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November 12, 2009

Spread saturation

TUSCALOOSA _ For most people associated with University of Alabama football, it's become an ugly word:

Spread.

Yeah, the popular in-vogue formation that extends the field vertically to attack the opposition horizontally (or vice-versa depending on which way you're looking at it), has become a bane to the Crimson Tide because during the past two seasons it's the only scheme to beat Alabama.


It's also what the No. 2 Tide will see nearly non-stop this next month because Mississippi State, Auburn and No. 1 Florida all run some form of it. While most associate the scheme with passing, those three teams have their greatest offensive success on the ground, creating holes to run through and mismatches, usually against nickel packages.

"The way college football is going, people are picking everything up like punt formations, even the wildcat," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said. "The way it's looking maybe so, maybe not, it depends on who the coach is at the time and it depends on who's on the team."

In terms of rushing yards, here are the top four teams in the Southeastern Conference:

1. Florida: 9 games, 393 attempts, 2,166 yards, 5.5 per carry, 19 TDs, 240.7 average
2. Auburn: 10 games, 441 attempts, 2,300 yards, 5.2 per carry, 20 TDs, 230.0 average.
3. Miss. State: 9 games, 404 attempts, 1,973 yards, 4.9 per carry, 16 TDs, 219.2 average.
4. Alabama: 9 games, 366 attempts, 1,917 yards, 5.2 per carry, 17 TDs, 213.0 average.

However, that's really where the similarities end.

For Auburn, the key is running back Ben Tate, who has six fewer rushing yards than Mark Ingram, but 30 more carries (205 carries, 1,142 yards).

With Florida, quarterback Tim Tebow is third in SEC total offense with 578 rushing yards, 1,531 passing for a 2,109 total.

However, under the direction of new coach Dan Mullen, who spent the previous eight years being Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator at both Utah and Florida, Mississippi State has gone from No. 113 nationally in 2008 to No. 57.

"The thing about this offense is that it's so different from everyone else's spread," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. "They do so much different stuff it's very difficult to defend.

"(Mullen's) real innovative in what he does, he always has something different, a wrinkle that's different from what everyone else does. But seeing the spread as much as we have this year is definitely going to help."

One unique aspect for Saturday is that the Bulldogs frequently switch quarterbacks. Chris Relf has completed just 15 of 26 passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions, but is averaging 41.7 rushing yards per game. Starter Tyson Lee has completed 112 of 189 yards with 11 interceptions and four touchdowns, but isn't as much of a rushing threat (21.1 average).

"When No. 14 is in the game they like to run the ball a lot more, so it's pretty much downhill running and try and outrun you to the outside and stuff like that," senior nose tackle Terrence Cody said. "When Tyson Lee is in the game, it's a lot of play-action and you might get a zone read or he might keep it because he's a pretty good athlete.

"There are just a lot of things we have to respect."

Topping that list is powerful running back Anthony Dixon, who trails only Ingram in league rushing with a 125.1 average (1,001 yards on 182 carries).

"Plays with a lot of toughness," Coach Nick Saban said. "People don't like to tackle him because of his size and his downhill style."

Just how Alabama will play each spread team will be something to keep an eye on because the coaching staff spent extra time working on it during the offseason, and its own personnel.

For one, instead of Reamer being remover for an extra defensive back he's been staying on the field at the weakside spot in the nickel package for injured sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

"I'm enjoying it," he said.

An even bigger question will be in the middle where Cody has traditionally been lifted when Alabama goes to the nickel for a faster pass-rusher. However, he said this week that may not be the case anymore.

"That's why I practice hard and get myself in better shape every day, so I won't have to come out in those types of formations, and those types of teams that like to go spread," he said.

Saban hinted the same thing when asked if nickel will essentially be Alabama's base defense for the next month. He responded that it will largely depend on what Mississippi State does.

"When you play a really good running team like this team, there is certainly a consideration to just leaving your big guys in there and just playing with them," he said.

Of course, last year's two postseason losses were to Florida and Utah, although the spread may not have had that much to do with either outcome.

Against the Gators in the SEC Championship Game, Tebow took control and led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives for the 31-21 victory.

At the Sugar Bowl, Utah came out flying against sluggish Alabama to take a quick 21-0 lead that held up. The Utes outgained the Tide 150-10 with a 139-6 edge in passing yards while having the ball for only 4:53 of the first quarter. Going in, UA had outscored opponents 133-27 in the first quarter.

Still, the stigma lingers because otherwise Alabama has won 21 straight regular-season games.

"Being disciplined, knowing your keys," said Arenas, although experience is another aiding factor. "It can help a lot, being more familiar with it. It'll be more second-nature when we get to it, we've seen it before. We know what's coming instead of the week before having to play them having to pack all that stuff in. We'll be more relaxed about it."

The bad news for Alabama is that both Mississippi State and Auburn will enter the games coming off byes, and having an extra week to prepare.

"We're going to have to keep them off-balance," Mullen said. "Also, we've got to focus on winning one-on-one matchups. If they load the box, that leaves our receivers one-on-one so we will have to make plays to our receivers to loosen them up."


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