Alabama Crimson Tide: Adrian Hubbard

For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Maybe Dillon Lee wasn’t ready for the moment so soon. As a still green-under-the-collar rookie, he played in Alabama’s season-opener against Michigan two years ago. The former four-star recruit wasted no time making his presence felt, making his first career tackle and then intercepting a pass in the final two minutes of a blowout win that eventually propelled the Crimson Tide to another national championship.

At the time it looked as if Lee was destined to make an impact as a freshman, mixing in some sneaky athleticism into a group of linebackers that already featured veterans C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson. But time was playing tricks on us. Lee didn't make another tackle all season. He played in the first four games and showed up on the participation chart only four more times over the final 10 games.

[+] EnlargeDillon Lee
AP Photo/Butch DillDillon Lee appears ready to be a starter on Alabama's defense.
To make matters worse, his immaturity showed when he and fellow freshman Ryan Anderson were sent home before the BCS National Championship game for missing curfew. Both players would have to work their way out of the doghouse.

Lee, by all accounts, did just that this past season, playing in all 13 games while earning the respect of his teammates and coaches. He was named special teams player of the week by the coaching staff following a victory over Ole Miss. Shortly after, Mosley praised him for being a “diverse player” who can play inside linebacker as well as on the edge. He called Lee “physical” and able to “hold the point of attack.”

Defensive end Ed Stinson called the 6-foot-4, 242-pound Lee “crazy.”

“In a good way,” he explained. “He works hard. He doesn’t ever hold back. He goes hard every time he gets in.”

Fellow linebacker Denzel Devall, who came in with Lee and started all 13 games at outside linebacker as a sophomore last season, echoed his former teammate's sentiments, noting Lee’s talent as well as his attitude.

“Dillon is very versatile,” Devall said. “Great guy. Very physical. Just an athlete. He's smart, and I believe he'll come in and do a great job for us.”

Though it’s still early in the spring, it looks as if Lee will play much more as a junior. While there’s no depth chart -- don’t even ask coach Nick Saban about one -- there is a big vacancy at linebacker where starting jobs at inside and outside linebacker are up for grabs. Lee figures to be best suited to play strong-side linebacker (Sam), where he was No. 2 on last season's depth chart behind Adrian Hubbard, who has since moved on to the NFL.

Lee, who has shown he can handle both positions on the field as well as his responsibilities away from it, could very well end up coming fill circle and start Alabama’s season-opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30 in Atlanta.

“I think Dillon Lee will be a really good player for us,” Saban said. “I think he has a good understanding of what we want him to do. He runs well. He's got good size and plays good block protection, especially at the line of scrimmage.

“We feel like he can be a very good player and competing for a starting job right now. We're confident that if he wins that job, he'll be able to do an outstanding job for us.”
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

There were a few Alabama players among the countdown -- four to be exact -- but that wasn’t enough. Here’s a look at the top 10 performers on the Crimson Tide this past season.

[+] Enlarge T.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY T.J. Yeldon was the top tailback on an Alabama roster full of talented backs.
1. C.J. Mosley, LB: He was arguably the most talented player on the team, the complete package. He was fast, strong and as sure a tackler as they come. In fact, he was the first player in the Nick Saban era at Alabama to register 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. And on top of that, he became a leader, transforming from a soft-spoken linebacker to the vocal center of the defense.

2. AJ McCarron, QB: What more can you say about McCarron’s career in crimson? Sure, he didn’t look so hot at the Sugar Bowl, but don’t let that cloud his accomplishments. He became the first Alabama quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, and in the process he set more school records for career passing yards, career completion percentage and career wins. Even with a poor close to his senior season (see: Auburn, Oklahoma and even Mississippi State), McCarron finished 11th nationally in Adjusted QBR.

3. T.J. Yeldon, RB: Like McCarron, don’t judge Yeldon on one bad game. His fumble against Oklahoma sure stands out, but don’t forget his accomplishments throughout the course of the regular season. There’s not much more you could have asked him to do. His 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns on 207 carries were both improvements over his stellar freshman campaign. Yes, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry appeared to be the more explosive tailbacks on the roster, but Yeldon was no slouch as his 34 rushes of 10 yards or longer ranked 30th nationally.

4. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S: The secondary was not a shining light of achievement for Alabama this past season. The cornerback situation was murky at best, and when Vinnie Sunseri was injured at safety, some air went out of the balloon. But Clinton-Dix, despite missing two games himself, had no such letdown. He was one of the most talented defensive backs in the country with the kind of football instincts to match his exceptional athleticism.

5. Kevin Norwood, WR: Norwood wasn’t there all the time, but he was there every time he was needed. The self-described “possession receiver” didn’t wow anyone with his athleticism or home-run ability, racking up just 38 receptions for 568 yards in 2013, but he made the most of every catch. If it was a critical moment in a critical game (see: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State or Auburn), Norwood came through.

6. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT: The junior left tackle endured his fair share of ups and downs this past season, but regardless of the low points (again, the Sugar Bowl) he was one of the most talented offensive linemen in the country. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound former five-star recruit was the anchor of the Alabama offensive line in 2013, protecting McCarron’s blind side to the tune of only 17 sacks, down from 23 the season before.

7. Christion Jones, WR/PR/KR: When Jones went back to field a punt, you didn’t know what was going to happen; you just knew it would be interesting. Though he did make some questionable decisions with the ball at times, he also hit a few shots, most notably against Virginia Tech, when he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. All told, he returned three kicks for touchdowns and was named SEC Player of the Year on special teams, in addition to finishing third on the team with 27 receptions for 368 yards and four touchdowns.

8. Landon Collins, S: He came on late when Clinton-Dix missed time, filling in at free safety. Then Sunseri went down and he started at strong safety. In both spots, Collins flourished. The talented sophomore finished second on the team in tackless (70), first in passes defended (8) and tied for first in interceptions (2).

9. Anthony Steen, RG: No player was more consistent on the offensive line than Steen, who wound up starting in his final three seasons on campus. He was a candidate for the Outland Trophy. He blocked for a 100-yard rusher more than 25 times in his Alabama career.

10. A’Shawn Robinson, DL: Rarely do freshmen start on the defensive line, but Robinson is a rarity. He doesn’t even look like a freshman. If his 6-4, 320-pound frame doesn’t make you question his age, his jet black beard might lead you to believe he’s closer to 30 years old. But Robinson was more than big and scary; he was productive. He wound up leading the Tide with 5.5 sacks and finished second with eight tackles for loss.

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.

SEC Senior Bowl recap

January, 27, 2014
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Auburn defensive end Dee Ford made the biggest splash of the SEC players at the Reese's Senior Bowl. He was impressive all week during the practices and walked away from the game with MVP honors after recording a pair of sacks and several other hurries.

[+] EnlargeFord
AP Photo/Johnny VyAuburn's Dee Ford was named MVP of the Senior Bowl.
According to ESPN's Scouts Inc. folks, Ford was one of the top five performersInsider last week in Mobile and really shined as an edge pass-rusher. Ford's performance at the Senior Bowl shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who watched him this season in the SEC. He blossomed after struggling with injuries in October and was outstanding in the VIZIO BCS National Championship loss to Florida State. Right now, it sounds like Ford is a solid second-round pick who could potentially sneak into the first round. He doesn't have ideal size (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) to play defensive end in the NFL, but makes up for it with his quickness and burst off the ball. He could be an excellent fit for a 3-4 team as an outside linebacker.

Among the other SEC players who turned heads with their play last week and potentially helped their NFL stock, according to Scouts Inc., were Alabama outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard and Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins. LSU safety Craig Loston and Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had interceptions in the game. Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood had a 24-yard touchdown catch.

Two SEC players who didn't necessarily help their stock last week, according to the Scouts Inc. staff, were Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews. Sam had a sack in the game, but relied too much on his speed rush. There are also concerns as to whether or not he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Matthews had a nice 33-yard catch in the game, but the knock on him during the week was that he dropped too many passes and struggled to make contested catches.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban likes to refer to the NFL draft as a “business decision.” Of course he’d love it if his most talented players finished out their eligibility at Alabama, but the promise of long-term financial security is enough to sway even his most selfish ambitions.

He stood on a podium last year and applauded as juniors Dee Milliner and D.J. Fluker declared for the draft. Both were taken in the first round and both received four-year contracts that topped $10 million. Their paychecks were the focus of promotional materials Alabama sent to recruits, one asking “Are You Next?” and the other declaring that “The Process Pays Off.”

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsCoach Nick Saban and Alabama are losing five underclassmen to the 2014 NFL draft.
But there’s a line in the sand for Saban, one he doesn’t advertise on fliers but will admit to publicly: If you’re not a first-round pick, you shouldn’t go pro early.

That’s an awfully hard line to draw in a day and age where patience is neither sexy nor palpable. Recruits want to hear how they’ll start from Day 1. They want to be told how they’ll ascend the depth chart, win a Heisman Trophy and move on to make millions of dollars in the NFL after three short years in school. They don’t want to be told that the process of developing as an athlete -- yes, even Saban’s “Process” that looks more and more like an NFL farm system -- could take longer than that. They don’t want to be told that their four- and five-star rankings won't translate to the pros.

Saban’s hard-line stance toward staying in school has held up well in the past. “We’ve had 13 guys go out early for the draft. Eleven were first round draft picks, one was a second, and one was a third,” he boasted earlier this month. But that statement isn't holding up so well now. A few moments later at the same news conference, he handed off the microphone to four underclassmen who would declare themselves eligible for the draft, only two of whom -- safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio -- were regarded as a first-round prospects. The other two, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan, will be lucky to be taken in the second round.

A fifth underclassmen, safety Vinnie Sunseri, declared for the draft as well. There was no news conference for him, though. Alabama didn't even send out a statement informing the media of his decision. His name just happened to be among the record 98 underclassmen to officially turn pro last week. He'll likely be a late-round pick, but rather than stay and improve his stock, he fled Tuscaloosa. Sources close to the situation cited a rift between him and the coaching staff dating to his sophomore season, but Sunseri hasn't addressed the situation publicly. Rather, he's viewed as just another underclassman hoping to strike it rich, ignoring some recently troubling statistics.

Of the 73 underclassmen to turn pro last year, 21 went undrafted. Of the 52 players who were drafted, 25 were taken in the first two rounds. That's "not a very secure future for you in terms of what your career might bring, the number of years you might play, as well as how much money you might make,” Saban told reporters at the Senior Bowl earlier this week.

More and more, college football is beginning to take on the mentality of college basketball, Saban said. Rather than one-and-done, he cited a three-and-out mindset shared by players and their parents.

"I don’t think the NFL really wants this. I don’t really think the colleges want this," he said. "I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the players. And I don’t know what the solution to the problem really is."

Maybe Saban should look at his own program to find out what answers there might be. Alabama's success sending underclassmen to the draft certainly hasn't helped dissuade others from trying the same path. The type of advertising Saban has targeted at prospects doesn't exactly scream to come get a four-year degree, either. Amari Cooper, who was a Freshman All-American in 2012, had to be corrected by an Alabama staffer when he told reporters this past preseason that he had "two more years here." And it's absurd to think he's the only one eyeing a shortcut to the NFL.

The "epidemic" of underclassmen turning pro, as it has been called, might not have started at Alabama, but it has finally reached its shores.

Saban's attitude of "first round or try again" is showing signs of crumbling. His line in the sand, much to his dismay, is being crossed all too often. He either must dig deeper and retrench, or watch it disappear entirely.
Editor's note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With so many big-picture items on Alabama's to-do list this offseason, it's no wonder we're seeing a shakeup on the coaching staff. Lane Kiffin is the most buzz-worthy new hire with a big job to accomplish, but he's not alone. Bo Davis, who is set to become the Crimson Tide's new defensive line coach, has another important issue to tackle: generate a more consistent pass rush.

But he won't be alone. Head coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and linebackers coach Lance Thompson all must work together to find a way to get to the quarterback more often.

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillFreshman A'Shawn Robinson led the Tide in sacks with 5.5.
Whatever you do, though, don't mention sacks as a statistic in making an argument to this coaching staff. Saban notoriously loathes the idea that sacks are a measure of a good defense. But even he would concede that the pressure Alabama brought on quarterbacks in 2013 wasn't enough. Alabama's total number of hurries, knockdowns and sacks have risen steadily over the past three season (48 in 2011, 53 in 2012 and 79 in 2013, according to ESPN Stats and Information), but with more and more mobile quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, simply getting in the face of the passer won't do it -- they'll too often scramble and find a way to pick up yards with their feet or their arm.

Enter Davis, who has more than a passing familiarity with uptempo offenses and speedy quarterbacks. After three seasons in the pass-happy Big 12 at Texas, he is well acquainted with the demands of pressuring the quarterback. His Longhorns registered 100 sacks to the Tide's 87 over that time.

Losing a talented pass-rusher like Adrian Hubbard to the NFL draft hurts, but Alabama isn't without options. And unlike in years past, the heat may come from the down linemen more than the linebackers. With young up-and-comers A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen emerging at defensive end, Alabama is well equipped to get after the quarterback.

Robinson was one of the most impressive freshmen in all of the SEC this past season. Teammates joked that he looked 30 years old when he first enrolled, but opponents weren't laughing. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound true freshman wound up leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks, finished second with eight tackles for loss and tied for third with four quarterback hurries.

"I wondered where his whistle was because he looks like a coach," Smart said of Robinson prior to the Sugar Bowl. "He's about a 28-looking-year-old dude. When we recruited him, we always thought he was going to be a special player, big size, speed guy, what you wanted athletically, didn't know how developed he would be technically on the field. He was a real raw talented guy. He's come a long way and he still has a long way to go. But he's a talented young man. He's worked his tail off this year to contribute, especially mentally picking up the defense early on.

Allen, meanwhile, made the most of fewer snaps. The former four-star recruit from Virginia had half a sack and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. Though his numbers weren't eye-popping, he showed excellent athleticism while on the field, especially late in the season.

"We don't have as much depth on the defensive line that we always had," Smart said. "Without him and Jonathan Allen we would have had a hard time this year getting through at the D-line position."

With Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson back from injury and Dee Liner no longer sporting a redshirt, Alabama should have the numbers next season to rotate in fresh legs on the defensive line. Throw in the return of former SEC All-Freshman D.J. Pettway and incoming true freshman Da'Shawn Hand, and all the parts are there.

Whether that translates into a better pass rush, and, yes, more sacks, is anyone's guess. With Davis back and the needs of defenses changing, the hope for Alabama fans is that the answer is in the affirmative.

SEC's lunch links

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Two handy reminders: College football underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the NFL draft, which will be May 8 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.
Trey DePriest cut the list of possible departures by one when he announced that he would return for his senior season. But the list was, according to Alabama coach Nick Saban, already in the double digits as Alabama's notoriously tight-lipped head coach said before the Sugar Bowl that as many as 10 players were interested in their NFL futures and would look into receiving a draft projection from the league's advisory board.

In what's become an annual rite of the new year, Alabama is staring down a future without many of its underclassman stars. The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is Jan. 15, and decisions from players could come soon now that Saban is no longer in Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

How the Tide's own title aspirations look depend heavily on what happens with the draft-eligible underclassmen. As Saban said, "It will affect our team next year." There are some players who seem likely to bolt and others who could use another year of seasoning. Here's a breakdown of who they are, how they're trending and what their return or departure means for Alabama moving forward.

S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillAlabama could use Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's talents and experience next season.
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: If he returns, the narrative of Alabama's secondary being a liability could change drastically. With Landon Collins and Vinnie Sunseri, the Tide would have three very solid safeties, allowing Saban to move parts around and make the most of the nickel corner position. Clinton-Dix would be the anchor to the whole scheme at free safety.
What his departure would mean: Given how high his draft stock is right now, it's hard to imagine he comes back for his senior season as ESPN's Scouts Inc. has him as the No. 18 prospect overall, a solid first-round pick. So look for Sunseri to return at strong safety and Collins to slide back over to free safety, where he started a few games this season. Nick Perry, who missed the final 10 games of the season with an injury, will return to provide depth.

LB Trey DePriest
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: It's a big boost for Alabama, given the departure of senior inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. DePriest will immediately become the leader of the defense in 2014, making the calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Even though his junior season wasn't what some expected in terms of production, DePriest is still an NFL talent with the size and speed to provide support in the running game and drop back in pass coverage.
What his departure would mean: Had he left, Alabama would have been in dire straits. Replacing Mosley would have been hard enough, but removing the two most experienced and talented defenders on the team would have been a huge loss for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Underclassmen such as Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson have shown promise, but both could use another season removed from the spotlight DePriest will inhabit.

LB Adrian Hubbard
Trending: On to the NFL
What his return would mean: We've seen plenty of flashes of talent from Hubbard. In each of the past two seasons he's turned it on late and helped provide a pass rush that had been lacking. Maybe one more year under Saban will be what it takes to establish that consistency from Week 1.
What his departure would mean: Along those same lines, Hubbard has peaked at the right time in each of the last two seasons. And don't think the NFL hasn't noticed. He had to make an announcement last year that he would come back as a junior, but will he do the same again and return for his redshirt senior season? After graduating, there's a chance he moves on, clearing the way for someone like Lee or Tim Williams.

LT Cyrus Kouandjio
Trending: Staying put
[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio had a tough Sugar Bowl, and that might affect his draft status.
What his return would mean: Dealing with one loss out of five is much easier than tending to two. Such would be the case for Alabama if Kouandjio returns. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal would be able to focus on replacing senior guard Anthony Steen and re-establishing the chemistry the line found in the second half of the season but lost late in a poor performance against Oklahoma.
What his departure would mean: You can't play that poorly on a national stage and not get noticed. Kouandjio looked like a sure thing to bolt for the NFL draft before the Sugar Bowl. But after getting beaten badly by the Sooners -- Eric Striker beat with him a speed rush that led to three sacks -- it looks like Kouandjio might need another year of seasoning. With brother Arie returning for his senior season, that might be enough to keep Cyrus in crimson. If he does go, look for blue-chip prospect Cam Robinson to try his best to start right away.

DE Jeoffrey Pagan
Trending: Staying put
What his return would mean: Because of his size (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) and quickness in the trenches, Pagan certainly looks like a solid NFL prospect. But is he good enough to turn pro early? It doesn't seem like it. With just two sacks and three tackles for loss this season, the production just isn't there. Should he return, he'll be someone the staff can build around, much as it did in 2012 when Damion Square was able to play both end and tackle in the 3-4.
What his departure would mean: It wouldn't be devastating to see Pagan go, but it would be a big loss in leadership. Youngsters such as A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are blossoming on the defensive line, but Pagan is a proven commodity, especially against the run. Alabama might improve in the pass-rush department as more athletic ends emerge, but that's a short-sighted way of thinking.

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.

Sugar Bowl glance: Alabama-Oklahoma

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
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There's one thing the Allstate Sugar Bowl has in spades: tradition.

Alabama and Oklahoma are members of college football's aristocracy with a history of winning that goes back decades. From Paul Bryant to Bud Wilkinson, dusty images come to mind with these two schools. And it's only fitting that they'll meet in New Orleans, which holds its own storied place in history.

But what about the game itself? It's still a few weeks away, but let's break down some of the aspects that might make Tide-Sooners an interesting event to watch on Jan. 2.

Key storylines

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIAfter leading Oklahoma to a Bedlam win, will Blake Bell get the call against Alabama?
Letdown factor: Both Alabama and Oklahoma came into this season with eyes on Pasadena, Calif., and the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, but neither wound up in a position to make the long trip to the West Coast. How will that play a factor when the two teams meet in New Orleans? Is there any kind of unfinished business both programs feel? For Alabama, at least there's the idea that coming out and winning big might show the country that despite a last-second loss to Auburn, the Tide is the better team. A convincing win won't vault it to No. 1 in the rankings again, but a No. 2 finish could be cause enough to show up in New Orleans ready to compete.

Who starts at QB?: Oklahoma will begin bowl practice soon, but who starts under center is still a significant question mark. As Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel explained, he'll go with, "Whoever it takes." Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight is nursing an injured non-throwing arm, though it's unclear the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, junior Blake Bell, who came on in relief of Knight against Oklahoma State and led the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, seems like the hot hand. But he entered the game third on the depth chart behind Kendal Thompson so making any assumptions here seems futile.

Stoops vs. the SEC: Some folks just don't like to dredge up the past. But after what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has said about the SEC in the past year or so, it's hard to forget. Stoops has called the league with seven straight BCS champions overrated, top-heavy and overstated in terms of its defensive prowess. It's all propaganda, he claims. A veteran of the Big 12, he's been mostly alone in his criticism of the SEC, which has made him a favorite target of college football fans in the South who like to chide other conferences already. But Stoops will have his chance to answer their criticism and state the case for his own. A win over the Tide might spell vindication.

Players to watch

Oklahoma DB Aaron Colvin: He's a big, physical corner who might be able to give Amari Cooper trouble. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, he's an aggressive type that doesn't intercept the ball a lot -- he has just one this season -- but does draw his fair share of flags. He's fifth on the team in tackles (49) and tied for sixth in passes defended (4).

Alabama LB Adrian Hubbard: We saw it play out last season where Hubbard came from nowhere to close the season strong (three sacks in the final games) and flirt with the NFL as a redshirt sophomore. He ultimately stayed for his junior season, but we could see a repeat of last year as Hubbard has racked up three sacks and 11 tackles in the Tide's past four games.

Oklahoma DL Charles Tapper: The Sooners have struggled some on offense this season, but their youth on defense is cause for hope. Trapper, a big 6-foot-4, 261-pound defensive end, is one of those bright spots. As a sophomore, he leads the team with nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron: It's ironic to consider that McCarron's final game at UA will come against a team he nearly signed with as a player coming out of high school. The night before he was set to decide, he said he was thinking he'd go with Oklahoma. Why? He liked their program and Sam Bradford. But as he said, when you're a teenager, "Your mind changes about 20 times a day." In the end, it's safe to say McCarron made the right decision as a win over Oklahoma would be the cherry on top of a career that's seen him win two national championships as a starter and earned him a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Stats to keep an eye on

2: Oklahoma has a history of being a talent-rich program on offense, but this season's been different as the Sooners placed just two such players on the first- and second-team AP All-Big 12 Team. And those two selections -- center Gabe Ikard and kicker Mike Hunnicutt -- aren't what you'd call impact players.

18: The Sooners have flipped the script after being known as a passing team under former quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. This season Oklahoma's relied heavily on the run, ranking 18th in the country with 235.8 rushing yards per game.

20: Alabama's still shaking off the reputation of a slow and plodding offense. And while it may be true the Tide doesn't huddle, it does get big plays. In fact, UA ranks 28th in the country with 68 plays of 20 or more yards. Meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks 86th with only 48 such plays.

Reliving Auburn's miracle return

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
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AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return was like something out of a video game, according to Tide QB AJ McCarron.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, staring his own date with destiny and a third straight national championship in the eye, didn't think to throw a Hail Mary pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the odds of AJ McCarron heaving a touchdown in that situation were 2 percent. Better to give Adam Griffith a shot at splitting the uprights from 57 yards out, Saban thought. He'd seen his freshman kicker hit it from 60 yards plenty of times, and Cade Foster, Alabama's regular place-kicker, had already missed three field goals.

Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.

"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.

"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.

Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.

"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.

Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.

"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.

Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.

"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."

Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.

Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."

Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.

"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"

It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.

"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"

"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."

Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."

The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe game over, the field turned into one very large celebration.
"I don't think I've ever been part of a sequence like that with so much on the line in that part of the game," Malzahn said, not realizing he had won the Western Division until the moment he shook Saban's hand after the game.

Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.

"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."

"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."

It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.

When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.

Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you're a fan of rivalry games, this year's edition of the Iron Bowl doesn't get any bigger as Alabama and Auburn, both in the top five of the BCS standings, will fight it out over the SEC West crown and a shot at making it to the conference championship game in Atlanta.

Both sides are playing down the hype, as you'd expect. Players have said all the right things and so have the coaches. Auburn's Gus Malzahn is doing nothing to fan the flames, and neither is Alabama's Nick Saban.

"Focus on the next play. Focus on what you've got to do the next play to try to give your guys the best chance to be successful and make corrections, coach them on the mistakes that they made," Saban said of his outlook at the start of rivalry week on Monday. "This is an ongoing process for the whole week plus the whole 60 minutes of the game right down to the last play of the game. And then when the game's over, it is what it is."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesAuburn's Tre Mason is second only to Georgia's Todd Gurley in rushing yards over the past two seasons among SEC backs.
But for whatever is said, there's no playing down the enormity of Saturday's game in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Rivalry games don't get any bigger than this. Just ask Alabama center Ryan Kelly, who grew up in Ohio watching what some contend to be the best rivalry in college football: Ohio State-Michigan.

"The roots run a little deeper around here," Kelly said. "It's always a big game, especially this year. We're two top-10 teams, and on the road at Auburn, it's going to be a big game."

Auburn players to watch

QB Nick Marshall: If he gets comfortable throwing the football, watch out. Marshall's ability to run the ball is well documented. He can use his speed to get outside the tackles and has the shiftiness to make people miss. But unlike opponents in the past, Alabama will force him to stay in the pocket and beat the defense through the air.

RB Tre Mason: He has had arguably the best two seasons of any running back in the SEC, trailing only Todd Gurley for tops in the league with 2,155 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns in that time, yet he doesn't get the attention he deserves. Marshall gets the hype as a quarterback and runner, but Mason really makes the offense go. He'll keep Alabama honest with his ability to run the ball between the tackles.

DE Dee Ford: Auburn's defense is still a major question mark, especially on the back end. But up front, Auburn has some tools to work with, starting with Ford, who has eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. But he's not alone. Defensive tackle Montravious Adams is a load and defensive end Carl Lawson (three sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss) is one of the top freshmen in the SEC.

Alabama players to watch

RB T.J. Yeldon: Establishing the running game early and controlling the clock will be big against Auburn. For that reason, it's important that Yeldon has a big game. He was once committed to Auburn, so expect him to have some added motivation at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but he'll need to keep that in check. He and fellow running back Kenyan Drake need to take care of the football, something they haven't done particularly well this season.

LB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama fans have to feel good about what they've seen from Hubbard lately. After starting out the season slowly, he has picked up sacks in each of the last two games. And he'll have to continue that hot streak against Auburn. While he might not get the sacks fans so covet, what Hubbard does sealing the edge and keeping containment on Marshall will be vital to Alabama's success on defense.

S Landon Collins: Expect Collins to play near the line of scrimmage a lot on Saturday. Because of Auburn's lack of a passing game, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will be able to move around Collins, blitzing him and using him as a spare linebacker. He and speedy middle linebacker C.J. Mosley will play a big part in stopping Auburn's multi-faceted running game, which utilizes more than just Marshall and Mason.

Key stats

1994: Alabama and Auburn have never met in an Iron Bowl in which the winner would clinch the SEC West and the division's bid to the SEC championship game. It would have happened in 1994, but Auburn was on probation at the time and wasn't eligible to compete for in the league title game.

5: It's no secret the key to the game will be Auburn's running game versus Alabama's run defense. And poring over those stats show that both teams are ranked in the top five nationally for rushing yards per game, yards per rush, runs of 10-plus yards and expected points added via rushes. Alabama, for its part, has allowed only five rushing touchdowns in its last nine game, while Auburn has scored at least five touchdowns in each of its last six games.

77: The Iron Bowl has been very one-sided the last two years in favor of Alabama. In fact, the Crimson Tide has outscored the Tigers 91-14 in the last two meetings.

ESPN Stats and Information was used as a resource for this article.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There hasn't been much of a letdown in production from Alabama's defense compared to seasons past. The top-ranked Crimson Tide is still among the top-10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, third down conversions, first downs allowed and total defense. It's given up the fewest touchdowns (12) and the fewest points per game (10.2) in all of college football.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban likes the way his Alabama defense has been rushing the passer this season.
One could nitpick and note its lack of a premiere cornerback or a true vocal leader, and he or she wouldn't be wrong. Deion Belue is good, but he's not a shutdown corner like Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick. And while C.J. Mosley is no doubt the leader of the defense at linebacker, he'd be the first to admit he's the kind to lead through actions and not words, unlike, say, Nico Johnson of a year ago or Dont'a Hightower before him.

But whatever the defense's minor flaws this season, there is one area that's gone under the radar where Alabama has actually improved from years past: rushing the passer. Through 11 games, the Tide has pressured the quarterback 26.1 percent of the time, compared to 22.5 percent in 2012 and 23.8 percent in 2011. UA leads the SEC in pressure percentage, which ESPN Stats and Info calculates as hurries plus knockdowns, divided by total dropbacks.

"I think we're making some improvement there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of rushing the passer following last Saturday's 20-7 win at Mississippi State. "I think it's going to be critical we can do that in the future."

Alabama dialed up the pressure on Mississippi State, especially in the second half. A'Shawn Robinson, the Tide's standout freshman defensive lineman, had another sack against the Bulldogs, his fifth of the season. Denzel Devall (3), Adrian Hubbard (2) and Ed Stinson (1.5) trail Robinson for the team lead.

The weekend before against LSU, Alabama tackled quarterback Zach Mettenberger for no gain and then sacked him three straight times to end the game.

But if you follow Saban, you know he's not overly concerned with sacks. They have nothing to do with winning, he says, nothing at all. Rather, he wants to "affect the quarterback" where they're throwing the ball off balance and before they're ready, which can results in a much more beneficial stat: turnovers.

So in terms of a stat Saban would care more about -- hurries plus knockdowns, but excluding sacks -- hybrid linebacker/defensive end Xzavier Dickson holds the lead with 13, trailed by Hubbard (12), Robinson (12), Stinson (9) and Devall (6), according to ESPN Stats and Info.

However you define pressure, Alabama's defense is getting it at an impressive pace, and it will need to continue to do so in two weeks against No. 6 Auburn.

Not only do the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, they have allowed the third fewest sacks in the league and the 10th fewest tackles for loss in the country.

Auburn doesn't throw the ball much, but the hope for Alabama is that it will be in quarterback Nick Marshall's face when he does. It won't be easy, but whether it's a sack or a pressure, the Tide needs to continue to get in the backfield and disrupt.

But however the Iron Bowl goes, expect Alabama's defense to continue its upward trend of affecting the quarterback in the coming seasons. Robinson is just a freshman, and we haven't yet seen the progression of his fellow rookies Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and Tim Williams. If Dalvin Tomlinson can come back from injury, he's another guy who can rush the passer. And with last weekend's commitment of Da'Shawn Hand, the No. 2 defensive end prospect in the ESPN 300, even more help is on the way.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's about that time. No, it's not the "Game of the Century" as Alabama-LSU matches have been called in years past, but Saturday's game in Tuscaloosa might just be the biggest of the season for the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

LSU players to watch

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAlabama will need to find a way to slow down LSU QB Zach Mettenberger, who has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and 19 TDs this season.
QB Zach Mettenberger: LSU's veteran quarterback needs to get back on track against the Tide. After starting out the season on fire, Mettenberger has seen the pendulum swing decidedly out of his favor with six interceptions in his past four games. Still, he has the arm to hurt Alabama with the deep ball, as he did in last year's game when he threw for 298 yards and brought the Tide defense to its knees.

WRs Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.: One of them would be enough. But two? That's not fair. LSU has two of the best wideouts in the game in Landry and Beckham. They've combined for more than 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.

DL Anthony Johnson: Say what you will about LSU's lackluster defense. The numbers bear that out. But don't question what the Tigers have up front with guys like Johnson, who's a load at nearly 300 pounds. He and fellow defensive tackle Ego Ferguson will pressure the interior of Alabama's offensive line.

Alabama players to watch

QB AJ McCarron: This is his game. You can trace McCarron's growth as a quarterback to his games against LSU. Remember the regular season loss in 2011? He learned not to play without passion then. In the rematch at the national championship that season, we saw him develop into the passer he is today, throwing the ball with staggering efficiency. And last year? Though he didn't play his best, he found a way to put the team on his back and will his way to a win.

CB X: No, that "X" isn't a typo. We, in fact, don't know who will start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have emerged as the clear frontrunner. Whoever it is won't like their job, though, as they'll be forced to cover either Landry or Beckham for most of the night.

OLB Adrian Hubbard: It's been a slow go of it for Hubbard this season with zero sacks to his name. If he's going to turn the corner, it needs to happen soon. It needs to happen against LSU, who has had trouble when defenders get in Mettenberger's face. If there's hope for Tide fans, it's that Hubbard did this same trick last year, registering a sack in each of his final three games.

Key stats

.478: Alabama enters Saturday ranked sixth in the country in percentage of possessions resulting in a touchdown. The Tide have found the end zone in 43 of 90 drives this season.

17: The Tide offensive line, maligned at the start of the season, has been on a roll of late. It hasn't allowed a sack in 17 consecutive quarters, dating back to the third quarter of the Ole Miss game.

29: LSU and Alabama have been NFL factories, producing a combined 29 first-round draft picks since 2004.

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