Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The end is near

So here we are. It's the last day of the college football season, which is always depressing (my countdown to Michigan football stands at 240 days). But we've got a few hours left before emo sets in, and the only game left on the schedule should give us plenty to talk about.

We've got Heisman Trophy finalists, the winningest quarterback in college football history, two tradition-laden programs, two elite coaches and a combined 26-0 record. The winner takes home the national championship.

Alabama has been about a four-point favorite since the books opened, which seems about right: After watching 'Bama destroy Florida and Texas squeak past an uninspiring Nebraska team (along with a few other mediocre opponents), setting that line was probably pretty easy. But the "what have you done for me lately" factor is WAY overrated, and it's not like Texas isn't an elite team. Between Colt McCoy and the nation's top rushing defense, the Horns will put up a fight. Will it be enough? Ehhhh ... let's take a look.

What I usually like to do for this type of game is find a comparable opponent (in terms of style) and analyze the results. Unfortunately, that's pretty difficult for this one; Alabama didn't play an offense with many similarities to Texas. The only passing-based offense 'Bama faced was Bobby Petrino's at Arkansas, and that's much more of an aggressive, downfield attack than what we'll see from Texas. I also doubt McCoy will go 12-for-35 like Ryan Mallett did. Auburn had as much success as anyone, but that offense is a wildly complex run-heavy attack. Again, it's not similar to what we'll see from Texas. I'd look at Tennessee, but Jonathan Crompton is closer to a catfish than he is to Colt McCoy.

There's not much to glean from all this, but what I do know is that Texas faced a couple defenses similar to Alabama's (not quite as good, but similar). In one of those games, the Horns put up 16 points against Oklahoma and held on for their biggest win of the year. In the other, Texas' interior O-line was physically destroyed by Ndamukong Suh in the Big 12 title game. Neither one of those performances bodes well against Alabama.

After Suh's get-out-of-my-way-while-I-kill-your-quarterback dominance, it seems likely that Texas' offensive line will have problems with Terrence Cody and Alabama's blitz-heavy defense. While Cody doesn't have Suh's quickness and pass-rushing ability, his 360-pound presence pretty much demands two blockers and will allow just about everyone else in the front seven to focus on getting to McCoy. Alabama finished second in the country in pass-efficiency defense and eighth in passing yards allowed, which is extremely good when you consider that they were winning by a lot in most games. When 'Bama took a 13-point lead over Florida and it became obvious that Tim Tebow would have to throw, the results weren't pretty: Tebow was 10-for-17 with one sack, one interception and no touchdowns in the second half. Only three of those 10 passes went for more than 8 yards.

The reason I'm focusing so much on the passing game is that Texas doesn't really have a running game. Things aren't quite as dire as they were last year, when McCoy easily led the team in rushing, but they aren't much better. McCoy was still the primary option against every respectable defense except Oklahoma (Foswhitt Whitaker broke off a couple nice runs and finished with 71 yards, while McCoy was the second-leading rusher with 33 yards). And after the Nebraska debacle -- McCoy had 17 carries for minus-20 yards as Texas accumulated 18 rushing yards as a team -- I doubt Mack Brown will even bother with having McCoy run into the teeth of the nation's second-ranked rushing defense and get drilled repeatedly by Cody and Rolando McClain. Expect at least 35 passing attempts unless Texas finds shocking success with Whitaker or nominal starting running back Vondrell McGee.

As for McCoy, he was very good this year ... but not great. He finished 17th in pass efficiency -- just ahead of Greg McElroy -- and didn't post the huge numbers he did as a junior, finishing with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In the two games mentioned above, he was flat-out bad: He was 21-for-39 for 127 yards with one touchdown and one interception against Oklahoma and 20-for-36 for 184 yards with no touchdowns and three picks against Nebraska. Add the two together and you get a cumulative 41-for-75 (54.6%) for 311 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions against the only defenses on the schedule that could be considered even remotely comparable to Alabama's. If he doesn't play far better tonight, Texas has basically no shot at winning.

Alabama, of course, plays a slightly different style. They have a pretty good running back who won some award or something, and they like to give him the ball a lot and let him run around and/or over people on his way to the ... errr, the 10-yard line, at which point Leigh Tiffin will come on and kick a field goal.

I covered this in my Heisman follow-up, but it's worth mentioning again: Mark Ingram was at his best against 'Bama's toughest competition this year.
In Ingram's six most difficult games, his average was 154 yards -- significantly more than his season average -- on 24.3 carries, or an average of 6.38 per carry.

In other words, Ingram's numbers were actually dragged down by games against Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga; he had a total of 29 carries in those three games. He was by far his best against Alabama's toughest opponents, including 113 yards and three touchdowns in the biggest game this year in all of college football.
As impressive as his performance against Florida was, the going gets tougher against Texas. Let me put it this way: Texas looks at Alabama's run defense and laughs. The Horns have the top-ranked run defense in the country, allowing just 62 yards per game (Alabama is a distant second at 77 yards per game). There's a catch, though: Playing in the spread-happy Big 12 means Texas faced a total of two offenses all year ranked in the top 60 in rushing (Oklahoma State finished 22nd and Texas A&M was 30th), and neither of those two has a power running game similar in style or quality to Alabama's. It'll be uncharted waters for the Texas defense; I expect a good performance, but I don't think the Tide will be held under 100 rushing yards.

And then there's a quarterback, a guy nobody figured was of much use until he took over late to lead 'Bama past Auburn and then lit up Florida like a Christmas tree. How good is Greg McElroy? I have no idea; it depends a lot on whether you're looking at Alabama's first 10 games or the past two. He wasn't bad early in the year, but he wasn't really asked to do anything except not screw up. When Auburn and Florida really focused on stopping Ingram and stud freshman Trent Richardson, McElroy stepped up. I think we can all agree that if McElroy plays like he did against Florida, Alabama will win comfortably.

Texas' pass defense is pretty good -- 10th in pass-efficiency D and 25th in passing yards allowed despite playing Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, etc. -- but if they're playing eight guys in the box on every play, there will be some openings for Julio Jones and Marquise Maze. If you haven't seen Julio Jones this year, please watch him. The guy is a physical freak who will be starting in the NFL a couple years. I think he plays a lot like Larry Fitzgerald, and Texas doesn't have a corner who can defend a young Larry Fitzgerald. Maze is one of those little 5-foot-10 guys with ridiculous shiftiness; he's the perfect complement to Julio Jones and has made plenty of big plays this year while everyone has been smothering Jones and Ingram. I don't think either side has a definite advantage when Alabama puts the ball in the air, but I think there'll be at least one big pass play that gets 'Bama some points.

The odd thing about Alabama's offense is its weakness: The Tide just can't score touchdowns when they get in the red zone. Their touchdown percentage is at 45% this year, which is pretty terrible when compared with Texas' 71%. In a close game, settling for a field goal rather than a touchdown could be the difference.

Special teams are a wash. Leigh Tiffin (29-for-33) and Hunter Lawrence (22-for-25) are two of the best kickers around, as are returners Jordan Shipley and Javier Arenas. Both were All-Americans -- Arenas at corner and Shipley at receiver -- and Arenas is just 29 punt return yards away from Wes Welker's NCAA career record of 1,761 yards. Neither team punts or covers punts particularly well, which will probably come into play in a game that features two of the best defenses in the country; I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a big return from Shipley or Arenas that swings momentum to one side.

I think that covers just about everything, so I'll summarize in tale-of-the-tape fashion:
  • Alabama offense vs. Texas defense: Push, although McElroy's late-season surge could give 'Bama a slight edge since Texas' run defense will get its toughest test of the year.
  • Texas offense vs. Alabama defense: Advantage 'Bama. The Horns' performances against Nebraska and Oklahoma were deeply concerning.
  • Special teams: Push.
Everything tells me this game will be a defensive battle, and I think the Tide have a slightly better defense and a slightly more well-rounded offense. It'd be great to see Colt McCoy go out with a legendary performance in the final game of his legendary career, but without a running game to help him out, Alabama will just find it too easy to sit on Texas' short passing routes (like Oklahoma and Nebraska did) and force him into a lot of sacks/throwaways/dangerous passes. Mack Brown knows this, of course; I'm just not sure what he can do about it. It's hard to envision the Horns' one-dimensional offense putting up more than a couple touchdowns when Nick Saban has had a month to prepare.

My predictions are as follows:
  • Ingram runs for at least 80 yards and a touchdown.
  • McCoy finishes below 250 yards passing.
  • Jones, Maze or Shipley breaks off a long (at least 50-yard) touchdown.
  • There are a LOT of punts.
  • Alabama wins 20-17.
In other words, bet heavily on Texas in a shootout.

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