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STEPHEN’S REPORT: Alabama vs. West Virginia Preview

The wait is over. College football returns to primetime Thursday, and despite the Texas A&M vs. South Carolina matchup, Alabama fans are anxious to see the gang in crimson and white suit up for Saturday’s meeting against West Virginia.

Alabama was on the cusp of a three-peat in 2013. The dream ended against Auburn on Chris Davis’s 109-yard missed kick return for a touchdown. Oklahoma came knocking against Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. After a 45-31 loss, the Crimson Tide returns to the gridiron hungry for its 16th national title.

It’s the dawn of a new season, new era (playoff system) and for Alabama, a new quarterback. The Crimson Tide has two candidates that are going stride for stride at this position, Blake Sims and Jacob Coker.

Sims is a redshirt senior. He has been in the system for four years and was AJ McCarron’s backup for two seasons. Alabama fans look at Sims as a runner, but he’s shown signs of life as a passer when given adequate opportunities. Sims has two touchdowns and 244 passing yards in his career.

Tide fans were elated when Coker decided to come to Alabama this offseason. He has all the physical tools needed to be successful under Nick Saban. Aside from his size (6’5” 230 pounds), Coker possesses a strong arm and mobility in the pocket. He can throw on the run and he’s developing chemistry with the team. Coker tossed for 295 yards with one touchdown and one interception in his tenure at Florida State.

Quarterbacks are important, but Alabama returns a talented offense headlined by its running back core.

Junior running back T.J. Yeldon is the veteran of the group.  In two seasons, Yeldon has rushed for over 1,000 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. He’s a tall, shifty back that will either run opponents over or blow by them with speed. Yeldon displays vision in the hole and sets up his cutback lanes well. Ball security is the lone knock against Yeldon. He coughed up the football five times in 2013. Running backs coach Burton Burns has worked with him this offseason on fixing that.

Yeldon is tough, but the backs behind him are just as talented. Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry will get a lot of playing time against West Virginia. In 2013, Drake totaled 694 yards rushing with 8 touchdowns. Unlike Yeldon and Henry, Drake is pure speed. He’s very elusive in the hole and will switch gears often. Drake runs well in between the tackles, but excels at bouncing runs to the outside.

If any individual watched the Arkansas or Oklahoma game, then you know who Derrick Henry is. Henry’s potential in Alabama’s system is bright. He is a physical freak at 6’3” 238 pounds, but has speed to go along with it. Henry recorded 382 yards rushing with three touchdowns last season.

Alabama keeps a lethal receiving corps as usual. Amari Cooper, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White are the veterans on staff. Cooper totaled 736 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2013. Jones and White combined had 883 yards receiving and six touchdowns. These three are the leaders, but the Tide also has Chris Black, OJ Howard, Cameron Sims, Robert Foster and others. It will be pivotal for West Virginia’s secondary to be physical up front.

Alabama’s offensive line started off rough in 2013. It gained confidence as the season went on before ending rough against Auburn and Oklahoma. The Crimson Tide returns three starters to the fold in Ryan Kelly, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd. These three must help Leon Brown, Grant Hill, Dominick Jackson, Cameron Robinson and others learn pass and run blocking schemes for West Virginia.

Alabama finished fourth in the nation defensively last season. Trey DePriest is now the Tide’s leader at linebacker. DePriest collected 65 tackles, two sacks and an interception in 2013. Dillon Lee, Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson and Reuben Foster will accompany DePriest on the field this season.

The Crimson Tide added depth to its defensive line this offseason. A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Brandon Ivory are the leaders, but having Jarran Reed, Da’Shawn Hand, D.J. Pettway, Josh Frazier and others will keep fresh bodies rotating along with providing a consistent pass rush.

Alabama is without Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, but Landon Collins, Jarrick Williams, Geno Smith and others return to the Tide’s secondary. It was suspect at times last season, but Alabama’s secondary will be better this season. With the additions of Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey and Laurence “Hootie” Jones, the Crimson Tide will look to challenge West Virginia’s receivers.

Gone are the days of Big East glory for the West Virginia Mountaineers. Under head coach Dana Holgerson, West Virginia enters its third season in the Big 12. Marquee names including Patrick “Pat” White, Steve Slaton, Noel Devine, Geno Smith and Tavon Austin are gone, but rest assured that Holgerson will put quality players on the field to face Alabama.

After a 4-8 finish in 2013, the Mountaineers look to rebound and compete in the Big 12. Unlike Alabama, West Virginia has named its starting quarterback for this season. Senior Clint Trickett will be pulling the trigger for the Mountaineers. Like his counterpart, Jacob Coker, Trickett spent two seasons at Florida State before transferring to Morgantown in 2013. He tossed for 1,605 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions last season.

Holgerson operates an up-tempo, no huddle offense, but West Virginia will run the ball occasionally. Charles Sims is gone, but the Mountaineers return Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood. Smith tallied 494 yards rushing and five touchdowns in 2013.

Not a lot of marquee names, but West Virginia does have a potent receiver corps. Kevin White led the group last season in receptions (35) and touchdowns (5), while totaling 507 yards receiving. Mario Alford led West Virginia in receiving yards with 552 and two touchdowns. Daikiel Shorts and Ronald Carswell both totaled 400+ yards receiving with four touchdowns combined.

West Virginia’s offensive line must be balanced if it wants to push Alabama’s defense. Quinton Spain, Michael Calicchio and Stone Underwood have to protect Trickett and provide holes in the run game for Smith and Smallwood.

Defensively, West Virginia has to negate huge plays from Alabama. The Mountaineers are anchored up front by Dontrill Hyman, Kyle Rose, Darren Arndt and James Gayeski. Tanner Gross is the senior leader at linebacker along with two juniors, Nick Kwiatkoski and Shaq Petteway.

The Mountaineers will be without its senior leader in the secondary, Ishmael Banks. Banks is suspended for three games because of an unspecified academic eligibility issue. Banks is physical with receivers and plays the ball well at 6’0” 185 pounds.

Many important factors weigh into this matchup. Here is a list including some of the underlying scenarios.

Important factors for Alabama vs. West Virginia

  1. Jacob Coker vs. Clint Trickett: Who got the better deal?
  2. Alabama’s offensive line: Will it protect and block well against WVU?
  3. West Virginia’s secondary: Can it match the physicality of Alabama’s receivers?
  4. Turnover Battle
  5. Possession Battle: Can Alabama keep West Virginia’s offense off the field?
  6. Will Alabama’s defense line generate an adequate pass rush?
  7. Alabama’s secondary: How much will it get tested against West Virginia?

It’s been an entertaining offseason, but college football is back. It will be important for each team to begin on a solid note. Alabama’s quest to 16 national championships starts Saturday and West Virginia’s journey to compete in the Big 12 starts Saturday. Will any of the important factors be answered? Results will come when the Crimson Tide and the Mountaineers collide Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

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