Pregame analysis of Alabama's road game at South Carolina:
What: Alabama Crimson Tide (2-0) at South Carolina Gamecocks (1-1)
When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Central time
Rankings: Alabama is No. 2 in the Associated Press and coaches rankings, while South Carolina is unranked.
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, in Columbia, S.C.
Line: Alabama by 25½
TV/radio: TV: CBS; radio: WHMA-FM 95.5 (Anniston), SiriusXM 191 (Streaming 961)
Three things Alabama must do
1. Set the tone defensively.
While it’s hardly been perfect, surrendering 466 yards and 13 combined points through the first two weeks, Alabama’s rebuilt defense has looked fairly dominant at times, producing 12 three-and-outs and six turnovers among its 27 total defensive series so far this season. That includes limiting Duke and New Mexico State to just 70 combined yards in the first quarter of their games.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have proved quite efficient offensively in the first quarters of games so far, producing 31 combined points and 352 total yards in the opening 15 minutes against North Carolina and Charleston Southern. That included a 12-of-12 passing effort for 101 yards from freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski and 65 rushing yards from running back Rico Dowdle against Charleston Southern.
Back in 2010, South Carolina’s offense got going early with 21 straight points on quarterback Stephen Garcia’s three touchdowns to build a 21-3 lead before Alabama finally found the end zone on a touchdown pass of its own to Julio Jones with 38 seconds left before halftime. If this year’s Crimson Tide wants to send a message defensively that there’s going to be no repeat performance from nine years ago, it’ll start early and be highlighted by a couple of sacks or a big momentum-shifting turnover.
2. Get Najee Harris and the run game going early with a couple of big plays.
While Alabama’s offense has shown big-play ability in the run game, including the 75-yard touchdown on the bubble screen to junior receiver Henry Ruggs III to open the last game and a 74-yard touchdown run by freshman Keilan Robinson, its top two rushing options have yet to prove it.
Junior running back Najee Harris’ longest run of the season so far went for 19 yards against New Mexico State. He also had a 15-yard run against Duke. But outside of those two carries, the usually explosive Harris — who ranked second in the SEC last season averaging 6.7 yards per carry — is averaging less than 4 yards per rush (3.9) on his other 22 carries this season. Fellow junior Brian Robinson Jr. has been considerably worse, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry outside of a 16-yard run on his final tote against the Aggies last Saturday. As evidenced by their outliers, both are capable of much more significant contributions and Alabama could certainly use a couple of significant runs from both Harris and Robinson against a Gamecocks run defense that ranks 10th in the SEC, allowing 155 rushing yards per game already this season.
And while some of the issues in the run game can be traced to a somewhat inconsistent offensive line, much of it revolves around Harris and Robinson not necessarily hitting the designed holes created by the blocking scheme on the play and instead freelancing a bit, which has resulted in more than a couple of runs for no gain. If Alabama is going to establish its run game against South Carolina, it’s going to take both Harris and Robinson following the proper running lanes and exploding through the holes created by the intended play.
“We really need to make improvement in the running game, period. And I think that's everyone,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday. “I think our runners have to do a better job of running the tracks that we need to run to. I think when you run a play people don't understand that by the runner running a track he actually makes the defense react a certain way when the runner's on that track, so you actually get the defenders to come to the blocks. The offensive line is taking angles to block people assuming that's going to happen. And we haven't been consistent in that to this point and I think at times it's affected our ability to be consistent in the running game. We need to get all that cleaned up and do that better.”
3. Break a couple of big returns in the kicking game.
Alabama has arguably the two fastest players in the SEC in Ruggs and sophomore Jaylen Waddle, and both are also very capable return men. Yet neither has found much success on either kickoff or punt returns so far this season, with Ruggs averaging 20 ½ yards on just two kickoff returns while Waddle is averaging 9.3 yards on three punt returns through two games. And while there admittedly have been more punt opportunities than kickoff opportunities with the opposition only scoring one touchdown to date, the fact remains both Ruggs and Waddle can do a little more with the chances they get.
Saban made that clear Wednesday, especially against a South Carolina team that has proven itself capable of making big plays in the return game with a SEC-leading 111 kickoff return yards and 90 more on punt returns. Gamecocks junior receiver Shi Smith has replaced explosive Deebo Samuel at kickoff return and has been a firecracker in his own right, averaging 33.3 yards on three returns this season, including a 60-yarder against North Carolina. At the same time, South Carolina senior receiver Bryan Edwards ranks third nationally averaging 22 yards per punt return this season. While no one expects this to be a track meet on special teams, a couple of considerable returns by Ruggs and Waddle could certainly help Alabama establish itself in case Edwards or Smith get free for a big return of their own.
“We have to really try to encourage our kickoff team to not let up in kickoff coverage, thinking that everything is going to be a touchback and then not cover the kicks. They have a chance to return, this team we're playing this week is a really good kickoff return team,” Saban said. “They've got a good kickoff returner. They're leading the conference in kickoff returns so we've got to focus on what we've got to do to cover and kick the ball in the right place and obviously we don't mind at all when we kick touchbacks but we can't rely on that all the time.”
With SEC play kicking off in Columbia, expect Alabama to come motivated, whether any of the players on the Crimson Tide sideline even remember the 2010 loss. Saban is a master of pushing the right buttons to get his team prepared to play most games, and he’ll find what works this week as well.
Alabama 45, South Carolina 21