Alabama Crimson Tide: Maurice Smith

Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

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

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

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

Secondary position rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

This one appears to be a work in progress as A-Day was not the most impressive performance for the offense. Outside of a failed flea-flicker attempt, there wasn’t any play or formation called by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that really wowed you. But, as one player told reporters after the game, only about 10 percent of the playbook was available. With that said, the reviews on Kiffin have been overwhelmingly positive. Nick Saban said he expects Kiffin to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands more often this season, specifically to players such as Amari Cooper. That should be music to fans’ ears. And as far as the players themselves, they’ve noticed a difference in Kiffin’s demeanor and play-calling. They’ve said his offense is much more simple and “player-friendly.” So while we never saw major schematic changes or a change in the tempo of the offense publicly, rest assured that Kiffin is working his magic behind the scenes.

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
OK, so this wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering prediction. But we did name names. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Maurice Smith were spotlighted as players who missed spring practice last season but would benefit from it as sophomores. And with at least two out of the three, there was some measure of success. Reuben Foster, despite a series of stinger injuries, continued to draw positive praise and should be in the mix for significant reps at middle linebacker this fall. Robert Foster, on the other hand, made some spectacular catches at practice this spring, vaulting himself up the depth chart where he could be one of the first receivers off the bench. Smith, however, remained mostly quiet. Right after Eddie Jackson went down with a torn ACL, Smith missed a scrimmage with a concussion. Tony Brown, a five-star early enrollee, took full advantage of the reps and played well at A-Day, making an impressive interception despite playing in a no-contact jersey.

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

It took some time, but maybe not as much as some might have expected. Cam Robinson skipped his high school graduation and bypassed his prom to enroll at Alabama in January and compete in spring practice. With Cyrus Kouandjio gone at left tackle, he saw an opportunity. And after a few weeks of getting a handle on the offense, Robinson took a step forward, earning reps with the first team at left tackle, where he started A-Day. Robinson still has some growing pains to work out, but given his size, talent and early improvement, he'll be in serious contention to start at left tackle from Day 1. Though Saban called the five-star signee a “work in progress,” he also cautioned that, “You get experience by making mistakes. ... He did some good things, and he’s done some really good things all spring long.”

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

By the sounds of it, Trey DePriest is doing everything coaches are asking of him this spring. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, he has responded by becoming a more vocal presence on the defense, leading a group that’s as young in spots as it is talented. As DePriest put it, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.” And that means calling the majority of plays on defense, getting his front seven in line and the secondary in tune. Saban praised DePriest’s knowledge of the defense as well as his maturity, saying he has the ability to “affect other players in a positive way.” Judging by the small window of A-Day, he has done just that as the defense didn’t allow a point in the first half.

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.
The injury to Eddie Jackson is still reverberating through Alabama’s roster. The promising young cornerback, who was in position to start as a sophomore, tore his ACL during last weekend’s scrimmage, forcing him to miss the remainder of spring camp. On Tuesday, he was seen in crutches awkwardly stepping into a crimson SUV that carried him away from the football facilities where his teammates were practicing.

With Jackson gone, others have had to step up.

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

So where does that leave the Crimson Tide?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Jackson gone, the time is now. Smith will be back at practice soon, but there’s no telling who will be next to go down during this final week of spring practice. If someone is sidelined, it might hurt the depth chart as a whole, but it will help certain players in particular.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.
Editor’s note: This is Part II in a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Alabama this spring.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Early enrollees get all the love. Because they graduate high school a semester ahead of schedule and arrive on campus in time for spring practice, their development is accelerated. In the case of Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard, we saw what a few months could do. Both became significant contributors as true freshmen, with the latter coming on in a big way in the bowl game.

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
AP Photo/Rusty CostanzaLinebacker Reuben Foster could become a force in his sophomore season.
Along the way we neglected the rest of the 2013 signing class. A few of its members -- Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson, for example -- made an impact as true freshmen, but the rest of the late arrivals were largely forgotten, buried on the depth chart or tucked away even deeper on the scout team.

They’re not gone, though. As Alabama marches toward the start of spring practice, watch out for many of the redshirt freshmen and true sophomores who enrolled late in 2013 to take a major step forward on both sides of the football. With fall camp and an entire season of development under their belt, now is the time where we should see their biggest growth spurt in the program.

Here are three such players who could make an impact in 2014:

LB Reuben Foster: Boy, was his recruitment a whirlwind of emotion. It wasn’t really until he arrived in Tuscaloosa that he could finally take a deep breath and relax. Now the former blue-chip linebacker isn’t being questioned about his Auburn tattoo or his flip-flop commitment. That’s all a thing of the past. After playing mostly on special teams as a freshman, appearing in nine games and registering 12 total tackles, he has the chance to break through into the starting rotation. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL and his inside linebacker spot up for grabs, look for the athletic Foster to compete with the likes of Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland for more playing time in 2014.

WR Robert Foster: The departures of Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell have created movement in the receiver ranks. And while no one is moving Amari Cooper off the top spot, the rest of the rotation is continually in flux. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones should help form the top three, but Alabama routinely needs fourth and fifth options off the bench, which Foster could provide. The former No. 2-ranked wide receiver has the build coaches covet. At 6-foot-3 with good hands and good speed, he’s a potential matchup nightmare for defenses. As new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin attempts to find more playmakers, he could discover one in Foster.

CB Maurice Smith: It’s far too early to count out another former rookie cornerback in Eddie Jackson. Though his playing time went way up then way down and back again in 2013, he still possesses the size and athleticism defensive coaches like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart love. But don’t forget Smith, who started only one game as a true freshman last season and played in all but one contest, unlike Jackson who missed a total of six games. Smith was the highest-rated cornerback Alabama signed last year -- the No. 12 corner in the ESPN 300 -- who didn’t make the trek from his native Texas to Tuscaloosa until the summer. With a full season of preparation and an entire offseason of conditioning, he could make a move at cornerback where both starting positions are up for grabs and no true incumbent is present.

  • Part I: Lane Kiffin provides a jolt

Room to improve: CB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will shift from coaching linebackers to the secondary to make way for Steele's move. Steele, according to ESPN, was offered the Louisville defensive coordinator job but turned it down to remain with Saban in Tuscaloosa.

The latest staff shakeup comes on the heels of Saban hiring Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator and Bo Davis as defensive line coach. Doug Nussmeier left after two seasons to lead Michigan's offense and Chris Rumph left after three seasons to coach Texas' defensive line.

Brown spent one season with the Tide after two years as Colorado's defensive coordinator. Like Saban, he had a wealth of NFL experience with 15 years coaching in the league.

Steele joined Alabama's support staff in 2013, directing the Tide's recruiting efforts. But Steele made his career as an on-the-field coach, spending time as a defensive coordinator at Clemson and Alabama and three seasons as head coach at Baylor from 1999-2002.

By moving to coach the secondary, where Smart has worked before, Smart will have a chance to work more hands on with a unit that had its struggles in 2013.

Prior to the Sugar Bowl, Smart lamented Alabama's inconsistency at cornerback.

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

Smart will have plenty of young talent to develop, though, as Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith both showed promise in 2013, playing significant snaps as freshman. Alabama also welcomed in five-star cornerback Tony Brown as an early enrollee this month.

ESPN's Chris Low contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in Alabama's 49-0 win over Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon.

Starting off slowly: There's something about the first quarter that Alabama's offense doesn't like. Even against inferior competition, the Tide struggle to score points early. We saw it against Mississippi State last week and we saw it again with Chattanooga on Saturday. All told, Alabama has scored 13 points in the first quarter of its last three games. Thankfully for AJ McCarron and the offense, their defense has come ready to play, shutting out opponents over the same period of time.

Future starter?: Cyrus Jones could have started. So could have Eddie Jackson. John Fulton would have been the sentimental pick to start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue on senior day. But in the end it was true freshman Maurice Smith trotting out to start at cornerback in the first series against Chattanooga. He played well, too, keeping the Mocs receivers in check and failing to draw a penalty. Whether he'll start moving forward this season is unknown, but Saturday's game may wind up being looked back on this offseason when fans and prognosticators analyze Alabama's cornerback situation in 2014.

Special teams: We've written at length about Alabama's offense and defense, so now seems like a good time to point out just how good the special teams have been. The forgotten unit has more than held its own this season. Cody Mandell has been one of the best punters in the nation, Cade Foster has been more than reliable kicking field goals and the coverage teams have kept the field position battle in Alabama's favor. But the big difference this year is the number of big plays out of the special teamers. Christion Jones returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against Chattanooga, his third touchdown returning kicks this year, and A'Shawn Robinson later blocked a field goal attempt, setting up another score. All told, Alabama has seven non-offensive touchdowns this season, the most since 2008.

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.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 21, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Iron Bowl will have to wait on Alabama.

First there's the matter of Chattanooga. Oh, those poor Mocs daring to stand in the way of the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

[+] EnlargeHead coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban wasn't necessarily pleased with how Alabama played last week, which is not a good thing for Chattanooga this week.
Alabama is on a collision course to face Auburn on Nov. 30, but while the Tigers have the week off to prepare, the Tide will host Chattanooga for senior day at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

And after the way Alabama traveled to Mississippi State last weekend, turning the ball over a season-high four times, playing a generally sloppy game and failing to dominate a sub-.500 team, there's plenty of motivation for the Tide to come out and stomp the Mocs, end the game early and turn its attention to Auburn and the Iron Bowl.

But what is UA coach Nick Saban looking for? After lamenting the way his team entered last weekend's game, he's hoping for better preparation and better focus.

"I think we're really trying to focus on attention to detail, doing the little things right," Saban said on Wednesday. "[I] don't think we really finished the last game the way we wanted to in terms of the discipline to attention to detail and fundamentals, whether it's how you carry the ball, how you block, how you run routes, how you read the coverage, how you cover your man. … I think those are all things we need to focus on improving on.

"We certainly have a lot of respect for anybody we play. The team that we play, they're a good team. They've won eight games. We just have to have a better sense of urgency about how we prepare so that we can improve as a team."

There's no key matchup to focus in on, no position battle to agonize over. Alabama should beat Chattanooga handily and the starters should be out by halftime. Instead, look to the second- and third-string players who might not have much of an impact this season, but could develop into key contributors next season and in the years to come.

Here are a few to watch out for:

LB Dillon Lee: The true sophomore has quietly become one of the top linebackers off the bench this season, flashing good quickness and instincts. He ranks third among non-starters with 15 total tackles. He also has two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.

RB Derrick Henry: He's not had the breakout freshman season many hoped for, but Henry's 10.3 yards per carry average is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider he's 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds. He's run the ball 21 times -- third most on the team -- for 216 yards and a touchdown.

CB Maurice Smith: Who knows what the cornerback situation will look like a year from now? Deion Belue will be gone and both starting spots will be up for grabs, and while Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have the inside track, don't forget Smith. There's a reason the true freshman has seen the field this season, racking up 10 tackles in 10 appearances.

WR Chris Black: After redshirting his first year on campus, Black has had trouble climbing the latter at receiver. But when you consider that Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell -- three of the top five receivers -- will be gone next season, Black's opportunity doesn't seem far away. He should see the field in the second half, likely when Blake Sims comes on at quarterback.

Five things: Alabama-Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

Cornerback carousel: First it was John Fulton. Then it was Cyrus Jones. Then it was Eddie Jackson. Then it was Bradley Sylve. And then it came back to Fulton. But his stint opposite Deion Belue at cornerback appears to be short-lived, as Saban said on his weekly radio show that Jones will likely start in place of Sylve, who is out with a high ankle sprain. Saban said Jones, who switched from receiver to defensive back this spring, is "probably played the best of all those guys right now." As far as Jackson and fellow freshman Maurice Smith, "It's still a little bit of a work in progress," Saban said.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was no dipping a toe in the water for preseason No. 1 Alabama. The Crimson Tide instead had to jump right in, battling sharks every week in the first month of the season.

The early stretch was brutal at times. Sure, Alabama looked like the best team in the country and got through the first four games undefeated, but there were certainly some blemishes revealed along the way. Each week and each win was a struggle.

Virginia Tech opened the season by stifling Alabama's offense in Atlanta, getting into the face of quarterback AJ McCarron by applying constant pressure on the backfield. The offensive line, a group that featured three new starters, looked nothing if not inexperienced.

[+] EnlargeScott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Crimson Tide defense had its most complete effort of the season on Saturday.
Ninth-ranked Texas A&M then lit up Alabama two weeks later. Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans tore apart the secondary, abusing the Tide with the deep pass. UA set a kind of record you don't want to see, allowing the most yards in school history.

Even Colorado State, the $1.5 million cupcake courtesy of the Mountain West Conference, gave Alabama trouble. The Tide defense made too many mistakes and the offense was terribly inconsistent, failing to convert on a single third-down attempt in the first three quarters.

Then came No. 24 Ole Miss, an undefeated team playing with house money against Alabama. But this time, mercifully, the Tide put together a complete game and won, ending a four-game streak that tested the mettle of the championship contenders.

Now it's time to exhale. Alabama survived the early onslaught and can now take a breath to regroup with Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee up next. None of the four is ranked, and only the Razorbacks and the Vols are above .500, albeit at just one game over each. The four teams' combined record (7-11) is noticeably worse than the combined record of the first four teams Alabama faced (13-6) and the last four teams Alabama will face to end the season (11-6).

To make matters even more favorable for the Tide, Alabama will get a bye to start the month of November before hosting LSU on Nov. 9.

No team in the SEC has an easier next five weeks than Alabama. South Carolina is a close second and the only other school in the conference that won't face a ranked team over that time, but at least the Gamecocks don't have a cupcake like Georgia State to snack on. Instead, Steve Spurier's team will be tested somewhat by Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi State and undefeated Missouri. In fact, if one-loss South Carolina plays like it did against unranked UCF this past weekend, it might not be much of a championship contender come November.

The rest of the league's title contenders don't have it so easy. Georgia has rival Florida to contend with, LSU has Florida and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks, and Texas A&M has to deal with the same explosive Rebels on Oct. 12.

Ole Miss is one of seven SEC schools to play two ranked opponents over the next five weeks. Only Tennessee and Missouri have it worse with three ranked opponents each in the month of October.

While Nick Saban might not be fond of focusing on records, it's hard to ignore the obvious -- if Alabama doesn't make it to November undefeated, it would be a shock. The Crimson Tide's coach isn't one to admit those things and he won't ever say an opponent is overmatched, but he and his staff do have the luxury of not stressing over serious competition the next few weeks.

Instead, they can budget their time wisely, resting banged up starters such as Ryan Kelly and T.J. Yeldon while working out the kinks with some younger guys for the stretch run, especially those on defense such as rookie cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith.

"I'm looking more at the standard, not the record," Saban said following his team's shutout of No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday night. "And I think it's important that our players do the same so we can continue to improve."

Improvement, though, might be the best Saban can hope for. Making another statement like his team did by thumping Ole Miss doesn't appear to be possible against the forthcoming carousel of unranked, overmatched opponents. Rather, building up some level of consistency over the next few weeks will be the challenge as the scoreboard certainly doesn't figure to be.

"We have high expectations for the standard of how we play," Saban said. "And I think more than what the record is, I think and our team thinks, what do we need to do so we can continue to improve so we can play the the standard on a more consistent basis.

"I would say if there's any criticism of myself, our staff and our team, it would be the fact that we have not been as consistent as we'd like to be."

Saban got through a rough, inconsistent start to the season intact and in the driver's seat for another run to the national championship. For the next month, he'll be in the enviable position of fine-tuning his team's mistakes against lesser competition.

While the rest of the SEC slogs through the ghoulish month of October, Alabama will be playing trick or treat each Saturday. All that remains now is reaching LSU on Nov. 9 without slipping on the proverbial banana peel.

Five things: Alabama-Ole Miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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