Johnson: Why Alabama Doesn’t Cover Big Spreads vs. ‘Cupcakes’

Johnson: Why Alabama Doesn’t Cover Big Spreads vs. ‘Cupcakes’ article feature image

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Nick Saban

  • Former Alabama offensive lineman Mike Johnson explains why Nick Saban's Tide teams don't always cover as massive favorites in non-conference games.
  • Alabama is 5-13-1 against the spread vs. non-Power 5 teams since 2012.

Power 5 schools playing Group of 5 and FCS teams has become a tradition. You can fill the schedule without the threat of a loss and get to work on some things that need work. This week, that filler for Alabama will come in the form of Louisiana-Lafayette, a 50-point underdog against the Tide. 50!

Alabama has been nothing short of dominant on both sides of the ball, cruising to a 4-0 record this year with an average margin of victory of 41 points. Tua Tagovailoa has become a national sweetheart, recently becoming the runaway favorite to win the Heisman Trophy by almost every major Vegas sportsbook.

And a secondary that most people expected to take a step back after losing its top six players has come together extremely quickly, allowing only one starting quarterback so far to complete more than half his passes (Louisville’s Juwan Pass, 51%). This should add up to nonconference dominance for the Tide, but it hasn’t against the spread.

Alabama is 5-13-1 against the spread vs. non-Power 5 teams since 2012, and 11-19 since Nick Saban took the job in 2007. If it seems as if Saban has a soft spot for these teams that come to Tuscaloosa to collect a check, it’s because he does.

In fact, coach Saban has recently come out as one of the only advocates for the SEC to go to a nine-game schedule. But the story is not quite as simple as saying he doesn’t want to embarrass these teams.

Here are a few reasons Saban’s teams don’t cover big spreads in these cupcake games.

1. An Opportunity to Get Better

When Bama plays these overpowered teams, game planning isn’t as simple as it seems. In Saban’s eyes, these are opportunities to work on Bama’s weakest points. Sure you could let Tua loose, and he could probably throw for 700 yards if he wanted to, but those yards are gone when the clock strikes zero.

Instead, Saban uses games such as these to work on run-blocking schemes and small mechanics of offensive plays. Bama has been less than stellar on obvious running downs so far in 2018, so I expect that the Crimson Tide will run the ball and run it often this weekend.

And no matter how poorly or well that’s going, that game plan isn’t likely to change.

The same goes for the defense. Without a doubt Alabama would find a ton of success if it chose to blitz on every down against the Ragin’ Cajun offense, but why not use this as an opportunity to improve the pass rush with the front four using speed rushes and twists?

Look for Bama to allow its players to practice efficiency in the most basic schemes in the playbook on Saturday.

2. Respect

The harsh reality is this: most Group of 5 coaches who walk into Bryant-Denny, no matter what they may say in front of their players during their pregame speeches, understand exactly why they are there. There will always be the threat of a team such as UL-Monroe (in 2007) jumping up to beat you, but those games are few and far between.

Instead, these coaches usually have three goals when they come to play Alabama:

  • Play hard
  • Avoid injuries
  • Collect a check

There is no need for Coach Saban to try to embarrass these teams like he has against SEC foes. They’re not recruiting the same kids, they’re probably not playing them again anytime soon, and no matter how big the margin of victory is, the College Football Playoff committee won’t give you any style points.

Saban would rather put a fifth stringer at quarterback than try to embarrass Bama’s opponents in these games.

3. Creating Depth the Dynasty Was Built On

Know what else happens when those starters are pulled from a game to avoid further risk of injury? The backups get snaps and experience. It always seems like a small footnote on the box score afterward, but the players who fill the stat sheet have a huge reason for being in these games.

It’s for development, and no one in the history of college football coaching has been better at it than Saban.

When you sign as many elite recruits as Alabama does, it becomes almost impossible to redshirt or keep them on the bench. But they’re not always ready to play right away.

Instead, coach Saban eases them into action, allowing them into special teams situations and “mop-up duty” so they can get used to game-speed situations. Think about it — what If Tagovailoa didn’t play in mop-up duty a year ago? Would coach Saban have felt comfortable putting him in for the second half against Georgia in the national title game?

4. Why Risk Injury?

I remember it like it was yesterday. We were coming to a close in the 2009 season. Before heading down to Auburn for the final game of the regular season, we had a tuneup against Tennessee-Chattanooga at home (the Tide were 48.5-point favorites).

With a quality starter at quarterback (Greg McElroy), an elite wide receiver (Julio Jones), and a Heisman frontrunner at running back (Mark Ingram), it seemed like everyone in the stands that day expected the first-string offense to run up the score. We didn’t.

Saban, aware of the need for Ingram to keep his stats up in the Heisman race, gave him exactly 11 carries in the first half, pulling him as soon as he topped the 100-yard plateau. Jones could’ve been unleashed on the UTC defense, but he wasn’t. He totaled three catches on the day. McElroy attempted 11 passes, completing only six.

And the starting offensive line, including myself, spent nearly the entire second half watching from the bench. We won 45-0 that day, leaving Bryant-Denny Stadium behind to head to Auburn with much bigger goals in mind.

Could we have scored 70? Maybe. But why risk the injuries?

5. Lack of Energy

It’s the one thing any player or coach hates to admit. These games just aren’t as easy to get amped up for. The energy in the air just isn’t the same.

Of course the Tide faithful always want Bama to dominate in these games, but if you’re a huge fan, ask yourself this: Do you put in as much effort and attention into watching Bama play UTC as you do when it plays Auburn?

Hunger and energy don’t always equal a good performance, but that extra boost is usually what separates great performances from good ones. Like it or not, these games just make it harder for the guys in the Crimson jerseys to find that extra gear.

So with all of that being said, the question still remains: Will Alabama win handily this weekend? You bet. Just think twice before you pick it against the spread.

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