Nick Saban is known for making very salient, wise and perceptive statements, which is why many observers claim he would be just as at home running a multi-billion-dollar company as he would a football team.
Saban may have made his most apt comment yet in the postgame interview after the Crimson Tide defeated West Virginia 33-23: “It is what it is, and we are what we are.”
What Alabama is, at the moment, is a team that continues to be in need of improvement. Interestingly enough, a couple of positions many thought would struggle in the opener – quarterback, offensive line – became positions of strength as the game went along. The kicking situation looks settled – even if the coverage and return teams are, unfortunately, just as erratic as ever.
But Alabama needed big improvements on the defensive side of the fall in comparison to what Alabama fielded at the end of the 2013 season. Against Auburn and Oklahoma, Alabama’s defense resembled nothing like the juggernaut it had been for most of Nick Saban’s tenure up to that point.
For Alabama in 2014, if the defense is truly returning to juggernaut status, it will have to prove it in the coming weeks.
This isn’t to say Alabama didn’t rise up when needed. West Virginia scored a single touchdown offensively, and Alabama made two big stops inside the 5-yard line. But West Virginia’s receivers also helped the Tide’s cause by attempting to break the unofficial record for dropped passes in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game, which had to have been set by Virginia Tech last year.
Specifically, Alabama’s defensive line still isn’t causing consistent disruption to an opponent’s offensive line, and West Virginia’s offensive line was probably one of the lowest-caliber lines Alabama will play in 2014. Also, Alabama needed better cornerback play compared to that of a year ago, and while Cyrus Jones looked much improved at the field corner spot, Bradley Sylve had a horrific day as the boundary corner.
Added to this was a linebacker group that is still learning how to walk without someone holding their hands. Reuben Foster played almost the entire game in relief of Trey DePriest, who had been suspended for an NCAA violation. But even if DePriest had been available for this game, he and Foster are cut from similar cloth: bigger frame, downhill attackers, not particularly adept in playing against spread offenses. Alabama might use Dillon Lee more in future games alongside Reggie Ragland in the middle, but the point no one is likely to miss is that C.J. Mosley’s presence in the NFL rather than on the Alabama sideline is going to be a significant obstacle to overcome.
It’s hard, however, to assign much to a game like this, because history shows that it might not matter at all: In 2009, Alabama opened in the Chick-Fil-A game against Virginia Tech and won 34-24, an eerily similar score to today’s game. Under center for the Crimson Tide that day was Greg McElroy, making his first start ever.
McElroy went 15-for-30 for 230 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Today, Blake Sims was 24-of-33 for 250 yards and 1 interception. Just as in today’s game, there were concerns in 2009 about multiple position groups coming out of the opener, and just as in the game against West Virginia, Alabama allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown.
By the end of the year, Alabama had been crowned national champions.
Alabama will need to improve on a similar, steep arc in 2014, however, if there is to be another title run made. Alabama’s defensive line has to become more of a force. Whether the line’s responsibility, by scheme, is to affect plays on its own or hold up the offense for the linebackers to clean things up, neither is really happening yet. Alabama’s defensive line finally wore down West Virginia’s smaller group thanks to a handful of injuries and a lack of execution by Mountaineer receivers. Alabama’s rush defense statistics were made to look better than they probably deserved thanks to a handful of large-yardage negative plays.
The Crimson Tide must also find a spread-stopping answer among its linebacker group, and then there is the matter of the secondary, which despite solid performances from Jones, Landon Collins and Nick Perry, didn’t affect throwing lanes with any kind of consistency.
Alabama won’t likely learn much about itself the next two weeks, as the competition level of Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss probably won’t be enough to provide the Tide a realistic avatar for a contender. The Florida game in Week 4 suddenly becomes potentially the most important game on the schedule, not just because Florida in an SEC opponent, but also because the challenges Florida presents in that game could set the course for Alabama for the remainder of the year.