In advance of Texas joining the SEC, Alabama will get its chance to show the Longhorns what awaits them once they ditch the Big 12 for greener pastures.
What awaits Alabama is a team with formidable potential on offense, provided QB Quinn Ewers is up to the task of throwing downfield on Alabama’s secondary. Texas, on the other hand, struggled with its defense for all of 2021, and then lost seven starters off that unit.
Alabama opened by mauling Utah State 55-0 in a game that was over by the end of the first quarter. Texas beat Louisiana-Monroe by a similar amount, 52-10, but the game was competitive for a significantly longer amount of time.
Look for Alabama’s superior size, speed and experience advantage at quarterback to be the differences in this game, even though it is on the road.
Alabama is intimately familiar with Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian and his offensive game-planning skills. Sarkisian proved himself as one of the best playcallers Alabama ever had at the offensive coordinator position before taking the Longhorn job. It’s somewhat strange, given Sarkisian’s ability to develop quarterback talent, that the Longhorns were ho-hum in that department in 2021, swapping between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card. Thompson is gone, replaced by freshman transfer Quinn Ewers, but the offensive scheme remains the same: a pro-style attack featuring complicated route trees and balance. Alabama’s offense against Utah State was pretty much as advertised: dominant, with the exception of an offensive line that is still coming together.
Ewers transferred in from Ohio State, and at 6’2”, 205 is about average size for a college quarterback. He’s reasonably athletic although not necessarily a scrambler. His only rush in the Louisiana-Monroe game was technically a sack, and Ewers threw an interception against his 225 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hudson Card, the backup last year, is Ewers’ backup this year, giving Texas an edge over Alabama if something happens to the respective starters. Ewers’ biggest issue seems to be pushing the ball downfield and reading complex defenses, and he’ll see a lot of that on Saturday.
Alabama will start Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, so you already know where this is going. Young accounted for 6 total touchdowns against Utah State last week, and also added 100 yards on 5 carries on the ground. Ewers is expected to do big things before he leaves Austin, but Young is well ahead of him at this point. Jalen Milroe had a good 2022 debut overall in relief of Young last week, but got baited into an interception, and needs to clean that up. Advantage: Alabama
Texas returns its top three rushers from a year ago and, given the health issues of three of Alabama’s running backs, this category gets very close. Bijan Robinson is a big guy at 6’0” and 225 who is able to mix power and speed effectively. Roschon Johnson is roughly the same size, maybe not the same level as Robinson as an inside runner but has more bend to get outside. Rounding out the A-unit is Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson, who can be a weapon in the slot. All of Texas’ running backs are expected to be weapons in the passing game, and they deliver.
Alabama debuted Jahmyr Gibbs as its new starter last week, and Gibbs did nothing to disappoint, rolling up 93 yards on 9 carries. Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Trey Sanders all suffered varying degrees of injuries the last couple of seasons, but all three looked solid in the opener. True freshman Jamarion Miller may force his way into the discussion if he continues to run like he did late in the USU game.
While it would appear Alabama has the depth edge, three running backs is more than enough depth for a modern pro-style team and it’s not really that much of an advantage. What Alabama lacks at the moment is an inside banger like Texas has in Robinson. Both units are immensely talented but Texas can fill more roles. Advantage: Texas
Texas returns its two leading wideouts from a year ago, Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington. Worthy is a bona fide No. 1 receiver for any team, catching 62 ball for 981 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago despite average quarterback play. Whittington isn’t as dynamic, but is experienced and solid.
What Texas needs is depth behind those two; Agiye Hall, the Alabama transfer, isn’t expected to play due to being suspended for off-field conduct. Neither is the other Alabama transfer, TE/WR Jahleel Billingsley, who is sitting the first six games of the year. With Isaiah Neyor out with injury, freshman Casey Cain leads a group of unproven players that includes Montana transfer Gabe Sulser and Iowa State transfer Tarique Milton. Brenan Thompson, a freshman, is probably the best long-range option on the bench. Even without Billingsley, Texas won’t suffer at tight end with Ja’Tavion Sanders, who caught 6 passes against Louisiana-Monroe and is considered one of the brightest future stars at his position. Alabama’s opening week brought solid debuts for Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton and holdover Traeshon Holden, who had somewhat of a breakout game. True freshman Kobe Prentice was impressive out of the slot.
Alabama has a lot of bodies at wideout – Isaiah Bond, Christian Leary, Thaiu Jones-Bell, Kendrick Law, Ja’Corey Brooks, Emmanuel Henderson – but hasn’t locked down the rotation yet. Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell is unlikely to play as he recoups from a foot injury. At tight end, Alabama expects to get Cameron Latu back, which will be a big boost. Robbie Ouzts struggled as an inline tight end in the opener and was originally replaced by Miles Kitselman. If Latu is back, Ouzts will function mostly as an H-back. Danny Lewis and Amari Niblack, both true freshman, round out the depth chart. Worthy is the best wideout on the field for either team, and the Longhorns have a big edge at tight end. But Alabama has a better overall wideout group. Sanders makes things a lot closer than they first appear. Advantage: Alabama
Texas only returned two starters from a year ago and that went down to one when senior guard Junior Angilau was lost for the year with a knee injury. Center Jake Majors is still left from 2021, but he’s a sophomore, and there are three other underclassmen as starters: guards Hayden Conner and Cole Hutson, and LT Kelvin Banks Jr. Banks and Hutson are freshmen, but Banks didn’t play like one in the opener, and looks like a future star. Senior Christian Jones started a bit in 2021, lost his job in the spring and then got it back when the shuffling commenced. The backups are sophomore tackle Andrej Karic and four freshmen.
Alabama’s line is still in transition thanks not to the new starters at tackle – J.C. Latham and Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen played solidly against Utah State – but rather at guard. Kendall Randolph and Emil Ekiyor Jr. started that game and will likely start this one, too, but 2021 LG Javion Cohen rotated with Randolph and Ekiyor for the entire game and we may see that against Texas as well. Center Darrian Dalcourt played well after retaking his job from Seth McLaughlin. While Banks looks like the real deal, facing Louisiana-Monroe doesn’t prepare one for facing Alabama’s Will Anderson and Dallas Turner. Alabama has far superior depth and experience. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams run a version of the 3-4 over/under defense, which tends to be a trend among former Nick Saban assistants to take the scheme with them when they leave. A year ago, Texas had issues: 100th in total defense, 114th against the run, 62nd against the pass and 80th in pass efficiency defense, to go along with a ranking of 99th in scoring defense. And then 7 starters left the program. Alabama’s defense is considered to be even stronger than its offense, owing to experience in the front seven. The only question coming into this game is at cornerback.
Having Keondre Coburn back in the middle is a big advantage, as he brings senior leadership to the unit. At 6’2” and 344 pounds, he’s a load. Two other seniors, T’Vondre Sweat – another 340-plus-pounder – and Moro Ojomo are expected to start, as Tennessee has decided to trade in size fo agility up front in an effort to stop the run. Alfred Collins will not be available – and that leads into the real problem: depth. Texas is quite thin in the defensive interior, listing only two sophomores (Byron Murphy, Vernon Broughton) as likely to play.
Alabama has just as much senior leadership, with far greater depth. D.J. Dale will start at nosetackle, with Tim Smith and Byron Young outside him. Justin Eboigbe had a nice opening game rotating across the line, a role that seems to fit him well. Jaheim Oatis, Jamil Burroughs and Jah-Marien Latham should all see time, and then there’s another layer of young players behind them. It remains to be seen how well Texas’ go-big strategy will work in the long run, but either way, Alabama is just better here. Advantage: Alabama
Like Alabama, Texas works with an edge player or two – Ovie Oghoufo, in this case – and two inside backers. Oghoufo was a part-time starter in 2021 after transferring in from Notre Dame, and his stats were OK at worst and favorable at best, but not outstanding. Justice Finkley, a Trussville native, and Barryn Sorrell, who resembles more of a pure defensive end, are the other primary options. Inside, DeMarvion Overshown returns after leading the team in tackles last year with 74, but he has not quite lived up to the hype surrounding his signing. Texas got better production from part-timer Jaylan Ford, who is now the full-time starter in the middle. Jett Bush is the primary backup at both spots along with Prince Dorbah, who Texas prefers to play outside if possible.
Alabama brings the best OLB combo in the country, Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner, along with a solid pairing of Henry To’o To’o and Jaylen Moody inside. Moody had a strong debut as the new starter against Utah State. Deontae Lawson and Kendrick Blackshire both could see time in reserve roles inside, while Chris Braswell and Quandarrius Robinson handle the outside. Overshown and Ford both have potential and are a good analog for Bama’s To’o To’o and Moody, but where Alabama really pulls away is at edge talent. Advantage: Alabama
Texas took a big step toward fixing the secondary by luring Ryan Watts to transfer from Ohio State. He’s a big, long corner at 6’3”. D’Shawn Jamison, a senior, returns as the other starting corner from a year ago. The safety group is still being rebuilt. Anthony Cook is a returning starter, but he switched positions within the unit, as did the other two projected starters, Jerrin Thompson and Jahdae Burton. The only sure thing off the bench is that Kitan Crawford will be involved at one of the safety positions; the rest are a collection of younger, unproven players.
Alabama’s cornerback rotation in the first game was curious: Terrion Arnold started opposite Ga’Quincy McKinstry, but barely played after the first series. LSU transfer Eli Ricks and holdover Khyree Jackson took over for Arnold early and played to the end, and Star safety Brian Branch even got some work outside. We will assume that McKinstry will start again this week, while the other position should be considered open competition. Both Ricks and Jackson looked strong against Utah State.
The safety situation is far more settled, with Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams starting along with Branch. Malachi Moore will handle dime. We’re giving this one to Alabama mostly on resume, at least until we see how corner shakes out. Advantage: Alabama
We were almost ready to pronounce Alabama’s special teams as fixed – right up to the point that James Burnip got a punt blocked because of a massive breakdown in the protection scheme. Will Reichard had a strong outing at placekicker, hitting two midrange field goals and getting touchbacks on all of his kickoffs. Ga’Quincy McKinstry did a reasonable job at punt returner although he briefly bobbled his first effort.
Texas will start a walk-on named Bert Auburn at kicker, just in case Alabama wasn’t already worried enough about shenanigans in the kicking game. Auburn was 1-of-2 against Louisiana-Monroe, missing a shorter kick and hitting a longer one. Isaac Pearson, out of Australia, and Texas Wesleyan transfer Daniel Trejo will handle punting in some way. Texas opened the scoring against Louisiana-Monroe with a blocked punt, and the return game is in good hands with Xavier Worthy and Keilan Robinson.
There’s enough still up in the air for both teams here that special teams isn’t really an “edge” for either. Alabama probably carries it narrowly because of Reichard, who is proven in the clutch. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Texas in one, although both wide receiver and special teams could go either way. As for OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama should cover both of those handily, especially when the Crimson Tide DL is on the field against the Texas OL.
It remains to be seen whether Steve Sarkisian is the right man for the Texas job long-term. The Longhorn program, given its actual track record of success, suffers from expectations and booster involvement far above the level it probably should. Prior head coaches have wilted under those expectations, and with the Longhorns about to join the SEC, it’s not going to get any easier. Texas has good talent now, but it’s probably on the level of an Ole Miss or Tennessee, not necessarily that of an SEC contender.
The first road game of the year always carries with it certain concerns and this one is no different, especially given the size of the Texas fan base and what it would mean for both Sarkisian and his team if they were able to steal one. Sarkisian mentioned in a press conference this week that Texas had had the Bama gameplan installed for several weeks, which is not really a surprise.
The issue for Texas is that the Longhorns have had no way to approximate in practice some of the challenges Alabama can bring to bear, especially from the defensive edge. And then the Longhorns have to hope that the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has an off-day.
Expect a good effort from Texas, but if Alabama struggles here it will certainly be a surprise given the relative stability of the two programs, to say nothing of the advantages Alabama holds especially along the line of scrimmage.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN