Kevin C. Cox
Alabama manhandles the Catamounts with ease, and with upsets in Waco and Eugene the Tide once again find themselves in control of their national championship destiny.
A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 49-0 win over Western Carolina:
Nick Saban said it best several years ago after a similar rollover opponent, "Well, we had to play somebody." Yesterday that somebody happened to be Western Carolina, a one-win FCS team with a first year head coach who came to Tuscaloosa for the paycheck and, perhaps, the barbecue, but nothing more. Truth be told, the only real lasting impression from yesterday is to question why games like this are even played in the first place. For what it's worth, Saban and others probably have the best idea: Take the top 60 teams, and have them play each other every week. Paraphrasing Bill Belichick, games which are all-but-automatic and never even reasonably in remote contention should not be part of the sport.
With the outcome well removed from doubt, the only real goals in Tuscaloosa yesterday morning were to win with relative ease, avoid injuries, and get the starters out quickly, and by those metrics the game was a resounding success. No injuries of note were reported, and the minor foot sprains suffered by D.J. Fluker and TJ Yeldon are not thought to be a real concern. More importantly, nearly every single starter on both sides of the football did not see the field in the second half, so combined with the light week in practice the team as a whole had the maximum feasible recovery period following the slugfests against LSU and Texas A&M.
Offensively, the first team 'Bama offense went through the Western Carolina as if it were nothing more than eleven empty jerseys, scoring a touchdown every time it touched the football. The closest WCU came to a stop was forcing a handful of third and short situations, all of which were successfully converted, and in general they were simply hanging on for dear life hoping to prevent the big play. AJ McCarron was taken out of the game late in the second quarter after having thrown only six passes, which really only serves to underscore the lopsided fashion of the game.
The 'Bama defense wasn't quite so dominant, but nevertheless was largely impenetrable and in general the Catamounts could mount no real success either on the ground or in the air. WCU picked up only two first downs against the first-team defense, and the only real glitch came when Vinny Sunseri could not cover Garrett Brown on an intermediate crossing route, which resulted in a 28-yard catch-and-run, and even that was rectified the following play when Sunseri sacked Tony Mitchell for a big loss that ultimately ended the drive. Western Carolina did have a chance to avoid the shut-out late against the second and third-team players, but that drive petered out in the red zone when Nick Perry and Brandon Ivory stuffed tailback Michael Johnson at the line of scrimmage on 4th and 1.
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from yesterday was the Alabama offense under Blake Sims, who played nearly half of the game and who saw some reps with the first-team offense. The 2-6 passing line is not particularly impressive, but even so Sims threw the ball down the field relatively well, and his pocket awareness and ability to extend plays shows that he is developing an understanding of how to use his immense athletic ability at peak efficiency. Is Sims ready to take over the reigns right now? No, but with another year under his belt, it's certainly feasible that he could lead this team as a fifth-year senior. Yes, the offense would change somewhat with him leading the way, and 'Bama would certainly utilize more of a shotgun approach with a great deal of zone read built in, but Saban has had athletic quarterbacks before, and it wouldn't be a major surprise to see it happen again with Sims. I wouldn't assume at this point that the job will inevitably be turned over to Alec Morris or Cooper Bateman for the 2014 season opener; Sims is very much a real contender for the starting job, and if his progression continues, he may be the odds-on favorite.
The only real gripe from yesterday comes on special teams, specifically in the return game where Christion Jones continues to put the ball on the turf. That muff constituted both bad decision-making in fielding the punt and bad execution in chasing the bouncing ball, and not surprisingly it earned him a seat on the bench in place of true freshman Cyrus Jones. Unfortunately, Jones, too, also dropped a ball on a subsequent attempt to field a punt, though it ultimately rolled harmlessly out of bounds. 'Bama has been very fortunate to date that issues fielding punts hasn't cost the Tide more than it has, but with key games upcoming that could change very quickly unless UA finds a way to solidify the position on short notice.
In other quick hitters, Gino Smith started at star yesterday and played most of the day, looking comfortable in the process. Big difference between Western Carolina and Georgia, though, so we'll see in due time where he is at. Defense only forced one turnover yesterday -- and that lone fumble recovery was really more of an unforced error from Western Carolina on a badly executed attempt at a gadget play -- which is a bit of a concern after not generating a single turnover against LSU and Texas A&M. The loss of Dee Hart is felt the most at punt returner. Brent Calloway made three fine plays on special teams, but his limited time at tailback made it relatively clear why he expects only to be a factor at H-back in the years ahead Whatever Kenyan Drake did does not appear to be a significant transgression, but even so he missed out on a lot of playing time yesterday with his suspension. Kevin Norwood was held out of the game yesterday, as the UA coaching staff tries to get him healthy for the next two weeks. John Fulton did not play yesterday, as expected, with turf toe. Both Jabriel Washington and Bradley Sylve still need to add weight, but in general they seem to be making strides in the weight room. Nice to see Ben Howell getting some playing time. How good is Vegas? Several betting lines closed yesterday morning with Alabama as a 49.5 point favorite.
Of course, the real story yesterday was not in Tuscaloosa, but in Waco and Eugene, where landscape-altering upsets of Kansas State and Oregon have suddenly put the Crimson Tide back in control of its national championship destiny a mere one week removed from defeat at the hands of Texas A&M. With BCS chaos reigning yet again, Alabama now has a very simple and guaranteed path to Miami: Beat a hapless Auburn team at home, and then go to Atlanta and beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. If the Tide does that, 'Bama will be in the BCS National Championship Game for the third time in four years, and there will be no hand-wringing this year over the complexities and uncertainties of the BCS math. For the Tide, nothing outside of Tuscaloosa and Atlanta is of concern.
Having said that, though, the present situation is largely different from a year ago, when an otherwise dominant Alabama team only needed a chance at redemption and nothing more. This Tide team hasn't been quite so dominant, and has in fact largely struggled against its two most demanding opponents on the regular season schedule. Fortunately 'Bama will not see the Bayou Bengals and the Aggies again, but wins against Georgia and any potential opponent in the BCS National Championship Game will not come easy, and in all likelihood will not come at all unless Alabama plays better than it did against LSU and Texas A&M. In other words, be thrilled that Alabama is once again back in the national championship hunt, but let that sensation be adequately tempered with the understanding that 'Bama must find some improvement in all three phases of the game in order to guarantee that they lift the crystal ball in Miami.