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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 13, 2013
The middle of the season seems to mark a tipping point for Nick Saban-coached Alabama football teams.
If one doesn’t count the initial 2007 season, the following key games occurred at or near the midpoint of Saban’s other seasons: In 2008, Alabama’s fifth game of the year was the now-infamous “Blackout” game in Athens, Ga., where the Tide won 41-30 in a game that was made respectable only by a couple of late Georgia touchdowns well after the results had been decided. In 2009, Saban’s first championship season with the Crimson Tide, the seventh game of the year came against South Carolina in Tuscaloosa, otherwise known as the game that won Mark Ingram a Heisman Trophy.
In 2010, the sixth game of the season was Saban’s first regular-season loss since his first year with the program. South Carolina beat Alabama 35-21, and it wasn’t by accident. Although South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia had the game of his life, to be sure, South Carolina didn’t backdoor its way to the win. There were problems on that 2010 team, and South Carolina exposed them.
In 2011, the fifth game saw Alabama travel to Gainesville, Fla. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the 2011 team until that game, where Alabama responded to a strong first quarter from the Gators and answered questions about its running game (where have we heard that concern before?) and its quarterback, pulling away from Florida 38-10. It would be six weeks before another opponent would score in double digits against Alabama.
In 2012, the Tide’s sixth game took the team to Missouri, and after a somewhat sloppy victory the week before over Ole Miss, there were questions as to whether this Alabama team was as dominant as those in recent years, and whether the team could put it all together. Alabama had to largely idle the engine to keep from completely embarrassing Missouri, winning 42-10 and making the Tigers look like a Sun Belt outfit.
Point being, this is where the pudding starts to yield its proof.
Heading into this game, Alabama had put together great offensive performances (Texas A&M) and defensive performances (Ole Miss) but hadn’t done both in the same game – unless one counts Georgia State, which would be stretching the bounds of seriousness. And while Kentucky might very well be the worst team in the SEC, as South Carolina learned against the Wildcats a week ago, there is a certain level of vulnerability present whenever the opponent carries the conference badge on its jersey.
Alabama’s performance in this game, the last of the end of the season’s first half, was almost flawless. It was a case of Alabama getting the big picture right, even if it didn’t get all the details nailed down. Two first-quarter fumbles, a costly dropped pass by Kenny Bell to kill another first-quarter drive and a handful of motion penalties aren’t welcome sights by any stretch, but Alabama dominated both lines of scrimmage, shut down Kentucky’s downfield passing game and the Tide offense was never stopped unless it stopped itself.
Alabama rolled up a rather amazing 668 yards in total offense, which surely gives the media who believe only Clemson and Oregon are decent offensive teams something on which to chew. A.J. McCarron threw for 359 yards and two running backs went for more than 100 each. For a Kentucky team that has a scattering of good defensive players, not to mention a defensive-minded head coach, this is the kind of game that sends programs back to the drawing board to rethink entire philosophies, not just personnel packages or plays.
But even the offensive fireworks wouldn’t have mattered much had Alabama’s defense not completely suffocated Kentucky. Alabama shut down both the run and the pass and collected four sacks along the way, nearly matching its season total to date.
No one is saying that Kentucky is as good as LSU or Georgia, and the Wildcats probably aren’t even as good as Tennessee or Vanderbilt. But Alabama needed to develop an identity. The second half of the season will be tougher, with a dangerous LSU team on the list as well as resurgent Auburn and whatever team Alabama might find itself facing in Atlanta, should the Crimson Tide get that far. The identity Alabama put forward for itself Saturday in Lexington is a critical step in the process of reaching the ultimate goal of a third straight national championship.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown:
1. Competition at key positions keeps complacency at bay: RT Austin Shepherd clearly doesn’t have full control of his spot. True freshman Grant Hill played early against Kentucky and might continue to rotate with Shepherd as the year goes along. O.J. Howard continues to get a greater share of the reps at tight end. A’Shawn Robinson may be Alabama’s best defensive lineman now, and if he plays more it will come at the expense of Jeoffrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory. CB Bradley Sylve got his first career start, and with Eddie Jackson slowed by injury, Sylve went a long way to establishing himself as a viable part of the rotation. Alabama hasn’t had this many jobs open for competition this late in the season before under Saban, but the continuing competition for playing time might be a key factor in staving off complacency down the stretch.
2. Running back rotation gets welcome clarity. Because of Kenyan Drake’s suspension for the Virginia Tech game, the backfield rotation has been a work in progress the last six weeks. Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart were slotted ahead of Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry that first night, and no one did a particularly good job of backing up T.J. Yeldon. Fowler appears to be concentrating on his H-back role, while Hart’s lateral quickness has noticeably been affected by two major knee injuries. His straight-line speed is apparently still intact, as evidenced by his contributions on special teams. With Drake back in good graces, Alabama has finally found the familiar 1-2 punch it prefers under Saban. The two are essentially co-starters. Hart, Tenpenny and Drake continue to get carries when the game is getting out of hand, with Tenpenny occasionally moving up to take a carry or two if Yeldon and Drake are both gassed.
3. Receiver corps starting to live up to the hype. Kenny Bell’s two drops aside, passes to DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood in the game – where the passes were extremely contested, but Alabama’s receiver displayed better ball skills – showed what this group is capable of. The nicest sight for sore eyes was the beginning re-emergence of Amari Cooper, who booked four catches and showed good mobility after the catch, hopefully a sign that whatever ailment he might have had in his ankle is by the wayside. O.J. Howard’s continued development as a tight end opens up another facet of the offense, while the Tide is starting to work Chris Black into the playing rotation at receiver. The use of Christion Jones as a slot receiver and running back in this game is evidence that he’s becoming a bigger part of the offense, and Kentucky never had an answer for when Alabama pulled Jones back into a split-back formation. For all the talk about Texas A&M and Ole Miss’ receivers, look to Tuscaloosa for the most quality top-to-bottom.
4. Alabama’s MVP may not be McCarron. It might be MLB C.J. Mosley. Much of the discussion over which player Alabama could most ill afford to lose has centered on McCarron, but Mosley’s on-field coaching of the other defensive players can’t be overlooked. The coaches will have their hands full replacing McCarron under center next year, but an equally difficult task will be replacing Mosley.
5. Offensive line continues to take steps forward. Part of this is due to what we addressed in point No. 1 about competition, but the left side of the Alabama line played a solid, consistent game Saturday and neither of those jobs are in jeopardy. Center Chad Lindsay appears to have had a positive affect on the entire group, even though he collected a holding penalty that wiped out a 40-yard pass Saturday. RG Anthony Steen has been solid all year. Despite this performance coming against Kentucky, the Wildcat defensive line is one unit that could have given Alabama problems in this game. Instead, the Tide stepped up. Alabama yielded no sacks, and only one QB hurry.
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