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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.
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