Alabama Crimson Tide: Bradley Sylve

Video: X factor for Alabama

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
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video
Alex Scarborough discusses who might be Alabama's X factor this season.
Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
The injury to Eddie Jackson is still reverberating through Alabama’s roster. The promising young cornerback, who was in position to start as a sophomore, tore his ACL during last weekend’s scrimmage, forcing him to miss the remainder of spring camp. On Tuesday, he was seen in crutches awkwardly stepping into a crimson SUV that carried him away from the football facilities where his teammates were practicing.

With Jackson gone, others have had to step up.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama will miss cornerback Eddie Jackson, who tore his ACL in a scrimmage.
Alabama’s depth at cornerback was already suspect. Deion Belue, a two-year starter, and John Fulton, a top reserve, have both graduated and moved on. The three most veteran options still at the position -- Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington -- have combined for eight starts in their careers. And to make matters worse, one of the talented young corners, Maurice Smith, has been banged up. According to coach Nick Saban, the true sophomore who played in 11 games and made one start last season “got a little bit of a concussion” and didn't participate in Saturday’s scrimmage.

So where does that leave the Crimson Tide?

If it were close to the start of the regular season, it would be called a nightmare. But since it’s the spring, it’s more of a sense of opportunity than apprehension. Thanks to a loosened depth chart, coaches will get a sneak peek at some even younger players.

Sylve, Jones and Washington will undoubtably get more reps, and so will players such as Anthony Averett, who redshirted last season, and Tony Brown, who enrolled early in January with the clear purpose of getting a head start during the spring.

According to Saban, Brown has gotten “a ton of reps.” And when you’re talking about a five-star athlete whom ESPN ranked as the No. 2 cornerback in the 2014 class, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. His talent isn’t in question -- the two-sport star runs track and is one of the more physically impressive corners on the football field -- but his experience has been the biggest hurdle. With more reps, he can close the gap between himself and the more veteran players at his position, clearing the way for a possible run at a starting job this fall.

Landon Collins, who was voted second-team All-SEC at safety last season, said he has seen Brown work hard this spring, “getting it quicker than most people get it.”

Nick Perry agreed. The senior safety was effusive in his praise of Brown earlier this spring, saying that he and fellow freshman safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones were learning the defense “faster than I’ve seen any freshmen pick it up.”

“Tony is a great competitor,” Perry said. “He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner.”

According to Perry, expect to see Brown make a couple of plays this season.

Saturday’s scrimmage was a start for those such as Brown who might not have expected so many reps this spring. There will be ups and downs, Saban said, but overall “it’ll be a good learning experience for them.”

With Jackson gone, the time is now. Smith will be back at practice soon, but there’s no telling who will be next to go down during this final week of spring practice. If someone is sidelined, it might hurt the depth chart as a whole, but it will help certain players in particular.

Room to improve: CB

February, 17, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The struggle was obvious. Without a premier cornerback to rely upon, Alabama’s defense wasn’t the same. Without the likes of Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick or Javier Arenas, coach Nick Saban’s defense didn’t have quite the same bite.

Deion Belue was an adequate starter. The former junior college transfer even looked the part as an anchor cornerback for most of the season. But before long he was exposed as someone not entirely capable of locking down half the field. And with a revolving door on the other side with John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all taking unsuccessful shots at starting, the secondary faltered.

Texas A&M gashed the defense early. Auburn and Oklahoma gashed it late.

"We are not used to that," said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart of not having consistent play at cornerback. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first-round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating.”

Will that frustration subside? Will someone step up in the spring or fall and become that premier cornerback Alabama so desperately needs? Can quality depth emerge at the position?

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesConverted receiver Cyrus Jones, who started five games at cornerback last fall, will be a contender to be a full-time starter in 2014.
Battling for No. 1: There are plenty of options to consider, and we’ll get into that with the next paragraph. For now, though, there appear to be three serious contenders to become starters at cornerback: rising junior Cyrus Jones and rising sophomores Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith. Jones, you’ll recall, transitioned from wide receiver to defensive back last spring and wound up starting five games. But his size (5-foot-10), is a problem. Enter Smith and Jackson, who both come in at 6 feet. Jackson was a promising option early as a freshman, starting against Colorado State and intercepting a pass against Ole Miss. But inexperience caught up with him and he didn’t start again until the Sugar Bowl. Smith, on the other hand, was a steady presence off the bench. The Texas native wound up playing in 12 of 13 possible games, starting one.

Strength in numbers: Really, it’s a wide-open race. Meaning none of the soon-to-be-mentioned defensive backs are out of contention. We haven’t seen what redshirt freshmen Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett have to offer. Both were heavily-recruited prospects in the 2013 class that could develop into contributors after spending a year practicing and learning the playbook. Throw in rising junior Bradley Sylve, who actually started three games last season, and you’ve got quite the field of competitors heading into the spring. Sylve has immense speed, but is a shade on the smaller side at 5-11 and 180 pounds. Finally, don’t discount Saban trying a few players at new positions, as he did last spring when he put Cyrus Jones, Christion Jones and Dee Hart all at cornerback.

New on the scene: Many Alabama fans are already pinning their hopes on two true freshmen. And rightfully so, considering the lack of quality depth at the position. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey do indeed have the opportunity to start from Day 1. Both five-star prospects, they have the build and skill to thrive in Saban’s system. Brown, however, has the clear edge considering he’s already enrolled in school and Humphrey will not do so until after spring practice is already over. The one hangup for Brown, though, is what consequences, if any, will come from his January arrest. Saban, himself, did not make the strongest of comments regarding the arrest, saying, “Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” indicating that rather than a stiff punishment, the staff will look to “use this as a learning experience.”

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.
Here are five things to watch as No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0) travels to Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4):

'Relief syndrome': Alabama coach Nick Saban is guarding against what he called "relief syndrome." After winning an emotional game over LSU this past weekend, how will the top-ranked Crimson Tide respond on the road at Mississippi State? Will complacency become an issue? Saban has said multiple times this week how Mississippi State is better than its record indicates. Of the five losses, he said, all have come against top-20 teams. That's a clever point to make, but the question isn't talent or ability. Alabama has the clear edge in both areas. With the Iron Bowl only a few weeks away, is it possible Alabama gets caught looking ahead?

Two quarterback system: Where Mississippi State can give Alabama trouble is on offense. Jameon Lewis is a threat to score every time he touches the ball at receiver, LaDarious Perkins provides punch between the tackles at running back and the tandem of Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott at quarterback gives offensive coordinator Les Koenning an interesting set of tools to work with. When Russell has protection and he's on, he can hurt you, but when Prescott is on the field, Mississippi State's offense comes to life. His ability to buy time with his feet and pick up yards on the ground provides an added dimension and a spark that's been missing in Starkville for the last few seasons. Prescott is tied for third among FBS quarterbacks with 30 rushes of 10 yards.

Developing a second cornerback: Bradley Sylve isn't 100 percent, according to Saban, so look for Cyrus Jones to get the start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue for the second straight week. Jones struggled early against LSU's impressive tandem of receivers last weekend, but he settled in nicely and gained confidence in the second half, thanks in large part to the front seven's ability to stuff the run and get in Zach Mettenberger's face. Jones likely won't have the same troubles with Mississippi State's receivers, but his progression and development in the games to come will be vital to Alabama's success as a whole on defense.

McCarron writing records: Saturday's win over LSU moved AJ McCarron into first place for passing yards all-time at Alabama. He was already has the most wins (34) and the best winning percentage (.944) in school history, so from here on out it's all about extending the lead. He might not have a high enough profile to compete for the Heisman Trophy, but his numbers are nothing if not impressive, especially over the last two months. McCarron has an FBS-high 90.6 Total QBR since Oct. 1 with a Total QBR of at least 80 in each of his five games during that stretch. Florida State’s Jameis Winston (8 games) and Johnny Manziel (7 games, still active) are the only FBS players with a longer such streak this season.

Win and you're in: Alabama can clinch a share of the SEC West title with a win in Starkville. An outright division title can come one of two ways: Auburn loses to Georgia or Alabama beats Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Either way, recent history says the Tide will do its part as Alabama has won five straight series meetings with Mississippi State, all in convincing fashion. None of those five games have been decided by fewer than 17 points with the average margin of victory a healthy 24.2 points per game.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 14, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Don't sleep on Mississippi State.

That's the message Nick Saban would like to deliver to his top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide as it travels to face a dangerous Bulldogs team on the road in Starkville on Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesComing off the big win over LSU, Nick Saban says Alabama can't afford to overlook Mississippi State.
"This is a real challenge for our team," Saban said. "It was obviously a very emotional win for us against a very good LSU team. Mississippi State, I think, has probably the best 4-5 team in the country. They've lost five games to top 20 teams and have played extremely well all year long.

"It's a difficult preparation because they do a great job of coaching their players. I think the focus of our guys needs to be on what we need to do to improve, what we need to do to prepare well so that we can continue to try to play our best.

"That's going to be the real key for us."

Mississippi State players to watch

QB Dak Prescott: He's Mississippi State's leading passer and he's also Mississippi State's leading rusher. So if Prescott can't go against Alabama, look for the Bulldogs offense to suffer. Tyler Russell is obviously a very capable quarterback, but he's a pocket passer through and through. The added dimension Prescott brings with his feet gives Mississippi State's its best chance against the Tide.

WR Jameon Lewis: It's interesting -- and telling -- that Lewis is the only non-quarterback in the country with three touchdown passes. That's not written to imply that he'll take snaps under center on Saturday, but it's important to note Lewis' versatility. He's a guy who has to be accounted for when he has his hands on the football.

DE Preston Smith: The 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior has been on a tear of late, racking up 2.5 tackles for loss in the last three games. He leads Mississippi State with 6.5 tackles for loss and is tied for the most sacks with 2.5.

Alabama players to watch

CB Cyrus Jones: Bradley Sylve still isn't 100 percent, according to Saban, so look for Jones to get his second straight start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue. Jones struggled early against LSU and settled down in the second half last weekend. How he matures over the next few weeks will be key to Alabama's success defending the pass.

S Landon Collins: What more can Collins do? The answer is not very much. Since taking over for Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety against Arkansas, Collins has 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and an interception he returned for a touchdown. You don't get a more all-around effort than that.

TE O.J. Howard: Watching Howard run 52 yards for a touchdown, the point was hammered home: Alabama's freshman tight end has star potential. "O.J. is very athletic," Saban explained, "he's got really good speed." And over the season, he's rounded out his game, improving blocking to the point where right tackle Austin Shepherd said, "He's come a long way. … You can just tell that guy likes to work and he's improved a ton."

Key stats

10: AJ McCarron threw all three of his touchdowns against LSU while facing five-or-more pass rushers, improving his SEC-best total of passing touchdowns against the blitz to 13.

80: Alabama's defense just keeps humming along. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Crimson Tide has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country (80). The next fewest is LSU with 120.

0.5: OK, so Alabama's streak of 17 quarters without allowing a sack ended against LSU, but as McCarron explained it, it wasn't the line's fault. McCarron ran a naked bootleg and his receiver wasn't there, leaving him no option but to take the loss. "So you can put half of it on me and half of it on the tight end" McCarron said. Still, one sack in 21 quarters of play isn't bad.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 7, 2013
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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.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So much about LSU-Alabama is built around the physical style of play, and rightfully so. UA coach Nick Saban called the game a "heavyweight fight" where you have to show up in every round. His veteran defensive end, Jeoffrey Pagan, said it was a "dog fight" he looks forward to every season.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWith a powerful run game, plus Jarvis Landry (pictured) and Odell Beckham Jr. stretching the secondary, LSU's offense presents a bigger challenge to Alabama's depleted secondary.
But it won't be all smash-mouth football when the two teams meet in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if LSU coach Les Miles puts the ball in the air against the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

And given the Alabama's depth concerns in the secondary, why not? Eight different players have started there and two key pieces at safety -- Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry -- are out for the season with injuries. Deion Belue has been consistent, but who plays opposite him at corner hasn't been. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have risen to the top of the pile. It's unclear who among them will start against LSU.

"We like the matchup," Miles said of getting the ball to his two star receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who rank in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and have combined for 16 touchdown catches. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space.

"Again, who we're playing, they are a very good team, but we think there is a matchup there that benefits us."

LSU certainly has the pieces to hurt Alabama through the air.

Zach Mettenberger had his own personal coming out party against the Tide last season, throwing for a then-career high 298 yards in defeat. He carried that over to this year and has made the most dramatic improvement in opponent-adjusted QBR (+38.6) of any quarterback who qualified. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It helps that he's got two good ones to throw the football to.

"The combination of these two guys are as good a receivers as we've played against all year long," Saban said. "Not the same style as the Texas A&M guys, but very quick, very athletic. They have the speed to get on top. Very smart in terms of route runners. They do a good job of putting them in various positions that makes them difficult to cover and get the kind of matchups on that you'd like."

Beckham is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the SEC with his ability to create separation. He has premier top-end speed and the burst to make a guy miss and take it to the house. He's currently second in the country in all-purpose yards.

Landry, on the other hand, can go up and get it. He's listed as 6-foot-1, but plays much larger. He's sixth in the country in receptions (57), seventh in yards per catch (21.02) and fifth in creating first downs on a reception (40).

"They know how to run their routes, just like our receivers," UA safety Landon Collins said. "It’s hard to stick our receivers. They know how to run their routes and stick on a dime. Watching it on film, it’s going to be a pretty tough game sticking them, our safeties playing their wide receivers."

It won't help that LSU is so balanced. Alabama won't be able to help the secondary out by dropping many defenders back in coverage. There's simply no ignoring LSU's running game, headlined by Jeremy Hill, who ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards (922) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).

Given all that, the Tide secondary knows the task that lies ahead.

"They have very good wide receivers, very good quarterback," Collins said. "And their run game is tremendous. We just have to stay settled and stay watching our keys."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ed Stinson's mammoth shoulders shrink, relaxing from the form that only half an hour earlier flexed to crash and beat up on 300-pound blockers for a full 60 minutes. Alabama's senior defensive end looked tired in the eyes after his team beat rival Tennessee 45-10 on Saturday, his dark brown pupils soft and eager for rest. After three straight SEC contests and seven consecutive game weeks, he and his teammates were eager for some time off.

"I've been waiting for it," he said, flashing a slight grin. An ear-to-ear smile would have required too much energy. "I'm one of the guys [who] needs to be healed."

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones, Amari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter playing for seven straight weeks, No. 1 Alabama gets the weekend off to recover and heal.
The nature of his injuries are unknown, a buildup of bumps and bruises on his 6-foot-4, 292-pound frame. Nose guard Brandon Ivory, no lightweight at more than 300 pounds, is out in what coach Nick Saban describes as a "medical issue." H-back/running back Jalston Fowler can't make contact in practice because of a concussion. Cornerback Deion Belue is dealing with a nagging toe injury and the starter opposite him, Bradley Sylve, isn't yet 100 percent either.

And that's just the injuries we know of.

The bye week comes at the perfect time for top-ranked Alabama. The scoring margin the past six weeks, 246-26, has made it look easy. But the games have demanded their own pound of flesh, the toll evidenced in every wince and limp.

"In the SEC you bang hard every week, so you need time to rest up," Belue explained to reporters on Saturday night. "Then we have LSU, and they're going to come in and bang some more."

Ah, the matter of LSU. The 13th-ranked Tigers represent the biggest challenge to Alabama's undefeated season. Les Miles' squad always gives Alabama a hard time, and the last time his team came to Tuscaloosa (2011), it won. With a much improved offense thanks to new coordinator Cam Cameron, get ready for calls of an upset. Zach Mettenberger has progressed quickly into an NFL quarterback and with two of the best receivers in the SEC -- Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. -- to throw the ball to, they''ll be licking their chops to get at Alabama's secondary, which doesn't have much quality depth.

But in Alabama's camp, that's not the focus yet. At least not externally.

"I'm not thinking about that right now," quarterback AJ McCarron said Saturday in his usual no-nonsense manner, mimicking his head coach. "We've got a 24-hour rule and then a week off so I'm not really thinking about who we got next."

Said Saban: "We've got some big challenges and some stiff competition against some teams coming up here. This bye week comes at a pretty good time for us. We have a lot of guys banged up. We could use the rest, and we can use the time to try to help some of our players improve. So that's going to be our focus this week."

Notice the utter avoidance of LSU? The game was on the lips of every fan around Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, but it was nowhere to be found in Saban's postgame comments. When he spoke to the media again on Tuesday, he got three-quarters of the way through before LSU entered his consciousness, and even then it was to relive the 2011 game, not to focus on the game ahead of him.

"Just because we don't have a game doesn't mean you change anything about how you think and what we need to do to get better as a team," Saban said.

You're not going to catch this Alabama team looking ahead to LSU. Not even when LSU is the next team on the schedule. In their mind, this week is about recovery and a return to the basics. Saban said they'll spend an extra day on LSU preparation, but he doesn't want to throw the team off its usual schedule or burn them out too quickly, showing them the same plays and schemes too many times over the next two weeks.

Trey DePriest, Alabama's starting inside linebacker, said he didn't think they'd spend any time on LSU this week. Maybe it was a bit of gamesmanship, but he reiterated it, saying they'd go back to "camp rules." Stinson backed him up, adding that there would be "no talk at all" of LSU.

"It's a positive, and it's definitely going to help us out," said veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, opening up where his teammates hadn't. "LSU's a tough team, and that kind of gives us an advantage to study the opponents more."

Just don't expect to hear much beyond that. Mettenberger and the LSU offense haven't been brought up. Neither has LSU's defense. Right now it's a matter of staying focused on the task at hand, even if that task doesn't involve another football team.

Really, it's Saban's way. When asked how he'd celebrate his birthday this week, he responded bluntly, "Whatever Miss Terry has planned is what I'll be doing."

If he could, he'd blow out his candles in the film room watching practice tape.

His is the kind of singular focus, and that makes Alabama unique. The build up to big games is the same as smaller ones. In fact, you often see a more fired up coaching staff for cupcakes like Georgia State than for "Game of the Century" type contests with LSU. They have to light a fire under their players for some games, but that won't be the case for next Saturday's home game against LSU. The battle lines were drawn well before the start of the season.

So why emphasize the matchups and specifics of the game now? With so many players hurt, why not take the week to rest? Inside the walls of Alabama's football offices, it might be different, but outwardly players aren't anxious for what's next.

"Our bodies need time to get ready for another physical game," said veteran wideout Kevin Norwood. "That's what we're going to do."

Five things: Alabama-Tennessee

October, 26, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (7-0, 4-0) hosts upstart Tennessee (4-3, 1-2) on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa:

Start of life without Sunseri: Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama's junior starting safety, has a brace on his knee after undergoing season-ending surgery earlier in the week. Saturday might be even more difficult as he'll have to watch from afar as Landon Collins starts in his place. Collins is talented, but young. The good news is he's played well of late, filling in for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety, and now he'll be back in his natural position at strong safety. Look for Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith to play there as well.

Penalty-free play: First, do yourself a favor and check out Holly Rowe's video feature on long-time Alabama referee Ed Conyers. Then take a minute to reflect on the Crimson Tide's historic performance last weekend when it failed to commit a single penalty against Arkansas. Alabama hadn't gone penalty free since Sept. 1982.

Offensive line humming: Will Ryan Kelly play or not? The sophomore hasn't started at center since injuring himself against Ole Miss, and Chad Linsday has played well in his place. Alabama coach Nick Saban said Kelly has been "full go" this week, so he's likely to see the field in some form or fashion. If he does, he'll have to help continue another impressive streak Alabama has going: The Tide hasn't surrendered a sack since the third quarter against Ole Miss on Sept. 28.

Is it now or never for Cooper?: It's tough to make that statement for a player like Amari Cooper, who has battled some nagging injuries. But sooner or later you have to wonder if he'll ever get back to the form that made him a consensus Freshman All-America a year ago. Cooper's played better of late, catching three passes in each of the last two games. He blew up against Tennessee last season with 162 yards and two touchdowns. Maybe a familiar foe will help jump start his sophomore campaign.

Cornerback carousel: First it was John Fulton. Then it was Cyrus Jones. Then it was Eddie Jackson. Then it was Bradley Sylve. And then it came back to Fulton. But his stint opposite Deion Belue at cornerback appears to be short-lived, as Saban said on his weekly radio show that Jones will likely start in place of Sylve, who is out with a high ankle sprain. Saban said Jones, who switched from receiver to defensive back this spring, is "probably played the best of all those guys right now." As far as Jackson and fellow freshman Maurice Smith, "It's still a little bit of a work in progress," Saban said.

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 17, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's about that time. No. 1 Alabama is in the final stages of preparing for its showdown with Arkansas at home on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesAJ McCarron and Co. figure to make this signal with frequency against an Arkansas defense that yielded 52 points on Saturday.
For the time being, winning is simply a matter of showing up and continuing to make progress. Though things looked shaky at first against Kentucky this past weekend, we saw Alabama steadily improving. Coach Nick Saban said he was proud of the way his team controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and how the offense was able to move the chains effectively in Lexington. He might pull his hair out if he sees the same number of turnovers, but past history says not to expect T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake to cough up the football again.

Though Arkansas presents a different set of challenges on Saturday, what it really comes down to for Alabama is staying the course. After all, Arkansas allowed 52 points to South Carolina in its last game. It's safe to say Alabama's offense is capable of the same type of success. The front seven will be tested with the Razorbacks' running game, but the Tide know the drill. Day after day in practice it goes up against an offense that similarly prides itself on a physical style of play. As long as Brandon Ivory holds down the middle and C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest and Co. wrap up and don't allow many broken tackles, Alabama should be fine.

The Razorbacks will win if ...

Arkansas' best shot of coming out of Tuscaloosa with the upset victory rests in the hands of its two talented running backs. Jonathan Williams, who was a third-string back a year ago, is among the top 10 rushers in the SEC today. And he's essentially a sidekick to Alex Collins, who has put up monster numbers his freshman year, ranking 11th nationally in rushing yards. If those two can move the chains, control the clock and find the end zone a few times, they'll have half the recipe for a win. That is, of course, if Brandon Allen can give Arkansas some production at quarterback.

The other half of the equation involves Arkansas' defense. There are some good parts there with Chris Smith rushing off the edge and Tevin Mitchell at cornerback, but there are also some major holes. South Carolina nearly exposed them all when it hung 52 points on the Razorbacks this past weekend. It doesn't get any easier as they'll have their hands full again on Saturday with AJ McCarron and his group of talented wide receivers. If Arkansas can't slow down Alabama's offense and create a few turnovers, it won't matter what Collins and Williams do.

Arkansas players to watch

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Alex Collins leads a potent Hogs running game.
RB Alex Collins: When Bielema took the job at Arkansas, we knew he was going to put a major emphasis on running the football. What we didn't know was who would be the one to shoulder the load. Well lo and behold it was a true freshman. Collins, a former four-star recruit from Florida, who stepped in and was an immediate success, setting an NCAA record by becoming the first freshman to rush for 100 yards or more in his first three games.

C Travis Swanson: Bielema didn't hesitate when he named Swanson as one of his top two players at SEC Media Days a few months ago. The senior isn't a household name because of his position, but he's a Rimington Trophy candidate for a reason. A team captain for the third straight season, he's the heartbeat of the Arkansas offense.

DE Chris Smith: Alabama hasn't faced an elite pass rusher like Smith yet this season. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound end was an honorable mention choice on the All-SEC team a year ago with 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Now a senior, he has picked up where he left off, leading the team with six sacks and eight tackles for loss.

Alabama players to watch

LB C.J. Mosley: This is the type of game Mosley returned to school for. He has shown how dominant a force he can be against spread teams, but the question mark has always been how he holds up against traditional offenses that run between the tackles. Well, Arkansas is as old school as they come.

OT Grant Hill: Boy, Hill got quite the tongue-lashing from Saban for his penalty against Kentucky this past weekend. But really it has been the one noticeable hiccup since the true freshman has come on at right tackle the past few games. As he continues to develop, one has to ask whether Austin Shepherd is in danger of losing his job starting at right tackle.

CB Bradley Sylve: It looked like Eddie Jackson had the starting job to himself after back-to-back solid performances against Colorado State and Ole Miss. But an injury and a setback in his development thrust Sylve, a third-year sophomore, into the starting lineup against Kentucky. He played well and could start again this week.

Key stats

10: Arkansas freshman running back Alex Collins runs hard. Thirty-seven percent of his rushing yards have come after contact and he leads the SEC in broken tackles with 10.

216.3: It will be a significant change of pace for the Alabama defense against Arkansas. The Tide's previous six opponents have averaged 28.6 carries and 86.7 rushing yards per game, compared to Arkansas' per game average of 39.6 carries and 216.3 rushing yards.

5: The streak of quarters without allowing a touchdown ended for Alabama's defense at 14. But another impressive stat remains as the Tide extended its number of games allowing 10 or fewer points to five.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's an elusive nature to Vinnie Sunseri's game, a nagging need to define what makes him so special. In a sports that lusts after measurables, he doesn't fit the mold. He makes play after play at safety for Alabama, but we're not sure why or how.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsVinnie Sunseri has shown a big-play ability this season as both of his interceptions have been returned for scores.
Trey DePriest wishes he could tell you what makes his friend and teammate such a playmaker, but the junior linebacker doesn't know. The two came up on special teams together as freshman and he's still trying to figure him out. Both of Sunseri's interceptions this season have been returned for touchdowns, including one which came against Texas A&M when he juked Johnny Manziel out of his shoes. He had no business making the defending Heisman Trophy winner look that bad. No one expected it.

"That's just what he does," DePriest said. "That's him."

At 6-feet tall, there's nothing inspiring about Sunseri's size. Sure he's sturdy, quick and has a nose for the football, but in terms of what scouts crave -- the numbers combines generate like 40-yard dash, vertical jump and the three cone drill -- he leaves something to be desired. But as Mike Smith, Sunseri’s former coach at Northridge High (Ala.), said via text: "He's a relentless competitor!"

"He's a throwback guy in a modern era," Smith said. He knows how athletic Sunseri is having played him at linebacker, punt returner and running back, but defines him in simpler terms. "He's the way it used to be played. He breaks the mold of what we are led to believe is needed to win in college football."

Sunseri, the son of longtime college football assistant coach Sal, is a coach's dream. He hurls his body around like a bowling ball crashing against the lanes. And more than making plays at pivotal moments, he's a teacher and a leader. In a secondary that's had more than its fair share of turnover, he's been a driving force for youngsters like Landon Collins and Geno Smith who have had to fill in at free safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serving a suspension.

One week it's Sunseri shouting out the play to John Fulton at cornerback, the next it's Eddie Jackson and then the next it's Bradley Sylve. The carousel in the back end of Alabama's defense has been spinning from early on this season with Sunseri calmly holding the wheel.

"Vinnie's a very smart guy," UA coach Nick Saban said. "He's been showing leadership in terms of making calls and trying to help the other guys in the secondary, which I think they appreciate.

"He all of a sudden is one of the most experienced guys back there right now."

Saban explained how the communication Sunseri provided against a no-huddle team like Kentucky was vital to the Tide holding the Wildcats one touchdown, less than 200 total yards of offense and under 50 percent completions through the air. Sunseri narrowly missed his third interception of the year when he jumped in front of a pass from Maxwell Smith, knocking it to the turf.

It was easy to see the joy in his face in the waning moments of the Kentucky game. He bear-hugged wide receiver Kevin Norwood on the sideline and congratulated his fellow defensive backs for a job well done. They'll need to improve with Arkansas coming to town this week and LSU in less than a month's time.

"It's been fun to see all these guys develop: Bradley, Eddie, Landon Collins, and see the players they're becoming and teach them all the things they need to know has just been something really fun," Sunseri said. "They're doing a great job."

"He’s taken the leadership role very hands-on because he’s got to make more calls now because we’ve got two new safeties doing the position,” Collins said. “There’s more calls now, doing a lot more and talkative so he’s helping a lot more than I think and I appreciate that."

Though his role as a starter and leader of the secondary might be larger, teammates insist nothing has changed. He doesn't have the flash of some big-name players in the SEC, but he's just as important as any of them to his team.

"He's still the same old Vinnie, which has always been a leader," defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said. "Since he's been here he's always been a leader."

It’s everyone else that’s just now catching on. Both ESPN and CBS Sports named Sunseri a Midseason All-American this week, though as many as three of Alabama's defensive backs could be more physically gifted. But it's that old-school idea that production trumps all that makes Sunseri so special. After a while, the interceptions and big plays are too much to ignore. The why and how he's doing it starts to become irrelevant.

"He's got great ball instinct," Pagan said matter-of-factly. "The guy knows football. I'll give him this: he's a football player."

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in No. 1 Alabama's 48-7 win over Kentucky on Saturday night.

Secondary solutions: After the Texas A&M debacle where the defense gave up the most yards in school history, there was little doubt what Alabama's biggest weakness was. Deion Belue could cover one-on-one, but behind him there wasn't much to draw from at corner. John Fulton, one of a few veterans, was beaten badly, and talented sophomore Cyrus Jones simply wasn't ready. Enter Eddie Jackson, a true freshman who came out of nowhere to lock down Ole Miss' No. 1 target Donte Moncrief a few weeks ago. But Jackson was out this week along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But instead of ringing the alarm, Alabama simply plugged in other parts. Landon Collins again played well at free safety, and the seldom-used Bradley Sylve started at corner and held down the fort. Suddenly it looks like corner might not be such a glaring concern. Suddenly Alabama is creating depth at a position where there was previously little to be had.

Finding holes: Is it finally safe to say Alabama's running game is back? After starting the season on shaky ground, it appears that the answer is yes. Building off solid performances against Ole Miss and Georgia State, Alabama's offensive line imposed its will against Kentucky, pushing the line of scrimmage. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake benefitted, rushing for more than 100 yards each. The Tide averaged better than 6 yards per rush. And the impact on the offense as a whole was obvious. With a solid running game, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier could mix in play action and make Kentucky defend all areas of the field. When UA has this kind of balance, its hard to beat.

Go-to guy: There shouldn't be any doubt where AJ McCarron is going with the football in key situations anymore. There are a lot of talented receivers he can choose from, but when it comes time he'll look to Kevin Norwood. It's happened time and time again in his career and it happened again on Saturday night when McCarron threw the ball into double coverage only to have Norwood somehow outmuscle two defenders to make another inexplicable touchdown grab. He may not be the most talented player on Alabama's roster, but in the biggest moments Norwood seems to find a way to make something happen.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Deion Belue, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry walked onto the field Saturday dressed in sweatpants, you knew the game would be different. Those were three of the most experienced members of Alabama's secondary on the sideline, unable to play against Colorado State because of lingering injuries.

Then Kevin Norwood, who started 11 games at wide receiver last season, followed them out of the tunnel, wearing the same crimson pants and sneakers. He too would miss the game.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban's Alabama squad wasn't sharp in the win over Colorado State as the Tide played several youngsters on defense.
And as we later found out, they wouldn't be alone. Right guard Anthony Steen and wide receiver Amari Cooper, both key starters on offense, dressed for the game but never played. Steen sat out with a headache and Cooper rested with a sprained toe, never so much as picking up a helmet on the sideline. To make matters worse, starting running back T.J. Yeldon sat out the first quarter, serving a suspension for his behavior in the game against Texas A&M the week prior.

Alabama coach Nick Saban had said throughout the week to expect some younger players to get a chance to compete Saturday, but we had no idea it would go like it did. The offense struggled to move the ball with any consistency and the secondary, already reeling from a poor performance against Texas A&M the week before, was put to the test with so many players sidelined with injuries.

Very little was expected from reserve cornerbacks Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson coming into the season, and yet there they were being announced over the P.A. system in Bryant-Denny Stadium as starters in the home opener. The near-capacity crowd cheered, but only wearily, unsure of anything to expect other than the color of the jerseys. Jackson, a true freshman, hadn't played a single snap in the first two games of the year. Sylve, who had all of six tackles a season ago, hadn't been in on a single stop this year.

John Fulton, the only senior available in the secondary, didn't play until the second half as the staff opted instead to try out youngsters like Jackson, Sylve, Maurice Smith, Cyrus Jones and Geno Smith.

The results were predictable. Colorado State played on Alabama's youth, hitting up the defense for a number of big gains, 10 plays going for 10 or more yards, including four of which that went for 20-plus yards. Rams coach Jim McElwain, a former offensive coordinator at Alabama, was able to move the ball downfield almost at ease, dinking and dunking the defense with screens and misdirection plays when it didn't go for the deep pass from quarterback Garrett Grayson.

It was death by a million paper cuts as UA allowed more yards to a sub-.500 Mountain West team (279) than it did in all but five games last season. Five SEC teams and Big 10 powerhouse Michigan had less success against the Tide defense in 2012.

"Well, they all made mistakes," Saban said of his young corners. "Their little bit of lack of experience shows up like [when CSU] hit that little x-screen with the halfback blocking the corner about three times for first downs, and I don't know that we've ever given up a first down on that play. It wasn't played correctly."

Landon Collins, a sophomore, is still learning the ins and outs of Saban's defense at safety. And yet on Saturday he was the veteran voice in the secondary, calming down his even more inexperienced teammates.

"Just a lot of new guys on the field," Collins said. "We've got to figure out what to do. They're going to be some great players when they come down to it and know what they really have to do.

"I told them just be calm. It's a fast game. Everything's going to slow down after a while."

If Saban wanted to find someone capable of joining the cornerback rotation this season, that player didn't appear to emerge Saturday. The job of starting opposite Belue might return to Fulton, who has been underwhelming thus far, or Jones, who is still experiencing some growing pains at the position after playing wide receiver last season.

With Ole Miss coming to town this weekend, whoever wants the job must step up now. The Rebels, which average 490 yards and 38 points per game, can make a veteran defense look bad. As UA linebacker C.J. Mosley said of the mistakes made Saturday, "Some of those little things will get us beat next week."

"We played about five guys at corner, just kind of rotated them in there with the idea that we're going to see if somebody can play the position with any kind of consistency and do their assignment and do their job," Saban said after the game. "That's an area we need to do better in. It'd certainly be helpful if we get Deion back."

If Alabama doesn't get Belue back, it could be in trouble. Another game like the one against CSU could blow a hole in the Tide's championship hopes.

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