Alabama Crimson Tide: Kenyan Drake

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With the start of spring practice only a few weeks away, we’re spending this week discussing five players to keep an eye on when Alabama opens camp on March 15.

Because they’re unpredictable, we’ll avoid first-year players like Cam Robinson. If you want an idea of who could make an instant impact in 2014, we wrote about that shortly after signing day.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry showed what he could do in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
So instead, let’s start by taking a look at an athlete who made a splash late last season as a true freshman, creating big expectations for his sophomore campaign.

RB Derrick Henry
Sophomore
6-foot-3, 238 pounds

Credentials: Was he a running back or a linebacker? At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds -- all muscle, we should add -- it was hard to tell. We hadn’t seen him run the football yet, so for a while he looked like a project. Did he have the necessary speed and elusiveness to get through the holes up front and hit the second level of the defense? And then came the Sugar Bowl. Yes, it took Henry some time to work his way up the food chain at running back, but when he did, he was special. He got around the Oklahoma defense just fine in New Orleans, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in addition to taking a short pass 43 yards for another score. All told, the former five-star athlete ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries as a freshman.

How he fits: And herein lies the rub. Henry, with what he showed against the Sooners, might be more explosive than Alabama’s incumbent starting running back T.J. Yeldon. Given Yeldon’s fumbling woes, many fans are clamoring for Henry to replace him as the lead back. But Alabama has been through this before. Both the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson and Richardson-Eddie Lacy tandems were balancing acts, and this coming season should be no different. Except that there’s a third back, Kenyan Drake, also begging for carries. Talk about explosion and speed, and you’re talking about Drake, who can take the ball to paydirt any time it touches his hands. One thing is certain: Running backs coach Burton Burns will have a tough time sorting out the depth chart when the season rolls around.

Best case/worst case: We’ve made the mistake of assuming the depth chart order at running back before and have been burned. There’s a case to be made that Henry should start, which would be an intriguing outcome to say the least. But there’s another case, one based on seniority and experience, that could land him third or fourth on the depth chart. You know about Yeldon and Drake, but there’s also the veteran Jalston Fowler and the blue-chip newcomer Bo Scarbrough to consider. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny are on campus too, remember? The good news for the bevy of Alabama tailbacks is that new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin shouldn’t be constrained by position titles. The former USC head coach is seen as something of an innovator on offense and could move players like Henry, Fowler and Scarbrough around to places like H-back and slot receiver to get them touches.

Dee Hart faces possession charge

February, 18, 2014
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Former Alabama running back Dee Hart was arrested Sunday for possession of marijuana and giving false information, according to reports.

Hart, who was a top recruit for Alabama in 2011, was supposed to head into the fall for his junior season on the field, but the school announced that he is no longer part of the football team. He hasn't been with the team since Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Here's the statement from Alabama on Hart's status:
"Dee Hart has not been a part of the football team since the bowl game and has not participated in any of the offseason program. Hopefully he will learn from this mistake and continue to work toward completing his degree, which he is on track to do by the summer."

[+] EnlargeDee Hart
AP Photo/ Butch DillDee Hart never really got his career off the ground at Alabama.
It's unknown if Hart could return to the team beforehand, but this recent arrest certainly won't help him. Hart might have been a top recruit for the Crimson Tide a few years ago, but he was never able to really make much movement on the Tide's depth chart. Hart suffered season-ending ACL injuries in 2011 and 2012 and tried out at cornerback last year before moving back to running back.

Hart rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in 2013 and had 166 yards and a touchdown on 43 career carries with Alabama.

With the return of back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon and backups Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, it might have been tough for Hart to rise through the ranks at running back. Not to mention, rising sophomore Altee Tenpenny, a former ESPN 300 recruit, saw action last season and Tyren Jones, also an ESPN 300 prospect in 2012, redshirted last year. The arrival of highly touted five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough won't help either, with Scarbrough expected to start his Alabama career at running back.

Heading into the spring, it appears the top spot at running back is going to come down to Yeldon or Henry, who had a breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Hart might have a tremendous amount of athleticism and his work ethic was once thoroughly praised by coach Nick Saban, but the chances of him jumping those two was minimal. The chances of him pushing the others out of the way at this point in his career was going to be a mountain to climb as well.

Alabama will be fine without Hart, but here's hoping Hart lands on his feet soon.
Editor's note: This is Part V in a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some problems are complicated. Some problems are large. This particular issue of Alabama's might seem like neither, but it is. Just because it's an obvious concern with a seemingly obvious solution doesn't mean it's not the most troubling scenario a coach can face.

Turnovers wrecked the Crimson Tide in 2013. Without the interceptions and fumbles, Alabama very well could have reached the BCS National Championship Game for an unprecedented third year in a row. Auburn wouldn't have won the Iron Bowl, and the debacle at the Sugar Bowl might never have happened.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban and the Tide were frustrated -- and their title hopes were dashed -- by the turnover bug that hit Alabama this season.
Moving forward, there's no way around the fact that if Nick Saban's dynasty is to get back on the rails in 2014, he can't afford any more costly turnovers. Saying "be patient" and "it will get better" are no longer viable options. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake have a full-blown fumbling problem. AJ McCarron caught the interception bug late and even though he may be gone to the pros now, whoever replaces him under center can't give possessions away like he did down the stretch.

"Even though we outgained them in the game, we probably gained enough yards," Saban said after the Tide's loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "But we had four turnovers that led to 28 points, and one turnover in the red zone and one missed field goal in the first half, and those things probably were, you know, a big difference in the game."

Said McCarron: "Put it all on me. I had two turnovers, [Oklahoma] ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14."

A year after throwing just three interruptions, McCarron tossed four picks in his final four games. Yeldon and Drake combined for four fumbles in 2012, but together they wound up with nine this season.

The difference between good and great, between title contender and championship winner, is razor thin. A handful of turnovers is enough to tip the scales in either direction. Alabama averaged 13 turnovers in 2009, 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Alabama gave the ball away 17 times, the most since 2008.

Saban needs a quarterback who will take care of the football, whether that's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman or Parker McLeod. Sims has been McCarron's backup the past two seasons, but he's shown a propensity for interceptions during scrimmages. How he'll hold up in passing situations during games is anyone's guess.

And if Yeldon and Drake can't stop from coughing up the rock, then it's up to someone else to take over at running back. That's a point running backs coach Burton Burns will surely drive home this offseason. Derrick Henry seemed more than willing to take their spot against Oklahoma. The enormous former five-star athlete was Alabama's lone bright spot in the Sugar Bowl, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown while also taking a short pass 61 yards for a score. He didn't fumble the ball once as a true freshman.

Stopping the turnovers might be a painfully obvious thing to say, but it's worth repeating. And repeating. And repeating.

Any coach will tell you: Giving the ball away is the single biggest difference between winning and losing.

Even if Alabama fixes Parts I-IV on its to-do list, without solving Part V, it will all be for naught.
AJ McCarron let Derrick Henry know that he would be the safety valve. Less than seven minutes remained in the fourth quarter of this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl, with No. 3 Alabama trailing No. 11 Oklahoma 38-24, and McCarron was prepared to put a critical second-and-8 on the shoulders of a freshman who had just 28 touches on the season before the game.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry had a breakout performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Could it be a sign of things to come in 2014?
Smart move.

With Henry, one of the top overall prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, shifting out to the right flat just after the ball was snapped, McCarron looked down field before quickly checking down to Henry. Henry made a nifty move on an Oklahoma linebacker toward the middle of the field before sliding by another defender and sprinting to pay dirt. After stepping through another failed tackle attempt, Henry was gone for a 61-yard touchdown that brought the Crimson Tide within one score of the Sooners.

"I just saw the hole," Henry said with a laugh. "I went out there and read what I was supposed to read, [did] my assignment and hit the hole. ... He threw it to me and I just had to make a play."

Henry's play was one that will be burned into Alabama fans' minds for a while, and the thought of his future with the Tide could help ease the pain of the eventual 45-31 loss to Oklahoma. But before Henry was off to the races with a play that appeared to bring Alabama back into such a back-and-forth game, he was making plays that had many wondering why he wasn't on the field more throughout the season.

The living, breathing, truck of a frosh started wowing folks with his speed, agility and strength early in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl when he took a carry and barreled through the middle of both lines, shaking a tackle and then cutting to the right side of the field before winning a footrace with Oklahoma's defense for a 43-yard touchdown run that cut OU's lead to 31-24.

After that -- and a previous T.J. Yeldon fumble -- Henry was Alabama's primary back from then on in the game, carrying the ball eight times on the night for a game-high 100 yards and a touchdown. Henry looked like the record-breaking high school baller who garnered attention from just about every major university before signing with Alabama. He cut, steamrolled and shot himself out of a cannon with his runs.

It was possibly a glimpse into a very bright future for both Henry and Alabama.

"I was ready. The whole season I've been waiting," said Henry, who finished the 2013 season with 382 yards, three touchdowns and 36 carries in nine games of work. "Since I started, I was sixth string and I've just been improving the whole season and I just worked my way up. I thank God for it and thank these coaches for believing in me."

The question now is whether Henry or Yeldon will be the main back going forward. Yeldon has put in two solid years of work with the Tide, but his fumbling issues have always been a drain. Henry passed backup Kenyan Drake, who rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, during bowl prep and could have the upper hand on him again heading into spring.

Regardless, Henry showed why he was such a special high school prospect and why his coaches and teammates were raving about him before he fractured his leg during spring practice. Henry will get plenty of opportunities going forward, and could be one of the big breakout players to keep an eye on in 2014.

"I'm just ready to get to work, become a better student of the game, become a better running back by working on my cuts, bursting and being more physical so I can be a complete back," Henry said.

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.

Unheralded players in the SEC

December, 13, 2013
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Not every player has the profile to earn an invite to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremonies. Like any famous party, it's reserved for the select few, the guest list limited to only well-known names like McCarron, Mason and Manziel.

But even in a top conference like the SEC, players get lost in the shuffle. Most don't get the recognition they deserve.

That's where we come in. The following are some of the unheralded players of the SEC. Some you might know. Others you might be only tangentially aware of. But their contributions are worth noting.

South Carolina QB Connor Shaw: Ignore the stats. They're not bad, but they're not important. Shaw isn't arguably the most underrated player in the whole of the SEC because he threw for 2,135 yards, 21 touchdowns and just one interception. Instead, think about where the Gamecocks would be without him. They most certainly wouldn't be in the Capital One Bowl. Shaw was gutsy leading South Carolina, coming back from injury time and time again. He's one of the best quarterbacks in school history and an all-time great competitor in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsWR Sammie Coates keeps defenses a little bit honest when facing the powerful Auburn run game.
Auburn WR Sammie Coates: Gus Malzahn makes no secret he wants to run the football with Nick Marshall, Tre Mason and Co., but without someone to stretch the field the running lanes becomes much tighter. That's where Coates comes in. His 38 receptions aren't a league high -- the offense isn't tailored for him -- but when he gets the football, he makes the most of it. Defenses are forced to keep a safety back to cover him as he leads the SEC and ranks second nationally with 22.1 yards per catch. He didn't fumble the ball once this season and caught seven touchdowns to go along with 841 yards.

Missouri DL Markus Golden: By now we're all aware of the beast known as Michael Sam. He's the best pass rusher in the league and one of the best in all of college football. But his teammate at Missouri isn't half bad either. Golden has been as productive and balanced as they come in the trenches this season with 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, good enough to rank him eighth and fourth in the SEC, respectively.

Alabama RB Kenyan Drake: Like Golden, Drake has been a bit overshadowed by a teammate. Granted T.J. Yeldon is the primary back in Alabama's offense, but Drake isn't far behind. In fact, there's not much of a noticeable drop-off, and Drake is actually the more dynamic and speedy of the two runners. Drake's 7.5 yards per carry is first in the SEC and seventh nationally (minimum 80 carries). He finished the regular season with a healthy 694 yards and eight touchdowns.

Georgia ILB Amarlo Herrera: He's not flashy and his talent might not wow you, but if production is the name of the game then you ought to know Herrera. One hundred tackles should get you noticed. And yet Herrera is nowhere to be found on the first- or second-team AP All-SEC lineups despite finishing with more tackles than a linebacker many consider to be the best in the country in Alabama's C.J. Mosley.

Kentucky LB Avery Williamson and DE Alvin Dupree: Chances are you didn't hear or see much of the Wildcats this season. Mark Stoops' first season in Lexington was a struggle as UK won no conference games. But it wasn't all bad. The Cats defense featured two of the better producers in the SEC in Williamson and Dupree. Williamson finished with 100-plus tackles for the second consecutive season, and Dupree ranked sixth in the SEC with seven sacks.

Week 13 helmet stickers

November, 24, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 1 Alabama took care of business on senior day in Tuscaloosa, dispatching Chattanooga, 49-0, to head into next weekend's Iron Bowl against Auburn undefeated.

During the course of the action, a few players stood out as worthy of a coveted helmet sticker.

WR Kevin Norwood: What more can you say about Alabama's senior wide receiver? He's made big plays his entire career, and with his touchdown against Chattanooga he extended his streak to four games with a touchdown reception this season. He's now tied for 10th all time in school history with 11 career touchdown receptions.

RB Kenyan Drake: With T.J. Yeldon dinged up with a bum ankle, Drake stepped in and started at running back for Alabama, showing off his lightning-quick speed once again. When he hits daylight, there's no turning back. He racked up 77 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries against Chattanooga.

LB C.J. Mosley: It was only fitting that on senior day that Mosley would once again lead his team in tackles. The speedy inside linebacker finished with seven tackles overall, including two tackles for a loss. He ended Saturday's action 18 tackles away from the school record for career tackles (325).

Five things: Alabama-Chattanooga

November, 23, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide host the Chattanooga Mocs on Saturday afternoon in Bryant-Denny Stadium:

AJ's curtain call: Forget the lack of national recognition and forget his slim Heisman Trophy hopes. As I wrote a few weeks ago, to look at AJ McCarron in those terms is to fail to understand his value as a three-year starter at quarterback for Alabama. On Saturday, senior day in Tuscaloosa, McCarron will be recognized as the historically great player he's been. He already holds many school records (winning percentage, passing yards, etc.) but what matters most are the rings. He's already got two as a starter, a third as a backup, and is aiming for a fourth this season. When fans rise to applaud all McCarron has done on Saturday, forget what recognition he might be lacking elsewhere and remember all the great things he's already done in Tuscaloosa.

C.J.'s final hurrah: Talk about a lack of recognition. McCarron gets the lion's share of the applause for what Alabama's done because he's the quarterback. But whatever McCarron has done as a passer, C.J. Mosley has done as a linebacker. The man has been a contributor on defense since Day 1, playing alongside the likes of Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. And he's done his part and more to live up to their legacy. Every year he leads the team in tackles and this season he's stepped up and met his biggest challenge yet: leading the defense from a philosophical standpoint. He's put aside his normally quiet demeanor and raised his voice to lead a defense that needed a strong veteran at the helm.

Ball control: Expect Alabama to move the ball with ease against lowly Chattanooga. The poor Mocs don't stand a chance. But pay attention to ball control. If there was one big negative takeaway from last weekend's win over Mississippi State, it was the turnovers. Alabama gave the ball away a season-high four times in Starkville. McCarron broke his streak of 139 passes without an interception with not one, but two picks. And T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake each fumbled the ball, bringing their season total to eight overall. If there's one thing Alabama can't have moving forward, it's that. McCarron has to be careful with the football and Yeldon and Drake need to rediscover how to keep the ball high and tight.

Second-stringers: There are no players to watch from Alabama's first team offense or defense. Those guys will have their way with Chattanooga and reach the sideline before halftime, in all likelihood. So rather than give you Christion Jones or Adrian Hubbard to key on, let's turn to the second- and third-stringers, also known as the players you'll be watching a year or two from now. On defense, look to linebacker Dillon Lee and cornerback Maurice Smith. They'll be competing for starting roles in spring camp. And on the other side of the ball, pay attention to running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver Chris Black. Both have been held back by the depth ahead of them, but expect more snaps for each in 2014.

Iron Bowl fever: It's almost here, I promise. While Auburn had the luxury of the week off with a bye, folks in Tuscaloosa have to watch the Crimson Tide beat up on Chattanooga before they turn their attention fully to the Iron Bowl. Next Saturday's game will be one for the history books as it will be the first time that either team has a chance to win and make it to the SEC championship game. We won't get into the matchups and the storylines here, but when you watch Alabama take on Chattanooga, look out for things like run defense and special teams play as they could be signs of things to come when the Iron Bowl finally gets here.
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.

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in Alabama's 20-7 win over Mississippi State.

They're human: It hasn't looked that way lately, but Alabama finally showed it's a flawed team. The Crimson Tide came out Saturday night flat and uninspired, turning the ball over a season-high four times. AJ McCarron wasn't crisp, the offensive line was underwhelming and the defense, despite allowing just 10 points, struggled in the communication department. Mississippi State, a sub-.500 team, shouldn't have the top-ranked team on the ropes, but lo and behold it did. On the bright side, you can look at Saturday as a wakeup call. McCarron did, saying "It reminds you that you're not as good as you think."

Ball security is an issue: Set aside the two interceptions. Given McCarron's history of taking care of the football, you can forgive that. But the two fumbles are hard to swallow. Kenyan Drake and T.J. Yeldon each coughed up the football, their third and fourth fumbles of the season, respectively. Running backs coach Burton Burns is going to have to work on that. Alabama survived the turnovers against Mississippi State, but against a better team that may not be the case.

McCarron's Heisman Trophy race is over: Unless you subscribe to the notion that C.J. Mosley should be considered for the award, Alabama isn't going to have a Heisman Trophy winner this year. McCarron's candidacy ended against Mississippi State. Two interceptions against a second-tier SEC defense will turn off most voters. Though his value to the team can't be questioned, it's hard to make an argument now that McCarron is a more outstanding player than Florida State's Jameis Winston, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel or Baylor's Bryce Petty.

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.

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in No. 1 Alabama's 45-10 win over Tennessee on Saturday night.

Collins can play: Alabama might miss Vinnie Sunseri, but it might not be in terms of his leadership. It was clear from early on Saturday as he shouted at teammates and limped on and off the field that despite a season-ending knee injury, Sunseri is determined to spearhead the secondary as its vocal leader on the sidelines. During the game, Landon Collins picked up the slack. The talented true sophomore was a playmaker, returning an interception 89 yards for a touchdown just before halftime. Tennessee never got anything going through the air as Justin Worley and Josh Dobbs combined for 195 yards passing and two interceptions.

Drake is still learning: He's blazingly fast. His acceleration is staggering. His big play ability is really something. But for everything Kenyan Drake does well at running back, he's still learning. Too often he gets out of control and out of position. Against Tennessee he did it again, breaking a great run before fumbling the ball on the 1-yard line. Cleaning up the finer points of his game like ball security will take his game from promising to productive.

Alabama fans listen: Nick Saban made it clear he didn't want to see an empty seat in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon. He said if you don't want to stay, give away your tickets. And for the most part, Alabama's fans listened. Despite the Tide jumping out to a 35-0 halftime lead, the vast majority of fans stuck around to watch the final minutes of the second half in Tuscaloosa.

Planning for success: Alabama

October, 24, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ready for a good old-fashioned rivalry? We've got one when the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0) hosts the Tennessee Volunteers (4-3, 1-2) on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

Can lightning strike twice for Tennessee? Riding an upset victory over South Carolina this past weekend, the hope for Butch Jones' squad is that the answer is yes.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban is building respect for this week's opponent.
And, as always, Nick Saban is guarding against that possibility.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for Tennessee and the job that they've done this year," he said. "They've really played well the last two weeks. I think it's really going to be important for us to focus on the things we need to improve on.

"Certainly a big game for us."

So who are some players to watch and some stats to chew on? We've got that for you right here:

Tennessee players to watch

RB Rajion Neal: The 5-foot-11 senior has quietly been one of the best running backs in the SEC this season. He's currently tied for fourth on in the league in rushing with 693 yards and eight touchdowns.

OT Antonio Richardson: Really, it's not just Richardson. As Saban pointed out Wednesday, "They've got two really good tackles, probably both NFL type guys who will be high draft picks." If you're looking for the key to Tennessee's success this season just look up front. Richardson leads what's arguably the best offensive line in the SEC.

DL Daniel McCullers: It may not be the best defensive line in the country, but Tennessee's got some heft on that side of the ball, too. McCullers is the Vols’ version of Terrence Cody, a mammoth run stuffer at 6-foot-8 and 351 pounds. Alabama's interior offensive linemen will be tested by his size and strength Saturday.

Alabama players to watch

C Ryan Kelly: Will he play or won't he? Kelly has missed the last three games recovering from an injury, but was "full go this week," according to Saban. Odds are Chad Linsday will continue to start, but look for Kelly to work his way back into the mix.

WR Amari Cooper: After starting the season slowly, Cooper has shown signs of resurgence in recent games. With some nagging injuries behind him, he's playing faster and producing more with six receptions in his last two games. Cooper's coming-out party last season was against Tennessee. Maybe familiarity will be the jump-start he needs.

RB Derrick Henry: He flew down the sideline like a blur. Henry, Alabama's larger than life tailback, sprinted past Arkansas' defense for an 80-yard touchdown run last Saturday, the first score of his career. Saban said Wednesday that there's no question he has the ability. How he picks up the little things like blocking -- things he wasn't asked to do in high school -- will determine how much he contributes down the stretch as a freshman.

Key stats

15: Alabama's pass protection has been stout of late, failing to give up a sack since the third quarter against Ole Miss. The Tide ranks 15th nationally and third in the SEC with 1.00 sacks allowed per game.

16: Alabama's defense is on a historic run of late, surrendering just 16 points in its last five games.

17: Just how explosive is Alabama sophomore running back Kenyan Drake? He and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota are the only two players in the country with 17 rushes of 10-plus yards in fewer than 70 carries.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Why Kenyan Drake was absent from the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide's season opener against Virginia Tech is still in question.

Was he suspended? Did he fall on the depth chart? Did he simply miss the flight? The talented sophomore and former Gatorade Player of the Year from Georgia seemed the incumbent No. 2 tailback heading into preseason camp, squarely behind another second-year player, T.J. Yeldon. The two, it was thought, would continue the one-two punch at tailback to which Alabama fans had become accustomed.

[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKenyan Drake has rushed for 349 yarda and five TDs in the past four games.
But Drake was nowhere to be found in the Georgia Dome when the Tide beat the Hokies, 35-10, on Aug. 31. He wouldn't show up until two weeks later.

Nick Saban has enjoyed playing personnel matters close to the vest as a head coach, Drake's being no different. Saban, now in his seventh season leading Alabama, never announced why Drake wasn't on the depth chart when it was first released on Aug. 28. Drake, the team's third-leading rusher last season and arguably its most explosive back, wasn't wearing his No. 17 jersey in practices. Instead, he ran with the scout team, simulating opponents.

Saban, when asked, said matter-of-factly, "We had to get other guys ready to do things, and they actually did well enough." In other words, Drake was in the doghouse.

On a teleconference a week later, Saban said Drake was going to play against the then sixth-ranked Texas A&M Aggies. He was "ready to go," but he'd have to outplay those ahead of him.

Against the Aggies in College Station, Drake did exactly that. In fact, he wound up the team's second-leading rusher in what proved to be a dramatic 49-42 victory for Alabama. He rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown that day, providing a much-needed spark. And despite a poor performance a week later against Colorado State -- a game no one in crimson ran the ball especially well -- he has continued to be the clear No. 2 back behind Yeldon, racking up 349 yards and five touchdowns over the last four games.

The "why" of Drake's early season absence has gone by the wayside. All that seems to matter now is that he's back and Alabama is better off for it. The offense that has been known for showcasing two premier tailbacks at a time -- Eddie Lacy and Yeldon last year, Lacy and Trent Richardson the year before that, Richardson and Mark Ingram the year before that -- suddenly has the one-two punch it has been missing. Since Drake returned after Week 1, Alabama has ranked 19th in the country in rushing yards per game (231.0) and second in yards per rush (6.63).

"They complement each other and both guys have a little different running style," Saban said. "I think it's a real change of pace that they both present to the defensive players. Both guys have been productive for us and both guys have done a good job."

"It’s a great combination with two different backs, two styles of runs," UA wideout Christion Jones said. "T.J. is a powerful and physical back. Drake is physical but quicker, faster on the perimeter."

[+] Enlarge T.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY T.J. Yeldon has rushed for 384 yards and five TDS in the past four games.
Where Yeldon is the more between-the-tackles, traditional back, Drake is all speed all the time. He's a big play waiting to happen. He has moves and vision, but the thing he's most known for in his ability to find daylight and accelerate through it. He and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota are the only two players in the country to reach 17 rushes of 10-plus yards in fewer than 70 attempts. In fact, neither has carried the ball 50 times this season.

If Drake gets to the edge of the defense, there's no tracking him down. Last weekend against Arkansas he had two rushes of 20 or more yards. It was as if went from zero to 60 mph in the blink of an eye on his 46-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, bouncing off a teammate at the line of scrimmage before accelerating in a hurry. He cut outside, made one defender miss and took the sideline the rest of the way for the score.

Drake, who acknowledged after the game that acceleration is one of his biggest assets, said it helps to "start up, and start up quick." It was his first time speaking with the media in Tuscaloosa since joining Alabama last season. And despite the early season turmoil, he seemed pleased with his role on the team, saying he and Yeldon were good friends who enjoyed working with one another.

"We support each other when we go in and do well. We pick each other up when we do badly," he said. "Everybody loves the connection we have. We just go out there and do our best.

"We push each other a lot. We're both competitive."

Drake came to Alabama to show he was a complete tailback. What he said he had to learn most, though, was how to put bad plays behind him and focus on what's next. It seemed fitting in the context of his season, overcoming an early absence to become a major contributor.

It couldn't have been easy for a young player with star potential, but he has learned that there's more to the game than going fast. Sometimes you have to be told to wait.

"Being here they teach you about learning the details and handling yourself accordingly," Drake said. "I feel like at the end of the day I've improved on the mental aspect of my game."

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