MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There is folly involved with suggesting Alabama’s defense has a weakness. This, after all, is the same football program that led the nation in scoring defense and total defense in 2011 and 2012 before slipping all the way down to Nos. 4 and 5 last season.
Still, there is this notion offenses can play fast and beat Alabama — never mind no one has seen fewer snaps per game the past three seasons. Yet the few teams that have had different degrees of success against the Crimson Tide defense tried to expedite their attack, and that’s something the once-rapid West Virginia offense will consider in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome against No. 2 Alabama.
“You’ve got to be calculated with the way you take chances, but you’ve got to take chances, no doubt,” WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “You’ve got to threaten their defense, but you can’t be dumb about it.”
That, specifically, is something WVU will mull over before the 3:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC. Can the offense do it? Is it smart to try it?
“They take away a lot of things people try to do just to create momentum, the 4- and 5-yard gains to get you going,” Dawson said. “You’ve got to figure out some ways to get the leverage back in your favor.”
In that past, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen’s offenses here and at Houston and Oklahoma State have done that by playing quickly and stringing together positive plays against a reeling defense. His counterpart, Nick Saban, has been one of the advocates for rules that would slow down offenses, and that’s fed into the theory his defenses can’t handle pace.
In reality, Alabama’s defense allowed the fewest snaps per game in 2011 (59.4, the last time a team averaged less than 60) and was No. 2 in 2012 and No. 3 in 2013.
But Texas A&M had 628 yards and scored 42 points on 71 plays against Alabama last season. Saban has never allowed as many yards. None of his Alabama teams had allowed as many points, but that only lasted until Oklahoma rang up 48 points on 74 snaps in a Sugar Bowl win clinched by a defensive touchdown.
“People are making it a big deal about it against Alabama, but nobody is making a big deal about Ole Miss going fast against Alabama where they shut them out (26-0) or some of the other games that they played — Kentucky played fast against them and Alabama shut them (down, 48-7),” Holgorsen said. “They have played teams that have played up tempo, and nobody ever talks about it because they shut them out.”
Ole Miss was No. 21 in snaps per game last season (79.8), but managed just 57 and 205 yards against the Crimson Tide. Kentucky intended to play fast last season, but finished No. 113 (66.8). The Wildcats had 52 snaps for 170 yards against Alabama, though they averaged 69 snaps per game after that loss. Colorado State was No. 37 (76.7), but had 64 for 279 yards in a 31-6 loss.
The Mountaineers aren’t trying to mimic how teams lose, though. Generally, their offense has been the most effective when it hurries between the whistles that end one play and start the next to stack plays and gains atop a defense. The same is mostly true of offenses that have beaten Alabama.
In Saban’s nine losses since the start of the 2008 season, the winning team had 65.4 snaps on offense. Five of the nine were over 65 and one had 64.
“Obviously, there are outliers on both sides — some are probably high and some are low — but somewhere in the middle, maybe 65 or 70, is good, which is a tribute to them and their offense and defense, because that all plays a part in how many snaps you get,” Dawson said. “We want to get as many snaps as we possibly can, but if we get 80 snaps, I think that would probably be beneficial for us.”
It’s ambitious, but this isn’t a matter of whether the Mountaineers should play fast against Alabama. They will. It’s not even a matter of if they can play fast. They believe they’re better at it now than they were last year.
WVU averaged 76.9 snaps per game last season, which was one snap better than the average from 2011, when Geno Smith was in his first season as quarterback and the offense had problems similar to what Clint Trickett and his offense had last season. In Smith’s second season, with a number of offensive linemen and skill players back with him, the offense averaged 79.2 snaps.
“It’s something that is in our plan,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t care about who our opponent is. It’s going to be in our plan to be able to do that, and hopefully within the last year we found a way to do that better than we did last year.”
What WVU has to determine is when it will play fast, what it will do and how long it lasts. Will the offense line up quickly and promptly snap the ball? Will it line up and then step back to survey the defense and look for an idea? Will it vary tempos and tactics? What’s the smartest way to mount the attack?
“The only thing worse than punting is punting quickly,” Holgorsen said. “If we’re not good at it, we probably shouldn’t do it. Last year, there were a lot of games we went into when I had reservations about how fast I wanted to punt. I think we’re in a better place at this point.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.