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January 1, 2009

Sugar Bowl preview

No. 6 Utah (12-0) faces off against one of the most storied programs in college football history for the second time this season when they take on No. 4 Alabama (12-1) in the AllState Sugar Bowl January 2nd. Earlier this season the Utes knocked off Michigan 25-23 in Ann Arbor, giving the Utes confidence in playing against traditional football powers. They will need all that confidence to defeat a Crimson Tide team that plays power, smash mouth football on both sides of the ball.

Bama ground assault

Alabama defeats teams by wearing them down and breaking their will with a power running game behind a very physical offensive line. Complimenting that offensive style is a fast, physical, attacking defense that is one of the premier units in the country.

Though Alabama's offense is a "middle of the pack" unit by the numbers, their defense ranks in the top-10 in virtually every meaningful category and are ranked 6th in the country allowing a meager 13 points per game.

If there is any weakness in the Alabama defense, it is their pass rush. Alabama does not rush more than four often, and they have not put a great deal of heat on opposing quarterbacks, which is good news for Utah. The bad news for Utah is that Alabama's pass defense is still very good despite not having a great pass rush.

Alabama's offense does have a huge obstacle to overcome with the suspension of star tackle Andre Smith. The Outland Trophy winner is the most important piece in Alabama's outstanding rushing attack and the recent dismissal of Smith means Alabama must shuffle players along the line. If history is any indication, yards could be difficult to come by. The Crimson Tide struggled to move the ball earlier in the year when Smith missed the Tulane game, scoring just one offensive touchdown and gaining just 172 yards on one of the worst defenses in the country. While the Tulane game was early in the season, it was the only game Alabama gained fewer than 100 yards rushing and 320 yards on offense.

Utah aerial attack

Utah, on the other hand, comes into the game as the last undefeated team in major college football, and the healthiest they have been all year with space-eating defensive tackle Kenape Eliapo full strength after missing most of the season with a broken foot. Eliapo adds a sizeable presence to Utah's defensive interior as well as an experienced, solid all-around defender. Defensively, Utah is not far behind the Tide in the rankings, as Utah is 12th nationally in scoring defense and in the top-20 in most other categories.

Utah's offense is one of the better scoring offenses in the country, utilizing a potent running back tandem of Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata. The two have combined to rush for 14 touchdowns and nearly 1,200 yards while splitting carries almost 50/50. Asiata is the better pure runner and is more involved in the offense as he will line up and take snaps from the quarterback position running his own set of option plays. Utah will need both Mack and Asiata at their best to crack one of the top run defenses around and for Utah's offense to operate efficiently.

The hidden yards gained for each team in the special teams battle could be a huge factor in determining the outcome of this game, especially if Utah is able to prevent Alabama from jumping out to their usual quick start in games (outscoring opponents 133-27 in the first quarter on the season).

In the controlled conditions of the Superdome, Utah has the clear advantage in specialists. Louie Sakoda is one of the best kickers and punters around, a finalist for both the Ray Guy and Lou Groza awards and a unanimous consensus All-American. Ben Vroman is terrific on kickoffs, finishing second nationally with 44 touchbacks. Alabama, on the other hand, has a good punter in P.J. Fitzgerald and a somewhat erratic kicker in Leigh Tiffin (only made 73% of his field goals on the year). While Vroman consistently puts kicks in the endzone, Tiffin has just two touchbacks on kickoffs all year. Javier Arenas is an outstanding return man for Alabama, but Utah just doesn't allow opportunites. In what is projected to be a tight defensive struggle the game could be won or lost by field position gained from special teams play.

Players to watch

Alabama Utah
Justin Woodall Alabama plays a lot of man coverage, and when Utah goes with 4 or 5 WR's, Woodall will likely cover one of the slot receivers. Woodall needs to be able to stay with small quick WR's like Brent Casteel or David Reed on shallow crossing routes and deep posts. Derrick Shelby Shelby has played extremely well this year as a 245 pound defensive tackle, but will need to play his best for Utah to slow down Alabama's rushing attack. With Alabama using man-blocking schemes Shelby can use his speed and quickness to penetrate off the snap and disrupt the downhill running game of the Tide.
Rolando McClain Outstanding all-around player who is terrific in run support and good in coverage. If McClain is allowed to attack the ball downhill in the running game and sit back and react in the passing game it could be a long day for Utah's offense. Kenape Eliapo Utah needs Eliapo's size and strength against the power running game, yet he hasn't played much this season due to injury. A healthy and effective Eliapo will greatly aid Utah's efforts to stop the run and force Alabama to pass.
Josh Chapman Terrence Cody gets the headlines, but Chapman is a big reason why Alabama's defense is so good. Chapman is the superior pass rusher and very good plugging running lanes as well. Joe Dale Dale has played well this year, but will have his hands full against Alabama. Dale will spend a lot of time in the box, but needs to track Nick Walker and keep the tight end from getting open off the play-action pass, something Dale and the Utes have struggled with at times this season.
Mike Johnson Johnson moves from left guard to left tackle in the absence of Andre Smith. Johnson is a very good run blocker but struggles in pass protection when he is isolated on the edge. Zane Taylor Taylor draws the unenviable task of trying to block Terrence Cody and Josh Chapman. While Utah uses zone blocking schemes and double-teams at the point of attack, it will be up to Taylor to successfully block the 365 pound monster in Cody and the quicker 300 pounder Chapman for Utah to establish the run.
Nick Walker Very good tight end who Alabama utilizes in the play-action passing game. Walker is the second leading receiver on Alabama's offense and will be used to keep Utah's defense honest. Matt Asiata Utah needs to run the ball which means it needs Asiata to read the blocking well and attack the creases he is given. The 230 pound back will play a key role in Utah's offense. If Asiata can get going, Darrell Mack and the rest of the offense becomes more effective.
John Parker Wilson Wilson has been consistently solid this year, but not great. He can be a little erratic at times but is a good manager and doesn't make many mistakes. Wilson struggled without Smith against Tulane, and a lot of pressure will be on the senior signal caller to perform and keep the offense running smoothly. Brian Johnson Johnson has been making great decisions with the ball over the last half of the season and proven himself to be a winner. Most likely Alabama will shut down the running game meaning Johnson and the receivers will have to move the chains and not make mistakes for Utah to win the game.

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