Colorado State coach Jim McElwain doesn't waste any time before pointing out his team's poor job of finishing games. In fact, it's the first words out of his mouth. Pleasantries were quickly dispensed in a call with ESPN.com on the Wednesday before his team is scheduled to face No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
"We have [struggled late], and yet part of that is we're at least in games," he said. "I couldn't have said that a year ago. We're getting better."
The former Alabama offensive coordinator who left coach Nick Saban's staff following the 2011 season for Fort Collins, Colo., sees something of a silver lining to the Rams' 1-2 start, but he's nonetheless worried about the challenge that awaits.
"Right now the University of Alabama is complete, if you know what I mean," he said later on in the Q&A. "They're great in all phases."
McElwain was kind enough to spend a few minutes previewing the game against Alabama. Here's what he had to say:
A.S.: What has it felt like preparing for Alabama?
J.M.: When the reality hits and you start to put a game plan together, you start to think, 'What was I thinking?' Having been removed you kind of forget about how good the players are and the system is on both sides of the ball. Plus, Bobby [Williams] is doing a great job on special teams. They really have some parts that are playing hard there. Those things, I just hope they don't throw me in jail for throwing these guys to the wolves.
A.S.: You are getting paid a pretty penny for it, though. But it will be a good experience for your players, right?
J.M.: You said it. What we're building here has a lot to do with culture, and that culture doesn't just begin and end with the football team. That's everyone in the organization not accepting mediocrity no matter what their job is. For our people to go see a place where so many -- where people may think they have an insignificant role -- but they do it at such a high level. It doesn't matter what they do, they do it to the best of their ability.
A.S.: What stands out to you about the Alabama team you'll face this season?
J.M.: First, I talk about them on offense. The maturity and growth level is, I knew it would happen. [Doug Nussmeier] is doing a fantastic job with AJ [McCarron] and how he's utilizing all the different parts, all the different weapons. He's got true command of everything, getting them into good plays and out of bad plays. I mean this now, there's not a guy that's played better on bigger stages. When you look at how he takes care of the football and what he does for that team offensively, in my opinion that's the best player in college football.
A.S.: You think so?
J.M.: I really do. People are going to say, well, maybe this, maybe that. Well, look at what he's done with his full body of work. Look at what he does in the biggest moments. I can't tell you how proud I am to see him play the way he is, and with that the collective group around him, it's like they want to match his intensity level, his knowledge level.
A.S.: And what about Alabama's defense?
J.M.: It's a Coach Saban, Kirby Smart defense. People are going to say whatever about the Texas A&M yardage but there's going to be a lot of people who give yardage up to that guy. Yet they were in position numerous times, right? So I truly believe that was simply a little blip on the radar.
A.S.: What do your players need to do to have a puncher's chance Saturday?
J.M.: We need to stay on the field a little bit, which against their defense, shoot, I don't think anyone in the last freaking six years has done that. Yeah, you can say a game or two. But we've got to maintain possession of the ball, No. 1. These guys pride themselves in takeaways and we have to be sound on that part of it. We have to try to create any form of matchup we can with the playmakers we have to allow them the opportunity to get open in the pass game. And you know no one runs the ball on them and sometimes you have to understand that maybe a hard, 2- or 3-yard run is good.
And our defense, explosive plays, the speed factor is what scares me to death. Our guys have never played against anything like that. Not allowing those quick scores and those quick strikes and trying to make them earn that a little bit and not just giving them cheap ones.
A.S.: When we talked a while back you spoke about gathering a blueprint from Saban about how to run your program. How far along are you in implementing that now?
J.M.: I've seen a thought process change here dramatically over the past year and a half where our guys are starting to understand the accountability for their actions. I've seen guys invest in their own lives where, shoot, there's a direct reflection that when I got here the G.P.A. was horrible and now it's the same guys who understand that's a part of their life, that's a part of making themselves great. And those are all carryovers when you get out on the practice field.
A.S.: When you're in the locker room before the game Saturday, what are you going to tell your players to get ready for the environment?
J.M.: It's an opportunity to measure yourself. It's an opportunity that not many people get to play the No. 1 team in the country, to play in a place such as Bryant-Denny Stadium. Relish the moment. Don't be scared or afraid of the moment but rather take the challenge every single down, don't look at the scoreboard and go out and win this play and play as hard as you can so when you walk back in that locker room you know that you gave it your all.