Tide will roll thanks to defensive pressure, balanced offense
Texas' offensive line won't be able to handle Alabama's blitz-happy defense
Alabama's secondary can disrupt Colt McCoy's rhythm with his receivers
The Tide have a balanced offensive attack and take care of the football
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- No team this season put on as complete a performance against a high-caliber opponent as Alabama did in its 32-13 SEC Championship win over Florida. But you would never know it listening to Julio Jones.
"We did all right in that game, but we could have done better," said the Crimson Tide's star receiver. "A lot of people said we played a perfect game, but I don't think so."
Many have wondered since that Dec. 5 game whether the Tide put too much energy into that revenge date with the Gators, a game they'd admittedly been gunning for the entire season. Would the Tide be able to refocus? Could they conjure up that same level of motivation for Texas?
C'mon. This is the national championship game.
Alabama's players follow the beat of their single-minded head coach, Nick Saban, who's undoubtedly spent much of the past 32 days expunging any potential sign of complacency from his squad. He's even used the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" story as a lesson. "That didn't win the gold medal," said Saban. "They had to win the next game against Finland to win the gold medal."
It's doubtful Alabama will replicate its 490-yard SEC title game performance against Texas' thus-far impregnable defense, but the Tide won't need to. They were the most complete team in the country this season, and Thursday night's game will serve as one final reminder.
Here are five reasons Alabama will beat Texas:
1. Texas' offensive line can't handle Alabama's pressure. A Texas writer was asking Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain a question the other day and mentioned how the Tide had "something like 80 different blitzes." McClain chuckled.
"It's a lot more than 80," he said.
The Tide will come after 'Horns quarterback Colt McCoy early and often, and with good reason: Texas' line has looked overmatched on the few occasions it's faced an elite pass rush. The unit allowed four sacks against Oklahoma, nine against Nebraska. The Tide defense is a little different than those two, which rely heavily on their front four, but Saban's never-ending array of blitzes and ability to disguise coverage will keep McCoy's blockers constantly guessing what's next.
"They have every blitz in the book, anything you want to draw up, they probably have," said McCoy. "If the offensive line can win up front, if we can protect and have time to go through our second and third progressions, we feel like we have a great opportunity to win." Unfortunately, the Longhorns have yet to demonstrate that ability.
2. Alabama is also suited to slow down Texas' receivers. What makes the Longhorns' quick-strike passing offense so lethal is the instinctive rhythm McCoy has with his receivers, particularly roommate Jordan Shipley. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis takes advantage of that chemistry, moving his guys around in an effort to create mismatches in space.
But Texas doesn't normally face physical cornerbacks the caliber of Alabama's Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson, both of whom are projected to be high NFL draft picks. If they can jam Shipley, Malcolm Williams and Co. at the line, before they get into their routes, it can really disrupt what McCoy likes to do, particularly on those quick screens and short catch-and-runs Texas uses to move the chains.
"These are some of the best receivers we're going to face all year," said the All-America Arenas. "To get your hands on them and affect their routes is going to be crucial."
Oklahoma was especially effective in that department, with star corner Dominique Franks helping to hold Shipley to a season-low four catches for 22 yards.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called Texas' games against Oklahoma and Nebraska and noticed the trend. "How many times was Colt McCoy sitting back there holding the ball, waiting for someone to get open?" he said. "It's all about Texas' receivers -- can they get separation and run their routes? They couldn't do it against Oklahoma."
3. Alabama's offense is more balanced. Texas' pass-heavy offense may be flashier than Alabama's, but the Tide attack is better suited for facing an elite defense because of its ability to both run and pass effectively.
Obviously, the running game -- led by Heisman winner Mark Ingram and freshman Trent Richardson -- is Alabama's bread and butter. But the Longhorns boast the nation's top-ranked rushing defense (62.2 yard per game), and it would not be the least bit surprising if they slow down Ingram and Richardson.
But as he showed in the Tide's season-ending wins over Auburn and Florida, quarterback Greg McElroy can get the job done, too. When the Tigers loaded the box and shut down Ingram, McElroy completed his final seven passes while leading the Tide on a 15-play, 79-yard game-winning drive. Against Florida, he came out throwing (12-of-18 for 239 yards), which in turn softened the Gators' defense for Ingram.
"When you have that run-pass balance, you can almost dictate what's going to happen. You're messing with the defense's mind," said tight end Colin Peek, himself a valuable part of the Tide's offensive arsenal. "When you get underneath their skin, it makes it tough. That's what we were able to do against Florida, was cause them so many problems. That's what we're striving for in this game.
4. Turnovers shouldn't be a problem. Texas had made its living this year forcing turnovers -- the Longhorns are tied for second nationally with 35. A lot of times those plays end up being back-breakers for the opponents due to Texas' ability to generate instant momentum either with defensive scores (safety Earl Thomas has two interceptions for touchdowns) or by giving McCoy a short field with which to strike quickly (27 scoring drives of two minutes or less). In total, Texas has scored 117 points off turnovers.
There's only one problem: Alabama doesn't turn it over. Saban's teams are often characterized by their discipline, and that's held true again this season, as Alabama is tied with Cincinnati for the fewest turnovers in the country (10). If anything, expect Alabama to hold on to the ball longer (it ranks fifth nationally in average time of possession 33:31) than Texas' typically pass-happy Big 12 foes.
5. It's Alabama's time -- finally. Few programs in the country boast more tradition than Alabama, whose fans proudly flaunt the school's self-proclaimed 12 national championships (some of the early ones are debatable) at every possible occasion. Unfortunately for them, it's been 17 years since the last one -- and the wait has included no shortage of suffering (two separate sets of major NCAA sanctions; five coaching changes; 3-8 seasons, etc.).
But from the time AD Mal Moore plucked Saban away from the Miami Dolphins with the promise of a $4 million annual salary and unquestioned authority over the program, all signs have been leading to this day. From 90,000-plus at his first spring game to the faster-than-expected 12-0 start in his second season to this year's SEC title (the Tide's first since 1999) and the school's first-ever Heisman winner (Ingram), Alabama finally appears poised to recapture the glory days of the Bear.
"A lot of people have come up to me said, 'I can't remember an Alabama season that's been more special,'" said McElroy. "It goes without saying, everyone would like to end the drought and win a national championship. Obviously, the writing's on the wall, it's just whether or not we can finish it."
Both offenses will struggle early. But while Alabama's relentless pressure will make it difficult for McCoy to find his rhythm (outside of an inevitable handful of big plays), the Tide should eventually be able to wear down Texas's defense with continual pounding from Ingram and Richardson. McElroy will make the throws to pull away in the fourth quarter.
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