Pregame analysis of Alabama's home game against Southern Mississippi:
What: Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0) vs. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (2-1)
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. Central time
Rankings: Alabama is No. 2 in the Associated Press and coaches rankings, while Southern Mississippi is unranked.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, in Tuscaloosa
Line: Alabama by 39
TV/radio: TV: ESPN2; radio: WHMA-FM 95.5 (Anniston), SiriusXM 191 (Streaming 961)
Three things Alabama must do
1. Be physical at the point of attack.
This should be a goal every week for Alabama, especially as its working to establish its dominance against the opposition. And as usual, that begins with the Crimson Tide’s offensive line, which has faced its own criticism this season. Inconsistency up front, be it with different players rotating between multiple positions or simply some irregular play by several newcomers within the starting unit, has adversely impacted Alabama’s ability to run the ball with any regularity.
This is where physical players like junior Florida State transfer Landon Dickerson and 360-pound freshman Evan Neal come into play. While Neal has struggled at times with consistency, much of which has been credited to freshmen mistakes, Dickerson has provided a reliable presence inside, be it at right guard or center.
“He’s a veteran player. He’s got lots of experience from the previous school and the amount of football that he’s played,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Dickerson. “His leadership has been good, his maturity is good, his knowledge of the game and ability to adapt and play smart has been very helpful to the other players.”
Although much of the offensive line issues stem from inside, Dickerson has been a welcomed addition and has the sort of grind-it-out tenacity that should be beneficial to re-establishing Alabama’s run game, and maybe even help change the perception that the Tide can no longer maul the opposition of the line.
“It is fun,” Dickerson said of running it down an opponent's throat, “and especially when you get into longer drives you know obviously you can kind of see defenses starting to get a little more tired and it just becomes kind of fun after that.”
As pointed out this week, Alabama has a 47.8-to-52.2 percent run-to-pass ratio through three games, marking the first time since 2015 that its offensive plays didn’t heavily favor the run game so early in a season. That discrepancy is even wider when analyzing production, with the Tide passing attack out-gaining its ground game by more than double (1,147 passing yards to 539 rushing yards) to account for a whopping 68 percent of the team’s offensive output so far this season.
2. Work more designed runs into the mix.
Yes, run-pass option plays work quite well and will remain a significant part of Alabama’s offense. But as is evidenced by last weekend’s wide disparity between run and pass, it can also result in leaning heavily to one side or the other.
But the Crimson Tide’s reliance on its passing attack has been evident from the start, including rolling up 367 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air in the opener against Duke.
And while there’s nothing implicitly wrong with taking to the air, especially with the sort of weapons at Alabama’s disposal, an over-dependence could prove costly down the line, as Saban himself acknowledged Saturday.
“But I don't think you can totally depend on that,” Saban said. “Last year we got to where we were so good at (passing) that we weren't doing other things well. And when we played really good teams at the end (of the season), we couldn't do enough other things to be effective.”
Which is where sort of force-feeding the run game could prove beneficial, especially against non-conference Group of Five competition like Southern Mississippi, where there’s no question Alabama’s talent differential should be more than capable of exerting itself Saturday.
And as both Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. have shown at varying points throughout the season already, they’re more than capable of producing big plays with the ball in their hands. So why not give it to them?
3. Feed the beast, in this case Najee Harris.
With one run — or rather reception — on Saturday, Alabama junior tailback Najee Harris showed just how dynamic a player he can be.
Whether it’s his natural ability as a receiver out of the backfield, his power and sheer strength to shed tacklers like ragdolls or his vision and uncanny athleticism to hurdle an oncoming defender without so much as breaking stride, Harris’ SportsCenter Top 10-play caliber 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown showed much of what the former five-star talent from California has to offer.
Harris’ second touchdown of the day came on the fourth straight play that featured him, following three straight runs for 8 yards to set up fourth-and-two. Those three runs ended a 6:08-minute span between rush attempts following a 6-yard carry by Brian Robinson Jr. with a minute left in the first quarter.
Harris wouldn’t get another opportunity in the first half, finishing with 103 of his 123 total yards and two receiving touchdowns through the first 30 minutes of play Saturday. But his ability for big plays was still ever apparent.
Look for Alabama to come out eager to shut up the doubters regarding its one-sided offense. As indicated above, that mission begins and ends with re-establishing a power run game that has been noticeably absent so far this season. Of course, it doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide has to necessarily run it every play Saturday, but the ability to create consistency from its rushing attack can be beneficial on multiple levels. That includes the opportunity to make an inferior Group of 5 opponent like Southern Mississippi succumb to Alabama’s wishes, or in Saban’s famous motivating words from 2008: “Make his (expletive) quit.”
Alabama 52, Southern Mississippi 17