MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There are 10 games on this opening weekend of the college football season featuring a pair of teams from the five major conferences. Not one of those games has a bigger underdog than West Virginia.
Put another way, there are only five other teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision staring at a point spread this weekend larger than the 27-point line the Mountaineers have been made to carry around with them all summer. This is not elite company either: Louisiana Tech (38-point underdog at Oklahoma), transitioning-to-FBS Appalachian State (35-point underdog at Michigan), Idaho (35-point underdog at Florida), SMU (33-point underdog at Baylor) and Southern Miss (301/2-point underdog at Mississippi State).
So, no, WVU is not expected to beat No. 2 Alabama with coaches like Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Lane Kiffin, and players like T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, Arie Kouandijo, A’Shawn Robertson, Landon Collins and Trey DePriest.
But stranger things have happened — and in the opening weekend of the season, no less — than WVU surviving the Crimson Tide on a neutral field. And Alabama knows it.
How’s this for strange? Arch-rival Auburn won last season’s Iron Bowl just when it seemed like the Crimson Tide might win it at the end, or at least push it to overtime. A 57-yard field goal fell short and an Auburn cornerback caught it at the back of the end zone and returned it 109 yards for a game-winning, conference division-clinching, memory-making touchdown with no time remaining.
The 34-28 loss sent Alabama to the Sugar Bowl, the third straight season that ended in a Bowl Championship Series game. WVU only made three of those in the 16 years college football used the BCS. Saban’s side was a 17-point favorite in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, which had never been as big of an underdog in its 15 seasons with coach Bob Stoops.
The Sooners boat-raced Alabama and had a 31-17 lead at halftime. An opponent managed more points in an entire game only seven times in Saban’s seven seasons on the sideline, and only three of those came after his inaugural 2007 season. Oklahoma won 45-31 and Alabama left with a losing streak for the first time since the 2008 season — and that was season-ending losses to No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Utah.
Should the Mountaineers do the unconscionable, Alabama would have three straight losses for the first time since the 2007 season that ended with a 7-6 record. That team lost four in a row to No. 1 LSU, Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Auburn and only did so by 7, 5, 7 and 7 points.
What’s worth nothing, though, are what WVU and Oklahoma have in common. Nobody in college football is more similar offensively to WVU than Oklahoma. It’s eerie, actually, from terminology to signals to plays, and that’s common knowledge. What isn’t as obvious is how the two defenses might mirror one another.
Last season, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops rejoined his older brother in Oklahoma after eight seasons as the head coach at Arizona. Mike was tasked with improving defensive rankings, so he changed the look to a three-player defensive front and then added a smallish, quicker defensive back type of body to the group of linebackers. It was at times a 3-3-5 defense, ironically enough shaped by some help from the Alabama staff, and the Sooners finished in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, run defense, pass defense and total defense.
The Mountaineers haven’t really said anything to cement this theory, but the look of the depth chart and the talk surrounding certain tendencies suggests they will revert to the 3-3-5 that was so good to them for so long.
Of course, the best resemblance WVU would like to bear is that of a team that beat Alabama, which means getting tips from the Sooners about what to do and what to expect Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC) in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Hate the hype
The Mountaineers know as well as anyone they are enormous underdogs, a reality the players and coaches can’t avoid in interactions with friends, fans, peers and the media. That’s not necessarily bad. Oklahoma, which had a month between the end of its regular season and the Sugar Bowl, learned to loathe the idea it couldn’t beat Alabama.
“Everyone said we were afraid, and that got really annoying really fast,” Sooners defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue said. “My mom said I was kind of disrespectful with one of my answers about Alabama. ‘But Mom, it’s gotten to be very annoying.’”
Ndulue had five tackles and a half a sack against Alabama, and his teammates were up to the challenge. The Crimson Tide scored on a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game and then intercepted Oklahoma, but the Sooners picked off the next pass and followed with a touchdown, the first of five consecutive scoring drives and 31 points in the first half. Alabama allowed 52 first-half points in the regular season.
“You’ve got to go out there with confidence and realize we all bleed the same,” said OU defensive end Geneo Grissom, who had two sacks and recovered two fumbles. “Just because they’ve won a couple national championships doesn’t make them the better team. That’s what makes this game so great — the team that wants it more is going to win.”
Understand Alabama is Alabama
Alabama has won “a couple national championships,” three in the past five seasons, to be exact. Saban is 79-15 — the school had to vacate five wins in the 2007 season because of a NCAA infraction that preceded Saban’s arrival — and 72-9 since 2008. This is a juggernaut led by a man who’s the top-paid college football coach and has been named by Forbes as the sport’s most powerful coach the past two years. The minute an opponent loses track of all of that is the minute that opponent is in trouble.
“Alabama is a great team, a great program, and you notice it with everything they do,” Oklahoma defensive back Julian Wilson said. “They’re just what you think. It’s a big, powerful, strong team with a lot of fast guys and great coaching. You have to go in there ready to play, ready to compete at a high level and focus on technique and know your assignments.”
Remember, Alabama will do what Alabama does
Maybe the most beautiful part of Alabama’s sustained success is that it keeps no secrets. It’s very good offensively and very, very good defensively by recruiting, developing and featuring celebrated players in its systems. The coaches have things they want to do and things they trust their players can do. Alabama has great players for great ideas and the combination is dangerous. The methods haven’t changed much in recent years and the success has been steady, too.
“They like to line up big and run the ball at you, and with any team that runs heavy, you’ve got to be alert for the play-action,” Wilson said. “You’ve got time to prepare for them, so stay in the film room as much as you can so you can know their tendencies and just react when you get out there.”
Saban maintains an influence on his defense and likes to do what he’s always liked to do, which is be aggressive and sound at once. His cornerbacks press receivers and interchangeably keep pressing or drop into a zone or a soft man coverage. The plan helps defend screens and quick passes, but sometimes success can be had against a typical coverage with only one high safety.
“They’re not going to change their coverages a whole lot and they’re going to run what they run and they’re going to do it really well,” Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight said. “It’s a testament to their coaches developing talent and having a great plan. We attacked that with speed out on the edge and executed the plan. It just worked out really well for us.”
The Sooners took their shots and Knight had a career day, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. The 43- and 45-yard touchdown passes were against single coverage where the receiver won the play.
“We knew they were going to make plays, but we had to keep attacking and eventually the rock would break and we’d make a few plays and ride the momentum,” Knight said.
Be ready to be bruised
Any conversation about Alabama usually features one word often, if not early: Physical.
“It’s going to be a dog fight, so go out there and be ready to give it your all, be ready to be exhausted after the game, be ready to be sore the next few days,” Ndulue said. “Be ready for a boxing match or a UFC fight — I feel like those are harder. It’s going to be a long day.”
Oklahoma accepted the challenge and more than met it. The Sooners sacked Alabama’s A.J. McCarron seven times and Alabama only sacked Knight once and hurried him two other times. That came without the starting left tackle and left guard, who both sat out with injuries.
“For any team to know you’re going to back down, they’re going to roll over you,” said Daryl Williams, the starting right tackle who moved to the left side for that game. “That’s what great teams do. They back people down and they don’t back down from anyone else.”
Force mistakes, don’t make them
Knight started just four times in the regular season and wasn’t revealed as the starter before the game, so keeping him upright and free from pressure was a critical part of the success. His interception came on a pass that went through a receiver’s hands. Knight played loose and free of errors after that, learning to move around to keep plays alive and only running five times for 12 yards.
The offense converted 7 of 15 third downs and was 1-for-1 on fourth down. Oklahoma scored touchdowns on all three red zone possessions. Alabama had been No. 4 nationally in red zone defense in the regular season (14 scores in only 22 possessions).
“They’re going to put pressure on you and they want you do to certain things, so you’ve got to have time,” Knight said. “You’ve got to play really well and put everything together if you want to get a win against a great team like that.”
Alabama, meanwhile, was prone to mistakes. Before the Iron Bowl, Alabama had won 48 consecutive games when it won the turnover battle — and 15 of 21 when it lost. The Crimson Tide turned the ball over five times against the Sooners, the most in the Saban era, and matched the seven-year low with a minus-four turnover margin. Oklahoma scored touchdowns after each Alabama turnover, including Grissom’s fumble recovery score with 47 seconds to go.
Those mistakes don’t happen to Alabama, a disciplined and detail-oriented team that has finished ranked Nos. 28, 7, 2, 7, 15, 11 and 4 nationally in fewest penalty yards per game under Saban.
“We went out to play a smart game and make little mistakes,” Wilson said. “If they were going to beat us, they were going to have to do it with their players. We weren’t going to beat ourselves. It’s important to do that and let them know you’re not going anywhere.”