Want a reality check? We're not a national championship caliber team right now, and arguably we are a good ways from being one. Losing to South Carolina was one thing, but the manner in which we lost was another. Nick Saban said point blank mid-week after the loss that we were exposed, and while I won't go that far I do think it is clear that we have a lot of issues to work through in order to get to where most want this team to go, and none of those issues are typically in the realm of short-term fixes. The quality wins that we thought we had over Penn State and Florida largely turned out to be not so impressive, with Penn State going 0-3 in games against BCS conference opponents with a combined margin of loss of 62 points and Florida being knocked around by LSU in Gainesville.
Furthermore, injuries continue to haunt us. Dont'a Hightower is not the same, Courtney Upshaw is still batting his ankle sprain, Chris Jordan is still fighting through the hamstring injury, D.J. Fluker will miss at least this week and perhaps many more, Julio Jones is having to do his best cyborg impersonation to get on the field, Greg McElroy has a litany of bumps and bruises, DeQuan Menzie is still being held together by miracles, and on and on and on. By no means are we a healthy football team right now, nor did we suddenly become on mid-week.
For now, it's not about being a national championship football team or anything of the sort. It's simply about improving and getting healthy again, nothing more and nothing less. The good news is that we get a break in the schedule for the next three weeks with games against Ole Miss and Tennessee (two teams near the bottom end of the SEC) and an off week before heading to Baton Rouge. The LSU game will probably tell the tale on our team, but we've got to survive both Ole Miss and Tennessee before we can get there.
And say what you will about Ole Miss, but this game looks much more scary than it did a month ago. By no stretch of the imagination is this a great team, or even a good one for that matter, but the train wreck that saw losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt has largely been rectified. If nothing else, competence has returned. Back-to-back wins over Fresno State and Kentucky helped stop the bleeding, and the obligatory off week will likely do wonders to help them prepare physically and mentally for 'Bama.
Given our defensive struggles, Ole Miss' offense is of the utmost concern. Despite being very young and inexperienced at the point of attack, Houston Nutt has gone to much of a zone-read system to take advantage of the athleticism of Jeremiah Masoli, and it has largely worked. Ole Miss to date leads the SEC in scoring offense, and while you can legitimately say that they have faced a slate of weak defenses to date, the harsh truth remains that the defense they face this Saturday won't exactly be an outstanding group in its own right.
Of particular concern is the zone read itself. Why? Consider the following six things: (1) we rarely face zone read offenses, (2) we do not consistently maintain at the point of attack nor do we consistently penetrate into the backfield, (3) two of our linebackers have serious mobility issues due the lingering effects of injuries, (4) we do not get good run support from the cornerbacks, (5) at least one of the safeties routinely takes bad angles in run support, and (6) blown assignments have been an issue throughout the course of the season. Put those six things together and it's easy to see why stopping the zone read is a major concern with someone like Masoli running it.
And, I should add, tailback Brandon Bolden isn't exactly a scrub either. He was recruited heavily by Saban in the 2008 recruiting class, and had it not been for us landing the late commitment of some guy named Mark Ingram, Bolden would be wearing crimson now. He's averaging almost seven yards per carry, he's second among SEC tailbacks in rushing yards, and frankly he's a lot better of a tailback than some of the ones that we've allowed to give us trouble this year (cough, Josh Snead, cough). Combined, he and Masoli will be a tough assignment for our defense.
Based on talent and depth alone, this is a game we should win, no doubt there. Masoli and Bolden are a tough combination, but there are no standouts at wide receiver, the line is young and inexperienced, and the defensive side of the ball for Ole Miss has been nothing short of atrocious. We should be able to take advantage of those issues and do enough to get the win, but the truth of the matter is that if we play anything like we played a week ago against South Carolina any semi-competent team that we face (and Ole Miss fits that bill) is likely to beat us. It's simple, you are not going to play as poorly as we did in Columbia and win very many games in this league.
Some of those issues, though, will probably take time to fix, and in the meantime 'Bama must simply survive. In time the defense will improve, and in time the Injury Gods will calm their storm. Maybe those things don't happen until 2011, and if that be the case then so be it. We likely won't find out for certain until we make the trip to Baton Rouge. However, in meantime, the schedule at least gives us the opportunity over the course of the next three weeks for us to take care of the issues that have plagued us to date, and for now we must simply find a way to survive in the interim while we try to right the ship.
Hope for the best.