Bama’s way.
It’s not that Utah State isn’t a respectable opponent, because the Aggies certainly are. This is not an FCS opponent or some down-the-list directional school. Plus, USU has already played a game, and won it.
Alabama’s offensive line will be closely watched, as a mediocre performance there could keep the Aggies in this game for an uncomfortably long period of time. Alabama’s new receivers also need to show QB Bryce Young that he can trust them.
Look for a fairly close start to this game before Alabama’s superior depth and defensive speed really take over as the game progresses.
Utah State 17
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN