John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Damien Harris
- Alabama is a 7-touchdown favorite against UL-Lafayette on Saturday.
- Former Tide lineman Mike Johnson explains why Nick Saban often eases up in these games.
- However, Johnson is wagering on the over/under in this game, not on a side.
It’s cupcake week in Tuscaloosa, and the rat poison has been running rampant as Bama is set to welcome in the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns.
When I first arrived at Alabama, I loved these types of games. They not only seemed less stressful, but they also presented an opportunity for younger players, like myself, to finally see some live game action.
That is until the fall of 2007, when my worst fears as a football player became reality. The cupcake jumped up and got us.
UL-Monroe (+24) left Bryant-Denny with a big check and a straight-up win, and I left the stadium with one of the lowest moments of my college career. It was a tough lesson, but one that has followed me around every day of my life since then.
It was one that I preached continuously as a captain in 2009, and one that I carry with me every day in the professional world. That day, I found out that anything worth doing is worth doing full speed.
It’s also a lesson that has seemingly been carried by every Bama team since that day. Not only has the talent level gone through the roof since 2007, but so have the wins.
However, if there’s been one flaw for Bama from a betting perspective, it’s that the Tide haven’t always crushed these ‘cupcakes’ since Nick Saban has been in town.
Like I wrote earlier this week, Bama is just 5-13-1 against the spread vs non-Power 5 teams over that span.
The reasons might not always seem apparent, but there are plenty of them. Snaps for younger players, the lack of willingness to adjust game plans and an overall lack of energy have seemingly made Bama impossible to bet on in these types of games.
Oh, and then there are those crazy spreads. Big spreads are something Crimson Tide bettors know all too well, but even my eyeballs got huge this week when I glanced at the early week lines and saw Bama as a 51.5-point favorites. That line has adjusted a little bit down to 48.5 but seems set to hover right around a 7-touchdown victory for Bama on Saturday.
This is Alabama’s second straight game against a Saban assistant. Coach Billy Napier, who coached at Bama from 2013-16, called the opportunity “humbling,” saying how excited he was to get an opportunity to coach against the best ever.
He might really be excited, but he shouldn’t be. Napier might know the ins and the outs of the Alabama program, but this isn’t 2016 Alabama. It’s actually not even close.
As I’ve written before, this Bama team does it a completely different way than other Saban teams did. A recipe that once valued time of possession and turnover margin has since turned its attention to explosive plays and a vertical passing attack.
The Ragin’ Cajuns, for their part, will be led by senior quarterback Andre Nunez, an efficient passer (72.3 completion percentage) but not quite an explosive one (180 yards passing per game).
He will attempt to spread the ball around to a trio of good wide receivers in Ryheem Malone, Keenan Barnes and Ja’Marcus Bradley, but it will not be easy. In fact, only one passer this year has completed more than 50% of his passes against this Bama secondary.
The RPO principles will no doubt serve as a primer for Bama as it moves toward the second half of its schedule that will feature similar looks, but I don’t expect them to be much of an issue on Saturday.
When Bama’s offense takes the field, there will undoubtedly be a number of deep balls thrown into the Lafayette secondary. I don’t, however, expect that this game plan will look exactly like the one we saw a week ago.
Expect Bama to try to get the ground game back on track. Alabama has not been forced to run the ball very much this year, but Saban knows at some point the Tide probably will have to do it. Bama has obviously done the right thing by playing to its strengths with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and a slew of good pass catchers, but at some point, the numbers will need to balance out.
The Tide offensive line somewhat struggled to put the game away on the ground against a stout Texas A&M defensive front last week. Bama’s leading rusher, Najee Harris, averages only 9.5 carries per game.
That’s probably a good thing for the longevity of his season, but it’s a bad thing if you’re looking for a well-rounded offense. Let’s be honest though, the Tide might not need one. At least not anytime soon.
Let me be clear, a game such as this one would never appear as one of my locks of the week. There are too many variables at play. A former Bama assistant will be roaming the opposing sideline. An early start could mean a sluggish start. Jalen Hurts and Mac Jones will both be leading an offense through the second half that will be composed of every player on the roster.
All of the above, added to the fact that Lafayette will have nothing to lose as it takes on the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in the program’s history, make this game next to impossible to bet against a 48.5 point spread.
Instead, this is where we, as bettors, look for that beautiful over/under. At 67.5 points, this is where I will be spending my money this weekend. While there is no doubt Tua will have gaudy numbers when the clock strikes zero, I think Bama will mostly use this as an opportunity to become more well-rounded.
Expect plenty of running plays featuring Najee and Damien Harris, as well as a multitude of looks featuring Hurts early in the game. These guys, as well as Josh Jacobs, will get plenty of opportunities this weekend behind that retooled offensive line.
Points will be scored, no doubt, but the clock will continue to roll. Add in that early start time, as well as the fact that Saban has always been one to call the dogs off early, and this game screams UNDER to me.
Is it possible that Bama could score 70? Yes. But I think the Crimson Tide stop somewhere around 59. Prediction 59-7.
The pick: UNDER 67.5