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South Florida preview: After getting the Horns, Alabama wants to mess with the Bulls instead

A truism of the Nick Saban era at Alabama: You don’t want to be the opponent that follows an Alabama loss.

Unfortunately for South Florida, the Bulls completely lost the element of surprise Saturday when Texas finished off the Crimson Tide by a 34-24 score. Now this game went from being a classic pre-SEC-schedule trap game for Alabama, to a shot both at redemption as well as the chance to reset the depth chart a bit.

Just what South Florida needed: a hungry Alabama team that might be opening a slot or two up to in-house competition.

The Bulls are hoping that Alabama, as a team, decides to take the other path that losing teams sometimes take, one of disappointment and despair. It’s about South Florida’s only chance at victory, because so far in 2023, USF has not shown the potential necessary to hang with Power 5 schools.

Alabama’s goals here are a bit different, other than the obvious (winning the game). The Crimson Tide need to figure out what its offensive identity will be, and that means possibly taking a look at alternatives at the quarterback position and along the offensive line.

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OFFENSE

South Florida’s offensive sets will be familiar to Alabama, because the Bulls are going to be a three-wide, one-back attack with a tight end and a mobile quarterback. The Bulls make good use of zone-read concepts and currently rank 11th nationally in rushing offense, albeit with Western Kentucky and Florida A&M being the Bulls’ first two opponents. The passing game needs work.

Alabama’s offense? If Alabama continues to go down the road it was on against Texas, we’re not sure what it will be, quite frankly. Alabama has struggled to run the ball effectively, which puts even more pressure than it should on a new quarterback. This one could get messy.

QUARTERBACKS
With senior Gerry Bohanon still out with a shoulder injury, redshirt freshman Byrum Brown will get the call for South Florida, and his game is dependent on how well he can run the ball. In two games, he’s carried 42 times for 183 yards (4.4 avg.) and has scored 4 touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers, but then comes a look at his passing stats: 35-of-68 (51.5%), 363 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He’s basically Jalen Milroe in an offense built for his skill set, but he doesn’t have Milroe’s natural throwing ability. Bryce Archie will be the Bulls’ backup.

For Alabama, we won’t know more until later in the week, but for now we still expect Milroe to get the call, at least initially. He’s still the Crimson Tide’s leading rusher (as Brown is for USF) and has a QB rating of 171.6, so it’s possible that some of the criticism he’s taken has landed unfairly. But the two interceptions at Texas were costly, and while Alabama can probably work around the problem if Milroe throws a pick or two in this game, the value to having South Florida at this point in the schedule is that it allows Alabama to explore alternatives.

We expect to see either Tyler Buchner, Ty Simpson or both play significant snaps in this game, perhaps even early on, and perhaps even by scripted design. Having said all that, even if Milroe starts and goes the distance, Alabama still gets the edge here over USF. Brown has not proven to be accurate in the least, and Alabama has far superior depth. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Alabama has seen Nay’Quan Wright before, when Wright was part of the Florida Gators program in recent years. Wright has yet to score a touchdown this year, but he’s averaging nearly 6 yards per clip and together with Brown at quarterback, the Bulls have an effective 1-2 punch in the running game. Michel Dukes has been a solid backup, and there’s good depth behind them in the form of Kelley Joiner and K’Wan Powell.

Alabama’s running backs were expected to be a strength of the offense but it hasn’t worked out that way. Jase McClellan is a decent option but after a couple of weeks, it would appear that either his early-career knee injury has taken away too much of his game, or he’s simply better being a complementary piece rather than the featured back.

The problem at the moment is that Alabama doesn’t have anyone to challenge him. Roydell Williams is the very definition of complementary piece, and Texas exposed his lack of burst last week. Younger players Jamarion Miller and Justice Haynes are not ready to take over the spot due to concerns over blitz pickup or other nuances of the position. Advantage: South Florida

WIDE RECEIVERS
On the flip side of the running back conundrum, Alabama’s wideouts have played well above expectations the first two weeks. There is still a lack of separation that needs to be addressed, but the drops that many practice and scrimmage observers feared would be coming have yet to materialize. Isaiah Bond is developing into a downfield force, and his speed makes him a mismatch in one-on-one coverage.

Jermaine Burton’s development has been perhaps the best story for this team, as he’s finally beginning to show the ability Alabama coveted when the Crimson Tide took him as a transfer from Georgia. Alabama is also starting to develop depth around them in the form of Kobe Prentice and Malik Benson, while Kendrick Law and Ja’Corey Brooks have occasionally shown the ability to contribute.

The real mismatch for USF’s defense here is TE Amari Niblack, who has become a real danger as a downside threat and is an improving blocker. Along with C.J. Dippre, Robbie Ouzts and Danny Lewis Jr., the tight end group has proven to be a positive development. USF is rebuilding its receiver core, with all-new starters in 2023, and is currently led by Sean Atkins, Khafre Brown and Naiem Simmons.

Like many teams of USF’s size that Alabama will play in the current environment, just about everyone on the depth chart started his career off with a different school. Brown came from North Carolina, Simmons from Wagner, backups Michael Brown-Stephens from Minnesota, Yusuf Terry from Baylor. Atkins is the dependable slot receiver on possession downs, while the others work the outside.

Tight ends Gunnar Greenwald and Jayson Littlejohn are a bit light for the position but USF does target the tight ends in the passing game. So far, Alabama has been performing at a high level, and the emergence of Niblack at tight end gives the Tide a weapon USF simply doesn’t have. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
As troubling as Alabama’s offensive line performances have been, South Florida is at a whole other level of struggle. The Bulls rank 130th in sacks allowed and 128th in tackles for loss allowed. The starting lineup is a patchwork of sorts, made up of a lot of younger players and one returning starter, graduate senior Donovan Jennings at left tackle. Former Florida State lineman Zane Herring and former Tennessee lineman R.J. Perry will start on the right side, with Central Florida transfer Mike Lofton at center. Andrew Kilfoyl will round out the expected starters for this game. USF has already used seven different starters on the line and there could be more to come.

For Alabama, continuing issues with the center-QB exchange might force the coaches’ hand with Seth McLaughlin. For now, McLaughlin is slated to start at center, with Darrian Dalcourt and Tyler Booker at the guards and J.C. Latham and Kadyn Proctor at the tackles. McLaughlin, Dalcourt and Proctor all had bad games against Texas, and it’s hard to say who was the worst of the three.

If McLaughlin is replaced at center, it will likely be by Dalcourt, with Terrence Ferguson starting at right guard. But Dalcourt has struggled as well, which could bring Ferguson or James Brockermeyer into the discussion at center and Jaeden Roberts in as the new right guard.

All the fan attention is on the quarterback position, but this one is almost as important, if not equally important. Even so, Alabama is in a better position here than South Florida, which has been completely non-functional over the first two weeks of the season. Advantage: Alabama

CONTINUE TO DEFENSE PREVIEW

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