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Bye week comes at right time for Alabama

9/2/2013

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether or not they'd like to admit it, the bye week comes at the perfect time for Alabama's players and coaching staff. After an underwhelming season opening win over Virginia Tech in which the offensive line was shaky, the running game rusty and the passing game paltry, an extra week to prepare for No. 7 Texas A&M could do the Crimson Tide wonders.

Jeoffrey Pagan said as much after Saturday's game in Atlanta, noting that playing Virginia Tech "definitely showed us where we're at." He didn't say it with a smile, either. It was clear that wherever Alabama was, it was not good enough. The senior defensive end was one of a number of players thankful for the timing of the bye week. The front seven played well against the Hokies, but it will have to be even better against the Aggies.

Virginia Tech and its quarterback, Logan Thomas, were a challenge. But Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel could be the test of the season for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide.

"For a game like this, it's good," Pagan said of the bye week. "It gives us even more time to prepare for an even more mobile quarterback and a better team."

Less than a week earlier, UA coach Nick Saban was singing a different tune. On a weekly SEC teleconference, Saban said he wasn't a fan of the bye week coming so early in the year.

"No, I don't really like it," he said. "I don't ever remember having it that way, but it is what it is. And we're going to do what we need to do to take advantage of it and continue to develop our team."

For a coach known for his meticulous planning, the statement seemed strange. How could more time to study film and practice be a bad thing? The placement of Alabama's bye weeks -- before its two toughest games, Texas A&M and LSU -- had become a point of contention for those who call the Tide's schedule weak. Whether Saban's words were in defense of that claim is anyone's guess.

"It is what it is," he said. "We've known it's going to be this way for a long time. We have a plan for it, and we'll implement it and try to improve our team with the circumstances that we have."

The buzz around the Texas A&M game will be unlike anything the Tide has seen in quite some time. The Alabama-LSU contests have drawn heavy interest in recent years, but not like the upcoming game against the Aggies. It will be billed as "The Revenge Game." We'll hear once again how Alabama struggles to defend the spread and Saban's dislike for no-huddle offenses will be rehashed. Is the tempo fit for today's game? Is there any real medical evidence to suggest a safety concern in the first place? Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema's back and forth at SEC Media Days will be brought up once again.

AJ McCarron and Manziel will likely be pitted against one another, friends off the field but the incident at the Manning Passing Academy still lingering somewhere in the background. Did AJ even try to wake Johnny? What really happened? Comparing the quarterbacks' attitudes off the field will inevitably come up.

No amount of time will help prepare players for that media firestorm, but questions on the field can be answered. As veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley explained, "We're going to work out the mistakes the first couple of days and after that it's all fundamentals."

"We're going to be a lot better," Christion Jones said. "There's a lot of things we have to correct. I think we have to go back and fundamentally fix things during the bye week. The bye week is going to help us with our legs and getting ready for Texas A&M."

Alabama's star wide receiver and return specialist wasn't going to give the hype machine for the Texas A&M game any fuel this early.

"I think you guys build it up," he said. "It's just a game, to me, to our guys, whether it's about Johnny Manziel or not. We're just going out here to play another game.

"That's the last team that beat us, but that's last year to us. It means something but then again it really doesn't because it's about what we do, it's not about what Texas A&M does."

Senior offensive lineman Anthony Steen is just now getting around to the idea of going to College Station, Texas, in a few weeks.

"It seemed like every time we got around people we weren't around the football team you're asked if you're ready for Texas A&M," he said, "And you just tell them we haven't looked at them yet. … Now that it's here we'll see how excited we are."

Judging by McCarron's attitude after Saturday's game, players aren't too terribly excited. With a hoard of reporters around him, he said the goal was to "keep getting better" but "I don't have anything particular" when it comes to specific adjustments.

He called the season opener a "measuring stick" but when he was asked how much better his team would have to be when it faces Texas A&M on Sept. 14, he didn't have an answer.

"I don't know," he said, brushing the question off. "I don't take guesses or what ifs. You just have to keep progressing day in and day out."

The good news is Alabama will have an extra week to get better. Players and coaches might not sound thrilled about that fact, but more time never hurt anyone.