By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 22, 2013
Five starters and another key reserve out, a former Alabama coordinator (who, of course, knows Alabama’s tendencies inside and out) on the opposing sideline and consecutive games over tough opponents – had Colorado State been a bit more competent, these factors would have been the perfect recipe for an upset.
Alabama’s 31-6 win over Colorado State came off like a flat souffle: edible, but lacking in presentation. The Crimson Tide looked shiftless for most of the game, never getting the running game on track and showing a general lack of concentration defensively. The Rams ran too many plays, converted too many first downs and hung around far too long for anyone’s comfort.
Still, games like this are common under Nick Saban. Remember such fine examples of football excellence as Western Kentucky 2012 (35-0), North Texas 2011 (41-0), Florida International 2009 (40-14) or Tulane 2008 (20-6)? All were early in the year, all of them followed games against ranked opponents and in the end, none of them mattered.
Colorado State, like most of those other overmatched opponents, was well-coached and persistent, but in the end, the talent differential was too much to overcome for the Rams. Even as Alabama slogged through the motions, Colorado State was simply not equipped enough to handle moments of adversity or take advantage of the rare Crimson Tide gaffe.
But this doesn’t mean Alabama doesn’t have plenty to work on before Ole Miss comes calling in a week. In fact, if Alabama plays Ole Miss the way it played Colorado State, Alabama won’t beat the Rebels.
Some of the factors behind Alabama’s lackluster performance Saturday can be chalked up to the simplistic gameplan, or the reduced roster, or post-Johnny Manziel fatigue or just general malaise. Others are issues of experience, and perhaps even talent, strange as that is to say. Regardless, it’s time for the obligatory statement that seems to be needed around this time every year: Alabama needs to improve, or a title shot won’t be in the cards.
For once, Alabama is benefited by its schedule, rather than hampered by it. Two of Alabama’s four toughest games have already been played, with Ole Miss and LSU still yet to come. Neither of those teams is unbeatable – Ole Miss came within an eyelash of losing to a Vanderbilt team that is fast reverting to mediocre – but the 2013 Crimson Tide, particularly from a defensive standpoint, is not the dominant program it’s been in recent years. Not yet, anyway.
In order for it to come about, Alabama has to fix a couple of significant soft spots. The defensive backfield lacks a steadying force at cornerback, while the offensive line’s ability to consistently run block must be addressed. We’ll cover the specifics in this week’s Five Point Breakdown.
- Cornerbacks have open tryouts – and no one claimed the prize. With Deion Belue out of the game with a turf toe injury, Alabama did something it had never done before in the Nick Saban era, not even during the transitional 2007 season – players rotated through the secondary not by role, but by quarter, and with the game on the line. True freshman Eddie Jackson started despite getting no playing time the first two weeks, along with Bradley Sylve. In the second quarter, Cyrus Jones and another true freshman, Maurice Smith, replaced Sylve and Jackson. In the third quarter, John Fulton played opposite Smith, and that pair continued into the fourth quarter until Sylve replaced Fulton. It’s hard to pick a winner, although the Sylve-Jackson combination seemed to have the most success overall. No one did anything particularly egregious, but Ole Miss in a week will be challenging. It is imperative Belue return, and provided he does, tonight’s carousel of cornerbacks essentially becomes a competition to see who plays opposite him. Fulton’s experience is hard to beat, and really shone through against the run, but the best Alabama can seem to hope for at this point is for whoever wins the job being able to avoid giving up a backbreaking play. That marks a significant change from past years, where both Alabama’s cornerbacks could be counted on to make game-changing plays from a positive standpoint.
- Offensive line takes two steps back without taking a step forward. Losing Anthony Steen to lingering concussion side effects had a dramatic impact on the line, which essentially whiffed on run blocking and also let QB A.J. McCarron take too many shots. Kellen Williams started for Steen at right guard, but his performance was nothing to write home about. Of greater concern, though, was the performance of Alabama’s tackles, who found themselves going backwards much too often. The inconsistency again affected McCarron’s performance, as he appeared to press too much to make big plays, and at other times made poor selections off the route tree that led to Tide receivers picking up 5 yards when 8 yards were needed. Steen’s return would solve a lot by itself, but it’s not just him. Whether the issue is one of concentration, or simply that the coaching or talent of this unit isn’t what we originally thought, it’s got to be fixed in seven days if at all possible.
- More redshirts burned; how did they do? True freshmen Eddie Jackson (CB), Raheem Falkins (WR) and Tim Williams (DE) saw their first action of the season, while CB Maurice Smith and DE Jonathan Allen got their first significant playing time with the game on the line (Allen had played sparingly against Virginia Tech). Of all of them, Williams arguably had the greatest impact, even though he played just a handful of snaps late in the game. Williams, lined up over the Colorado State left tackle, affected every play he was a part of, and showed he might be the answer to the question of who can replace D.J. Pettway, who was dismissed from the team over the winter. Falkins only got in the game late and was never targeted, while Jackson and Smith got a trial by fire at corner and showed that, while each has potential, simply getting accustomed to the speed of a real game is something that won’t come automatically.
- Depth chart at RB still unsettled. Jalston Fowler started the game with T.J. Yeldon suspended for a quarter. Kenyan Drake was first off the bench, followed by true freshmen Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry, while Dee Hart saw no time in the backfield. This is the third different depth chart in three games for the running back group. Once entering the game, Yeldon showed that he was clearly the best of the bunch (as if anyone didn’t already know that nugget of information), but it’s a safe bet to say the coaches would like to develop some consistency. The RB group situation isn’t the grease fire that cornerback is at the moment, but Alabama could stand to be a lot less “interesting” across the board for the sake of predictability.
- Offense needs an identity. Is this a run-first offense with an elite quarterback, or a passing offense with a decent running game on the side? It’s difficult to evaluate playcalling even when everything is working well, because playcalling strategy is highly affected by what a team’s personnel can, from a talent and ability standpoint, allow coaches to do. But part of the problem affecting Alabama’s overall consistency seems to be the half-in commitment to establishing one or the other. Alabama’s gameplan against Texas A&M was phenomenal all around, and while an argument can be made that the Crimson Tide went vanilla against both Colorado State and Virginia Tech so as not to tip the staff’s hand, it seems more likely that the coaches don’t have their eventual plans set in stone yet. It all goes back to the offensive line and what it can do, but Alabama will need to figure it out quickly, because opponents like Ole Miss and LSU (and yes, even Auburn) will force Alabama to be more focused in its efforts. Otherwise, it’s unlikely Alabama will get the chance to defend its two titles, thanks to favorable scheduling cutting down on the chance for a one-loss team to be part of this year’s BCS Championship.
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