Pregame analysis of Alabama's home opener against New Mexico State:
What: New Mexico State Aggies (0-1) at Alabama Crimson Tide
When: Saturday, 3 p.m. Central time
Rankings: Alabama is No. 2 in the Associated Press and coaches rankings, while New Mexico State is unranked.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, in Tuscaloosa
Line: Alabama by 55
TV/radio: TV: SEC Network; radio: WHMA-FM 95.5 (Anniston), SiriusXM 191 (Streaming 961)
Three things Alabama must do
1. Fast start offensively.
This should be a goal every week, but after last week’s first-quarter struggles against Duke, it is important that Alabama’s potent offense gets going early and often against New Mexico State — if for no other reason besides proving it can against inferior competition.
The Aggies surrendered 58 points and 618 yards of total offense last week against the high-flying Washington State offense, and with its talent in the passing game, the Crimson Tide should make it a point to try to exceed that effort Saturday. And it’s certainly capable of such a feat. With much the same cast of characters a year ago, Alabama outscored opponents 233-59 (for an average advantage of 15.5-3.9) in the first quarter of games last season, and held a combined 435-144 advantage through the first half, which amounted to a 29-10 lead on average by halftime.
One way to do that is to reestablish a consistent run game behind lead ‘backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr., neither of whom were all that effective against Duke. Harris had an explosive 54-yard catch-and-run play on his first play after sitting out the first quarter but never could repeat the effort and managed just 52 rushing yards the rest of the game. Getting the ground game going early will allow Alabama’s play-action passing game to really shine, which is what first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is working toward in his offense. And with SEC play beginning next week, it’d behoove the Tide offense to show it can be productive under Sarkisian in much the same vein as it was under last year’s coordinator Mike Locksley.
2. Dominate the line
Alabama’s pass rush never quite developed in the season-opener against Duke, as the Tide accounted for just one sack and two tackles for loss in the entire game. Alabama coach Nick Saban said some of that was by design, as Alabama sought to keep dual-threat Blue Devils quarterback Quentin Harris in the pocket, but the lack of pressure was still obvious. Against a wide-open aerial attack like New Mexico State, it’ll be important to develop a solid and disruptive pass rush and not give Aggies quarterback Josh Adkins time in the pocket.
“They utilize their skill players extremely well,” Saban said Wednesday. “So it's going to be a challenge for us to cover, play the ball, tackle well in space because these kinds of teams the ball's going to be in space a lot on the perimeter. Try to affect the quarterback up front, relative to the pass rush and all those kinds of things. It's going to be a challenge for the entire team but especially for the secondary.”
As usual, that starts up front with the defensive line. Senior defensive end Raekwon Davis made it a point this preseason to improve his personal pass rush game, getting back to the “sophomore pass-rushing Rae,” when he led the team with 8½ sacks in 2017. Last season, Davis only managed 1½ sacks while facing double-teams much of the time. That allowed teammate Isaiah Buggs to lead the team with 9½ sacks in a breakout year for the then-senior end. Now it’s Davis’ turn to elevate his sack totals.
The productive return of outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, who recorded his first sack Saturday since the 2017 national championship after sitting out all of last season with an ACL injury, should certainly help increase the potential pressure, as will more explosive plays from freshman nose guard D.J. Dale, who recorded a tackle for loss on his very first defensive snap against Duke. Another strong showing up the middle will certainly help create opportunities for Davis and junior end LaBryan Ray on the edges.
3. Special teams
This, of course, is code for make your field goals. Even with a shiny new addition at kicker in freshman Will Reichard, Alabama’s bugaboo with field goals reared its ugly head again Saturday with two missed tries inside of 50 yards against Duke. Now both were quite close, a lot closer than many of last year’s five missed field goals, but they still didn’t make it through the uprights — only clanked off them instead. Still, there was plenty for Reichard – who also punted and kicked off — to build upon this week.
“Will did great,” Saban said. “He kicked a lot of touchbacks, which shows his leg strength. I think he hit both field goals that he hit, he really hit well. It's a little unlucky that both of them hit the pole, but hopefully he'll be able to gain confidence and improve on that in the future.”
It’ll also be important to play sound in the return game against New Mexico State, which features one of the most dynamic kickoff returners in Division I: senior Jason Huntley. The Aggies’ veteran tailback has five career kickoff returns for touchdowns in the last two seasons and needs just two more to tie the FBS record held by San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and Memphis’ Tony Pallard. By the same token, Alabama needs to take advantage of its opportunities in the return game when it gets them. Henry Ruggs III had a nice 22-yard kickoff return to open the game but never got another chance at taking one back, while Jaylen Waddle didn’t have a single chance to return a punt with five fair catches. As two of the fastest players in college football this season, both Ruggs and Waddle can be electric in the return game, if they’re given an opportunity.
Unlike in Week 1, expect Alabama to be firing on all cylinders from the opening whistle. The Crimson Tide holds itself to a higher standard of excellence than most teams and the players will be motivated to prove they can be one of the nation’s more dominant teams — and that starts by doing what you’re expected to and decimating a far inferior team like New Mexico State. No. 22 Washington State racked up more than 600 yards of total offense against this team last week and look for Alabama to try to outdo the high-flying Cougars in that category on Saturday and ultimately exceed the 64½-point over-under.
Saban has spent the week talking up the Aggies spread offense much like it’s Oklahoma (it’s not) in an effort to keep them motivated and not allow complacency to take hold defensively. That should lead to another attacking-style approach on that side of the ball, which proved itself adept to handing in-game adjustments with Duke’s implementation of the wishbone despite the youth in the middle with three freshmen starters at inside linebacker and nose guard. While it’s unlikely a spread team like New Mexico State will try the same tactic Saturday, the Tide’s ability to create pressure defensively and attack the Aggies early and often will set a tone that should lead to another shutout.
Alabama 65, New Mexico State 0