- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The time to wallow in the past is over. And the University of Alabama (9-1,6-1) is no longer No. 1 in the standings, but that doesn't mean the season is over. Saturday's game against Western Carolina (1-9) marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Crimson Tide.
"There's nothing you can do about what's happened in the past but you can affect things that happen in the future and the best way to do that is to look forward," UA coach Nick Saban said Wednesday.
The Catamounts aren't the challenge that is Texas A&M, LSU or Georgia. Alabama will likely deal with the Bulldogs in the SEC championship Dec. 1 in Atlanta. But, as Saban put it, "every moment is a new moment.
"It's a different challenge and there's got to be a certain amount of something that comes from you because you want to accomplish something of significance and if it doesn't come from you that's because you're satisfied with being pretty average."
If Alabama hopes to get back into the national championship hunt, it must first do its part. The missed tackles, blown assignments and general lack of execution in the past two weeks must be repaired starting Saturday around noon. Otherwise, "pretty average" might be all people think about when the season is over.
"The focus for our team is to improve," Saban noted. "We haven't played as well the last couple of weeks. We need to play better fundamentally. We need to not focus on what's happened in the past and look forward and try to get things corrected so that we can play better in the future and not worry too much about who we're playing but remembering how we need to play."
The opponent is Western Carolina but the real objective is being better than the Alabama team that showed up the past two weeks.
Alabama players to watch
1. QB AJ McCarron: His body language is right, and so are the words he's saying. The junior quarterback has been the face of Alabama's struggles in the past two weeks, throwing two interceptions and failing to play with the consistency to which fan have become accustomed. While he's likely out of the Heisman race for good, that's not important. For now, his job is getting the offense back on track.
2. RB T.J. Yeldon: The freshman tailback hasn't lost his burst, or any of the skill that has made him a star on the Alabama offense, for that matter. But he has done something in the last two weeks that no running back, no matter how talented, is allowed to do with Saban: He has fumbled the football. His drop against LSU wasn't solely his responsibility -- McCarron didn't deliver the ball in the proper place -- but his fumble against Texas A&M was. Will Yeldon recover from the back-to-back mistakes, or is this a sign of things to come?
"It comes down to the same thing -- carrying the ball correctly," Saban said on the subject. " ... We have every faith, trust and confidence in him that when he does it correctly he’s not going to fumble."
3. CB Geno Smith: With John Fulton likely sidelined with a turf toe injury, it's time for Smith to step up. In fact, Saban said Wednesday that, looking back, he might have put more on his freshman cornerback's shoulders sooner had he seen an injury to Nick Perry coming.
"We’re a little bit thin in that area, no doubt," Saban said. "Geno has made nice progress this year, and to be honest with you, I wish we could have played him [more]. He’s played some, but now that he needs to play you always sit back and wish maybe I’d have played him more somewhere along the line so he could have gotten a little more experience."
Smith has performed well in a backup role, but now that he's being asked to do more, we'll see just how ready the rookie is for the spotlight.
Western Carolina players to watch
1. QB Troy Mitchell: The true freshman has eight rushing touchdowns and a 60.4 completion percentage when he drops back to pass. He's averaging 126 total yards per game.
2. LB Courtland Carson: The 6-foot-0 junior is second on the team in tackles (93) and first in tackles for loss (5).
3. WR Jacoby Mitchell: The 6-foot-1 senior leads the team with 40 receptions for 400 yards and three touchdowns.
Alabama 1s versus Alabama 2s: Sure, we could single out a matchup of a wide receiver against a specific defensive back, or look at how an interior rusher will perform against a center or guard, but this game isn't about that. This game is about Alabama reestablishing its identity, getting out to an early lead and figuring out what the backups are capable of.
By the numbers
4.7: That's Alabama's average per rush on designed running plays against Texas A&M, the second lowest average this season. The Tide averaged 3.2 yards on such plays in the second half, their lowest for any half this season.
2: McCarron entered last weekend without throwing a single interception in more than 290 pass attempts. He left having thrown two picks, one coming in the red zone. It was his first career interception in 88 red-zone attempts.
516.3: To say Western Carolina's defense is lackluster would be an understatement. The Catamounts are giving up an average of 40 points and 516.3 yards of offense per game.