The eyes of the college football world will be on the Forty Acres this weekend as the Texas Longhorns host the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide, pitting Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian against his old boss, Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
College GameDay, Big Noon Saturday, and NBC’s Today Show will all be in Austin for the 11 p.m. Central kickoff on FOX at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
“As you guys know with Coach Saban and myself, have the utmost respect for him not only as a man but as a coach,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “He’s tremendous at game planning, he’s a very good schemer in all three phases, offense, defense, special teams, and he’s a really good motivator, does a nice job motivating his team and getting them ready to play.”
With the spread sitting at 20 points at DraftKings*, the Longhorns face a massive challenge simply to keep the game close — the Crimson Tide is often inexorable, especially in the second half.
Led by former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, the Alabama offense doesn’t have the same quality of play calling that it did under Steve Sarkisian, but Saban has continued his embrace of modern spread offenses that can play at tempo.
The engine of the Crimson Tide offense is junior quarterback Bryce Young, who became the youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever last season after throwing for 4,879 yards with a 66.9 percent completion percentage and 47 touchdowns to only seven interceptions.
In the season opener against Utah State, Young was efficient in completing 18-of-28 passes for 195 yards and five touchdowns, adding five carries for 100 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Sarkisian has known Young since sixth grade and recruited him to Alabama from Mater Dei High School in the 2020 recruiting class before opting for the more experienced Mac Jones as the starter that season. When Young had a chance to break through as a sophomore, however, he took full advantage.
“I’m proud of him and all that he’s accomplished in his time in Alabama,” Sarkisian said. “A heck of a player — he’s got a natural instinct of passing the football. When I say that, he can feel things happen and has a natural understanding of route combinations based on coverages and then he’s willing to cut it loose.”
A former point guard playing basketball growing up, Young is considered a pro-style quarterback, but has the athleticism of a dual threat with excellent speed and quickness. Young prefers to use his maneuverability to move inside or outside the pocket to make plays downfield in the passing game, but as he showed against Utah State, he’s willing to take off and run when necessary and dangerous when doing so.
“He has a neat ability to maneuver in the pocket, keep his eyes downfield, and make throws from off platform. A lot of things we talked about with Quinn, Bryce possesses a lot of those same characteristics,” Sarkisian said. “The thing last week that was a little different was he ran the ball — when things broke down, he took off and ran, which had not really been his MO historically.”
If some previous Alabama offenses were defined by game manager quarterbacks and a powerful running game, this Crimson Tide offensive attack looks different with Young at the helm.
“The reality of it is they put a lot on him. I don’t mind saying this — they’re a pass-first offense,” Sarkisian said. “They want to throw the ball, they want to put the ball in his hands, they want to let him cut it loose, and he’s earned their trust to go do that and so I think inevitably, Bryce is very confident young man who kind of shoulders a lot of that and executes really well for them.”
One of the notable differences for Alabama this season is the lack of proven, explosive depth at wide receiver. Potential starter JoJo Earle suffered a fracture foot in preseason camp, former top-50 prospect Agiye Hall transferred to Texas, and the top three wide receivers from last season all departed, including first-round draft pick Jameson Williams and second-round draft pick John Metchie. Alabama did add Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton, who scored two touchdowns in his Crimson Tide debut, but the group doesn’t have the same level of experience and production as recent seasons.
The offensive line also has a different look than the Joe Moore Award-winning group from 2020 — Kyle Flood’s preference for big humans is no longer playing out on the interior of the line, where former tight end Kendall Randolph is starting at guard at 298 pounds, Darrian Dalcourt is starting at center at 305 pounds, and Emil Ekiyor is starting at guard at 308 pounds. Outside, left tackle Tyler Sheen is an experienced Vanderbilt transfer and right tackle JC Latham is relatively inexperienced, but was ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the 2021 recruiting class. The departure of 6’7, 337-pound Evan Neal, the seventh pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, looms large at left tackle.
Against Utah State, the interior line had some issues with the Aggies collapsing the pocket, explaining why Young was forced to run the ball, and the tackles regularly benefited from favorable officiating while holding on the edge.
Byron Vaughns got the best of 2021 No. 3 overall prospect J.C. Latham several times as well. Latham is 6-6, 326 pounds, Vaughns is listed at 6-4, 225, and he just completely ragdolls him here https://t.co/TIKlVx8frz pic.twitter.com/nw2LidzuKW— The Aggship (@TheAggship) September 5, 2022
If the interior of the Texas defensive line can hold up against the run to force long down-and-distance situations, sophomore Jack end Barryn Sorrell could have some opportunities to win battles against the Alabama tackles after flashing against Louisiana-Monroe with 1.5 sacks and a quarterback hit.
But holding up against the run will require keeping Georgia Tech transfer running back Jahmyr Gibbs from any moments of individual brilliance after he ripped off a 58-yard run last week. Last season with the Yellow Jackets, Gibbs had 143 carries for 746 rushing yards (5.2 YPC) and four touchdowns.
Saban is famous for being unhappy with strong results, but his frustration with the running game against Utah State did have some justification.
“I look at how we ran the ball more as, okay, we had an explosive run — Jahmyr Gibbs,” Saban said last Saturday. “Bryce had an explosive run on a scramble, alright. But what was the down-in and down-out consistency in terms of how we were successful at gaining three, four, five yards a crack? That wasn’t what it needed to be. So that’s something that we need to improve on.”
As Sarkisian mentioned, however, this Alabama team is perfectly comfortable throwing the ball to set up the run.
The Alabama defense is built around the best defensive line the country:
Will Anderson Jr. has led the nation in pressures two years in a row. Coincidentally, those were his first two years in college. He spearheads the Crimson Tide defensive line as PFF’s No. 1 edge defender in the country and the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft. On the opposite side, Alabama has another budding superstar in sophomore Dallas Turner, a top-20 edge defender in PFF’s rankings. On the interior, Byron Young earned an 88.8 run-defense grade last season, first among returning interior defensive linemen in the Power Five. He places top-15 in PFF’s preseason rankings.
Last week, Utah State averaged 2.1 yards per carry on 37 rushing attempts with a long run of 10 yards, in part because it’s so difficult to create any running lanes in the interior gaps.
“They’re big. They’re big, especially on the interior, and they’ve got a lot of people that they can play on the interior and so a lot of the times the run game kind of gets pushed to the perimeter because they do a good job internally,” Sarkisian said.
Majoring in outside zone — junior running back Bijan Robinson’s best scheme — could help the Longhorns by getting the Crimson Tide defenders moving laterally, but that hardly guarantees success for a questionable offensive line starting two freshmen.
In the passing game, Texas may have to rely on screens, run-pass options, and play-action passes because Anderson and Turner are nightmarish opponents for freshman left tackle Kelvin Banks and senior right tackle Christian Jones. Even on play-action passes they’ll likely need help from the running back and tight ends.
“They’ve got two really good players, really three really good players when you start talking about Will Anderson, Dallas Turner, and Chris Braswell,” Sarkisian said. “All three are very athletic, play with great effort, great motor, and have the skill set to win one-on-one pass rush opportunities.”
At the second level, Alabama has weakside linebacker Jaylan Moody, a one-time Texas target during his time in the NCAA transfer portal, and a productive, experienced, athletic middle linebacker in Henry To’oTo’o.
The secondary lost a reasonable amount of production with the departures of Jalyn Armour-Davis and Josh Jobe, but returns plenty of talent and added LSU transfer cornerback Eli Ricks because the transfer portal helps the rich get richer, too.
“I think what they do in the back end helps what they do on the front end — they play very sticky in coverage,” Sarkisian said. “They really try to disrupt the timing of your route combinations, which allows the pass rush to affect the quarterback.”
The loss of Earle, the return specialist, is a significant one for Alabama after the departures of Williams and Slade Bolden, but as always, the Crimson Tide have plenty of depth, slotting in former top-30 recruit Ja’Corey Brooks on kickoff returns and former top-20 recruit Kool-Aid McKinstry on punt returns.
Placekicker Will Reichard is a senior with experience who is reliable to 40 yards and solid from longer range with a career long of 52 yards. Like Texas, Alabama has an Australian punter, James Burnip, who averaged less than 40 yards per punt last season, but did have a 51-yard effort in the season opener.
The Crimson Tide did allow a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown to the Aggies last season.
Alabama isn’t as strong at wide receiver and offensive line this season as it has been in the past, but those are relatively minor weaknesses given the strengths at other positions, especially at quarterback and on the edge, so it’s highly questionable whether Texas currently has the talent or the experience to pull off what would be a monumental upset.
Next year’s trip to Tuscaloosa will likely provide a better opportunity for an upset as the Longhorns roster peaks.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.