Well, WVU knows Alabama has a problem with its field goal return defense. (See Auburn’s Chris Davis’ 108-yard touchdown in the 2013 Iron Bowl.) Otherwise, though, the Tide has the edge, despite a new punter and kicker. Alabama gets the nod in comparisons from last season’s kickoff return defense (UA No. 51, WVU No. 95), kickoff return (UA No. 22, WVU No. 112), punt return defense (UA No. 20, WVU No. 27) and punt return (UA 6, WVU 119). On the bright side for WVU, punter Nick O’Toole is back after ranking No. 15 nationally. Kicker Josh Lambert has shown a big leg. But new Tide punter J.K. Scott was a top five recruit and kicker Adam Griffin has been the most consistent part of his team’s preseason practices.
Alabama pass offense vs. WVU pass defense
UA’s QB situation was mysterious this preseason. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker was said to have the big arm and was touted to be an improvement over former Tide QB A.J. McCarron. Apparently, though, Coker had trouble in camp recognizing open receivers. That might mean Blake Sims, a more athletic, dual-threat QB, starts or shares time. Whatever, Alabama is loaded at receiver. The Tide lost Kevin Norwood to the NFL, but returns Amari Cooper, who had a monster second half of last season. (Julio Jones II?) DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are playmakers. WVU has talent in the seconday — Karl Joseph, Daryl Worley and Dravon Henry — but was 96th in pass efficiency defense and 106th in passing yards allowed last season.
WVU pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen raved about his Florida State quarterback transfer, Clint Trickett, this preseason. The Mountaineer had spring shoulder surgery after playing hurt last season, when he was 99th in passing yards. Two questions: Was the real Trickett the one who led WVU to a win over Oklahoma State or the one who struggled? Also, will Trickett, listed at 6-2, 186 pounds, stay upright against a Crimson Tide defense led by stud lineman A’Shawn Robinson? Alabama finished last season ranked No. 11 in passing yards allowed and No. 26 in pass efficiency defense. WVU receivers Mario Alford and Kevin White could, however, exploit a weakness at cornerback as ‘Bama’s Eddie Jackson returns from an ACL injury.
WVU run offense vs. Alabama run defense
In the spring, WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said it’s a good time to be a Mountaineer running back. Guess we’ll see. West Virginia’s Rushel Shell, Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood will have to make hay against a team known for stopping the run. The Mountaineers have a couple nice linemen in Mark Glowinski and Quinton Spain, but is it enough? WVU was No. 82 nationally rushing the ball last season, while Alabama was No. 7 in stopping it, allowing but 106.2 yards per game. Gone from the Tide is standout linebacker C.J. Mosley, the defense’s leader. All UA has in his place is Trey DePriest, who is but projected to be a fifth or sixth round NFL selection. (Poor Alabama.) Remember to watch lineman A’Shawn Robinson.
Alabama run offense vs. West Virginia run defense
Statistically, Alabama was the nation’s 25th best rushing team last year, averaging 205.6 yards. (Remember, it plays in the SEC.) From that team, a pair of All-America linemen left. Still, UA has a nice trio of blockers like Arie Kouandjio, Austin Shepherd and Ryan Kelly. Perhaps more important, UA is loaded with fine backs, from junior T.J. Yeldon to shifty Kenyan Drake to massive sophomore Derrick Henry, 6-3, 241 pounds. Welcome to the role of WVU defensive coordinator, Tony Gibson. The Mountaineers will counter with a three-man front that has some depth, yet was part of a unit that was No. 90 against the run last season. Linemen like Kyle Rose, Christian Brown and Dontrill Hyman will have to hold up for WVU and get help from linebackers like Brandon Golson and Nick Kwiatkoski.
The only intangibles that favor West Virginia are the uncertainties that surrounded Alabama’s team heading into the season. There’s no doubt this has been one of Nick Saban’s most frustrating preseasons in Tuscaloosa. No quarterback assumed control early. There were many rumblings. But the bottom line is Alabama’s roster is littered with five-star recruits. West Virginia’s roster has but a handful of four-star players. Also, if the Tide wants to experience frustration, it only needed to visit Morgantown the last two seasons. WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen is snugly on the hot seat. Alabama’s Saban is comfortably in the king’s throne. In addition, the nation’s glare on this game won’t affect Alabama’s players one bit. Don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers come out shaky.