- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to put Saban-to-Texas to bed and get back to the matter of playing football.
No. 3-ranked Alabama's season isn't over yet. Practices and a bowl date with No. 11 Oklahoma in New Orleans remain.
For Nick Saban, who after weeks of speculation and a new contract gets to focus solely on his Crimson Tide again, the next few weeks will be valuable. Not only does finishing the season well matter, but gathering momentum into next year is important as well.
With that in mind, here are five key areas Alabama must improve upon between now and the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
Put all the talk to rest: Think AJ McCarron got tired of answering all the questions about his coach leaving for Texas? What about the rest of his teammates, who had to wonder at some point whether all the rumors could turn out to be true? The brief offseason between the Auburn game and the start of bowl practice was more eventful than Alabama and Saban would have liked. In fact, Saban loathes these things. Off-the-field distractions are the bane of his coaching existence. Being on the road recruiting, he didn't have time to address his team. But on Tuesday, he will. Putting the talk to rest and focusing on the task at hand -- Oklahoma, remember? -- will be vital in how the next few weeks play out.
Find motivation: The Iron Bowl loss has to linger. McCarron can say all he wants that he'll root for Auburn now, but in his heart of hearts he has to be jealous. He and his teammates have to be mad. This Alabama team that was supposed to be preparing for a trip to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif. Instead, it's forced to muster the energy to travel to New Orleans for a BCS bowl no one in Tuscaloosa wanted. Finishing the season off right should be motivation enough, but that's not always been the case. Alabama fans will remember the last Sugar Bowl. It didn't end so well, with Utah upsetting the heavily favored Tide. In their last non-championship bowl, however, Alabama throttled Michigan State at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., 49-7, on Jan, 1, 2011.
Replace Anthony Steen: Who will it be? The options to replace Steen as the right guard are numerous. Alphonse Taylor is listed as his backup, but Kellen Williams wound up starting in Steen's absence earlier in the season. Then there's Chad Lindsay, who has started three games at center and could slide over to guard. But if Alabama is truly looking ahead, it might turn to Grant Hill, who has played tackle primarily in his freshman season but came to Tuscaloosa as the top-rated offensive guard out of high school. Right tackle Austin Shepherd will return next season and there's a chance top-ranked offensive tackle Cam Robinson could step in at left tackle immediately, should Cyrus Kouandjio enter the draft. If the staff is serious about Hill playing as a sophomore, he might be better off beginning the process at guard now.
Stop the running game: It wasn't as if Alabama wasn't ready for Auburn's running game. Gus Malzahn's Tigers made no secret of their desire to move the ball on the ground against the Tide. And still, Saban and Co. couldn't stop it. Tre Mason and Nick Marshall helped Auburn to 296 yards rushing, the most allowed by Alabama since it faced Georgia Southern in 2011. In fact, Marshall's 99 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in the Saban era at Alabama. Now, Oklahoma is not the same type of dynamic running team as Auburn, but it's not as far off as you might expect. The Sooners have demonstrated an ability to run the ball this season, averaging 235.8 yards on the ground per game, good enough for 18th in the country. For the sake of the bowl game and for the many Iron Bowls that lie ahead, Alabama has to figure out how to stop the run.
Find a quarterback: It would be unreasonable to assume that Alabama hasn't already begun looking for McCarron's replacement at quarterback. But the process that began long ago should begin in earnest during bowl practice. McCarron will continue taking reps, but at this point in his career, he doesn't need every snap to be prepared. Why not stick another quarterback in with the first team and see what they can do? Whether it's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod or Luke Del Rio -- and, yes, the list of candidates is that long -- someone needs to emerge before the start of spring practice. By getting a jump start now, Alabama can go into the offseason with a plan in place.