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Texas preview: Bama has the home field, but this is a tougher Texas team than a year ago

When Alabama went into Memorial Stadium last year and came out the victor, not many people were surprised. That Alabama won only by a score of 20-19 on a field goal with just 10 seconds left … that was surprising.

For the return engagement, Alabama is hoping that an improving defense and offensive line will help put a bit more distance in the margin of victory this time out. But this Texas team is improving, too, in many of the same areas as Alabama is.

The most critical change in the 2023 Texas program comes under center. Quinn Ewers started against Alabama last year, but didn’t last long before getting hurt and yielding to Hudson Card. Had Ewers been available for the entire game, Alabama might not have won it, because the Crimson Tide would certainly have had to pick up the pace offensively. Alabama can’t count on Ewers being knocked out of this contest a second time.

Last year’s game was sort of a stand-in for the complaints Bama fans had about the team all year long: unimaginative on offense, and pedestrian on defense, relative to the typical Alabama standard. The Crimson Tide can’t play like that again and hope to win a second time.

OFFENSE

Alabama has seen this offense before, because the Tide used to have it. Steve Sarkisian is in the all-time top five of Alabama offensive coordinators, quite a feat given the school’s history. As Texas head coach, he comes into this game with a 14-12 record so far, and that’s not going to be good enough over the long term. But he knows his opponent and the venue like the back of his hand, and with Ewers under center, he’ll be able to deploy a dangerous, multiple pro-style attack. Alabama has a similar system in place, although the Crimson Tide is aiming to do most of its damage this year either on the ground or with big plays off play action. Think of Texas’ scheme as a more refined, more multiple version of what Alabama runs.

QUARTERBACKS
Quinn Ewers is a premier athlete at the quarterback position, an able scrambler and an above-average decision-maker with the ball. In his brief work against Alabama last year, he showed a polished deep ball and the willingness to stand in against pressure. If he has a fault, it’s that he will toss an interception here and there, but it’s certainly not at a rate that would be consider problematic. Unlike last year, when Hudson Card was the clear backup, the fight behind Ewers is still going on between Maalik Murphy and Arch Manning, with Murphy the current No. 2. Ewers is just a sophomore, but he doesn’t play like it; he plays like an upperclassman and displays good leadership qualities.

Alabama will start Jalen Milroe and if he puts up anything like the performance he had against MTSU, he won’t come out of this game unless Alabama builds a big lead. Milroe finished Week 1 with a QB rating of 217.8, which put Alabama around 13th in the country in starter’s passer rating. He’s an explosive runner and showed a good deep arm against the Blue Raiders. His backup is likely Tyler Buchner, although Ty Simpson is still in the competition. Both Buchner and Simpson looked good in relief of Milroe last week, but Buchner showed noticeably quick decision-making skills, and he’s every bit the athlete Ewers is for Texas.

Overall, Alabama probably has the better depth chart, but Ewers has a big edge over Milroe in experience and proven consistency. Advantage: Texas

RUNNING BACKS
The Longhorns are having to rebuild the backfield somewhat after losing Bijan Robinson to the NFL. The most promising back on the roster, C.J. Baxter Jr., is also the lone name on the Longhorns’ injury list this week, listed as probable with a rib injury. If he’s limited, Jonathon Brooks will start the game, with Jaydon Blue, Savion Red and former Alabama RB Keilan Robinson as the backups. Baxter and Red are on the bigger side of average for running backs, while Robinson is of scatback size. For Alabama, Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams will be the primary options, while Jamarion Miller and Justice Haynes are grouped behind them.

Alabama has a definite edge in experience thanks to McClellan and Williams, but both of those players are knee injury survivors and on the whole, Alabama needs to display more explosiveness. Haynes and Miller shined a bit against MTSU but blitz pickup wasn’t clean and as such, Alabama will have to be strategic in how it works the two younger runners into the game. Richard Young adds depth. This is a close one, but with Baxter not at 100 percent, Alabama’s senior leadership gives the Tide the edge. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
This will be one of the best wide receiver groups Alabama faces this year, led by future pro Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington, who would probably be the alpha receiver at a lot of schools, Texas added Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell to the mix this year along with a pair of freshman phenoms in Johntay Cook and DeAndre Moore, and Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor, who is coming off an injury that cost him the 2022 season. Texas makes good use of its tight ends, and Ja’Tavion Sanders was a bright spot against Rice.

Alabama’s receivers were maligned often through spring, summer and fall camps over dropped passes and a generally poor showing, but none of that was in evidence in the opener. Isaiah Bond can be an elite receiver if he continues to simply catch the ball, because his speed is at the upper end for a college player. Jermaine Burton, Kobe Prentice, Malik Benson, Kendrick Law and Ja’Corey Brooks round out the top rotation.

Alabama promised to use its tight ends more in 2023, and followed through on that promise against MTSU. Amari Niblack gives Alabama a mismatch weapon, especially if he continues to block well. C.J. Dippre, Danny Lewis Jr. and Robbie Ouzts all contributed in the opener. Alabama appears to be improving, but Texas is already there, and Alabama doesn’t have anyone like Worthy on its roster. Advantage: Texas

OFFENSIVE LINE
The Texas line struggled in the opener against Rice, putting up terrible metrics against a fairly poor defensive front. That’s even more surprising when one considers that all five starters from a year ago returned for 2023. Center Jake Majors and RT Christian Jones are probably the best of the bunch, while Kelvin Banks will start at left tackle and Hayden Conner at left guard. Returning RG Cole Hutson is in a fight for his job with D.J. Campbell, and Campbell appears to be in line for the start this week. There’s good depth across the unit, but again, better results are needed.

Alabama will start Seth McLaughlin at center, Tyler Booker at left guard and Kadyn Proctor and J.C. Latham at left and right tackle, respectively. Darrian Dalcourt started at right guard last week, and figures to get another chance this week, but he appeared to struggle a bit at times in the opener. Terrence Ferguson and Jaeden Roberts are the other options there. Alabama probably did a better job against MTSU than Texas did against Rice, but Texas has the edge in experience.

On paper, Texas has the better situation at tackle thanks to Banks’ experience edge over Proctor on the left side, but the best lineman on either team is probably Bama’s Latham. A really hard pick here, and it could go either way. Advantage: Alabama

CONTINUE TO DEFENSE PREVIEW

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