Today, I'm endeavouring to predict the final score of every game on Alabama's regular season schedule. I generally have a rule against this kind of thing, because it IS such a no-win scenario. If the team has a better record, you were a Negative Nancy. If the team has a worse record, you're an ignorant homer. If you get the record right but with a couple of games different, well, someone will be sure to point that out, too. Perhaps worst of all is to predict a lop-sided win, only for it to be a close one or, worse, a loss. You'll never hear the end of that.
But this here's a blog. And blogs demand content. And this weekend's game isn't all that interesting to talk about beyond it being the first game and seeing some of the young guys get on the field. So here I am, setting myself up for failure. Feel free to save this to throw in my face later on in the year. I deserve it. I'm an idiot. (Disclaimer: I do reserve the right the change my opinion on each game as the season progresses. That's only fair.)
Let's get this over with...
September 4th: VS San Jose State Spartans
It’s Alabama against San Jose State. That’s all you really need to know about this one, isn’t it? And this SJSU team is expected to be really bad, even by their already low standards. The only bad thing that can happen here is for someone to get hurt. Expect Bama to try to run up a big lead and then start diving it up the middle with reserves by the 3rd quarter. Although, with the defensive secondary being somewhat of a work in progress, I wouldn’t be surprised to see most of the 1st team defense play the majority of the game in preparation for Penn State. Maybe the Spartans can pop enough big pass plays on these young defensive backs to get in field goal range, but no way do they get in the endzone.
Alabama 48, San Jose State 9
September 11th: VS Penn State
Alabama holds the overall lead in this series (8-5), but the teams haven’t met in two decades, so that doesn’t really mean anything. Much more pertinent will be the fact that the visitors from up North will likely be sweating it out in the sweltering heat and humidity of an early September day in Alabama. Conditioning will be a huge factor in this game, and obviously that’s going to favor the Crimson Tide. The longer the game goes on, the greater advantage Alabama will have. Penn State’s best shot to win is to jump out to a big lead and defend it down the stretch in the second half. But I don’t think they’re capable of pulling that off. If you’re going to score on Alabama, you’re going to have to do it through the air. Bama’s defensive front is going to be too ferocious to run on, even for Evan Royster. And the Lions just don’t have the QB to exploit Alabama’s young secondary. Even if they did, I’m not impressed by the PSU offensive line. I don’t think they can handle Bama’s pass rush long enough to even allow the QB to make good throws. Especially if Marcell Dareus plays. There’s no one on Penn State’s team man enough to handle him for 60 minutes. Defensively, they should be stout enough to keep it close in the early going, but ultimately Bama’s punishing running game and the hostile elements will wear them out and make them quit. If Ingram doesn't play, I'd knock Bama's point total down between 3 and 5 points. Enough to notice but not enough to put the game in doubt. Bama has backs that can get Ingram's yards, but he will be missed as a blocker in pass situations. Some 3rd and long's will be lost without him back there.
Alabama 31, Penn State 16
September 18th: AT Duke
A game like this has become somewhat of an oddity for Alabama in recent years. With regular season neutral site games coming into vogue, Bama hasn’t played a true road game against a BCS-conference opponent since traveling to Oklahoma in 2002 (though they’ll be making a trip to Penn State next season). In fact, the original idea for this game was for it to be a neutral site game played in Atlanta or somewhere in the Carolinas, to accommodate the Tide fanbase, but when David Cutcliffe took over at Duke, that got nixed shortly therafter. So now we’re going to be treated to the bizarre site of the Crimson Tide taking the field in a 35,000 seat stadium, of which at least half that amount will be Bama fans. I can’t think of any greater sign of the mania that grips Alabamians when football season comes around than fans buying OTHER TEAM’S season tickets so they can get good seats for a Bama road game. (Oh, by the way, you’re welcome, Duke.) And I think that’s about the most notable thing about this game. This is a rebuilding year at Duke (and you know a rebuilding year by Duke’s standards is bad). Unless the Tide just doesn’t show up to play, this should be a cakewalk. In fact, if you recall the last time these teams played in Tuscaloosa in 2006, Duke led 14-10 at halftime. Unfortunately for Duke, Mike Shula don’t coach here no more. Ingram's health should have no impact on the game.
Alabama 42, Duke 13
September 25th: AT Arkansas
When it comes to picking potential upsets, this is the game everybody has circled. At this point, I’m not even sure how much of an “upset” an Arkansas win would be, considering everybody’s calling for it. And it’s certainly not a bad pick. There is no other team on Bama’s schedule as well suited to exploit Bama’s young secondary as Arkansas. Not Florida, not Auburn, not South Carolina. Ryan Mallett has the arm to throw it over the Bama DB’s heads all day and the corps of experienced, talented receivers, that he’s been throwing to for years, to go get it. They scare me. Last year, Bama’s defensive front was able to put Mallett on the run and held the Razorbacks to just 7 points. If that offensive line has improved, and it certainly is more experienced, it’s going to be a long day in Fayettville. On the positive side, Arkansas isn’t very talented on defense, and the Tide has averaged a little over 40 points per game in the last 3 meetings. Greg McElroy had his biggest day of the year against the Razorbacks last season, and that was with a half-speed, injured Julio Jones. If Julio can stay healthy through the first month of the season, look out. I’m seeing big numbers for #8, and another big day for #4. That said, I think it is worth noting that the visitor is 1-5 in the last 6 games of this series, with the one win being Bama’s drubbing of Bobby Petrino’s pitiful first team in 2008. And, as much as it might pain me to say this, it’s naïve to think the secondary won’t cost us at least one game this season. It’s also pretty naïve to think the kicking game won’t cost us a game. I’ve got a feeling this is going to turn into an 09 Arkansas/Georgia-style shootout (go watch that game to see what Mallett can do to a questionable secondary) with something like an 06 Bama/Arkansas ending.
Arkansas 41, Alabama 38
October 2nd: VS Florida
Speaking of games being circled…This is THE game of the year in the SEC. Everyone is looking forward to it, especially the Florida Gators. They’re coming after Bama like Bama came after them last season. And while I’m sure they’ll be ultra-motivated, there’s a key distinction that needs to be made: When Bama put a mark on Florida, they had nearly everyone that mattered (especially defensive leaders) coming back from that SEC Championship game. That was a team full of guys who were ON THE FIELD and had firsthand knowledge of getting their hearts ripped out by Tebow. More importantly, they knew exactly how much higher they had to elevate their game to beat the Gators in 09. That’s not the case at Florida. Yeah, they’ve got some guys coming back who were on the field getting their hats handed to them last December, but for the most part you see a bunch of guys who were on the sidelines or still in HIGH SCHOOL talking about how they’re going to “take back the crown” or whatever. It’s not even close to being the same thing. So they’ll be motivated, yes, but will that motivation amount to anything meaningful? I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong: the Gators will be good, and they’ll give Alabama a heck of a game. But they’re NOT going to show up in Tuscaloosa and make Mark Ingram cry. This will be John Brantley’s first real test, going on the road in the SEC against an elite team in front of 100,000 fans who will be going crazy from kickoff to the buzzer. If Bama’s front 7 gets after him like they’re capable of, he’s going to struggle in that situation. If he cracks, the Gators have no chance because they won’t be able to run the ball at all, and their defense won’t be improved enough to stop Bama from doing what they did to them in Atlanta. It could be 31-3 all over again. (For the uninitiated, that was the score last time the Gators got rolled out of Tuscaloosa in 2005.) I’ll give this team a little more credit than that, though. Bama losing to Arkansas will be the worst thing that could happen to Florida because they’ll return home with a chip on their shoulders, ready to prove themselves anew. Ultimately, this doesn’t turn out much different than the last time these teams played. Round 2 in Atlanta should be closer.
Alabama 31, Florida 14
October 9th: AT South Carolina
This is the beginning of the much-ballyhooed streak of 6 conference opponents with a bye week prior to facing Alabama. It will also be Bama’s 3rd away game in the span of 4 weeks. So this is a tough spot for the Tide, make no mistake about it. This will also be the 3rd game in a row where the young secondary will be put to the test by one of the more talented passing attacks in the conference. Of course, when I talk about “talented” I’m not necessarily talking about Stephen Garcia (if he’s even playing by then). That guy doesn’t worry me at all. Nor does that freshman Spurrier is talking about playing. No, the guys that worry me are those Twin Towers, Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery. They’re big, and they’ve got experience. They’ll be a difficult matchup for every secondary in the conference, especially Bama’s work-in-progress. If these guys play up to their potential, you don’t have to be a good quarterback to put up big numbers. They can make the throws easy. So the key will be getting to the quarterback (detecting a theme for this season yet?). If Bama can do that, and they should be able to given the Gamecocks’ chronically soft offensive line play, that will take the big guys out of the game. At that point, it will be up to them to run it, and I don’t think they can. Defensively, again, it’s the same old Gamecocks: they’ll be fast off the edge but weak up the middle. Ingram and Richardson should have a field day. The scheduling circumstances will keep this close, but much like last year, I think Bama wears South Carolina out on defense and pulls away in the 4th.
Alabama 27, South Carolina 13
October 16th: VS Ole Miss
This will be a welcome respite for the Tide. The bye isn’t going to be much of a factor for Ole Miss. Bama has won 6 straight against the Rebels, and I don’t see the streak ending here. Prior to last season, this game was always close (decided by 13 total points from 05-08), and even with the lopsided final margin in 09, the Ole Miss defense held the Tide offense to 5 FG’s and just 1 TD. But while that defense should be stout again in 2010, I highly doubt Greg McElroy will play as badly (particularly in the redzone) as he did last year. Likewise, Ole Miss had the benefit of talents like Jevan Snead and Dexter McCluster last season…but still couldn’t get in the endzone in their own house. You’re going to try to tell me the Rebels are going to show up in Tuscaloosa with Nathan Stanley and Brandon Bolden and pull the upset? I don’t think so. By this point in the season, the Bama secondary will be, um, seasoned. I see their defense keep it respectable through 1 quarter until their offense’s repeated 3 and out’s begin to wear on them midway through the 2nd. Then Bama breaks it open and puts it away early in the 3rd.
Alabama 35, Ole Miss 6
October 23rd: AT Tennessee
As much as the Ole Miss game looks like a layup, this game could get downright ugly in a hurry. As I said in the SEC preview, what Tennessee is going to put on the field this year will barely resemble an SEC team. Their depth is extremely shallow and this will be their 7th game of the season. Any significant injuries before now will cripple what meager chances they have to win. On the plus side for them, they will have the bye week prior to the game, so they’ll be as healthy as they possibly can be to give Bama their best shot. Conversely, this will be the Tide’s 8th straight game (bye week the next week), so fatigue could be a factor. These are the exact same circumstances that they game was played under in 09, and we saw a weary Tide team get taken to the limit. But I don’t see that happening this year. These Vols are substantially worse. Bama, even playing their 4th road game in 6 weeks, should win this going away and preserve Saban’s perfect record against Tennessee at Alabama.
Alabama 45, Tennessee 10
November 6th: AT LSU
I fully expect this game to decide the SEC West, and it should be an absolute, physical war of attrition, just as the past 3 games have been. In terms of pure talent and where that talent is allocated, the Tigers have matched up with Bama better than anyone in the country that past 2 years. I expect that to continue this year, mostly. Mostly. The one thing that really sticks out to me about LSU’s defense in 2010 is just how atypically small they are on the defensive line. Physically, they seem much more reminiscent of South Carolina’s DL than the Saban/Miles lines of the last decade. That’s a problem against Alabama. Last year, we saw the Tide come out throwing out of respect for the big, nasty Tiger defensive front. This year, there’s a high probability that Bama’s big OL comes out and just mashes these guys for 4 quarters. And if that happen, it’s still not a blowout, but Bama should win comfortably. LSU is going to have to force passing situations so those little guys can play to their strengths, using their speed to rush around the tackles. Offensively, I’m not impressed by what LSU is putting on the field. The running backs look average, especially compared to Charles Scott and Keiland Williams (who LSU didn’t even get much out of when healthy last year). Their big receivers present matchup problems, but they’re wasted on a bad QB. Jordan Jefferson couldn’t effectively get the ball to them against Bama in 09, and I’ve seen nothing to convince me he’ll be any more capable this season. Worst of all, I just think the whole team has gradually gotten softer and softer under Miles’ leadership. And, of course, you always have to bet against Miles in a close game. It’s also worth noting that Bama has owned the Tigers in Tigers Stadium over the last 30 years. I see this game shaping up a bit like the 09 game, close through 3 with Bama winning by 2 scores in the end.
Alabama 27, LSU 17
November 13th: VS Mississippi State
Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs put a scare into some very good teams last season, but until they actually break through and beat somebody, I’m not overly concerned about them. Bama throttled MSU in Starkville in 2009, and I don’t see any reason it won’t be the same this year. The talent disparity is vast. Mullen is still a year or two away from threatening a Saban-coached team that won’t sleep on them. The 09 score was actually fairly respectable for Mississippi State (17-3) until talent took over late in the game. Playing in Tuscaloosa (sans the freaking cowbells), expect the Tide to start faster and put it away early in anticipation of getting to the bye week, I mean, Georgia State game.
Alabama 38, Mississippi State 9
November 18th: VS Georgia State
The fact that this game is being played at all is an embarrassment. Alabama could play the 3rd string and still beat this team soundly. The only questions are how merciful the Tide will be, and if the Panthers can even stop them then.
Alabama 55, Georgia State 0
November 26th: VS Auburn
Bama defeated the Tigers in Auburn 26-21 in 2009, although if you stopped an Auburn fan on the street and asked them, they’d say they won. Yes, it’s very sad, but you have to understand how deep the obsession is, from the fans to the coaches to the administration. All success is measured against Alabama. SO strong is the obsession that, for the second straight year, Auburn has scheduled their lone bye week before the Alabama game. Meaning they will play 11 straight games (7 SEC contests) before they get a week off, essentially saying that they’re willing to not put their best team on the field for several games in the last half of the season just to get two weeks to work on Bama. Well, last year, they gave the Tide their best shot (12 days off to prep and rest vs. Bama’s 5, home game the day after Thanksgiving), and they couldn’t pull the upset. This year, they still have the bye, but they catch the bad end of that post-holiday scheduling, and Bama one-upped them by getting Georgia State to agree to move that game to Thursday night, cutting into Auburn’s lead time advantage. And, believe me, all this Moral Victory talk that’s been coming out of West Georgia over the past year is going to be used as motivation to come out and deliver a decisive, resounding victory. So those are the intangible factors at play. But what it really comes down to is that Alabama is a more talented, better coached team. Last season, Auburn sold out to stop Mark Ingram and still got beat, because Bama was just the better team. If they sell out on Ingram again, they’ll get beat again, and it won’t be as close, because Bama is just better. Auburn has NOT closed the gap as much as that 09 score might lead you to believe. It’s still not as big as the 36-0 score from 08, but it’s somewhere in between. The Tigers have pinned most of their hopes this season on ex-Florida Gator and renowned laptop thief, Cam Newton. As he goes, so goes the Tiger offense. And I’ve got to say, I don’t think he’s going to be that great as a fit for their offense. Yes, he’s got the big arm and the good speed and nice measurables, but that stuff isn’t all that important when you’re talking about running a no-huddle spread attack. The most important attribute for a QB running that style of offense is accuracy with the football. He needs to be able to consistently complete passes to keep the chains moving and maintain the tempo. Well, that happens to be widely regarded as THE hole in Newton’s game. However limited Chris Todd might have been, he knew how to complete passes. I think Newton is going to fizzle out like so many JUCO transfer QBs in the SEC before him. Maybe he won’t be a total failure, but he won’t be championship material. And if he can’t cut it, what is Auburn going to do to win? Feed the ball to Fumblin’ Mario Fannin? Better coach up the offensive line to be ready to pounce on the ball when it’s in his hands (temporarily). As you can probably tell, I think there’s a lot of unsubstantiated hype around this Auburn team. And as we all know, the Tigers typically falter under expectations like these. Still, I think they’ll come out and put on a good show against Bama. No matter what their offensive situation turns out to be, I’m sure Gus Malzahn will cook up enough hocus pocus to milk some points out of them. But in the end, talent wins out. Just like last year. Phew. Didn't mean to get off on a rant there.
Alabama 31, Auburn 20
So I'm settling on 11-1 as my prediction. That Arkansas pick still burns me, though.