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Alabama will score on West Virginia. Here's how the Mountaineers retaliate

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The Tide have too many weapons for an overhauled WVU defense. But the real test is once again Nick Saban vs. the air raid.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 College Football Guide

Alabama wasn't built to win the national championship in 2013. It'd lost the majority of its starting linemen, crucial losses for a program that wins games by dominating the line of scrimmage.

But perhaps the worst loss the Tide suffered was after 2012, at cornerback. Alabama was left small and inexperienced, and was consequently abused by opponents like Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Without outstanding veterans at these essential positions in the Nick Saban machine, Alabama no longer had quite enough marginal advantages to overcome every opponent on the schedule.

Of course the other issue with Saban's Alabama is its struggle to dispatch hurry-up spread teams with the same ease that characterizes its treatment of other offensive systems.

As it happens, the Tide begin their 2014 campaign in the Georgia Dome of Atlanta against Dana Holgorsen and the West Virginia Mountaineers. Holgorsen's team is, of course, a hurry-up spread team that has taken some of the practices and structure of Mike Leach's old air raid and infused it with packaged plays, better running, and more play-action.

West Virginia and Alabama are too far apart for there to be much question about this outcome. However, how the game unfolds could tell us a lot about whether Saban and Bama are evolving enough to maintain their perch at the top of the food chain.

When Alabama has the ball

Lane Kiffin simply has too many weapons at his disposal for Alabama not to ring up a defense like West Virginia's.

Still, West Virginia is likely to be much better on defense in 2014. It's not hard to finish higher than 87th in defensive S&P, even if you play in the Big 12, but they've actually assembled a decent amount of talent and brought aboard assistant Tom "Scrap" Bradley of Penn State fame to help build a defensive tradition in Morgantown.

There are some pieces to make that happen. West Virginia has a collection of fast-twitch athletes in rush-backer Brandon Golson, middle linebacker Isaiah Bruce, and defensive end Shaquille Riddick. They have a 3-4 defense that starts a "big nickel," the 6'1, 210-pound K.J. Dillon as the outside linebacker who aligns to the field or passing strength. On the inside they have some beef in the form of 6'4, 298-pound nose tackle Kyle Rose and 6'2, 290-pound end Christian Brown.

The Mountaineers also have an up and coming cornerback in Daryl Worley, who at 6'1 can play on an island against even bigger receivers, and a hard-hitting safety named Karl Joseph, who will likely spend a lot of time in the box against Alabama.

These are all useful tools that will allow West Virginia to attack offenses with speed and load up the box without being overly afraid of being destroyed by the passing game. But that ain't gonna cut it against this Alabama team.

The main problems come on the edge against the Bama jumbo packages, which can field 6'7, 263-pound tight end Brian Vogler, 6'6, 240-pound tight end O.J. Howard, and 6'1, 248-pound fullback Jalston Fowler at the same time. When they are leading the way for 6'3, 241-pound running back Derrick Henry, that will mean there are four mobile Tide bludgeons that are all larger than anyone in the defensive backfield.

There's simply little hope of the Mountaineers withstanding that kind of size and power on the perimeter. Oklahoma's ground defense experienced this same problem when attempting to handle Alabama in the Sugar Bowl:

Oklahoma's starting lineup for handling Big 12 teams featured a 220-pound rush-backer and a 192-pound "big nickel," a line-up they've since adjusted after getting run over by Notre Dame, Texas, and Alabama.

One of the strategies OU was forced to adapt for this game was to play a bigger backup, P.L. Lindley, at outside linebacker to counter Bama's size and power. That meant taking a player who rarely played in the season and relying on him to maintain the edge vs one of the best rushing teams in football. West Virginia's options are similar.

So what happens in this game when Alabama runs zone to the right behind big tackle Austin Shepherd and big Vogler? Probably a lot of Crimson Tide yardage, that's what happens.

And if surprise reported starter Blake Sims ends up being a competent passer who can take advantage of Alabama's ability to field Howard, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, and Amari Cooper all at the same time? Then there'll be no question that Alabama can keep up ... even if its defense proves incapable of handling the WVU air raid.

The Mountaineer defenders need to keep their chins up after this one, because they'll matchup much better against the offenses in their own conference.

When West Virginia has the ball

Of course, this is where things get interesting. For West Virginia to give Alabama a game, it's going to need to play well on offense and demonstrate the kind of firepower it had back when Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey, and Tavon Austin were on the field.

They aren't there yet, but they are getting closer. They hope to have found a serviceable QB in former Florida State Seminole Clint Trickettwho is pretty familiar with the Saban family and had an injury-hampered 2013.

Xs and Os aren't the problem. The West Virginia offense is on the cutting edge of spread option strategy and constantly creates space for athletes to make hay, combining quick throws all over the field with power and zone running schemes. They have a couple of hefty guards, a solid backfield blocker in Cody Clay, and a large stable of running backs to bring balance to their attack. They lost their best weapon, running back Charles Sims, but the overall talent of the skill positions is increased.

But the big question is: what happens when they spread out Alabama?

Saban's defense is all about making offensive progress as exhausting as possible, every step of the way. Big defensive linemen, wide-bodied linebackers, and rangy safeties roam the middle of the field in read-and-react mode, quickly swarming the ball and punishing whoever carries it. They challenge every route with tight underneath coverage and rely on that large front seven to constrict spaces against the run game.

When they face spread alignments, the Tide tend to play two-deep coverages that require a lot of range from the safeties and involve the use of nickel and even dime players, which are referred to by Saban as the "star" and "money" positions, respectively.

The dime package for Alabama against West Virginia figures to be a 4-1-6 group that could involve Jarrick Williams as the "money" dime and Geno Smith as the "star," with Landon Collins and Nick Perry as the strong and free safeties. Within this package, Alabama protects that linebacker from coverage by utilizing the star and money players as follows.

Against a 2x2 receiver set, they'll position the money and star against the slot receivers, which means both are out there as outside linebackers like a sam and will in a normal 4-3 defense:

Bama Dime vs 2x2

If the offense presents a 3x1 set designed to get a slot receiver matched up with the middle linebacker, then the money-backer assumes the role of the middle linebacker. The sole, true linebacker on the field lines up as the will:

Bama Dime vs 3x1

The easy matchup and leverage advantages that spread offenses love to exploit with quick routes underneath are thus nullified by the star and money.

One possibly exploitable feature of this package is that the defense is stretched rather thin underneath in trying to defend the run and has to do so with six defensive backs on the field. Although Bama will still field big linemen and use some two-gapping techniques, there are still holes when trying to account for every offensive player in a packaged play such as this one:

Here's how that play can look against Alabama's quarters defense in that dime package:

WV packaged play

West Virginia runs a spacing concept to the field side that draws the nickel away from the action. The dime player's also drawn out of the box, hoping to prevent Y from getting an easy reception.

Now the Mountaineers can run draw from the offensive line, to buy time for the QB to make his read. In the clip above, Iowa State plays cover 3 and drops the strong safety into the box to prevent the dime from having to widen out to stop Y, thus keeping six players in the box. Trickett responds by throwing a hitch to the X receiver, Mario Alford, on the other side for easy yardage.

Saban has to pick his poison, give up the easy short pass, or cover it and then rally to the ball and limit the damage from the run. Or, he can rotate into cover 3 and take his chances with his cornerbacks isolated without help.

What really has to concern Alabama, however, is the matchup between that remaining linebacker and the West Virginia running back. Saban has two options as to which linebackers to play in his dime package.

One is to play whichever powerful run-stuffer fills in for Trey DePriest in order to survive packaged runs like the one above that allow the Mountaineers to run on a five-man box.

If he goes with a player like DePriest, he'll have to handle plays where West Virginia uses its back in the passing game. In addition to spread and empty sets that could make that hard on the linebacker, WVU has a couple of two-back formations they like to use. One features a fullback/TE player who can be a lead blocker and won't overly worry Alabama. The other features a power runner and a RB/WR hybrid like Wendell Smallwood and goes for plays like this:

WV 2-back

It's a double concept that is going to require that the linebacker drop deep enough to defend the curl and then rally to the flat to stop the RB. West Virginia can also use concepts that will force the linebacker to handle the running back in man coverage in the middle of the field.

If Alabama relies on a more mobile player like Reggie Ragland in these packages, they are confronted with the issues about stopping the run with reduced numbers and leaving their corners on islands against seniors Alford and Kevin White.

Finally, there's the problem of the missing Tide pass rush. Dana Holgorsen's offense has an extensive play-action package, including deep passes thrown from the dreaded diamond formation that stacks the box with blockers and running backs to isolate receivers outside.

The Tide front needs to get a pass rush and be able to blitz without their corners getting burned playing man coverage. And this is where A'Shawn Robinson, Saban's ace in the hole, comes into the picture. The massive sophomore had 5.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2013 and now returns to lead the Tide line.

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While the Tide defense is designed to read and react, swarm to every run with hard flowing safeties, and cover every throw with pressed up cornerbacks, it's not designed to put defenders in the backfield, except on blitzes. However, with players like former disruptor Marcell Dareus or Robinson, who can get into the backfield despite playing read-and-react football, this defense reaches another level. If the Tide can find some playmakers at outside linebacker -- their two starters contributed only three sacks apiece in 2013 -- this is probably another legendary defense.

Holgorsen may not have a strong enough team to trade blows with Saban and his loaded Alabama team, but he does have some players and tactics to probe the Crimson Tide for weaknesses that later opponents can exploit. Although it's an early game, this contest could reveal a lot about whether the Tide are as impregnable as ever.

At last the Playoff era is upon us, and it's likely to sniff out weaknesses in teams that the previous era of college football would miss. Can Saban's process still reign supreme?