- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's only Week 5 and yet No. 1 Alabama (3-0) has already cleared its biggest hurdle of the season. Going to College Station, Texas, on Sept. 14 and beating Texas A&M on the road opened up the rest of the schedule for the defending national champs, clearing a path that gives the Tide as good a chance as any to run the table without a loss. Ole Miss (Sept. 28) and LSU (Nov. 9) remain as the only ranked teams on Alabama's way to a return trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game in December.
Best game: It was billed as "The Game of the Century" and the product on the field didn't disappoint. Alabama went blow for blow with Texas A&M in what proved to be an instant classic. Johnny Manziel was Johnny Manziel again, frustrating defenders with his elusiveness before inevitably sailing the ball downfield to an open receiver. At the end of the day, Manziel and the Aggies put up the most total yards on Alabama in school history. But UA was up for the challenge. AJ McCarron, with the help of a reinvigorated offensive line, had arguably the best performance of his career, passing for four touchdowns and more than 300 yards. Alabama escaped by the skin of its teeth, winning a 49-42 shootout to keep its title hopes alive.
Best player: C.J. Mosley doesn't always jump out on the football field. His quiet demeanor underlies a fierce sense of competitiveness, though. The senior All-American is unquestionably Alabama's best defender at middle linebacker, a speedy, sure-handed tackler in the middle of the defense. Game in and game out he leads the team in tackles and this year his reach has extended beyond the stat sheet as he's taken over a greater role as a leader on a defense chalk full of youngsters.
Best performance: McCarron would never admit to it, but there had to be some added motivation the week of the Texas A&M game. In the two-week lead up all that was talked about was Johnny Football and how the defending Heisman Trophy winner would carve up Alabama's defense once again. But McCarron and his two championships as a starter went widely unmentioned, an afterthought in the outsized buildup to the game. McCarron didn't press when he finally saw the field against the Aggies, though. Rather, he played his game, methodically carving up the defense for record numbers. But maybe more importantly, it was his leadership that stood out, calming his team and responding after Texas A&M jumped out to an early lead at home.
Best surprise: All offseason and throughout camp, the question was asked: How on Earth could Vinnie Sunseri beat out Landon Collins and Nick Perry to start at strong safety for the Tide? Sunseri, the son of a former UA assistant coach, was perceived to be lesser in terms of athleticism and potential than the two, especially Collins, who was ranked as the No. 1 safety in the country coming out of high school. But Sunseri and his experience won out, landing him atop the depth chart prior to the start of the season. And despite whatever groans then, he has earned the position, coming up with big play after big play, returning two interceptions for touchdowns so far this season.
Biggest disappointment: For months and months, no one worried. The offensive line, despite losing three starters, would be fine, they said. And through spring camp it looked like that would be true. Everything coaches and players said about rookie starters Ryan Kelly, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd was positive. Nick Saban, forever the cynic, expressed little doubt over that fact. But then came the final scrimmage of fall camp and suddenly it was noticed that this line would be different, that the push up front wouldn't be the same as it was a season ago. That bared itself out over the first three games, first in a sloppy performance against Virginia Tech and then with an underwhelming showing against lowly Colorado State in which Alabama rushed for fewer than 70 yards.
3dJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon