Despite two marquee early-season match-ups against Michigan and Arkansas, Alabama comes into week four of the college football season ranked number one in the country and having not yet faced a legitimate challenge, outscoring season opponents by a laughably ridiculous combined margin of 128-14. And while it wouldn't be prudent to say this in the presence of Nick Saban, none of that should change this weekend against Florida Atlantic.
Five years ago Florida Atlantic looked like one of the rising non-BCS conference programs, finishing with an 8-5 record, a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship, and a victory in the New Orleans Bowl over Memphis. Far from building upon those gains, however, the program declined with each passing season since. With Howard Schnellenberger still at the helm, the decline started in 2008 with a 7-6 record and finally hit rock bottom a year ago with his retirement and a dismal 1-11 mark.
In the interim, Carl Pelini, the brother of Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, was hired to lead the program, but to date the on-field results have been just as poor as they were a year ago. A fourth quarter touchdown pass resulted in a 7-3 victory in the season opener over the Wagner Seahawks, but the Owls lost by two touchdowns the following week to Middle Tennessee State, and despite a relatively sleepy performance and the absence of star linebacker Jarvis Jones, Georgia annihilated them 56-20 last weekend, piling up 713 yards of total offense in the process.
Offensively, Pelini has implemented a spread attack that routinely features three wide receivers and a single tailback. FAU quarterback Graham Wilbert is a fifth-year senior with a 6'5 frame and a strong arm to boot, and he has generally played well enough this season. The problem has been a dearth of talent around him. The team's starting tailback left the program before fall camp, and the replacements haven't impressed. The wide receiver corps has seen some success to date, but has routinely struggled to perform on a consistent basis. The offensive line has been the real culprit, and its ineffectiveness has ground to the rushing game to a near halt and have not allowed Wilbert time to throw the football vertically down the field.
Defensively, the issues are even worse, with FAU ranking almost dead last in nearly every major statistical category. The defensive line is small, with only one player above 275 pounds, and has rotated so frequently due to ineffectiveness that it makes anticipating who will even play this Saturday very difficult. Middle linebacker David Hinds is a quality player, but they have been able to place nothing of substance around him in their 4-3 scheme. The strength defensively is thought to be in the defensive backfield, but they were absolutely torched a week ago against Aaron Murray, and simply may not be a viable unit against quality competition.
On the whole, Alabama opened as a 52-point favorite, and when comparing the match-ups you can understand why Vegas felt so bullish on the Tide this weekend. Gauging precisely who is the worst FBS team in the country is a bit of a crapshoot, of course, but clearly this FAU team is somewhere in that discussion. Make no mistake: this team is nowhere near the level of Western Kentucky, Alabama's most recent non-BCS foe. An actual loss here would be shocking in a way that, say, a giant meteor striking the planet would be shocking.
For Alabama, it's less about the precise final result, and more about playing well, addressing problem areas, and staying healthy in the process. Having survived the major early-season match-ups, Alabama figures to pick up what should be relatively easy wins in the next two weeks, which will be followed by a bye week. From there, though, the schedule becomes intense, drawing Missouri, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State in the following five weeks. Those spread passing attacks in particular will be a major concern for the Tide's defensive backfield. The showdown in Baton Rouge gets all of the attention, but road trips to Columbia and Knoxville will not come easy, and drawing Texas A&M seven days after LSU will be no walk in the park.
Alabama has been unchallenged to date, but that is not to say that they cannot be, or eventually will not be, challenged by future opponents. To the contrary, someone somewhere will give the Tide all it can handle, and 'Bama will have to fight in the closing minutes to earn the victory, if it is to come at all. There have been some weaknesses displayed to date, despite the lopsided scoreboards, and opponents in the above-mentioned five-week slate will test some of the those weaknesses considerably. Tomorrow may be something of a foregone conclusion, barring major injury, but progress nevertheless needs to be made, and that needs to begin tomorrow afternoon, even if it comes against an overwhelmed opponent.
Hope for the best.