In a bowl game – and especially in a bowl game played nearly five weeks after the teams’ last game – the psych edge can really make the difference.Sometimes one team is ready and the other team isn’t (last year’s Sugar Bowl).Sometimes both teams are ready (Texas-USC BCS game).Frequently neither team is ready and they both kind of slog around until somebody wins by default (LSU vs. Penn St., Capital One Bowl).
There are no magic secrets for how to know who’s ready and who isn’t.I would not advise placing heavy bets based on who you think looks “excited” and who looks “serious” and who looks “scared” before the game.But frequently one team is making tough catches, playing off blocks to make tackles, and diagnosing the other team’s plays, and the other one isn’t.The first few minutes of the game will tell you that . . . but remember this: it’s not unusual for a team to come out fired-up and then shoot its wad in the first few minutes.A team that comes out fired-up but can’t convert its early opportunities is ripe to get trucked badly.
Who will be fired up?Wish I could tell you – but I wouldn’t put too much stock in the articles saying the ‘Horns will come out fired up while Alabama comes out fat and satisfied.Sure, there are the underdog/Heisman loser/#2 vs #1 factors and their history, but Alabama has been hearing that stuff enough this month that the Tide might just feel like underdogs themselves by now.And I wouldn’t discount the fact that the excitement level for Bama’s first BCS Championship Game appearance ever probably exceeds the excitement level for Texas’ return to the (metaphorical) scene of their win four years ago, or perhaps more importantly, that Tiders’ memories of the first-quarter egg laid in New Orleans last January are still too fresh to forget.
That all-important but all-too-difficult-to-predict element aside, here are a few more concrete things to look for.
You all know how important the turnover battle is in every game, and it’s certainly one of the interesting sub-games to watch for this contest.Both teams are in the top ten nationally in turnover differential – Bama at #5, UT at #8 – but they used different paths to get there.Bama is good at ball security and good at forcing turnovers; Texas is average at ball security and great at forcing turnovers.An Alabama game featured an average of 3.1 turnovers (both teams combined), while there were typically a whopping 4.5 turnovers in a Texas game.
So think of Alabama as favoring a controlled play-style (like its coach), while Texas games get a bit wild and sloppy.If possession is bouncing around like a ping-pong ball, Texas will feel at home; if they teams play carefully and stay safe, this favors Alabama.
Expect Alabama to come out slinging it – Alabama’s best offensive success all season has been when the Tide used the pass to set up the run.The Tide also likes to go downfield early to loosen the D.Julio Jones, who was not much of a factor against Florida, should be a bigger part of the game plan, but look for Colin Peek to be a target at key moments.
Even early on, though, Bama will mix the run with the pass.Alabama’s first-half inside running is the equivalent of body-blows, not necessarily designed for an instant knockout but rather to wear the opponent down for a heavier attack later on.The Tide frequently goes for the kill with fourth-quarter power running, and in recent games has shown a tendency to get Trent Richardson more involved late in the game.Fresh legs often work in the fourth quarter, and in Richardson’s case the fresh legs have a steamroller attached, which makes handling him an even tougher chore for a tired D.
Texas has to wonder which Greg McElroy they will see, the all-world guy from the SEC Championship Game or the guy who looked like he wanted to hand the South Carolina game to the Gamecocks.Personally, I would say that expecting another Florida-type performance would be expecting lightning to strike the same tree it hit yesterday – but it’s even less logical to expect another South Carolina-type performance.McElroy’s trend for the year was clear – he started out hot, ran into some weather with his first taste of aggressive SEC pass Ds, but gradually became more and more comfortable with making things happen against tough defensive schemes as the year went on.Will Muschamp is not likely to show Greg anything he hasn’t already seen from Monte Kiffin, John Chavis, Tyrone Nix, Charlie Strong, and their ilk, and #12 showed clear signs of being ready to play championship quarterback as the season wore on.
On the other side of the ball, the battle lines are more clearly drawn.Texas will at least make a gesture toward a balanced attack, but I don’t think anybody really believes the ‘Horns will get much of a running game going against Terrence Cody, Rolondo McClain, and friends.It will almost certainly come down to how well Colt McCoy and the Texas passing attack can do against Alabama’s elite pass D.
McCoy thrives on moving the chains with a high-percentage, short passing attack that piles up first downs on the way to the end zone.Unfortunately for Texas, Alabama has excelled at thwarting those sorts of methodical drives by getting opponents off the field.Alabama is third in the nation with 71 three-and-outs by opponents, third in the nation in third-down conversion percentage, and allows only 49% of opponents’ drives to gain 10 yards or more, which is also third in the nation.The three highest-rated offenses Bama played this year – Virginia Tech, Arkansas, and Florida – combined for only one touchdown drive of 55 yards or more.
Further, an offensive mindset that relies on completions and where a drive can be derailed with one or two badly-timed incomplete passes can be iffy against a D that has only allowed opponents to complete 47.4% of their passes.That number contrasts starkly with McCoy’s gaudy 70.5% completion percentage.Whether McCoy or the Tide’s D comes closer to its season average will certainly be a stat to watch.
The media narrative is that the Nebraska game showed holes in the UT pass protection scheme, and that Bama’s aggressive D will exploit those and stay in McCoy’s face.But Nick Saban is a master of defensive gameplans that surprise offenses, and Texas has presumably spent most of the last month shoring up its pass protection schemes.Further, a pass rush can almost always be neutralized by the kinds of quick reads and quick release McCoy specializes in.
I would predict that Saban will expect Texas to come out with a quick read/quick release gameplan, and will counter with a gameplan that features few blitzes and a lot of staying back in coverage.McCoy will be dared to keep throwing it downfield without exposing the ball to Mark Barron and Alabama’s other greedy DBs.
There’s a certain fear factor to Alabama’s defense that tends to get into the heads of opposing signal-callers.Even when Alabama is bringing a controlled pass rush, quarterbacks tend to get rid of it hurriedly as if they were under a heavy blitz.Alabama’s defense is a little bit bigger and more athletic than other college Ds, and quarterbacks can’t see everything all the time.It must be easy to believe that Rolondo McClain is closing in from behind when you can’t see him at the moment.
Texas will trot out a seasoned quarterback, the NCAA’s all-time leader in wins as a starter, but other seasoned quarterbacks have fallen prey to this syndrome.(See Tebow, Tim.)I will be watching to see – if I am right and Bama doesn’t blitz much, at least early – whether McCoy can do a better job at using the time he has than the quarterbacks on most teams Bama has faced have done.
But remember, Saban specializes in keeping offenses off-balance, so don't expect Alabama to use the same defensive gameplan for four quarter. I'm saying there won't be many blitzes early, bu later, in the second half, expect Bama to turn loose the blitzing dogs once Texas has been schooled not to expect them.
Finally, remember that Brown has been harping on the underdog angle in preparation.If he wants to sell his team on that angle, he will probably turn to what underdogs love to do: trickeration.This is especially true since Texas has no doubt spent some time with the Auburn game film and seen Auburn’s trickeration put the Tide in a tough spot.Look for reverses, halfback/wide receiver passes, fake kicks, and/or onside kicks, and expect Texas to go to them early to set an aggressive tone.Whether Alabama is ready and turns back the trick plays early will send an important message as to whether the Tide is going to let itself be Utahed again.
When Texas does move into scoring territory, it will be a strength on strength matchup.Texas is top 15 nationally in red zone scoring (93%) and touchdowns (70%), but Alabama is second in red zone touchdowns allowed (35%) and scoring (65%).
On a scarier note for Tide fans, the Longhorns are fourth in the nation in kickoff returns, and the return of D.J. Monroe and his gaudy 35.8 average (with two touchdowns) from a three-game DWI suspension should strike fear into the heart of Tide fans.Alabama may have looked pretty good in offense vs defense matchups all year, but those of us who have been watching the games know just how problematic the Tide’s KOR defense has been.If Texas never breaks a long one, call it advantage Alabama.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, the Javy Watch stands at 29 yards, i.e., Javier Arenas needs 29 yards to set the all-time NCAA career punt return yardage record.May it happen in the first quarter.
Finally, remember this: Texas has a cow for a mascot.Eat part of a cow to prep for the game.I know I will.
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