Game Preview: BCS National Championship – #2 Texas Longhorns v. #1 Alabama Crimson Tide

Thursday, January 7
7:00 p.m. Central
ABC

In early August, before the beginning of the 2009 season, the Texas Longhorn faithful couldn’t contain their excitement and anticipation for an undefeated season and a potential trip to the BCS National Championship at the famed Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA.

After all, even the casual observer would note 2008 Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Colt McCoy was back, as was a stout defense that returned a plethora of young players who continued to improve each day. Yes, the running game continued to have question marks, but then again, every team has questions coming out of spring drills and in to fall two-a-days…it was all fixable, right? Fear not, ‘Horns fans, the day of reckoning has come – a day to redeem a one-second loss to Texas Tech in 2008, and to rejoice and enjoy the spotlight of playing for the Longhorns second national championship in five years.

Let’s breakdown what should be one of the best bowl games of 2009-2010 – the national championship between #1 Alabama and #2 Texas.

This Week
Eyes Of TX’s Prediction
Texas 24, Alabama 20

#1 Alabama Crimson Tide (13-0)
After suffering for years in the SEC and under a revolving door of coaches, always with the “potential” to compete for the conference title, the Crimson Tide have finally found their niche and achieved their goal of being in the hunt for the national championship. With head coach Nick Saban corralling his troops, ‘Bama’s defense has shot to the top of the national rankings and the offense is playing well enough to beat fellow SEC run-heavy conference foes. They bring six All-Americans between both sides of the ball to Pasadena, and yes, they have this year’s Heisman Trophy winner in sophomore running back Mark Ingram. How on earth can they lose?

Ironically, Bama’s games are managed by a fellow Texan in junior Greg McElroy, who has grown out of his Southlake Carroll HS size to be a legitimate 6’3” 200-pound gun slinger for the Tide. I saw managed, because that’s typically what he does – controlling the clock, handing the ball off to the stable of ‘Bama running back, and making timely throws when asked to do so. On the year, he’s completing 60 percent of his passes for just over 2,200 yards, 16 TDs and only four INTs. the focus of ‘Bama’s offense is obviously their running game, but McElroy is more than capable of delivering accurate passes to his underrated wide receiver targets. For those who watched the SEC Championship game against Florida, you saw exactly how McElroy picked apart the man-to-man coverage that a pretty darn good secondary presented the Tide offense all day long. In our opinion, with Texas focused on stopping Ingram and ‘Bama’s running attack, McElroy might have to win this game with his arm – and, it remains to be seen whether or not he’s capable of doing that consistently.

Criss-crossing the field for the offense, McElroy has several targets who are largely underrated on the national landscape. The headliner is sophomore wide receiver Julio Jones, who at 6’4” 210-pounds, has accounted for 545 yards and four TDs (13.6 yards per catch) and has excellent speed and even better hands. He will, by far, be the best WR the ‘Horns will face this season, and he must be accounted for on every play. The benefit of a Jones double-team is none other than Marquise Maze, a 5’10” 179-pound sophomore who is an absolute bullet getting downfield. Maze, who has catches totaling 423 yards and two TDs, is the true deep threat and ‘Bama’s fastest player. While Alabama will run some three- and four-wide receiver sets, their next passing threat is also one of their best run blockers in senior tight end Colin Peek. Peek is big – weighing in at 6’6” and 225 pounds – and is capable of holding his own when ‘Bama runs downfield, and also releasing off chip blocks to be a key outlet for McElroy. With 274 yards receiving and two scores, Peek can make yards after the catch (and after contact) as he’s averaging over 11 yards per reception, and can be trouble for smaller defensive backs and linebackers.

Now, the meat of the Alabama offense – the running game and the boys up front creating the holes. The running game is led by Ingram – the Heisman crier, if you remember – as the sophomore tallied 1,429 yards rushing and 12 TDs (a 6.5 yards per carry average). While he is slightly undersized at 5’10” 215-pounds, he is capable of using his numerous skills to find success running between the tackles or getting to the sidelines and turning the corner. He’s also the team’s second-leading receiver, having caught 28 balls for another 246 yards and three TDs. While Ingram is the workhorse who gets the most recognition, his back-ups are equally qualified to give opposing defenses fits. Trent Richardson, who most often spells Ingram, is a true freshman that is a little bit bigger and faster. That in and of itself is a scary thought, and he might already be better than Ingram. Richardson has accounted for six scores on the year, and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Finally, senior Roy Upchurch will anchor the running back corps as a likely third down back that is capable of picking up the blitz and giving McElroy more time to throw on obvious passing downs. The real work, though – and the biggest reason for Ingram and Richardson’s current and future success – is done by the Alabama offensive line. These big boys, led by first-team All-American senior guard Mike Johnson, have made life easy for the running game, paving the way for more than 2,555 yards team rushing and more than 5,000 yards of offense in 2009. While their offensive line is sized well enough to compete with opposing defensive tackles on the outside, the question remark remains their ability to pass protect. They’ve given up 14 sacks on the season, but they haven’t seen a pass rush like Texas’ so far this season, and when it’s not your bread and butter…well…

On defense, Alabama is all they are cracked up to be. If the Texas defense is good, Alabama’s is great – and defense is Saban’s specialty. Given Texas’ own coach-in-waiting defensive coordinator Will Muschamp learned from the best, expect to see some similar wrinkles on the defensive side of the ball. The Tide are ranked #2 nationally in total defense, giving up only 241 yards per game (77 yards rushing for #2 nationally behind Texas; 163 yards passing for #7 nationally), while they are #1 in scoring defense (11 points per game), and getting almost three turnovers per game. In other words, they don’t have a weakness.

The defensive line is stout, they typically run a 3-3-5 base defense, and although they don’t have a lot of sacks from the front three, they plug holes and create opportunities for the linebackers to clean up the mess. Their interior is held down by nose guard Terrence Cody who is an absolute beast at 6’5” 365-pounds and creates double- and triple-team needs by opposing offensive lines. Cody tallied 65 tackles on the season, and six of those were for a loss – not great stat lines, but he creates enough of a distraction for his teammates to make plays. You’ve probably heard about Cody based on his two blocked field goals in the Tennessee game, which allowed ‘Bama to sneak out with a win and maintain their national championship hopes. The teammates on the line who support Cody are defensive ends Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington, both are 6’5” and nearly 290 pounds each, and both are stout on rush defense and decent pass rushers. The sack master of the line is the smaller Marcell Dareus, who has accounted for 6.5 sacks on the season. All told, the defensive line doesn’t create the stats you would expect, but they do their jobs well.

The linebackers and secondary are the guys who create pressure on opposing offenses and lead the team in tackles. All-American linebacker Rolando McClain – who has been sick with a “stomach virus” this week – is the team’s leading tackler with 101 on the season, and has had 12.5 tackles for a loss including four sacks, two INTs, eight passes defended, a forced fumble and 14 quarterback pressures. If you printed out his stat line, your printer would run out of ink – he’s that good. From his middle linebacker position, he’s able to hit the gaps and make tackles in the backfield, but he’s also solid from sideline to sideline. The other linebackers do their jobs well, and although they aren’t Mr. Clean like McClain, they have accounted for 90 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.

The secondary is the best Texas will face all season, and is led by All-American Javier Arenas. Arenas has three INTs, seven passes defended with four more break-ups, his second on the team with five sacks, has 66 tackles and tied for the team-lead in 12.5 tackles for a loss. On the other side of the field, Kareem Jackson has 12 passes defended, and combined with the safeties Eryk Anders, Mark Barron, and Justin Woodall are all big and physical. When ‘Bama plays zone defense, Barron is the ballhawk of the bunch, with seven INTs, and the secondary as a whole plays physical defense and can use it’s size and quickness to makes plays while the ball is in the air.

#2 Texas Longhorns (13-0)
So, what’s it going to take for the ‘Horns to win? First and foremost, the offensive line has to play better than in the Big 12 Championship when they gave up nine sacks to the Cornhuskers. Every unit has a bad day, and with a month to prepare, offensive line coach Mac McWhorter will have his big boys drooling with the opportunity to redeem themselves against one of the best defenses in the country.

Second, Muschamp’s defense has to be prepared to stop the run. You can expect ‘Bama to come out firing the same way they did against Florida – leading with the passing game to get the Texas secondary to back off the line of scrimmage and then finishing the game with Ingram running wild. Can they do it? It remains to be seen – Muschamp is a master of making in-game adjustments to address problem areas, and that could help the ‘Horns on Thursday night.

On offense, McCoy needs to use his legs and be smart with dumping the ball off on screens and using shovel passes to try to alleviate the ‘Bama pass rush. Texas doesn’t win if McCoy can’t use his legs to stretch plays out and give him a chance to find his receivers on broken plays. The ‘Horns have the playmakers at wide receiver to take advantage of the Tide’s secondary, but McCoy needs time to find them. While Texas doesn’t need the running game to have huge stats, they need to use the running game to make ‘Bama think twice about their pass rush. Anything special from the running backs is an added bonus, and one that will help keep the Alabama defense honest.

The real difference in this game could be special teams, and Texas has a slight advantage in kick and punt returns, so long as they can contain Arenas when Texas does have to punt. While I wouldn’t expect Saban to have any trick plays in the kicking game – especially considering they are a defensive-focused and ball-control team – if Boise State is any example, you might see some fireworks to try to keep drives alive.

Pre-game Resources
2009 Texas Longhorns Roster
2009 Alabama Crimson Tide Roster
University Co-op Gameday Newsletter / Pod casts:
Issue #110: Alabama Offense & Special Teams v. Texas Defense & Special Teams
Issue #111: Texas Offense v. Alabama Defense

Texas-focused Media Coverage of the BCS National Championship
One of Eyes Of TX’s favorite media outlets (unless they’re talking about USC), ESPN, has been posting various Texas and Alabama pre-game coverage all week. Some of our favorite Texas-focused reads this week below:

Articles
ESPN: UT’s O-line Aims To Improve (1/6/2010)
ESPN: SEC On Verge Of Total Domination (1/6/2010)
ESPN: Brown Finally Finds Everything In Place (1/5/2010)
ESPN: Muschamp Takes On Friends For Title (1/5/2010)
ESPN: Thomas Is A Man Of Many Talents (1/4/2010)
ESPN: Horns Relish The Challenge of Ingram (1/4/2010)
ESPN: McCoy Focused On Final Texas Test (1/1/2010)

Videos
ESPN: Houston Prepares To Lead Texas’ Defense (1/5/2010)
ESPN: BCS Coaching Conflicts (1/5/2010)
ESPN: Team Talk – Texas (1/5/2010)
ESPN: A Tale Of Two Quarterbacks (1/4/2010)
ESPN: Sunday Conversation – Brown and Saban (1/4/2010)
ESPN: Brown, Longhorns Draw From Experience (1/2/2010)
ESPN: Sergio Kindle’s Inspiration (1/2/2010)

Hook ‘em!

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