Tuscaloosa, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - It's Homecoming in Tuscaloosa this weekend, as the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide play host to the Georgia State Panthers.
The two-time defending champion has opened the 2013 season with four straights wins, including victories over sixth-ranked Texas A&M (49-42) and most recently, 21st-ranked Ole Miss (25-0) in SEC West action. Nick Saban's team has won three of the last four national titles overall and has positioned itself to play for another one, heading into the second half of the season.
The Panthers are in their inaugural season of FBS play and are obviously taking a huge step up in competition this week. Trent Miles' squad has dropped four straight games to begin his tenure with the squad, three of which have come against FCS foes Samford (31-21), Chattanooga (42-14) and most recently, Jacksonville State (32-26 OT). The lone FBS foe on the docket resulted in a 41-7 drubbing at West Virginia. Georgia State was idle last week.
The overtime loss to Jacksonville State last time out wasn't easy to take according to Miles.
"That last game was a tough game. We felt we had a chance to win the game, but we didn't get it done. When you lose a game and then have to wait a long time to play, it's hard, but we had a great open week."
Miles knows what he's up against this weekend in Tuscaloosa.
"They are impressive in everything they do. They're so big, physical, fast and well-coached," Miles said of the Crimson Tide. "But we're excited to go play and compete against the best."
This marks the second meeting between these two programs. The first matchup took place in 2010, a 63-7 rout by Alabama.
The Panthers aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut in their first season at the FBS level. The team is averaging 346.5 yards per game, with the most success coming via the pass (249.5 ypg). However, sustaining drives hasn't been a strength, with GSU converting just 36 percent of the time on third down.
Sophomore quarterback Ronnie Bell has struggled with consistency, completing just 46.0 percent of his passes, for 774 yards (193.5 ypg), with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Bell is looking the way of Albert Wilson more often than not and for good reason. The 5-foot-9 senior wide receiver is averaging over 114 yards receiving per game, leading the team in receptions (22), receiving yards (457) and TD catches (4).
The ground game averages a modest 97.0 yards per game, led by senior tailback Travis Evans' 188 yards (4.5 ypc).
The Panthers have really had problems defensively this season, getting gashed by both the run (218.2 ypg) and the pass (249.8 ypg). Opponents have scored on 82 percent of their red zone trips (14-of-17) and 65 percent of the time it results in a touchdown (11-of-17). Big plays have been few and far between, with Georgia State recording just five sacks and four takeaways thus far.
Sophomore linebacker Tarris Batiste leads the team in total tackles (24) and TFL (4.5). Senior safety Rashad Stewart is a close second in stops (23). Senior cornerback Brent McClendon (20 tackles) is responsible for half of the team's takeaways, with one interception and one fumble recovery.
It wasn't a typical offensive performance by Alabama, but the team did ride a strong rushing effort from T.J. Yeldon to a big victory over Ole Miss last week. Yeldon rushed for 121 yards, including a 68-yard TD-scamper.
All-American quarterback AJ McCarron didn't have a particularly strong game against the Rebels, but has still be solid overall this season, completing 68.2 percent of his throws, for 882 yards and six touchdowns. There are several threats in the vertical game, including Christion Jones (17 catches, 210 yards, one TD) and DeAndrew White (11 catches, 167 yards, two TDs). They have stepped up in the absence of sophomore star Amari Cooper, who has struggled to get on the field.
Still, like in year's past, Alabama dominates up front and can grind games out with a steady rushing attack. In 2013, it is Yeldon that leads the charge, averaging 6.0 ypc and pacing the team with 394 yards and three TDs.
What was normal last week against Ole Miss was the defensive effort for Alabama, which held the usually potent Rebels (490 ypg) to a meager 205 total yards.
On the season, opponents are averaging a mere 14.5 ppg against UA, including just 103.5 yards rushing. All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley is the heart- and-soul of the unit. The 6-2, 232-pound senior leads the Crimson Tide in total tackles by a large margin with 35 stops. All-American candidate Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208-pound safety) is second on the team in tackles (24) from the safety position. Junior safety Vinnie Sunseri (15 tackles, two interceptions) is another playmaker in the Alabama secondary.
Despite the obvious mismatch in this game, Saban knows his team needs to stay focused.
"There is nothing to be taken for granted in any team that you play. I think the best way to do that is focus on who you are, what you're doing, how you want to improve and how you want to play to be the best player that you can be. That is certainly going to be our focus for this week."