Tuscaloosa, AL-With an 0-4 record and 13 total points all that Duke has to show for the season so far, the Blue Devils will surely need an unbelievable day of good fortune to have any chance at an upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa Saturday. But with an ever optimistic coach in Ted Roof, Duke will make the trip with the goal of pulling off one of the greatest wins in program history.
Devils Illustrated provides the weekly scouting report as the Blue Devils prepare to clash with the Crimson Tide.
Alabama's John Parker Wilson has so far been the driving force behind the Crimson Tide offense and one of the biggest surprises in the SEC. He has averaged more than 230 yards per game through the air and has an efficiency rating of nearly 141, about 30 points higher than Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis. Parker Wilson will probably be throwing the football a lot this weekend against a Duke defense that has been solid against the run but rather weak against the pass. Lewis needs to show that his Virginia performance was just a fluke and that he has indeed completely recovered from the psychological effects of a concussion suffered three weeks ago against Virginia Tech. Lewis can expect to be pressured heavily again by the Crimson Tide, and he'll have to be very careful not to make crucial mistakes against a terrific Alabama secondary.
EDGE: Medium Alabama
Neither team has gotten off to a great start running the football, which is particularly surprising in Alabama's case because the Crimson Tide returned star tailback Kenneth Darby as well as the talented Jimmy Johns. Darby has sputtered to just 309 yards in the season's first five games though and has yet to score a rushing touchdown. It's still safe to assume he will have a breakout performance soon though. Johns hasn't found paydirt yet either but is averaging a healthy 4.9 yards per carry. Duke counters with a running game that so far has been anemic. The Blue Devils are averaging a horrendous one yard per carry and leading rusher Justin Boyle has all of 69 yards on the season. Boyle is the healthiest he has been since the coin toss of the Richmond game, but running behind an ineffective offensive line hasn't really given any of Duke's running backs a legitimate chance. Devil back Ronnie Drummer should get significantly more touches this week after testing his ankle last Saturday against Virginia. His presence helps, but Alabama has much more talent and proven production in its backfield.
EDGE: Large Alabama
Even with Brodie Croyle playing quarterback last year, Alabama's passing game struggled after star wideout Tyrone Prothro broke his leg against Florida. With Croyle gone this year and Prothro still out of action, Alabama fans could be forgiven if they didn't expect a whole lot of production from this year's crop of receivers. However, Keith Brown and D.J. Hall have played very well and been the beneficiaries of Parker Wilson's impressive quarterback play. The two wideouts have combined for more than 800 yards and five touchdowns. Hall is the big play threat; he has averaged 21.2 yards on 17 receptions for the year. Duke has been pretty impressive at wideout this year as well, particularly with the emergence of Raphael Chestnut as a viable threat. Production from Marcus Jones has been a bonus since the coaching staff committed to playing him at receiver in addition to his backup quarterback duties. Duke needs a fully healthy Jomar Wright to really be able to make some headway against the Tide secondary. Wright was limited in the loss to Virginia but Duke hopes he'll be able to go against Alabama.
EDGE: Slight Alabama
It's hard to envision Duke matching up well right now at this position with any respectable major college football program. Last Saturday's loss to Virginia was low-lighted by one of the worst O-Line performances imaginable. Needless to say, the Blue Devils only hope to truly compete against Alabama is to have the line give Lewis a realistic chance to be productive from the pocket. The problem for Duke is more than just making and maintaining blocks though. Against the Cavaliers, there were way too many pass rushers attacking untouched. Communication has to be improved up front so there are no missed assignments. Alabama has struggled at times protecting the quarterback as well, allowing 11 sacks through five games, but that is probably an acceptable number considering the youth starting up front. The bodies are there for 'Bama to have a dominating line, especially with true freshman left tackle Andre Smith, but the lack of a running game and some inconsistencies protecting the passer need to be improved for the Tide to be a truly elite SEC team. Still though, Alabama is miles ahead of Duke.
EDGE: Large Alabama
This is probably the position where the two teams are most similar from a statistical standpoint. Duke and Alabama have each been effective against the run while struggling to make plays on the quarterback. Alabama's run defense is largely thanks to defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who leads the team in tackles-for-loss and is a tough competitor. The Crimson Tide's starting front four has not recorded a single sack on the season, which is a stat defensive coordinator Joe Kines would certainly love to change against Duke. The Blue Devils have had similar issues. Duke is surrendering less than 100 yards per game on the ground, but the pass rush from the front four has not been quite as intense as Blue Devil fans had hoped. There have been some good moments, but Duke needs more consistency out of its front four. A great performance against Alabama's offensive line will go a long way toward keeping the score respectable.
Linebacker has been a bit of a work in progress for Alabama this year. The Crimson Tide had to replace some terrific football players from last year's team and finding week in and week out answers has been somewhat troublesome. Juwan Simpson leads the unit with 28 tackles, while freshman Prince Hall has been impressive for a first year player. Tackling has been an issue so far for the linebackers, but the young talent in place has a lot of potential. Duke is of course led by Michael Tauiliili in the middle. The sophomore Texan is the ringleader of a solid unit but one with some limitations as well. From a production standpoint, this matchup is a near draw, but Alabama's slightly higher talent level and speed give the Crimson Tide a slight edge.
EDGE: Small Alabama
Most analysts in the preseason thought the secondary could be a strength for Duke, but so far it has not worked out that way. Even with All-ACC cornerback John Talley on one side of the field, the Blue Devils have struggled mightily preventing big plays through the air. Duke has given up nearly 13 yards per catch and twice has allowed opponents to have field days passing the ball (Wake Forest and Virginia Tech). Defensive backs Glenn Williams and Adrian Aye-Darko were significant factors in the pass rush against Virginia, but this unit will have its hands full against Alabama's playmaking wideouts. Alabama meanwhile has one of the top secondaries in college football. If there is a weak link, it's free safety Marcus Carter, who has been a little late in his reaction time on a few occasions this season. That's being a little nitpicky though considering Alabama's pass defense surrenders less than 175 yards per game and has yielded just one passing touchdown. Cornerbacks Simeon Castille and Ramzee Robinson are very good corners to form the basis of what has so far been a game changing secondary. Alabama has eight interceptions on the season.
EDGE: Large Alabama
Both teams have had moments to forget in the kicking game. Alabama's came on the road at Arkansas, when kicker Leigh Tiffin missed two potential game winning field goals and a game tying extra point in overtime. However, regular kicker Jamie Christensen is back after being out with a groin injury. His return stabilizes the field goal kicking. Punter P.J. Fitzgerald has been serviceable if not spectacular. Javier Arenas handles most of the return duties for the Tide. Duke fans need no reminder of their team's kicking game performance so far. Joe Surgan has been very disappointing, punt protection and coverage have both been harmful, and the return game has so far yielded no significant production. Right now, it seems like any team would have an advantage over Duke in special teams.
EDGE: Large Alabama
It's really pretty simple for Duke. If the Blue Devils protect the football and are sound in the kicking game, there's a chance they can be competitive well into the second half. If they turn it over like last week and fail in special teams, Alabama will apply an early knockout. Which Duke team will show up? It's anybody's guess, but with three shutouts in four games, it's hard to predict much better on the road in Tuscaloosa.