Expectation. That stalking assassin that can strike even the most powerful war machine. Success in combat, whether in the chaotic din of real-time battle, or in the pseudo-combat of collegiate football, is oft times dependent on the morale of the troops. Other than the firefight with the Texas A&M Aggi, the Bama faithful had no idea what to think of the legion that Coach Nick Saban had selected to defend Bama's crystal-football-picketed castle walls in 2013.
Finally, just as it looked like the Crimson Tide was destined to wander the Sinai, their identity eluding them like the Promised Land, we have an idea of what this year's Alabama team can be expected to accomplish. Despite the defensive free-fall against the Aggi, it appears that the 2013 edition of crimson combatants will make their mark on the defensive side of the ball, after an outstanding showing against the Ole Miss Rebel upstarts in the previous game. Make no mistake, despite being shut out by the Tide, the Rebel offense is legitimate, with SEC (possibly NFL) caliber talent at wide receiver, and a capable veteran QB under center. However, Bama's defense was undaunted after being taunted by the calls from those who would forecast their demise at the hands of the Rebels.
While the Tide's offensive line began the game enwrapped in the same turmoil that had haunted it in two of its first three games, the injection of a new center in Chad Lindsay and the continued progress towards a fully-jelled unit was evident in the second half against Ole Miss. TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake finally had room to run, and the offensive line seemed to tighten up and reassert its traditional identity at Alabama through the power running game.
Whereas only a mere week ago, some amongst the Crimson Tide faithful were questioning the staying power of the current dynasty, following Saturday's game, few would realistically argue that the Tide is not the team to beat yet again this year. They are a team full of talent, brimming with football IQ. And when they fire the jets, few teams can withstand the 60-minute-long flurry that the Tide casts down upon its opponents between the grid lines.
I will not insult you by selling the snake oil of a potential Bama loss against Georgia State this week. Such would be foolish and condescending. While Our Dark Lord instructs us to respect every opponent regardless of the perceived level of challenge, not even the most pessimistic Gump can make the case for a Georgia State upset. Truthfully, Alabama's third stringers alone would dominate the Panthers, and that's a Gump-free statement. The same could likely be said about many SEC teams, but Alabama in particular is so thick with talent that for the Panthers, this week's game is more about a pay check than a victory, despite the sloughed-off smack talk that some in the Georgia State camp have surprisingly pushed this week.
So this week, the only outcomes that are in question as the football is kicked this Saturday will be whether or not Alabama can a) continue to improve, b) stay healthy and c) play to a standard rather than playing down to the competition. Let's take a look at each of those factors in greater depth...
- The Tide, quite simply, is in the upper echelon of college football. That is without question. But to remain amongst the elite and compete for a historic third consecutive title and fourth in five years, Alabama must continue to improve. There are still too many mental errors amongst the starters on this team, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. I hate to continue to harp on the offensive line, and they did indeed improve last week in the second half. But there are still questions to be answered across that unit. The Tide continues to see careless penalties from veterans on the line. The newcomers have also had their share of errors, though some may be more willing to excuse those due to inexperience. But make no mistake, against the types of powerful teams that await Alabama this season, a sluggish start like the one experienced versus Ole Miss could allow an opponent to land the death blow. Both LSU and Georgia (should Bama reach the SECCG) have the capability to put points on the board quickly, and a slow start in either of those games would put the Tide in a deep hole that they may not be able to escape. Alabama's offense is, and will continue to be, predicated on the success of the running game. As has been proven thus far in the season, the Bama running game has struggled between the tackles when defenses stack the box. Quite simply, the line must find a way to communicate with more fluidity, and to execute with a higher degree of perfection. It's likely that we won't see the first team offense for long in this game, but the opportunity exists for them to continue to improve and become one as a unit. Even if one considers this game against Georgia State a glorified scrimmage, it will still provide critical experience and opportunities for the team to improve as a whole.
- Staying healthy will be critical for the Tide, as injuries can strike at any time of the season, against any level of competition. Despite the well-established depth across the Crimson Tide roster, injuries to key starters could be catastrophic. Along the offensive line, there is very little room for injury, as starting center Ryan Kelly is down for at least the next several weeks, and only the Alfred McCullough-like Kellen Williams is versatile enough to fill in at almost any position on the line with reasonable dependability. It has also become apparent that despite the perceived depth of the Alabama offensive backfield, the Tide really only has two full-functioning, experienced, game-ready true running backs in TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. Jalston Fowler has struggled this season to make cuts and show the big-man shiftiness that made him so exciting to watch prior to last year's devastating knee injury. While Fowler could be dependable in a pinch, his pass blocking is not where it should be this year, especially for a man with as much time in Bama's system as he has enjoyed. There is great talent behind these three, but as was seen earlier this year, they are not game-ready in the sense that they can not only run well but also understand the blitz pick-ups and pass blocking responsibilities incumbent in Alabama's style of offense. An injury at RB could tie Alabama's hands offensively, and lead defenses to key more on AJ McCarron and the passing game. And since I mentioned AJ, let's not even contemplate the disaster this season would become without his seasoned leadership under center. One injurious hit to McCarron could be the blow that fells Alabama's giant. On the defensive side of the ball, there is more room to absorb injury to key starters. However, C.J. Mosley must stay healthy if Alabama expects to make another title run. He is not only the QB of the defense, he is its unabashed heart and mind. And while the Tide linebacking corps and defensive line are fairly deep, there is no room for further injury in the defensive backfield. Veteran reserve safety Nick Perry is already lost for the season, and when Deion Belue was out of his cornerback role for several games, his absence was noticeable. The 2013 season marks one of those rare occasions when Saban's usually well-stocked cupboard of experienced defensive back talent is simply not present. There is talent there, but there is also great inexperience there. And as 2010 demonstrated, depending on talented but inexperienced defensive backs can still result in losses. It only takes a few plays to change the course of a season, a.k.a the mythical "3 plays" that were the difference between Bama making a title run in 2010 and the eventual 10-3 season. Simply stated, injuries apply pressure to even the most powerful program, and Alabama does not have the magic cure. The team must stay healthy, even when playing underling opponents.
- Despite all that Saban and the Tide have accomplished since 2008, one thing has remained constant: at least once a year, the Tide plays down to the level of a team it should dominate. In 2011, it was Georgia Southern. Last season, it was Western Kentucky. This year, it may be Colorado State. Or maybe it's a yet-to-be-determined team that will erode Alabama's clout and chip away at the mystique of domination that Alabama has wielded over its collegiate counterparts in the last half decade. When Bama plays to its level of competition, only bad things can happen. If the Tide smokes a lower-tier team by 40 points, then the team only did what it was supposed to do, the opponent is labeled as cannon fodder. When Bama struggles with a weaker team, rocks of criticism are tossed in the general direction of the Tide. Regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard and its effect on public perception, stars can get injured when they aren't playing to their fullest potential, and a cascade of morale and self-doubt issues can rear their hydra-like heads when an also-ran is allowed to hang around in the fourth quarter. The best the Tide can hope for is to win handily and emerge injury free, and if those things happen, the Tide's chances at a repeat of their repeat title game performance will be one step closer to becoming reality.
The script for the Georgia State game is simple: let the starters get reps to keep sharp, insert the second and third teamers early to gain playing experience and build depth, and protect the health of the players Alabama will depend upon for the remaining two-thirds of the season. This should be a relatively worry-free contest that will allow us to see some of the depth-chart warriors who rarely see the field.
But built into this scheme is a great deal of leeway for improvisation, and it is in that point that we can take little comfort. Business as usual is the target, but an injury to a starter or the continued struggle of the offensive line could leave a lingering residue as the Tide steams closer to the season-defining showdown with SEC West power LSU.
This week could be a snoozer, and let's hope that's the case. In other words, enjoy the weekend off and hope for the best...