Have you heard just how good Western Kentucky is this season? Anyone answering no that question has not been paying attention to anything said this week by Nick Saban, who has extolled the Hilltoppers' virtues for several days on end now. Yesterday, in fact, when making references to Western Kentucky, Saban even brought up the dreaded references to UAB and Louisiana-Monroe, the two ugliest losses of his coaching career.
Now, self-deprecation and opponent fluffing notwithstanding, just how good is Western Kentucky? Saban is, of course, being just a tad bit hyperbolic when discussing the Hilltoppers, to put it mildly. No, this isn't the Game of the Century, and yes this will be one of the easier games on the schedule. Of the remaining eleven regular season opponents, only Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina are not demonstrably better than this group.
Saban is right, however, in that this team is likely better than most would give it credit. Winners of eight of its last nine games, WKU actually finished with a winning record a year ago despite a horrid September and by all accounts should have been rewarded with a bowl berth, though the same was ultimately awarded a sub-.500 UCLA team. Coming into this season, significant experience returns on both sides of the ball, and there is a legitimate chance that this team could win the Sun Belt Conference. Head coach WIllie Taggart will almost certainly promote his way out of Bowling Green if he can continue with this level of success.
Stating the obvious, however, Alabama is simply in another stratosphere than the Western Kentuckys of the college football world, and that ought to make itself readily apparent on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. You almost have to admire the internal messaging inherent with the UAB and Louisiana-Monroe comparisons, but an actual upset on Saturday would require an on-field meltdown by this Alabama team that is highly unlikely to occur.
The more important immediate concern moving forward is less with an outright loss but instead an ugly contest where 'Bama struggles to affirmatively place the game out of reach. No, Western Kentucky may not be good enough to up-end Alabama, but could it, say, keep the game competitive for three quarters, force 'Bama to play nearly the full sixty minutes, and take away valuable reps from reserve players that will hopefully be used to develop quality depth throughout the roster for use later in the season? Perhaps so.
In actuality, what Saban is likely looking to avoid is not so much UAB or Louisiana-Monroe, but a repeat of Tulane in 2008 and Florida International in 2009, both games where Alabama played sloppy football all night after coming off of impressive wins in the season openers over marquee non-conference opponents at a neutral site. The proverbial end of the world it wouldn't be, but nothing good ever comes from four quarters of bad football.
Moreover, while intensity and focus during the off-season was high, even per his own admission, Saban must be proactive and vigilant in guarding against the creep of complacency even during the season. Many have preemptively crowned Alabama after it dismantled Michigan, but that on-fsuccess is ultimately isolated to the confines of one game, and will have no bearing on the Tide's twelve, and hopefully thirteen, remaining games, some of which will feature opponents more dangerous than the Wolverines. Make no mistakes about it, progress must still be made and some shortcomings addressed before Alabama can legitimately defend its national championship, and complacency a mere one week into the season will work as a significant detriment.
Furthermore, conceptually speaking, keep in mind that the goal in scheduling non-conference opponents is to find teams that are similar in schemes and philosophies to other teams you will face later in the season, and to that end Western Kentucky fits the ball. The Hilltoppers run a variant of the West Coast offense, routinely spreading the field with three and four wide receivers, and will accordingly throw the football down the field on a regular basis, just as Arkansas, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Tennessee will do later this season.
With that in mind, there were few flaws to be found in the overall performance against Michigan last weekend in Dallas, but two of them were concerns over the defensive backfield and at outside linebacker, and both of those units will most certainly be tested tomorrow night by WKU. Only two cornerbacks saw meaningful time against Michigan, and the outside linebackers were used as de facto placeholders, not affirmatively rushing the passer but instead keeping contain at the end of the line and hoping to force the elusive Denard Robinson back inside to the interior of the defense. That strategy was obviously sound against Michigan, but for obvious reasons it is highly unlikely to be effective against the conference's best passing teams, especially Arkansas and Tennessee.
In order to be successful defensively against those opponents, Alabama will need to find a way to rush the passer on a consistent basis from the outside linebacker positions, and most likely will also need to find another cornerback who can play in the star and money packages. Players like Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson need to stand out when given the opportunity, and either John Fulton or one of the freshmen defensive backs must find a way to get on the field and be successful once there.
The road trip to Fayetteville is a mere eight days away, and 'Bama needs to begin to address these issues now when the opportunity is presented, which it will be tomorrow night against Western Kentucky. For obvious, no one wants to show up against Arkansas and be forced to prevail in a shoot-out, and the time to begin avoiding that outcome is now.
Hope for the best.