ATLANTA — Much has been made of the fact that when Alabama’s offense lines up against West Virginia’s defense today, both units could be a bit of a mystery.
That’s because both have new coordinators — Lane Kiffin running the Alabama offense and Tony Gibson in charge of the WVU defense.
When push comes to shove, though, the two units don’t figure to look much different than their predecessors, at least stylistically.
“I think both us defensively and Alabama offensively are each in a similar situation where it’s not a wholesale change,’’ WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “One of the reasons I wanted Tony to take over the defense was because he was with [former defensive coordinator] Coach [Keith] Patterson last year and he was with coach Patterson three years ago [at Pitt]. I can assure you that when [Alabama] Coach [Nick] Saban hired Coach Kiffin, it wasn’t, ‘I want you to change the entire thing.’ ”
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West Virginia goes into today’s game with Alabama (3:30 p.m., ABC) at the Georgia Dome as a prohibitive underdog. Most betting lines have the Tide favored by roughly 25 points
That’s an unusually large spread against West Virginia, although being an underdog has happened increasingly since the school’s move to the Big 12. WVU was a 30-point underdog at Baylor last season and around a three-touchdown underdog to both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers were betting underdogs in eight of 12 games last season. They beat the spread just three times, winning as underdogs against Oklahoma State and TCU and covering in a close loss to Oklahoma.
There were frequent seasons while a member of the Big East that WVU was favored in all or at least the vast majority of its games, including the period when Holgorsen was on board.
Still, the status as an underdog doesn’t change the mentality, Holgorsen insisted.
“It doesn’t affect our coaching style whatsoever. It doesn’t affect our preparation whatsoever,’’ he said. “We don’t pay attention to it. It’s not something that affects us one way or another.
“I think I’d be naive to say our players don’t look at it. They probably do a little bit.’’
That’s not to say that a team’s status as an underdog or a favorite doesn’t play into the psychology of coaching, however. Consider next week, when WVU faces Towson, an FCS championship-game participant last year, but in a huge rebuilding phase this season. West Virginia will no doubt be favored heavily. But regardless of the betting line, what happens against Alabama will affect the team’s mental state heading into the home opener.
“I’ve said this a few times, I believe my biggest coaching challenge will be Sunday, regardless of what happens on Saturday, whether we’re successful or not,’’ Holgorsen said. “I think the bigger coaching challenge is going to be getting these guys to overcome what happened, whether it’s positive or negative.’’
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One of the hallmarks of Holgorsen’s most successful offenses has always been tempo. His teams had a knack for recognizing when to play fast and doing it successfully, keeping defenses off balance.
Last year, the offense rarely played fast and with good reason. It wasn’t moving the ball.
“The only thing worse than punting is punting quickly,’’ Holgorsen said. “If we’re not very good at [playing fast], then we probably shouldn’t do it.’’
It might behoove West Virginia to be able to play fast on offense against Alabama because it’s something with which the Tide occasionally struggles. Saban notoriously was one of the proponents of a rule change (which went nowhere) forcing offenses to wait to snap the ball. He would much rather face more conventional attacks.
Then again, there is the misconception that Alabama can’t deal with tempo, which is wrong. The Tide has lost two games in a row — Auburn in the 2013 regular-season finale and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl — and both teams tend to speed up the game.
But Alabama also plays teams that speed it up and the Tide deals with it just fine.
“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, or Kentucky or some of the other games that they played,’’ Holgorsen said. “They face teams that have played up tempo and nobody has ever talked about it because they shut them out. Against Auburn, against Oklahoma, against Texas A&M (in 2012) — everybody is talking about that because [those opponents] won those games. But if you look at what they did defensively, it’s not like they are giving up 600 or 700 yards. They were still holding their own.’’
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Alabama didn’t lose that Auburn game last year because of offense. The Tigers returned a failed Alabama field goal attempt from the end zone on the last play of the game to win in rather miraculous fashion.
It was a fluke, of course, but it spawned plenty of jokes about how coaches would now have to devote more practice time to such one-in-a-million opportunities. It was in that vein that Holgorsen was asked if he’d worked on his team’s missed-field-goal-return play.
“No, that would just be ridiculous,’’ he cracked with a straight face. “Why would anyone want to do that?’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.