There can be an element of luck in the success of a football team in a game, or even in a season. The best players and the best coaches are the best luck a team can have, but there are also the elements of injury luck – which team can avoid or overcome key injuries – and schedule luck.
Alabama may be having a bit of schedule luck this week in playing Middle Tennessee State University.
Schedule luck can come in various forms. Is a team better or worse than expected? Does a game fall before or after a particularly big game?
In the case of Middle Tennessee, the Crimson Tide will be facing a team whose offense is similar to that of Ole Miss – Bama’s opponent the following week. Mississippi will be Alabama’s Southeastern Conference opener and is also against the one team that was able to defeat the Tide in regular season play last year. Thus, playing MTSU has the schedule advantage of giving Bama an extra week for its defense to also prepare for the Rebels.
Alabama linebacker Denzel Devall took note of the schedule feature. “They are a full open team,” he said of the Blue Raiders. “They’ll set a lot of screens, they are up-tempo. They are similar to a lot of teams.”
He said the MTSU is similar to that of Ole Miss and that there is “no doubt” it helps to play teams with similar offenses. “Whenever you can prepare earlier, it makes you that much better.”
Devall said the up-tempo attack “is the way football is coming to. We have to do a better job of practicing and the coaches are pushing us. I think we’re going to be a lot better at it this year.”
To be perfectly clear, Middle Tennessee is a non-conference game for Alabama, but it is not just a practice game. The Blue Raiders present a challenge. Last week MTSU ran 95 plays, scored 70 points, and had over 600 yards of total offense – 226 rushing and 379 passing.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban noted that the Blue Raiders quarterback, Brent Stockstill, is the son of a coach. Actually, he’s the son of MTSU’s head coach, Rick Stockstill, starting his 10th year in the position. Brent Stockstill, a redshirt freshman, last week completed 25-31 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
Saban said, "I think conceptually, they're one of the most difficult offenses that we play to defend. They're very well coached, they do a really good job of using personnel. They don't just use four wideouts but they use three wideouts and a tight end, they use two backs and three wideouts. They use regular people. There's a lot of multiples, a lot of adjustments. Really do a nice job in the passing game of trying to see what you're in defensively, whether they use Nike checks or hard count to get the defense to show itself, and then try to call a play that's going to beat that. So there's a lot of challenges in playing this team, and their players do a really good job of executing and very well coached. Pace of play is an issue as well as them reading what you're in and running the most advantageous play. And their ability to execute. Conceptually and scheme-wise, they're very well managed and coached."
Saban added, “Their running game is really a lot of wide zone, which they're really trying to stretch the gaps with big splits and run wide zone plays to stretch the defenders out and try to get a crease. They're pretty effective.”
Saban was asked that as a defensive coach if it excited him to have the challenge of preparing for an up-tempo offense. He said, “We see this kind of offense more often than we used to, and I would say that years back when you didn't see this often, it was very, very challenging because you had to do a lot of different things and the players had to learn a lot of different things. I do think it's still challenging because they seem to come up with new ways to complement the things they do, which always makes it difficult to defense.
“Any time people spread you out and make you defend space, the multiples of missed tackles can go up, mistakes in coverage can go up. The defensive players have further to run to the ball. So keeping them fresh is an issue.
“There are a lot of challenges to play this kind of offense. I've been very challenged this week as a coach to prepare our players for it. There're a lot of things that they need to learn so that they can go out there and execute and communication is a big part of it. And when they're going fast, no-huddle, communication is always an issue. That's something that we've tried to work hard on this week.”
One aspect of the schedule is that this is Alabama’s home opener. Kickoff in Bryant-Denny Stadium will be at 3 p.m. CDT Saturday. The SEC Network. Saban challenged Bama fans to make it a homefield advantage.
“This team is one of those fastball no-huddle teams, goes fast as they can,” he said. “I think when you make a lot of noise when you play a team like this and make them go silent, that really helps our players, especially on defense. So our crowd can create a big advantage in this game. I think if they're looking forward to it like I'm looking forward to it, they'll be excited about it.”
It looks like a bit of schedule luck to have MTSU on the schedule the week before Ole Miss. But knowing what we do about Nick Saban, does anyone really think it was just lucky?