As a carryover from its pre-merger days when it was known as the Big 8, Iowa State's conference has a reputation for running the football. "The tendency may have changed a little bit, but I think it's imperative to have a good running game in the Big 12," said Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione. "Iowa State certainly would fit into that category and Nebraska and Kansas State and Missouri."
The Cyclones are averaging 182 yards rushing per game, good enough to rank them 34th in the nation in that category. Four other Big 12 teams rank in the Top 50 nationally, led by Nebraska (1st), Kansas State (5th), Colorado (8th) and Missouri (44th).
Rushing for 226 yards per game, Alabama leads the SEC and ranks 9th in the nation. South Carolina (31st), Arkansas (38th) and Georgia (50th) are also among the nations' 50 top rushing teams.
"The SEC is a great speed league," Franchione said. "I don't know if I could say that we have a speed advantage over Iowa State. That's not necessarily what I'm saying. I just think that the SEC is across-the-board a fast league."
Geography definitely plays a role in the tendency of Midwestern teams to concentrate on running the football. Franchione explained; "There are enough places that you're going to play with difficult weather, that you have to be able to run the ball some days. There are some days with the wind blowing and cold weather that it's tough to throw the football for half the game.
"I've seen punts go backwards while coaching in the old Big 8 on those plains out in Kansas. So I think you have to be able to manage the clock and run the ball at least a portion of the game in that league."
On the other hand, milder climates contribute to the SEC's reputation as more of a passing conference. "We don't have weather elements like that to deal with in the SEC most of the time," Franchione said. "We have to deal with more heat, but certainly not the wind and potential for snow and cold weather like they have in that league."
The numbers tend to bear that out. As a conference, the Big 12 gains 43 percent of its yardage via the ground, compared to only 39 percent for the SEC.
Having coached for most of his career in and around Texas, Tide Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser sees a the Big 12's two divisions as being unique. "There really is a difference between the Big 12 North and South," he said. "The further south you go you get into a little bit more of an SEC, speed kind of game. Up North is a little big more of a Big 10, power running kind of mentality."
Interestingly, the Big 10/11 placed six teams among the nation's Top 50 rushing squads, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Helduser broke down the Cyclone schemes. "Iowa State, however, is a little bit of a mix between the two (styles)," he explained. "Athletically on defense they've got good skill in the defensive backs, and their linebackers are active guys. Their defensive line is quick, but they're not overly big. They're a little big more of a speed-oriented kind of team (on defense) than they are just a big, raw-boned squad."
Kindal Moorehead, Alabama's junior defensive end, has been studying the Iowa State attack for weeks now. "I think they're a pretty typical Big 12 team, running the football," he said. "They've got a big offensive line and a big running back. That's one thing they want to do, establish the run. That's a big part of their game. With a guy like (Ennis) Haywood, you've got to wrap him up. Everybody has got to get to the ball."
"Haywood is your classic Big 12 tailback," Franchione added. "He's a big, strong runner that can break tackles and get hard yards. I don't know if they measure his yards after contact, but he gets plenty. It will be important that we tackle well and tackle him well."
Defensive Line Coach Stan Eggen's troops will the first line of defense for Alabama against the Cyclone rushing attack. "Haywood is a big, strong tailback," Eggen said. "But the guy that makes them different is the quarterback (Seneca Wallace). He's a special guy. He can take a bad play and make a good play. That's our concern right now. We've got to contain him, and as always, stop the run."
"They've got a big, strong offensive line," Eggen continued. "They play in a big league, so they see good players. But I believe we probably have a little more quickness. I would give us the edge in speed and the ability to get after people and keep our feet moving. If we do that, then we'll be in good shape.
"But if we get into a wrestling match, then we're in trouble."
The Bama players have a lot of respect for Iowa State's athleticism, but Moorehead is confident. "Of course we play teams like that in the SEC like Mississippi State and Tennessee. So we're familiar with that type style. We've faced teams like that all year. What we have to do is tackle well and shoot to the ball."
Having faced power-rushing teams almost every week in conference play, Iowa State won't likely be intimidated by the Tide rushing attack. "They play Nebraska, so they see the option," Franchione said. "Year in and year out they're going to see it some. Certainly it helps to have seen it than to go into a game having never played against that offense all year.
"I don't think they're sitting over there worrying about the option, although we're a much different team than Nebraska. We're less dependent on that aspect of the game. We're not just an option team. We have a lot of other things that we do."
"I definitely feel confident about our ability to rush the football," said freshman guard Justin Smiley. "They're not very good in rush defense, and that's our specialty. I think we'll do all right. We've just got to keep the pressure on."
The statement might sound like boasting, except that Iowa State Head Coach Dan McCarney said exactly the same in his press conference yesterday. On the season, the Cyclones rank an impressive 8th in the nation in pass defense. But their average yield of 199 yards per game on the ground places them 88th among 115 Division 1A teams.
"From a physical standpoint we should be OK," Helduser said. "The thing they do to you is speed. Any time you play a team with quickness that moves their line around it can create problems for you. You've got to be prepared, but we've had good work. We're ready to handle that type stuff."
Ever the optimistic competitor, Smiley definitely agrees with his position coach's assessment. "I don't want to say anything bad about the Big 12, but it's not exactly the SEC," was how the big lineman put it. "It's a competitive conference. They've got some good teams in it. But I think overall the SEC is a little bit more powerful conference. I think it'll be a good matchup."
Smiley's good friend and running mate, Wesley Britt was a bit more circumspect. "It's going to be a great game. The SEC and the Big 12. The two best conferences in the nation, so it'll be good.
"The Big 12 is good, but you can't beat the SEC."