January 02, 2009
First things first about Utah: The Utes are not Hawaii. Last year's Warriors made the BCS on the back of the softest schedule known to modern man, and often struggled against WAC also-rans on the way. These Utes have beaten three top-25 teams, a blue chip-laden outfit from Michigan on the road and still had enough left over for the Mountain West to win by almost three touchdowns per game for the year. They didn't back into this thing, and if they win it, mythical championship complaints won't be out of line.
That said, the burning question when any mid-major outfit goes up against a big, bad recruiting monster on the order of Alabama is whether the little guy can hold up physically. Double this question against the Crimson Tide, which relies so much on winning the line of scrimmage and tended to dominate physically even among the big guys: Bama was second in the SEC in rushing offense and yards per carry, and equally dominant against the run, where it was one of only a dozen defenses that allowed less than three yards per carry for the season. The numbers change very little when you separate the SEC games from the chaffe, and the Tide's worst games in the trenches -- against Ole Miss and LSU -- came largely in the absence of mammoth, crucial run-stopping tackle Terrence Cody, who'll be healthy tonight.
Holding its own on the line of scrimmage, then, has to be Utah's top priority, because Bama will definitely bring the fight there. It's hard to say how to best compare the Utes to specific victims on Alabama's schedule, but from Utah's perspective, there were four games on its schedule that obviously stand out from the Mountain West chaffe: Michigan (because of the Wolverines' size and athletes, despite the final record), and then Oregon State, TCU and BYU, all of which finished in the AP's final top-25 for the regular season. In terms of both running and stopping the run, those games against respectably talented opponents don't bode very well for a date with one of the strongest between-the-tackles teams in the country:
Utah's defense, of course, is that it won all of those games despite being shoved around or stalemated on the lines; the Utes actually walloped BYU, thanks to a career day by quarterback Brian Johnson and a stunning five-interception implosion by the Cougars' usually sharp Max Hall. They came back from dire holes to beat the Beavers and Frogs and were well in front of Michigan before fumbling the Wolverines back into the game in the fourth quarter. Like all undefeated teams, they've been extremely resourceful and resilient.
Alabama, though, is not in the habit of allowing career days by opposing quarterbacks. Before Tim Tebow in the SEC Championship, in fact, no quarterback had what might qualify as even a "good day" against the Tide (for some perspective on this, the NCAA average for pass efficiency rating is in the neighborhood of 130-140; the highest rating against Alabama in the regular season was 120.03, by Matt Stafford, who spent half the game trying to throw his team out of a huge hole caused, in large part, by his dismal first half). Johnson is not Tebow; he may be as good as Cullen Harper or Jevan Snead, or maybe a little better, but neither is an impressive precedent against a Saban-led defense this year.
The team that most resembles Alabama on Utah's schedule is definitely TCU, another run-oriented offense and strong defense that outgained the Utes in Salt Lake City by 130 yards and missed numerous chances to lock down the win late (mainly by missing two field goals that could have extended the lead to double digits). The Horned Frogs controlled both lines of scrimmage all night, outrushing the Utes by 140 yards (not including sacks) and limiting them to a long run of eight. Alabama might not score a lot -- the Utes' best chance of hanging tough is to load up to slow down the Tide running game, which was made much easier this week by Andre Smith's suspension -- but it's hard to see the Tide giving away a late lead if it wins the trenches.