Alabama Crimson Tide: Cyrus Jones

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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

“I think we’re going to be a better secondary this year,” Perry told reporters late last week. “The world should be ready to see more of the old UA-style secondary.”

Last fall's results fell short of the typical Alabama standard. Though the numbers were far from horrific in the national rankings -- seventh in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, fourth in touchdowns allowed -- the secondary was nonetheless vulnerable. Perry and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered season-ending injuries, starting cornerback Deion Belue wasn’t always 100 percent, and the cornerback spot opposite him was never truly settled as John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all unsuccessfully tried to lock down the position.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite their youth and inexperience, Nick Perry believes Alabama's secondary is ready for a return to glory.
Alabama’s defense surrendered its highest Raw QBR score (38.1) since 2007 -- by comparison, that number averaged out to 22.5 from 2009-12. The Tide defense was ranked 60th nationally in the percentage of pass completions gaining 10 yards or more (46.2).

Still, Perry is confident this season will be different, even though that flies in the face of some noticeable obstacles. For one, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL. Along with Belue and Sunseri, three-fourths of last season’s secondary is gone. For another, Jackson tore his ACL on Saturday and will be out for several months, removing a promising talent from the equation. Barring an Adrian Peterson-like comeback, it’s hard to envision the sophomore playing this season.

Those moves ultimately leave more questions than answers for Alabama's personnel. But it’s not the personnel that has Perry hopeful. It’s the coaching.

“Having Kirby [Smart] and [Nick] Saban in the same room coaching the same position is a dream come true for any defensive back,” he said.

Perry called the two “geniuses at their position.” He said that Smart is already “putting his new spin on things.”

“It’s tremendous,” said fellow safety Landon Collins. “[Smart] just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position, and he knows what’s going on. It’s his defense. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Saban has long worked with cornerbacks during practice, but this spring, Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, moved from coaching linebackers to safeties in order to clear the way for Kevin Steele’s return.

“I’ve always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary,” Saban explained. “I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I’m really sort of his [graduate assistant]. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down, I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit.

“I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there. We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance.”

As with most springs, the most talked-about players are the true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Tony Brown and four-star safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones have been on campus since January, participating in the offseason conditioning program and spring practice. To Perry’s eye, they haven’t disappointed.

“Those guys have a bright future,” he said. “They’re picking up the defense pretty good, faster than I’ve seen any freshman pick it up. They came in early, and they’re ready to work.”

Perry was kind enough to break down each players’ strengths.

“Tony is a great competitor. He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner,” he said. “Hootie is your prototypical safety, you know. He’s big. He has long arms. He has speed.

“Expect those guys to make a couple of plays this year.”

In order to return to the Alabama secondary of old, they’ll need to.

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.

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.”
Editor's note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There are a lot of things that make Alabama's defense work. Contrary to Nick Saban's public assertions, it's a difficult scheme to learn -- many players have said so -- because it's filled with so many moving parts. There's the disguised coverage on the back end, the pressure that comes off the edge, and the idea that fitting the gaps is priority No. 1.

But one of the linchpins in Saban's system is that of a shutdown cornerback. Saban himself would shudder at the term "shutdown corner," but that's what it takes for his defenses to go from good to great. Every top Alabama defense since his arrival has featured one, from Javier Arenas to Dre Kirkpatrick to Dee Milliner. This past season it looked like Deion Belue might have developed into that type of guy, but he didn't and we all saw how that affected the defense against the pass.

"We are not used to that," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said 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. Some of that has been because of injury.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCyrus Jones is one of a handful of players the Tide hope can develop into a shutdown corner.
"Deion we feel like has been our best corner, but he's been in and out because of injury. Opposite him, it's been musical chairs. Eddie Jackson played pretty well. But he also got injured so it pulled him out for a while. We've had other guys play well one game, not play well the next. We've not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don't have the depth that we've had in the past, so it's been a struggle."

With so much of Alabama's defense turning over this spring -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Belue are all gone from the secondary -- it's vital that Smart and Saban establish who the one-two punch at cornerback will be. In fact, outside of finding a starter under center, finding an anchor at cornerback is arguably the second biggest challenge facing the Tide this offseason. Otherwise we'll continue to see more poor performances against the pass like we saw against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

The good news for Alabama is that there's plenty of young talent at cornerback and a decent mix of veterans to rely upon in soon-to-be juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve. Though Jones struggled at times last season, let's not forget that it was his first full season on defense since joining the Tide. And Sylve didn't play half bad when called upon either. Had he not developed a high ankle sprain, he might have been a more regular starter.

But the more intriguing bets are on either Maurice Smith or Jackson, the two true freshmen who saw the most significant time at cornerback in 2013. Smith played in all 12 games to Jackson's seven appearances, but Jackson was the first to start at corner, doing so Week 4 against Colorado State and then again the following week against Ole Miss. He fell off the map after that, succumbing to an injury and what Saban said was something of a rookie regression, but he'd come back and start again in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

Beyond Jackson and Smith, there are a few other options. Both Anthony Averett and Jonathan Cook will benefit from redshirting their first year on campus, and early enrollee Tony Brown, a five-star prospect out of Texas, will look to compete for a job right away.

Be on the lookout for position changes, too, as last spring Saban moved Cyrus Jones, Dee Hart and Christion Jones from wide receiver to defensive back. With Lane Kiffin taking over as offensive coordinator, could someone like ArDarius Stewart be asked to try his hand on defense?

We'll see what changes are made come spring practice. Smart and Saban have plenty of pieces to move around, but finding the right fit won't be easy. The hope has to be that somewhere among the bunch will emerge a shutdown corner they can rely upon and build around.

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.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The home crowd cheered, oblivious to the billboard-sized scoreboard pointing to their 20-7 defeat. Even some of their players looked content as they sang the school's fight song after the game. The No. 1 team in the country just came into their house and beat them, and yet they all seemed to OK with it.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Butch DillThe win over Mississippi State wasn't impressive so AJ McCarron and Alabama have some work to do before their Iron Bowl game on Nov. 30.
Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood took note of the mood and knew something was wrong. His top-ranked Crimson Tide traveled to Starkville and beat the sub-.500 Mississippi State Bulldogs in such an unconvincing way that the losers of the game didn't even feel like they'd lost.

"If the other team is cheering after a loss," he said, "then you definitely didn't do your job."

Alabama was sluggish, uninspired and out of sorts. The offense turned the ball over a season-high four times, and the defense struggled with communication. The Tide remained undefeated, but at a cost.

A week after beating a BCS-level LSU team convincingly, Alabama was suddenly flawed. UA coach Nick Saban said his team had won, but it really didn't beat Mississippi State in the process. He put the so-so performance on his shoulders and said that there was no question Alabama has to get better if it wants to reach its ultimate goal of a national championship.

"That’s really not how we usually try and do it," Saban said, "but there’s a lot our players [who] can learn from this."

Auburn, a state away and still celebrating its heart-stopping win over Georgia, could take heart: Alabama, for the first time in a long time, appeared beatable. College football's king finally looks capable of being dethroned and the Iron Bowl might just be the game to do it.

When the rivals go toe-to-toe in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30, everything will be on the line. And if Alabama plays anything like it did on last Saturday night, it can kiss all hope of an undefeated season and a third straight trip to the national championship goodbye because Auburn will beat it.

You can question whether Auburn's program is on the same level of Alabama's right now, but it's hard to argue that the Tigers aren't much better than Mississippi State is today. Their nine wins speak for themselves, even if it took a miracle pass to survive Georgia.

The Iron Bowl won't come down to the wire if Alabama starts slow and turns the ball over four times as it did against Mississippi State. Auburn will run away with the game well before the final minutes.

Everything about last Saturday's game was sloppy on offense. AJ McCarron threw two uncharacteristic interceptions, and T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake each fumbled the ball, brining their combined season total to eight.

Mississippi State didn't take advantage and converted just one of those turnovers into points. Auburn and its fleet-footed quarterback, Nick Marshall, won't have the same trouble. Auburn is 30th nationally in points off turnovers this season, while Mississippi State ranks 99th.

Don't think for a second that Auburn won't look at Alabama's ball control over the next two weeks.

But the Tigers will key in on the Tide's defense, too. Alabama may have knocked down or even intercepted the tipped pass Marshall threw to beat Georgia, but there's also a possibility no one would have been there at all. Considering the way Alabama let Mississippi State's receivers run into empty coverage, there's no telling what would have happened.

Though Alabama allowed just seven points to Mississippi State, the defense looked out of whack at times. Cornerback Deion Belue waved his hands and shouted the coverage clear across the field at a hapless Cyrus Jones, and Landon Collins got caught releasing a receiver into thin air. A better offense would have exploited their issues of miscommunication. Gus Malzahn may not have a ton of experience as Auburn's head coach, but no one out there doubts his skill as a play-caller.

If you look at this past weekend in Alabama's bubble, it's alarming. If you're Auburn, you feel great about what you saw.

But that's not how college football works. One bad game or one good game doesn't equal a trend.

Alabama, which will host hapless Chattanooga this coming Saturday, has essentially two weeks to recover from its hangover and get ready for Auburn. The way the Iron Bowl will be hyped, no one with a pulse will enter Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30 without the proper sense of preparedness.
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.

Alabama's secondary shows flaws

November, 13, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The final score, as it so often happens, was misleading. Alabama thumped LSU, 38-17, at home on Saturday to remain undefeated. The three-touchdown margin was, on the face of it, telling. The top-ranked Crimson Tide looked dominant and deserving of its lofty position in beating LSU so handily.

But when you're No. 1 in the polls, the stat sheet isn't the entire story. Not when the rest of the country is looking for a way to beat you.

And from what they saw from LSU's offense in the first half, the answer was there: Alabama, finally without a shutdown cornerback to rely upon, had trouble stopping the pass. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his tandem of talented wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, gave the secondary fits.

Mettenberger completed 10 of 13 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown in the first half, including a perfect 3 of 3 on passes of 15 yards or more. Deion Belue couldn't stop it, neither could Cyrus Jones. Alabama's starting cornerbacks were, for the first time since the Texas A&M game, exposed.

"We weren't going to back down from Alabama," Mettenberger said. "We had a good game plan going, but we just weren't able to execute it."

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCyrus Jones is one of a handful of players the Tide hopes can develop into a shutdown corner.
The trouble in execution came primarily in the second half, though a key fumble near the goal line in the first quarter did rob LSU of a touchdown. Alabama got a field goal, and LSU coach Les Miles took time to note the 10-point swing early in postgame comments.

But the tenor of the game changed primarily in the third and fourth quarters, and it had more to do with LSU's inability to run the football than Alabama's ability to stop the pass. While the Tide was busy racking up yards on the ground, the Tigers were losing them, rushing for minus-16 yards in the second half. According to ESPN Stats & Info, those 11 second-half rushes contributed to minus-7.1 expected points.

"The first half I didn't think we did a very good job," UA coach Nick Saban said. "We mis-executed a couple pressures, busted a couple things. They played not loose. I told them at halftime, 'Look guys, you've got to cover them. We're not playing split safeties all the time and keeping somebody behind you. We need to pressure the quarterback, we need to affect the quarterback and we're going to have more of an attack mode and you're going to have to cover them.' "

Jones and Belue settled in some in the second half, limiting the deep ball, but they were aided greatly by the front seven stuffing the run and pressuring Mettenberger in the pocket. When LSU's offense became one-dimensional, Alabama's defense thrived.

"I think [Jones] did better as the game went on," Saban said on Monday. "I think he got more confident as the game went on. We obviously did a better job of covering them in the second half than we did in the first.

"We also did a better job of pressuring the quarterback, which I think is also something that goes hand in hand with getting off the field on third down and playing a little better."

But did Jones do enough to secure the starting job opposite Belue? Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson and John Fulton have all tried their hands there this season and none has separated himself from the pack.

"We were pleased with the way Cyrus played," Saban said. "We have a lot of confidence in Bradley Sylve, if we can get him healthy. There's certainly going to be competition at every position with guys that have played well for us in the past."

The hope, for Alabama's sake, is that competition breeds improvement in the secondary. Another first half like the one the Tide played against LSU could be the difference between a win and a loss down the road.

The final score and the stat book might not reveal a glaring weakness, but the bottom line is that the back end of Alabama's defense needs work. It's good, but it's not great like in years past. The question, though, is whether it's good enough to win another national championship.

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned during Alabama's 38-17 win over LSU on Saturday night.

T.J. Yeldon is a force: Much of the focus went to Kenyan Drake in recent weeks. It was understandable. After all, Drake can fly. But T.J. Yeldon remained a steady force in the backfield for Alabama. He broke out against LSU, though, showing the kind of vision and patience that makes him a top tailback in the SEC. He ran for a season high 133 yards and two touchdowns to propel Alabama to victory.

Underrated defender: Sure, he made some mistakes by dropping two interceptions that would have put away LSU quicker, but C.J. Mosley didn't let it get to him. Alabama's All-American middle linebacker once again played lights out, helping lead the defense to yet another solid win, coming in first on the team with 12 tackles. His ability to fit the run and make plays in the backfield is too often taken for granted, but his talent and leadership should be noted more often.

Alabama has issues defending the pass: It was never more obvious than Saturday night that Alabama lacks the lockdown cornerback of seasons past. There's no Dee Milliner out there. Deion Belue is a serviceable corner, but the trouble he had shutting down Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was obvious. When LSU wanted to go deep with the pass, it did. Cyrus Jones, the corner to start opposite Belue, wasn't stellar, but Alabama didn't have the ability to shade to his side like in years past, because Belue wasn't holding up his end of the bargain.

Five things: LSU-Alabama

November, 9, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0) hosts 13th-ranked LSU (7-2, 3-2)

Running the football: There will be a lot of focus on the quarterbacks and wide receivers in this game, but don't forget that these games often come down to who limits turnovers and runs the football best. Alabama's ground game has improved mightily since the start of the season with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake developing into a potent duo. LSU, meanwhile, has the top rusher in the league in Jeremy Hill. Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, his two backups, are no slouches either.

Quarterback play: It's been a tale of two quarterbacks of late: AJ McCarron has gone one way while Zach Mettenberger has gone another. Mettenberger threw 15 touchdowns to two interceptions in his first two games, but four touchdowns and five interceptions in his last two contests. McCarron, meanwhile, has improved since his first four games where he threw six touchdowns and three interceptions, tossing 10 touchdowns and no picks in his last four contests. McCarron's 92.5 Total QBR since Oct. 1 ranks No. 1 in the FBS.

Defending the pass: Whoever starts opposite Deion Belue at cornerback for Alabama on Saturday, likely Cyrus Jones, will have his hands full. Whoever it is, the Tide corners will have their hands full defending Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, LSU's talented tandem of wide receivers. Both rank in the top 10 among SEC receivers in yards and Beckham is second nationally in all-purpose yards per game.

Tale of two defenses: Alabama's defense has been nearly perfect this season. Since giving up 42 points to Texas A&M, Alabama has outscored opponents 246-26. The Tide has five more touchdowns (31) than its opponents have points during that time. LSU, on the other hand, has endured some ups and downs on defense. The Tigers have allowed 21.9 points and 351.7 yards per game, compared to the Tide which has allowed an average of 9.8 points and 280.9 yards per game.

Bye week help: If you think having a bye week before Saturday's game helps Alabama, think again. While getting players close to 100 percent helps, the final outcome hasn't been affected by having a week off. Alabama has lost three games under Nick Saban when coming off a regular season bye week. All three have come against LSU.

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."

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.

Five things: Alabama-Ole Miss

September, 28, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Get through this next game and regroup. That's the idea for Alabama after a shaky start to the season against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and Colorado State. Should the undefeated Crimson Tide clear the final September hurdle and beat Ole Miss, the month of October will set up nicely with unranked Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee all in a row.

Here's what we'll be watching when the top-ranked Crimson Tide get back to SEC play against the 21st-ranked Rebels.

Think positive: Nick Saban wants everyone to think happy thoughts. Alabama's coach has seen the frustration of the fan base permeate the locker room, and he doesn't like it. "The big thing we need, everyone needs," he said Wednesday, "is a lot of positive energy and to be excited about the challenges this team has." That is, the challenge of living up to its championship expectations. "They need to be supported and everybody doesn't need to sit around and say, 'Ah, what's wrong with these guys?'" Saban added. With that in mind, pay attention to the Crimson Tide’s body language and the attitude. If expectations really are getting to these players and this program, it will inevitably show on the football field.

Shore up the secondary: Nick Perry wasn't the be-all and end-all to the Alabama secondary, but the senior safety was one of the most veteran contributors and a calming force on the back end of the defense. Perry stands to miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery, robbing Saban of a piece of the defense he could sorely afford to lose. Thankfully for the coach, though, Deion Belue appears to be ready to go after sitting out last week's game, which gives the Tide back its top on-ball defender. Now Alabama must find some complementary parts. John Fulton, who was manhandled by Mike Evans and Texas A&M a few weeks ago, didn't start until the second half against CSU. He's a question mark. So is Cyrus Jones, who continues to show some growing pains after transitioning from offense this offseason. Saban said a freshman would have started had Belue not been able to go. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson, the two likeliest rookies to play, learned a lot against CSU, but they're nonetheless shaky with such little experience. They likely will be leaned on regardless, as Ole Miss likes to spread out on offense with Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan on the outside, Laquon Treadwell in the slot, and Evan Engram split out at tight end.

Establish the running game: Sixty-six yards isn't going to cut it, not in Alabama's offense, which is still predicated on the ability to run the football. The Crimson Tide mustered just 66 yards rushing against a Colorado State team that came into the game allowing an average of 160 yards on the ground per game. AJ McCarron said earlier this week how this year's team is different, how it might not be a run-first team. Although that appears to be true, Alabama still must have some measure of success running the football. Too much of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's scheme is dependent on working off of play-action. If the Tide offense isn't balanced, it simply won't work. Against an Ole Miss team that gives up just 114.3 yards per game on the ground (29th nationally) and 3.09 yards per carry (21st nationally), it should be even tougher sledding for Alabama. T.J. Yeldon & Co. don't necessarily have to run for last season's average of 227.5 yards per game, but getting over the 100-yard plateau would do wonders for the success and consistency of the offense as a whole.

Win third down: Because of that lackluster running game, third down has become increasingly difficult for Alabama. Second-and-long has led to third-and-long, which has led to a lot of punts. UA ranks 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC by converting one of every three third-down attempts. That number shrinks even further when it's third-and-7 or more to go. Although it's hard for any team to convert on third-and-long, Alabama can do itself some favors and pick up positive yards on first down and stay ahead of the sticks.

Tempo, tempo, tempo: It's the biggest thing that can take defensive players out of their rhythm, according to Saban, who said that communication and a sense of urgency are important against teams such as Ole Miss that like to push the tempo on offense. "When they go speed ball or hurry up and run a play really fast in 8 seconds," Saban said, "you barely have time to get lined up." Basically, it gets a defense out of whack by getting players out of position and making it difficult for the right play to get called in and relayed to everyone on the field. And Ole Miss does as good a job as anyone at creating that confusion with Bo Wallace upping the pace at quarterback whenever possible. He and running back Jeff Scott can go read-option and shake up the defense effectively. Alabama got a good dose of tempo against Texas A&M a few weeks ago, which should prepare the defense for what it will see Saturday, but, until the bullets start flying, it's hard to tell what the response will be.

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College Football Minute - Sept. 30
Florida State and NC State are still taking shots at each other, an Ole Miss player takes a jab at Alabama and LSU is going with a freshman quarterback at Auburn. It's all ahead in your College Football Minute.
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