Alabama Crimson Tide: Kevin Norwood

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The recruiting classes have all been spectacular since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007. Simply put, there hasn’t been a better program in college football at gathering, signing and developing blue-chip recruits over the past decade or so.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
AP Photo/Greg TrottFormer Alabama tailback Trent Richardson was ranked as the No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2009.
But all we’ve done the past few days has led us to answer this difficult question: Which class was the best and most impactful of Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa? The 2008 class started it all with guys like Julio Jones and Mark Ingram, and the 2011 class had upward of nine future NFL players with potential first-round picks Cyrus Kouandjio and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. And all that goes without mentioning the three consecutive No. 1-ranked classes from 2012-14 that are still in the process of maturing.

So determining the best class, in that context, was not easy. Our Nos. 2 and 3 classes both had arguments for the top spot. But ultimately the decision was simple: The Class of 2009 was too talented and too deep to keep from coming out No. 1 on our list. Too many current and future professional players dotted the 30-man signing class to ignore.

There was not only the drama of Trent Richardson’s announcement (Saban was uncharacteristically “elated, ecstatic, happy and really pleased," when he signed), but there was also the risk of taking just one quarterback in the class. Obviously, that maneuver paid off as AJ McCarron became arguably the most decorated quarterback in SEC history.

“We thought AJ McCarron was an outstanding prospect in our state,” Saban told reporters way back on Feb. 4, 2009. “Once he committed to us, we felt like someone had to be at least as good as him or better if we were going to take another player at that position. I think that is just kind of how it worked out.”

As it turned out there wasn’t anyone better. And it's just one reason why the 2009 class should go down as the most impactful of Saban’s tenure at Alabama.

The stars: McCarron has the chance to go down as the best quarterback in Alabama history, surpassing Goliath's like Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Jay Barker. With two championships as a starter and a slew of passing records to his name, he’s clearly the headliner of the class. But he’s not alone, not by a long shot. Richardson was the No. 1 running back in the country and became the first back taken in the 2012 NFL Draft, going third overall. The second running back Alabama took -- the lesser known Eddie Lacy -- would get drafted a year later and become the Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Green Bay Packers in 2013. On the other side of the ball, Dre Kirkpatrick lived up to the hype as the No. 1 cornerback in the country, going in the first round of the draft to the Cincinnati Bengals. And Chance Warmack surpassed all expectations when he rose from a midlevel college prospect to the top offensive guard in the country to a first round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
AP Photo/David KohlAlabama signed three prospects ranked in the top 12 of the Class of 2009, including cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (No. 4).
The contributors: Anthony Steen was much more than a contributor, but considering how he came to Alabama as the No. 39 defensive tackle in the country it’s a wonder he developed into a three-year starter at guard and a hopeful NFL draft pick. His career was arguably more fruitful and definitely more consistent than that of D.J. Fluker, who went from being the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2009 class to a first round pick of the San Diego Charger’s in 2013. Along with Steen, signees like Nico Johnson, Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial and Kevin Norwood carved out nice careers at Alabama with the type of accomplishments that would land them on the radar of NFL executives.

The letdowns: Compared to other top classes, there were very few letdowns to come from 2009’s crop of signees. Really, all of Alabama’s top five prospects panned out. Had Johnson not had C.J. Mosley behind him, his career might have been looked upon with more favor, and still he was a solid SEC linebacker who would get drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs. But there were some misses as Kendall Kelly never really caught on, Tana Patrick never became more than a sub off the bench, and Petey Smith never stuck around, transferring to a community college in 2011. The biggest whiff of all had to be Darrington Sentimore, though, and not because he was a heralded prospect like the others. The No. 20-ranked defensive tackle wound up transferring to a junior college and then on to Tennessee where he developed into one of the more disruptive defensive linemen in the SEC.

The results: All told, 13 of Alabama’s 30 signees in 2009 are playing in the NFL currently or have futures in the league in 2014. As far as percentages go, that’s a success rate even the most accomplished programs can be proud of. Churning out NFL prospects is one thing, though. Taking five-stars and sending them to the league isn’t unheard of. No, the most impressive thing was the depth of the class as a whole. Not only did blue-chip prospects like Kirkpatrick, McCarron and Richardson pan out, so did developmental recruits like Warmack, Steen, Norwood and Lacy. To have that range of success is almost unheard of. Saban and his staff really did it all with the 2009 class, not only signing the top talent in the country, but also doing the more difficult thing by developing many of them into accomplished players.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
12:00
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Forty-yard dash times and bench-press figures. Measuring height and weight down to the seventh of an inch. It's the annual meat-market bonanza known as the NFL combine and it came to you fast and furious throughout the weekend. When you're done scrolling through the day's SEC links, be sure to check out the rest of ESPN's NFL draft coverage at our combine headquarters.
We at the SEC Blog have spent the last two weeks ranking the top 25 players in the conference, beginning with Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines and wrapping up with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next five: wide receiver Amari Cooper, punter Cody Mandell, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Deion Belue.
NEW ORLEANS -- As Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron slowly trotted off a confetti-covered field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome following the Crimson Tide's shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma, he took with him more than just a right arm that had guided Alabama to a 36-4 record with him under center.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a breakout game in the Sugar Bowl, Derrick Henry could step into a much larger role with the Tide in 2014.
Gone with McCarron is also a ton of leadership and experience that will be extremely difficult to replace. And unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, he isn't the only one leaving.

Guys like seasoned linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver Kevin Norwood are graduating, while junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-dix could be headed to the NFL early with their first-round projections.

The sting from Thursday night's loss will stay for a while, but it's important for a new set of leaders to help heal that wound soon.

"There are a lot of guys out there that can be leaders," Norwood said, "if they can just get in their minds that this program is fit to win and you have to do everything that the coaches ask you to do to win."

One of the veterans on a team that fell well short of its goals in 2013, Norwood admitted that the leadership on this team suffered down the stretch. Making sure players, especially younger ones, were properly prepared and focused on a day-to-day basis wasn't always there, he said. A more lax approach helped trigger some of Alabama's deficiencies late in the season, as Norwood said players started believing that things would come more easily to them.

"It was a hard time getting them guys to focus at times,” he said. “Then again, it was up to the leadership team to get them focused and get them right, and that's one thing I guess we kind of slacked at going into the end of the season. I can't put everything on them. At the same time, seniors, we didn't do a good job, too.

"When you have freshmen coming in and they're All-Americans and stuff like that, they have to get off their high pedestals when they come in because you have to work for everything and it's going to be tough, man."

Alabama’s new band of leaders will have to kick out that complacency and reestablish the toughness to get back to a championship level. The good news is that immediately after Thursday night's loss, players seemed confident that new leaders will emerge, eager to motivate.

"The cream always rises to the top," said Kouandjio, who has yet to make a decision about the NFL draft. "A lot of these guys get recruited just because they're natural leaders and they're going to come out sooner or later. It's going to manifest itself."

And knowing Nick Saban's mentality, he's going to want it to manifest quickly. He's been down this road before and adjusted. He certainly has the bodies with guys like T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Vinnie Sunseri, Jeoffrey Pagan and possibly Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party against the Sooners. But there has to be a will and want from players.

As freshman tight end O.J. Howard pointed out after Thursday's game, the last time Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl, it rebounded the next year to win Saban's first national championship in Tuscaloosa with a new quarterback and identity.

No one would be shocked if the Tide did it again.

"Guys are just going to step up and become leaders and we're going to take their place and see how everything goes next year," Howard said.

"It's not over yet. We still have a couple of years around here. We have a chance. We can still win a championship. We just had a down year, but next year, hopefully we can get one.

"You just have to make this momentum and build on it and every time you want to take a day off, just remember how we lost back-to-back games and it'll motivate everybody on the team, I think."

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.

Who to watch in the SEC bowl games

December, 26, 2013
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Now that we’ve opened all of our Christmas presents and spent some quality time with family, it’s full speed ahead to the bowl games.

We know who the stars are in the SEC. But here’s a checklist of guys to watch in the bowl games who aren’t the usual suspects and aren’t necessarily household names ... yet.

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: The Tigers make their living running the ball, but Coates averages 22.1 yards per catch and has seven touchdown receptions. Auburn is going to need some big plays in the passing game to take down Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss: Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil got most of the pub this season among the Ole Miss freshmen, but Conner is a big-time player in his own right and will play a huge role in the Rebels’ defensive efforts against Georgia Tech’s option offense.

Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Even though he played behind All-American Michael Sam, Golden was hard to miss this season after making the move from linebacker to end. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6 1/2 sacks, and will be looking to make amends (similar to the entire Missouri defense) after the way the Tigers were shredded in the SEC championship game.

Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for one of the most promising freshman defensive linemen in the country, keep your eyes on Jones in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He’s freakishly big, athletic and disruptive.

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama: Recently elected as one of Alabama’s permanent team captains, Norwood is as steady as they come. All he does is make big catches on big stages. In other words, look for him to come up big against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Patton Robinette, QB, Vanderbilt: It’s Robinette’s show now that Austyn Carta-Samuels is recovering from ACL surgery. Robinette had the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee on the fake jump pass. He has the smarts and tools to be an excellent quarterback in this league, and leading the Commodores to a ninth win (for the second year in a row) would be a perfect way to head into what will be critical offseason for Robinette.

Shaq Roland, WR, South Carolina: With Damiere Byrd out for the Capital One Bowl with a knee injury, Roland becomes an even bigger part of the Gamecocks’ passing game. He has gobs of talent, and after a slow start to the season he began to play up to his talent level down the stretch.

Relaxed McCarron moves past Iron Bowl

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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McCarronESPN Stats & InformationThis season, Alabama QB AJ McCarron was at his best while playing the best.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As AJ McCarron sat and answered questions about his Heisman Trophy candidacy this week, there was a sense of calm in his voice. He smiled, leaned back and relaxed as he laid his case bare.

It was strange. He wasn't agitated to be there. He wasn't itching to leave. A senior who has built a reputation as being gruff with the media, McCarron seemed genuinely happy and almost giddy to be talking about his upcoming trip to New York City for the award ceremony.

McCarron said he never would have traveled to New York unless he was nominated for the Heisman Trophy or invited to attend the NFL draft. Now one of those two dreams is about to become a reality.

"I just can't wait," he said. "I'm really looking forward to it, and being able just to see everything and going through the process is just a dream come true. It's going to be cool."

There was no talk of the Iron Bowl and Alabama's crushing defeat at the hands of Auburn. It has been less than two weeks since that game knocked McCarron and the Tide out of the championship picture, but it seemed like a distant memory as he spoke comfortably about what's next.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Dave MartinWith his collegiate career coming to a close, AJ McCarron has been uncharacteristically reflective.
And true to his word, McCarron -- who said after the loss that football is just a game, it's not life -- seems to have moved on from the game.

"You've got to move on, live life and be happy," he said. "Because life's way too short to sit back and think about what you should have done and be mad about it."

Recently, McCarron has found time away from football. He has continued to work out and run with the team, but he hasn't thrown a football since the end of the regular season. Instead, he's letting some of the younger guys take reps during practice.

"My old self is taking a break for a minute," he said.

Last Saturday, McCarron turned off the SEC championship game at halftime so he could go Christmas shopping with his girlfriend, Katherine Webb. This week, he and his family are making the rounds at various awards shows and ceremonies.

He was in Orlando on Thursday for the Home Depot College Football Awards Show. He will be presented with the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in Baltimore on Friday. And he'll wrap up the tour in New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation on Saturday night.

McCarron never has been one for awards and individual recognition, but his teammates believe he's more than deserving of college football's most prestigious honor.

"For a quarterback to come in, [run] Alabama's system under Nick Saban and go out and do the things he's done, help this team win two national championships -- he has less interceptions than anybody -- but for him not to get the recognition he needs, it's ridiculous," said Tide wideout Kevin Norwood.

His résumé is pretty impressive. During three years as Alabama's starting quarterback, McCarron has led the Tide to two national championships and a record of 36-3. As a senior, he has thrown for 2,676 yards, 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions, and he played his best games against the likes of Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn.

"If you look at my play over three years, I feel like no quarterback in the SEC or the country has played as consistent as I have," McCarron said in a rare moment of self-reflection. "I think the numbers do the talking. When you look at my stats against top-10-ranked teams, I don't think anybody's stats compare to mine.

"I just let my stats and play do the talking and sit by the side, I guess."

SEC lunchtime links

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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We're entering the dreary time of year with no SEC football Saturdays ahead for quite a while. But with bowl season still in front of us, there's plenty to discuss. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Their pain exiting the visitor's locker room was obvious. Far-off looks and muted responses told their story. Alabama's players had just endured the most heartbreaking, debilitating loss of their careers. And to make matters worse, it happened at Auburn on an improbable finish that Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood couldn't help but call "lucky."

But it wasn't luck that led to Auburn's win. That's a hard pill for Alabama fans to swallow so soon, but the game was tied with one second remaining. That was no fluke. Nick Saban then went for a long field goal, didn't have his players properly prepared to defend the return and paid the ultimate price. The gates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium flooded into a blue and orange sea of joy, and Alabama had no one to blame but itself.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn has a lot in common with Nick Saban.
Was it a likely scenario? Of course not. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100 yards. But the answer to that most timeless of questions -- Did they win the game or did the other team lose it? -- doesn't apply here. Forget Cade Foster's missed field goals. As a matter of fact, get off his back already. You'd do well to remember the litany of missed opportunities Auburn had as well. The Tigers dropped passes, fumbled the football and committed penalties.

It's been more than 24 hours since the best, craziest, wildest Iron Bowl ever, and that's more than enough time to realize what we witnessed on Saturday night: Both teams played like champions, both coaches were among the best in the game and this rivalry is going to be the most compelling in college football for years to come.

As one SEC head coach told me prior to Saturday's game, "Alabama is at the top … Auburn is still trying to get there." Well, whether Auburn wins the SEC championship and advances to the BCS title game is beside the point now. They proved that coach wrong. By beating Alabama, Auburn showed it’s more than just a team on the rise, it's an equal. The upstart Tigers are ready to compete with the likes of the vaunted Tide for championships today, not somewhere off in the future.

And the Iron Bowl rivalry is better off for it. Why? Because competitive games are good games, and rivalries are healthiest when both teams are playing well. What we saw from Alabama and Auburn over the past two seasons was sickly, predictable and no fun to watch.

Gus Malzahn, instead, has the Tigers back less than a year after walking into what was, by all accounts, a dumpster fire. Players quit, recruits jumped ship and the entire coaching staff was fired two seasons removed from a national championship. Rebuilds of that variety are supposed to be measured in years, not months. Winning Iron Bowls wasn't supposed to happen right away. Look at it this way: Nick Marshall's touchdown run in the first half Saturday was the first offensive touchdown by Auburn against Alabama since 2010.

Sound familiar, Alabama fans? It should. Saban walked into a similar mess in 2007. He took a little longer to recover from what NCAA probation and Mike Shula left behind, but in 2008 he and Alabama snapped Auburn's six-game Iron Bowl winning streak with a 36-0 win in Tuscaloosa. A year later the Tide won a national championship.

Try to separate Saban and Malzahn all you want, but their similarities are striking. They're both singularly focused coaches with a public personality that, to be put kindly, is often lacking. They eat, sleep and breathe football. They don't hype games and they don't regale the media with humorous stories. And they're both geniuses at what they do. Saban has established himself as the best defensive coach in college football and Malzahn is quickly making his case to become the best offensive coach in the game. One pushes the tempo like a maniac while the other does everything he can to slow it down.

It's brilliant. You couldn't draw up a better foil than Saban to Malzahn and Malzahn to Saban. They're even in the same state. They're practically neighbors. They'll cross each other's path on the recruiting trail, nod, smile and silently plot ways to ruin one another's existence. Just think of the weeks and months the Alabama staff will spend in the dark scouring Auburn's film this offseason, trying to find some place to exploit, some soft spot in the read-option to destroy.

Get ready, Alabama. Prepare yourself, Auburn. You're both lucky because this is going to be a fun ride for the next few years. With these two coaches, the Iron Bowl should continue to be a competitive back-and-forth like we saw Saturday every year.

Week 13 helmet stickers

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
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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).

SEC lunchtime links

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
12:00
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It's Friday, which means only a day until game day. Thank goodness. Here's some reading from around the league to get you ready:
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.

Week 12 helmet stickers

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- No. 1-ranked Alabama didn't play its best, but it found a way to beat Mississippi State on the road, 20-7, to keep its perfect season alive.

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

QB AJ McCarron: Nothing about his performance was pretty. After going more than 100 pass attempts without an interception, he threw two picks. It was his second lowest quarterback rating of the season. But when he needed to reach down deep, he did, leading Alabama on a nine-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a picture perfect back-shoulder pass to Kevin Norwood for the touchdown. And in the process of the game, he set another Alabama record, this time passing John Parker Wilson (8,099 yards from 2005-08) for the most yards of total offense in a career.

RB T.J. Yeldon: His fumble might be the thing most fans remember, but Yeldon did plenty of positive things against Mississippi State, too. Alabama's starting running back led the way with 169 yards on 24 carries. It was his highest yardage total of the season and his 50-yard scamper against the Bulldogs was his longest run of the year, too.

P Cody Mandell: If there was a first-half MVP -- and the first half of play was ugly for Alabama -- it was Mandell. While McCarron and the offense struggled to find rhythm and the defense looked out of whack with multiple instances of miscommunication, Mandell showcased his very considerable talents. His 63-yard punt was the longest of his career, and the 55-yard punt before that wasn't too shabby either. Alabama wasn't winning on either side of the ball, but thanks to Mandell it won the field position battle.

Alabama survives a gut check

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- If you're a team with championship aspirations, these are the games you have to win. On the road. Without your best stuff. Everything going against you. The sound of cowbells jarring your very sense of time and place.

Yes, cowbells.

Alabama cornerback Deion Belue had to ask for earplugs to deal with the constant clanging of 57,211 Mississippi State fans Saturday night in Starkville. The deafening chatter was enough to rattle even the battle-tested Crimson Tide, who gave the ball away a season-high four times.

"We struggled to run the ball at times, didn't control the line of scrimmage like we like, turned the ball over four times," UA coach Nick Saban said after the game, his hair blown every which way by the wind and his own frustration. "That's not the kind of football we need to play if we're going to be the kind of team we're capable of being."

To borrow a favorite phrase of Saban's, No. 1 ranked Alabama went "rat trap" against Mississippi State, lacking all sense of rhythm and communication. The offense was ineffective, the defense out of sorts. Mississippi State, a sub-.500 team, had the Tide on the ropes.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisAJ McCarron endured some struggles on Saturday.
A week after beating LSU in dramatic fashion, Saban had the letdown he'd spent all week avoiding. The "relief syndrome" he described to reporters on Monday was playing out in front of his eyes. Mississippi State was a field goal away from tying it up in the third quarter.

Then AJ McCarron took over and Alabama pulled away for a 20-7 victory that won't look impressive upon replay but might just be the gut check the Tide needed with an all-or-nothing showdown with No. 7 Auburn looming on the horizon.

McCarron had his fair share of struggles during the first half. Alabama's veteran quarterback completed just 9 of 19 passes. Frustrated, he threw his first interception in 139 attempts. But none of that mattered when he took the field with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Barking orders like a determined general, he led a nine-play, 77-yard drive that culminated in a spectacular back-shoulder touchdown pass to Kevin Norwood. Alabama took a two-score lead and never looked back.

Alabama wasn't perfect for the remainder of the game. McCarron threw another interception and Mississippi State was able to move the ball effectively, albeit without finding the end zone. Like a pitcher without his best fastball or his sharpest curve, Alabama found a way to win.

"We won the game, but we didn't really beat the other team, if that makes any sense," Saban explained. "That's not how we usually try to do it, but there's a lot that our players can learn from this."

Norwood later crystalized his coach’s comments.

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

Norwood said "it wasn't us" and "we didn't play Bama ball," noting how the offense came out sluggish and stayed that way until the very end. Why that happened, he couldn't say.

"It was the most difficult game I've played all season," UA right guard Anthony Steen said. " … It took us a while to warm up and we had our ups and downs, but luckily we won the game."

Where many of his teammates were somber and even negative, McCarron chose to look on the bright side. He had his second-lowest quarterback rating (113.5) of the season, but he saw the game as a teaching moment.

In a move that would have made his coach proud, McCarron said that "it was good for us to struggle and win."

"It reminds you that you're not as good as you think," he added.

The voters in the Associated Press and coaches' polls may not see it that way, but the fact remains that Alabama escaped Starkville with a win, undefeated and still in the driver's seat to win the SEC West. All that separates the Tide from a trip to the conference title game and a berth in the BCS National Championship is a Nov. 30 matchup against Auburn.

If Alabama is going to make it that far, games like Saturday night's can't happen again, Saban said. Everything needs to be clicking.

"That takes a heck of a lot of process, it takes a lot of discipline, it takes a lot of character, and you have to have those things if you're going to separate from other teams," Saban said. "That's something that we have to prove that we can do."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ed Stinson's mammoth shoulders shrink, relaxing from the form that only half an hour earlier flexed to crash and beat up on 300-pound blockers for a full 60 minutes. Alabama's senior defensive end looked tired in the eyes after his team beat rival Tennessee 45-10 on Saturday, his dark brown pupils soft and eager for rest. After three straight SEC contests and seven consecutive game weeks, he and his teammates were eager for some time off.

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

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

And that's just the injuries we know of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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