Alabama Crimson Tide: Anthony Steen

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
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Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.
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.

Room to improve: Offensive line

February, 19, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It wasn’t all bad. It’s sometimes important to remember that. Despite a very sour finish against Oklahoma, Alabama’s offensive line wasn’t a complete disaster. In fact, it was far from that. The Tide actually allowed six fewer sacks this past season than they did the season before when the line was hailed as the best in the country and one of the best of all-time.

But, yes, there’s room for the line to improve. The running game wasn’t as dominant as in years past, and the line is somewhat to blame for that. The pocket wasn’t as wide open as quarterback AJ McCarron would have like it, and that came from up front.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly will help anchor Alabama's offensive line in 2014.
With Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama’s franchise left tackle, and Anthony Steen, a three-year starter at left guard, off to the NFL, there’s plenty of work to do for offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. He wasn’t there to coach the 2012 offensive line, and now all that Steen and Kouandjio are gone, neither are any of its former five starters.

Battling for No. 1: The good news for Cristobal is that because of the injuries throughout last season, he already has a good idea of who his candidates are to start. Ryan Kelly should remain the starter at center, as should Arie Kouandjio at left guard. Austin Shepherd has done nothing to lost his job at right tackle. And thanks to opportunities throughout the season, we know that Leon Brown is good candidate to start in Steen’s place at guard. And Grant Hill could play either guard or tackle, if need be. Hill, the former No. 1-rated offensive guard coming out of high school, is a more natural fit inside at guard, though.

Strength in numbers: Brandon Hill might be the most intriguing returning player on the offensive line. The massive tackle/guard prospect came to campus last year hugely overweight and has since trimmed down to a more manageable 385 pounds. If he sheds a few more belt sizes, he could be push for time at either position. While you’re at it, don’t count out Alphonse Taylor, either. The rising sophomore is no slouch at 335 pounds and was listed as the backup to Steen throughout the regular season. Meanwhile, look for Chad Lindsay, who started four games, to provide quality depth behind Kelly at center.

New on the scene: The wildcard in the competition to replace Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle is Cameron Robinson. In fact, the two are very similar in that they were both the No. 1-ranked offensive tackle prospects coming out of high school, and they both had the look of an NFL All-Pro from the minute they stepped foot on campus. Robinson, the No. 3 overall prospect in the country, is a massive 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds already. Should he get a firm grasp on the playbook early on -- he’s already enrolled and will compete in the spring, which helps -- he could become a part of the equation by fall camp. Left tackle is one of the most difficult positions on the line to learn, but you’ll recall that Kouandjio played in eight games as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. In addition to Robinson, Alabama will welcome in the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked centers in the country, Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer, as well as the No. 28-ranked offensive guard, Montel McBride.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban had plenty to be proud about with the signing class he assembled last Wednesday. It was talented, deep and met every need the Crimson Tide had heading into the 2014 season. It was, according to ESPN and every other major recruiting outlet, the No. 1 class in the country by a wide margin.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDE Da'Shawn Hand could make an immediate impact for Alabama in 2014.
But for Alabama, top recruiting classes are nothing new. It was the third consecutive year the Tide finished No. 1 in ESPN’s class rankings. In fact, no class assembled by Saban with the benefit of a full calendar year to recruit (since 2008) has finished lower than No. 3 overall.

There was something special about this class, apart from the record five five-star athletes and 19 ESPN 300 signees. This class of offensive linemen might be the most decorated in the program’s history. It is, at the very least, the best Saban has ever put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa.

According to Saban, solidifying the trenches was the goal.

“I think that was a point of emphasis early on when we started this, is that we needed to get quality people up front on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters at his annual signing day news conference. “We got six offensive linemen, and I think six defensive linemen. Even though three of those guys are junior college guys, we felt that it was important that we get some guys that had a little more maturity about them, a little more veteran experience.”

The defensive linemen could turn out to be just as special. Da’Shawn Hand, a dynamic athlete out of Virginia, was the second-best defensive end in the country, according to ESPN. Jarran Reed, a former Florida commitment, could make an instant impact after transferring from junior college, as could former freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway. Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier could develop into solid contributors as well.

But make no mistake, the most impressive group of the class was the O-line, led by No. 1-rated offensive tackle Cameron Robinson of Monroe, La. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound athlete brings back visions of Cyrus Kouandjio, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle recruit when he came to Alabama only a few years ago. With a similar build and similar attributes to Robinson, Kouandjio started eight games as a true freshman before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season.

Robinson isn’t the only impressive tackle, though. Dominick Jackson, the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle in the country, is ready to make a good first impression. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, no one is going to miss the towering product from College of San Mateo in California.

[+] EnlargeCameron Robinson
Miller Safrit/ESPNCameron Robinson, the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle, leads an impressive group of offensive line recruits for Alabama.
Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer offer a similar two-deep at the center position. Casher, from nearby Mobile, Ala., and Hassenauer, of Minnesota, were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 centers in the ESPN 300, respectively.

Throw in Montel McBride, the No. 28-ranked offensive guard in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher, the No. 3 offensive guard in 2014, and you’ve got an offensive line class with both quality and depth.

In fact, both areas are unmatched in Saban’s tenure with Alabama. The six prospects averaged a scout’s grade of 84.17. Compare that to the previous high of 81.67 in 2011 when Kouandjio and three other offensive linemen signed with Alabama. Four O-line classes (2007-10, 12) had an average scout’s grade of 80 or lower.

At this point it’s important to remember that rankings aren’t everything. As coaches were quick to point out throughout the last week, whatever stars a recruit “earned” in high school vanish upon enrollment. It’s no longer about who you are as much as what you can do.

Case in point: Alabama’s offensive line, circa 2012. That line, featuring All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, was hailed as the best in the country and arguably the best in the history of the program, clearing ground for an offense that took to Tide to the BCS National Championship.

But if you judged that line based on each player’s recruiting rankings, it would have been considered middle-of-the-road at best. Jones was a C+ tackle prospect out of Tennessee (scout’s grade: 78) and Warmack was thought of in much the same way (scout’s grade: 79). Right guard Anthony Steen was a three-star prospect who wound up starting three years at Alabama. Big D.J. Fluker (6-7, 325 pounds) was the most highly regarded recruit of the bunch, the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 12 player overall, according to ESPN.

Saban, for his part, wouldn’t be sad to see recruiting rankings fall off a steep cliff. We can talk about how great Alabama’s O-line class is today, but he’d like to see it judged three years from now when players have developed and have an opportunity to move on to the NFL.

“The challenge for all these young men [who] got recruited [on Wednesday], wherever they're going, is to be able to stay focused on what they need to do to improve as players and do the things that they need to do to become very effective college football players,” Saban said. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all, maybe even more so going from college to the NFL, I think is having the maturity to be able to stay focused on the things they need to do to develop as players and keep a positive attitude toward the goal they have, understand what it takes to accomplish the goals they have and then have the discipline they have to execute it every day.”
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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Because he’s a signed prospect, Nick Saban will have to address the addition of Jacob Coker during spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims will be one of five QBs who will be competing in Alabama's spring practice.
He’ll have to, at some point, answer questions about the quarterback transferring from Florida State, the strong-armed former backup to a Heisman Trophy winner whom Alabama fans hope will develop into something of an award-winning quarterback himself in Tuscaloosa.

But there will be so much more to spring practice than Coker, mostly because he won’t even be there. If you think Alabama’s offense is simply waiting on his arrival, you’re wrong. While Coker finishes his degree in Tallahassee, new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have more than enough work to do.

So while spring practice may still be several weeks away, here’s a look at three things Kiffin must accomplish during camp. You’ll notice Coker’s name is nowhere to be found.

The Forgotten
Oh, the other guys? Yeah, Alabama has quite a few quarterbacks already on the roster. Blake Sims, AJ McCarron’s backup, is still around. So is Alec Morris, who traveled with the team as a redshirt freshman last season. Luke Del Rio’s transfer makes last year's trio of true freshmen one less, but Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod are both back. And David Cornwell, No. 4 in the ESPN 300, enrolled early and will compete during spring practice as well.

Kiffin, who is also the quarterbacks coach, has five guys who want to win the starting job now. They're not going to wait around until someone else -- we won’t say his name again, remember? -- arrives in the summer.

Getting Sims more comfortable taking snaps under center and throwing from the pocket will be a big challenge for Kiffin, as will developing confidence in the younger quarterbacks. Having them all in tune with the new playbook will be a big goal of the spring, giving them the leg up they'll need to enter fall camp ready to compete from Day 1.

Developing young weapons
Former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been blamed by some for limiting the explosiveness of Alabama’s offense in 2013. Further analysis disputes that fact, though, as Alabama had the fifth-highest percentage of plays of 10 or more yards in the country last season. The more appropriate critique might have been who was making big plays rather than how many as Nussmeier struggled to incorporate new offensive weapons like O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry.

Howard, despite being the most athletic tight end on the roster and one of the best playmakers on offense, caught just 14 passes. In nine games he caught one or no passes. Meanwhile, Brian Vogler, the starter, had all of eight receptions in 2013 and caught no passes in the final three games.

How Henry, the clear winner of the Allstate Sugar Bowl with 161 total yards and two touchdowns, took so long to develop is anyone’s guess. He didn’t carry the ball a single time in Alabama’s four closest regular-season games: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. His big body might have helped when Alabama faced a number of short-yardage situations in the Iron Bowl.

Kiffin, though, won’t have the excuse of youth with Howard or Henry this fall. Getting them more involved in the offense and developing underused weapons like Chris Black and Raheem Falkins will be paramount to Alabama's success in 2014.

Reestablishing the offensive line
Here’s a bit of not-so breaking news: Alabama's 2012 offensive line that so many called the best in the history of college football is gone. All of it. With Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen off to the NFL, every piece of that five-man puzzle has left campus.

Now Kiffin and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal must find new faces to build around. Three starters will return -- center Ryan Kelly, guard Arie Kouandjio and tackle Austin Shepherd -- and one or more of them will have to assume a greater leadership role with so many veterans gone. Leon Brown, who filled in admirably for Steen in the Sugar Bowl, looks ready to start, and the left tackle competition will be heated with a number of returning players and incoming freshman Cam Robinson eager to earn the spot.

Philosophically, a return to a more physical style on the line could be in order. With more inexperience up front than usual and a new quarterback under center, Kiffin might lean toward a run-heavy offense, especially early in the season. Establishing that proper mindset on the line early might be more important than finding who the starting five will be during spring practice.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillSafety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is one of four Alabama players who are leaving school early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Their leadership and experience will be missed -- along with seniors AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Steen -- but their talent can be replaced. When you're the only school in the country to finish in the top three of ESPN's class rankings every year since 2008, you have that luxury of plug-and-play. Blue-chip prospects overflow from Alabama's football offices, rattling out its pockets every once in a while like loose change.

"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."

Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.

It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.

This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."

Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.

Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.

You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.

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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to put Saban-to-Texas to bed and get back to the matter of playing football.

No. 3-ranked Alabama's season isn't over yet. Practices and a bowl date with No. 11 Oklahoma in New Orleans remain.

For Nick Saban, who after weeks of speculation and a new contract gets to focus solely on his Crimson Tide again, the next few weeks will be valuable. Not only does finishing the season well matter, but gathering momentum into next year is important as well.

With that in mind, here are five key areas Alabama must improve upon between now and the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and Alabama still have plenty to sort out in preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Put all the talk to rest: Think AJ McCarron got tired of answering all the questions about his coach leaving for Texas? What about the rest of his teammates, who had to wonder at some point whether all the rumors could turn out to be true? The brief offseason between the Auburn game and the start of bowl practice was more eventful than Alabama and Saban would have liked. In fact, Saban loathes these things. Off-the-field distractions are the bane of his coaching existence. Being on the road recruiting, he didn't have time to address his team. But on Tuesday, he will. Putting the talk to rest and focusing on the task at hand -- Oklahoma, remember? -- will be vital in how the next few weeks play out.

Find motivation: The Iron Bowl loss has to linger. McCarron can say all he wants that he'll root for Auburn now, but in his heart of hearts he has to be jealous. He and his teammates have to be mad. This Alabama team that was supposed to be preparing for a trip to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif. Instead, it's forced to muster the energy to travel to New Orleans for a BCS bowl no one in Tuscaloosa wanted. Finishing the season off right should be motivation enough, but that's not always been the case. Alabama fans will remember the last Sugar Bowl. It didn't end so well, with Utah upsetting the heavily favored Tide. In their last non-championship bowl, however, Alabama throttled Michigan State at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., 49-7, on Jan, 1, 2011.

Replace Anthony Steen: Who will it be? The options to replace Steen as the right guard are numerous. Alphonse Taylor is listed as his backup, but Kellen Williams wound up starting in Steen's absence earlier in the season. Then there's Chad Lindsay, who has started three games at center and could slide over to guard. But if Alabama is truly looking ahead, it might turn to Grant Hill, who has played tackle primarily in his freshman season but came to Tuscaloosa as the top-rated offensive guard out of high school. Right tackle Austin Shepherd will return next season and there's a chance top-ranked offensive tackle Cam Robinson could step in at left tackle immediately, should Cyrus Kouandjio enter the draft. If the staff is serious about Hill playing as a sophomore, he might be better off beginning the process at guard now.

Stop the running game: It wasn't as if Alabama wasn't ready for Auburn's running game. Gus Malzahn's Tigers made no secret of their desire to move the ball on the ground against the Tide. And still, Saban and Co. couldn't stop it. Tre Mason and Nick Marshall helped Auburn to 296 yards rushing, the most allowed by Alabama since it faced Georgia Southern in 2011. In fact, Marshall's 99 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in the Saban era at Alabama. Now, Oklahoma is not the same type of dynamic running team as Auburn, but it's not as far off as you might expect. The Sooners have demonstrated an ability to run the ball this season, averaging 235.8 yards on the ground per game, good enough for 18th in the country. For the sake of the bowl game and for the many Iron Bowls that lie ahead, Alabama has to figure out how to stop the run.

Find a quarterback: It would be unreasonable to assume that Alabama hasn't already begun looking for McCarron's replacement at quarterback. But the process that began long ago should begin in earnest during bowl practice. McCarron will continue taking reps, but at this point in his career, he doesn't need every snap to be prepared. Why not stick another quarterback in with the first team and see what they can do? Whether it's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod or Luke Del Rio -- and, yes, the list of candidates is that long -- someone needs to emerge before the start of spring practice. By getting a jump start now, Alabama can go into the offseason with a plan in place.

Alabama survives a gut check

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
12:42
AM ET

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. -- Alabama's offensive line represents the ultimate failure to manage expectations, to live in the world as it is as opposed to the world as it might become.

This season's line wasn't the same as its predecessor, but it was expected to have the same type of production. Just look at Ryan Kelly. He was no Barrett Jones, yet he was hyped as a possible improvement over a player with more accolades than any in Alabama history. How crazy was that?

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line have gotten better with each game.
Looking back, it's easy to spot the lunacy. That's no knock on Kelly, who could very well end up being a more talented center than Jones by the time his career is over. But come on. You don't replace Jones' Outland and Rimington trophies overnight. You can't quantify what his experience and leadership meant over four years as a starter at guard, tackle and center for the Crimson Tide.

At the same time, you don't sneak Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker out the back door and expect no one to notice. Those were two first-round NFL draft picks. You could have run a rusty wheelchair behind them and picked up first downs. Granted, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd were talented replacements, but they hadn't started a game in their careers. We didn't even know if Kouandjio could stay healthy for an entire season, for goodness sake.

In other words, we should have seen Alabama's early-season struggles on the offensive line coming. We should have expected the performances vs. Virginia Tech and Colorado State when the line didn't get push, AJ McCarron was pressured, and the running game never materialized. We shouldn't have thought the success of 2012 would transition into 2013 without so much as a blip in the radar. It doesn't work that way.

All they really needed was time and more realistic expectations.

So it's no wonder we've seen such a dramatic improvement from Alabama's offensive line over the past few weeks. The line hasn't allowed a single sack since the third quarter of the Ole Miss game on Sept. 28 -- that's a streak of 17 quarters for those keeping score at home -- and the running game is suddenly potent again. The offense has begun to click on all cylinders, jumping up to No. 35 nationally with 462.8 yards per game.

Coach Nick Saban touted their improved chemistry and trust with one another, saying how important experience has been to their development.

"They have played well," he said. "They've run blocked well these last few weeks. The last four weeks we thought played well on the offensive line. I think that's important to us, especially with AJ. If he doesn't get pressured in the pocket and we get people open, he's pretty accurate throwing the ball and makes good choices and decisions.

"I think it's a key to us being successful that they continue to improve and play well up front. We'll play against some good defensive linemen and some good defensive teams down the road."

By "down the road" Saban meant this Saturday's game against LSU. Though the 13th-ranked Tigers' defense has been up-and-down this season, they still possess some of the country's best talent on the defensive line. Tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson are monsters at 309 and 294 pounds, respectively.

LSU currently ranks fifth in the league in scoring defense (24.8 ppg), sixth in passing efficiency defense (131.9) and have accounted for the fifth-most sacks (20) in the league.

Had Saturday's game come earlier in the season for Alabama, there might be a full-blown crisis among Tide fans over the state of the offensive line. We'd be hearing questions about whether they could handle the pass rush and if that would mean the offense as a whole wouldn't score enough points to win.

But instead, we're hearing next to nothing. Luckily for Alabama, the offensive line has found its stride in the nick of time. It's almost as if the early struggles never happened. The names of Jones, Warmack and Fluker aren't forgotten in Tuscaloosa, but they're not as agonized over as they were in the first few weeks of the season.

"The past three or four games we were clicking on all levels of the run game and pass game," said right guard Anthony Steen, "and right now we’re just trying not to lose the beat and stay on top of things.”

Steen, a veteran presence with more than 30 starts under his belt, didn't know about the line's streak without allowing a sack until a reporter told him. He wasn't focused on that, he said, and neither were his teammates. Rather than getting to up or too down, he's tried to keep everyone even-keeled.

What's been said and what's happened this season won't matter when LSU comes to town this weekend, and Steen knows that. He said the Tigers' defensive line "will be the most physical line we'll see all season" and that's the only challenge he's worried about.

"We know it’s going to be a tough game," he said. "We know it’s probably going to come down to two or three plays. If they have two good plays and an 80-yard pass and an 80-yard run, then we might lose. But if we have two or three good plays then we might win.

"It’s going to be that type of game. We know that, and we know it’s going to come down to the end."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Dad read about it first before calling his son Monday morning to break the good news. Anthony Steen had been named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, and the Alabama veteran right guard was one of the last people to find out.

Steen, according to the release, had the top grade on the line against Kentucky with no missed assignments, no sacks, no pressures and no penalties. Over the phone, his dad told him he finally had the award he'd been waiting for.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Steen
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAnthony Steen was a quiet member of Alabama's star-studded offensive line in 2012. One year later, he's one of the Tide's veteran leaders.
"I was telling my dad I've been working, trying to get that for three years now and I'm glad I finally got it," Steen told reporters in a rare moment of self reflection, one that ended as quickly as it began. "As I told him, I'm not going to sit here and celebrate like he was trying to celebrate for me. I've got another SEC game this week to focus on."

Steen's focus has never wavered since signing with Alabama in 2009. The 6-foot-3, 309-pound senior will joke about being the forgotten man, but he doesn't dwell on it. Like most members of the top-ranked Crimson Tide, his attention is always on what's next. Frankly, it's what coach Nick Saban demands.

What's next for Alabama (6-0, 3-0) this week is Arkansas (3-4, 0-3), a team many wonder if the Tide will overlook. But not Steen. He's started some 30 games in his career at Alabama and in that time he's learned how to mimic his head coach's personality.

"For me, I know that they're an SEC team," Steen said. "If we want to beat them that bad we have to go out in the beginning and play our 'A' game. That's the bottom line. Because if we go out there and don't play our 'A' game then they're going to get it in their head that they have a chance. So we've got to go out there and be on top of things."

Last year we didn't hear much from Steen. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker garnered the lion's share of attention while Steen went to work with the same blue-collar attitude you'd expect of a lineman from rural Mississippi. He pitched the equivalent of 14 perfect games, according to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who said that Steen had no penalties and no sacks allowed all season. But he was never an All-SEC selection, an All-American candidate or even an SEC player of the week. Alabama's staff voted him player of the week just once.

To his teammates, though, his worth has always been evident. We're only now starting to see it play out on a larger stage.

Steen had to step up since last season, both as a leader as well as the face of the offense. Now that Jones, Warmack and Fluker are gone, Steen is the most experienced lineman on the roster. He and Kouandjio were the only two returning starters at the beginning of the season.

But in spite of the turnover, Alabama's line has steadily improved, shaking off the rust after so-so performances against Virginia Tech and Colorado State early in the season. Steen and Co. gave up just one tackle for loss and didn't allow a sack against Kentucky this past weekend. In the two games prior, the line surrendered only one sack of AJ McCarron.

"Unbelievable player," McCarron said of Steen. "Comes to work every day. You never see Steen in a negative mood, never bringing down on the practice field, which helps tremendously because your offensive line takes you as far as you want to go as an offense and a team. You can’t say enough about him. He does everything for us. He’s practiced at center for us with [Ryan] Kelly being out, and he’s done an excellent job of that, too. He really is a great teammate and an a great person to have on the field."

Saban, for his part, called Steen "the most consistent performer that we’ve had, probably, in the offensive line." How he anchors the group in the coming weeks will be vital to Alabama's success over the long haul.

Arkansas and its leading pass-rusher Chris Smith will challenge Alabama's line this Saturday. Then comes the biggest test of the them all on Nov. 9 when sixth-ranked LSU comes to Tuscaloosa.

"Anthony’s got a lot of experience," Saban said. "I think his leadership and his affect on the other people has been critical in the development of the offensive line. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s very confident in what he does. He’s played extremely well for us. I’m pleased and hopeful that he’ll continue to be able to stay healthy and do those things in the future."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Grant Hill's ascent to one of Alabama's best offensive linemen shouldn't be surprising. He's risen quickly before. The true freshman has been taken for granted, and he's shown again and again why he's better than expected.

[+] EnlargeGrant Hill
Jeri A. Gulsby/Alabama AthleticsHis teammates and coaches have appreciated freshman Grant Hill's work ethic and intangibles.
For a long time, we didn't know exactly who Grant Hill was. He seemed like another faceless brute in the trenches, a blue-collar kid from Northern Alabama who lacked flash but made up for it with intensity. So often we root for those type of kids to pan out in college, only they rarely do. In the SEC, you need more than true grit. You need skill.

Hill had that, but we just couldn't see it yet. Something in the film didn't jump out the way former No. 1 offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio did: His reach held defenders perpetually at bay while his quickness revealed itself as he slid effortlessly left to right. Hill, meanwhile, seemed stuck as a middle of the road prospect waiting to emerge.

"Usually, the guys who are bigger may not have that hunger or that desire, but Grant is an extremely hard worker whether it’s in the weight room or on the field," Scott Sharp, Hill's coach at Huntsville High, told ESPN at the time of his commitment. "He has that meanness that you look for in those offensive linemen. He really has the desire to finish plays, finish blocks. And to not just block folks, but maul them."

It took a while, but we eventually took heed of Hill as an elite prospect. His size was always ideal, but it wasn't until late that his athleticism stood out. We started to see why he was a two-sport star making time to meet with track and field coaches during his visits to campus. His hands were superb, his quickness far better than expected. When he faced the best pass-rushers in the country, he was doing more than holding his own, he was stopping them dead in their tracks. At the Under Armour Game, he was named his team's top offensive lineman.

Hill, who began as a filler prospect in Alabama's recruiting class, was suddenly a centerpiece as the No. 1-ranked guard. He enrolled in school and immediately made an impression.

"He's fast and strong, which I wasn't expecting that," UA right guard Anthony Steen said at SEC media days. He obviously wants to start. Every day he gets up at 6 a.m."

Steen's opinion never wavered. When fall camp began, he complimented Hill's work ethic again, saying, "He's never relaxing. I like that about him."

"He'll probably be one of the best left tackles to come out of here soon," said Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama's starting tackle.

We didn't know how soon. The starting five was set early in fall camp, and Hill was predictably not a part of it, backing up Kouandjio at left tackle. But even as a reserve, Hill made waves.

Head coach Nick Saban looked at Hill and knew he'd have to burn his redshirt. Saban said he "isn't a guy who's going to sit here with a bad hand" if he can make it better, and in Hill he saw that opportunity.

"I don't care if we're getting beat by 40 or winning by 40, it doesn't matter," Saban said on his radio show last week. "We're going to play him because he deserves to play."

Hill took to the field early this past Saturday, becoming the 10th true freshman to play this season.

"I feel like we need him," Saban said after the game. "I think it creates some competition. I think he's very close to being one of our five best players."

Saban praised Hill's intelligence, calling him a "very bright guy" with "great intangibles."

"Very football smart. ... He's one of those guys that is going to make sure he knows what to do and how to do it."

Hill isn't allowed to speak with the reporters because of UA's policy regarding freshmen, but that didn't stop teammates from praising him after Alabama's rout of Georgia State.

"Grant's a great player," Arie Kouandjio, UA's starting left guard, said. "He's got a lot of potential, and he's really good at focusing in. I think the sky's the limit if he keeps improving."

For now, Hill's impact should be limited to a reserve capacity. Depth, though, is what the offensive line needs. It's already lost Ryan Kelly to an injury, and there's no telling when the injury bug might hit again. With games against unranked Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee in the coming weeks, Hill should get plenty of reps to build on what's already been a solid start.

He may remain an under-the-radar player for the time being, but don't expect it to stay that way for long. We may not see all he has to offer now, but we're getting a glimpse of where he's headed.

"You couldn't ask for a guy [who] has better intangibles," Saban said. "When you have great intangibles, that's what helps you sort of accomplish whatever your goals are, whatever your vision is for what you want to do."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Sabanisms are a dime a dozen. Now in his fifth decade coaching football, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has plenty of phrases he'll call on like "positive energy" and "mental discipline." But the expression he's used most often this season has been "consistency of performance" -- in other words, how well a player or a team performs each day.

It's a coaching cliche and an obscure concept, sure, but it's also highly applicable to this team and especially this offense. From week to week, there's been no telling which Alabama will show up: the offense that struggled to run the football and convert on third down against Virginia Tech and Colorado State or the offense that ran the ball effectively, set up play action and moved the chains against Texas A&M and Ole Miss?

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron maneuvers around a defender.
The ups and downs have been bothersome to a coach who relishes consistency. Not knowing whether the execution will be there from game to game has been understandably disappointing for Saban. Even during a week where Alabama should throttle a subpar Georgia State team that's arguably the worst in the FBS, he harped on the idea of maintaining their level of play.

"The question now is, are we going to be able to build on this, continue to improve as a team, not be satisfied with where we are, so that we can improve and get better execution and improve consistency in the things that we do and how we play," Saban said on Monday.

The hope for Saban and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is that the offense can do just that and build off a strong performance against Ole Miss in which Alabama exceeded its per game average of first downs, third-down conversions and total offense. The Tide dominated time of possession and won the turnover battle thanks to a balanced offensive attack that featured two 100-yard rushers for the first time all season and a quarterback who got the ball to eight different receivers, six of whom had at least three receptions.

"I felt like we did good," AJ McCarron said following Saturday's game. "I mean, I didn't look at the stats or anything, I don't pay attention to that. But I feel like we moved the ball good."

Kevin Norwood, who tied a team high with five receptions Saturday, put it in a more positive light: "It's a huge step forward. I think we've figured out a lot of things. Of course there's a lot of things we can work on, but it's good momentum for us heading into these next games."

The next four weeks don't figure to much of a challenge compared to the start of the season as Alabama turns its attention to Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. The four schools are a combined four games below .500 and only Arkansas is ranked in the top 50 nationally in defense, albeit precariously so after giving up 923 yards of offense the past two weeks.

The offense, which has been plagued by inconsistency, has a chance to reverse that trend starting this weekend against the Panthers, who allowed more than 600 yards of total offense to West Virginia three weeks ago.

UA right guard Anthony Steen said the offense played with something to prove against Ole Miss, and it showed. Continuing to build upon that, though, will be the challenge.

"We knew we should have played better against Colorado State and we wanted to go out there and show everybody that we're better than that, and I think we did," he said. "But I think there's room to improve after watching the film."

Said Saban: "You can be critical about kicking three field goals, can be critical about a lot of things, but if you’re critical it’s only because you have expectations for something that this team still needs to improve. I think everybody is committed to trying to do that. That’s what we’re going to be committed to.”

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