All you really hope for in a game like this is to avoid serious injury, and that seems to have happened. Alabama completed its Iron Bowl tuneup in pleasing style, outclassing the UT-Chattanooga Moccasins 49-0.
There's not a tremendous amount to say about this one. It went just as it was expected to go, with Bama's margin of victory hitting the spread right on the nose. If the Bama crowd was ever tremendously excited about the contest, it didn't translate to TV by either audio or video. Even the two teams politely went about their business with no wasted motion, got the job done, and got out of there. When was the last time you saw a college football game played in 2 hours and 40 minutes?
The TV broadcast was, technically, perhaps the worst I have ever seen unless you're talking about high school films from a fixed camera in the pressbox. Quarterbacks setting up in a shotgun formation were routinely cut out of the picture, and if the QB took the snap from center and dropped back to pass, it was at best 50-50 as to whether the camera would follow him. As a result, I missed a lot of pass-blocking, and if there was any kind of fancy ball-handling, fakes or looking off receivers going on back there, I wouldn't know anything about it.
There's not a lot you can learn from analyzing a game like this, either, as it was clear from early on that neither team played as if they expected a competitive matchup. About the only big-picture takeaway I have would be mild pleasure at the play of the 2nd-string defense. Unlike what happened in earlier romps this season, there was little apparent difference in the way UTC moved the ball when the 2nd-string D came in. Considering how young that unit is, that's a pretty good sign for the future.
Still, the players played, we watched, and we learned a few things, so let's talk about them. As I did with the Georgia State game, I'll create a little filler to go along with the position grouping analysis by talking a bit about where each position group stands as we head into the championship portion of the season.
AJ looked very sharp overall. In particular, he threw three strikes downfield in the 35-40 yard range, two of which translated into touchdowns and the third of which might well have been a TD if not for uncalled pass interference. All three were on relatively flat trajectories, showcasing McCarron's arm strength. Although this was against poor competition, accurate downfield passing is something that should translate well into action against tougher foes - after all, no team has been able to put much pressure on McCarron this year, and passing is passing.
He did, however, throw a 4th-down pass to a blanketed man behind the line to end Alabama's second possession - and keep alive the worries about slow starts. McCarron was under pressure and had to get rid of it, but why not throw it up for grabs downfield in a situation like that?
Blake Sims did nothing at all to make me think he can run Alabama's regular offense with proficiency. If he is indeed the quarterback in 2014, here's hoping that the Tide runs a radically different attack.
We got our first live-game Alec Morris sighting. Morris handed it off in fine style.
You have to give a big thumb's up to Alabama's quarterback situation for one clear reason: AJ McCarron's health. Not only has AJ played every competitive snap all year, but the rumored foot injury early in the year was apparently real and it is now apparently better, as McCarron has looked more swift and nimble afoot the last two or three games: he had a 15-yard ramble on Saturday. He led Kevin Norwood perfectly off another scramble, allowing Norwood to turn a 10-yard pass into a 50-yard gain.
AJ's season has been slightly disappointing, but only because you hope for improvement each year from college football players. It would probably have been illogical to hope for dramatic improvement, though, when you've got a guy coming back for his fifth year; he was already a veteran last year. At any rate, McCarron's passing stats are down a bit, even though his pass protection and receiving corps are each noticeably better than the 2012 versions, especially the receiving corps. #10 has made up for the drop-off with a dramatic improvement in ball-handling, going from 7 fumbles in 2012 to 0 so far in 2013, but passing is what a quarterback mainly does and I have trouble saying that the 2013 McCarron is any better than the 2012 one. Still and all, he's a fine quarterback, and when I say the year has been slightly disappointing that is only because the top end of the hopes and dreams was at a pretty cosmic level. Make no mistake, AJ has had an excellent year and is one of the top quarterbacks in the college game.
And let me repeat myself: he is healthy. With nothing but abject terror at the idea of an injury to the Tide starter, that's the main thing.
I particularly enjoyed Kenyan Drake's hip-wiggle on the early TD run, but overall, while #17 certainly played well, I was hoping he might take his opportunity for the limelight and go a little crazy with it. That didn't happen. 11 carries for 77 yards and a TD is certainly a respectable stat line, but for an Alabama back against a UTC, it's kinda meh.
Derrick Henry was actually a little more impressive. The big guy exhibited impressive balance and body control staying in-bounds on an early 27-yard run, and generally showed off a powerful but slashing running style and consistently made it difficult for Moccasin tacklers to square up on him, which in turn generally allowed him to add 2 or 3 yards at the end of every run.
Dee Hart looked like he is getting a little of his bounce and squirtiness back. The possibility that Dee will get significant playing time at running back again one day doesn't seem quite as remote as it did after the Georgia State game.
Obviously the Tide is sitting very pretty at this position, as it has done for the last several seasons. Kenyan Drake's emergence as a budding star with a 7.5 yards per carry average to go with a near-perfect short-yardage conversion percentage has been part of the good news, and the other part is that T.J. Yeldon has performed much as he did in 2012, at a star level. Those two guys have combined for rushing 1683 yards and 20 TDs already, and that doesn't even count the 3rd-stringer who has rushed for 282 yards with a gaudy 10.4 yards per carry.
Yeldon is the first star running back at Alabama, though, not to approve noticeably in his second season under Burton Burns. Perhaps the explanation is simply that Yeldon was around for the Spring in 2012 and got enough of Burns' tutelage then that his big jump came before his first season, and not before his second season. But whatever the explanation, it's a slight disappointment that Yeldon hasn't blossomed more noticeably this year.
That's not the only disappointment, either. Neither Yeldon nor Drake has anywhere near the ball-security chops of departed but well-remembered stars Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. And while Henry sports the sparking yards per carry mentioned above, he may not have the staff's full confidence, as he only has 28 carries on the season, making this a second straight season that the Tide hasn't gone with the 3- or even 4-back rotations it ran in the 2009 through 2011 campaigns.
No Bama receiver had a sensational day, but Kevin Norwood was the target on two of McCarron's three long completions, and finished with 84 yards on 4 catches. He also had a very nice block on McCarron's 15-yard scramble, where he reacted immediately and effectively when AJ pointed out the block. You see scrambling quarterbacks pointing out blocks a lot; you see those blocks actually made rarely.
Christion Jones whiffed on an early bubble-screen block though, leading to a 3-yard-loss for Amari Cooper on the first-quarter series where the Tide wound up turning it over on downs.
After the Georgia State game, I predicted with confidence that we would see more Chris Black soon. After Saturday, I'm wondering why it didn't happen. It's not that we're looking for help at the position, it's just that the best and most explosive receivers need the ball. Based on very fragmentary information, Chris Black looks like the most explosive guy we've got at wideout - considering that Amari Cooper is probably still slowed by whatever injury he has been battling all year.
Corey McCarron created what may have been the first statistic of his Tide career, with a brother-to-brother strike in the senior quarterback's last game in Tuscaloosa.
If anybody doesn't agree that this is Alabama's best set of receivers in recent years, I'd like to hear your reasoning. Yes, Amari Cooper has had a bit of a disappointing year, but even a disappointing year has been a pretty good one, as Amari has hauled in 30 passes for 14.6 yards per catch. Kevin Norwood, on the other hand, is healthy, as he was not in 2012, and is showing an entire season of the form hitherto exhibited only in BCS national championship games. Sure-handed Christion Jones leads the team in receptions with 35, DeAndrew White looked very comfortable in a bigger role early in the season when Cooper's injury limited him more than it has recently, and true freshman O.J. Howard leads the team with 20.5 yards per catch.
The squad is so deep and so talented that an apparent stud like Chris Black isn't getting to see the field in competitive situations and the #2-ranked high school receiving prospect in the nation last year (per rival) is getting redshirted.
Another solid performance. Again, the big runs were almost exclusively to the right side, with the best success coming behind blocks from Austin Shepherd and O.J. Howard, who has turned into a very dependable blocker.
Pass blocking remained superb, although Arie Kouandjio did not delay his guy very long on Bama's unsuccessful 4th-down conversion attempt early. Later, it looked like the whole line released their blocks too early on a screen attempt and Blake Sims threw incomplete off a wild scramble deep in the Tide backfield - hard to say exactly what happened back there, though, with the awful TV coverage.
Word is that Arie Kouandjio's ankle sprain is not expected to prevent him from playing against Auburn. If it does, the Tide has a pair of capable backups in Kellen Williams and Chad Lindsay.
I don't think there's any factor that is as predictive of a college football team's ultimate success as the amount of experience coming back at offensive line, and Alabama's 2013 offensive line returned less experience than any other Bama line since at least 2007. But sometimes a green offensive line gels as the season goes along and delivers top play by late in the year. That appears to be what is going on for Alabama this year, and it's the last piece in the Alabama puzzle.
The Tide's offensive line has delivered excellent pass protection all year - even in the Virginia Tech game, when the Tide gave up 4 of the 9 sacks it has surrendered this year, the OL (at least arguably) didn't give up a sack at all, as all 4 of those came from blitzes that were not picked up. AJ McCarron has gotten better pass protection in 2013 than any Alabama quarterback since at least the Bear Bryant days, if not even further back than that.
Run-blocking has been a different story, as the Tide clearly struggled out of the gate, but just as clearly got its act together as the season went along. After averaging just 166.2 yards per game its first five games, the Tide has turned it on to a spiffy 249.2 yards per game clip over the last 6 contest. For context, 166.2 would be 71st in the nation, while 249.2 would be 15th in the nation - and most of the top 14 are run-focused teams, not balanced-attack teams like the Tide. It isn't the run-blocking of Alabama 2012, but it is very good run-blocking to go with superior pass-blocking.
With the offensive line playing at its current high level, Alabama is a very, very difficult team to beat.
Alabama's defensive line stifled the UTC run game, which was pretty much all the Mocs had to go on. The Tennessee squad finished with 93 yards rushing at 2.7 yards per carry.
Jonathan Allen and Jeoffrey Pagan tied for the lead with 3 tackles. One of Allen's tackles came early, when he beat his blocker to slip inside and nail the ball-carrier in the backfield, and in the second half he knocked the ball several yards through the air with another hard stick in the backfield, leading to a Bama recovery that set up a touchdown. It was Allen's best game so far.
10 different linemen (and jacks) were credited with tackles.
Just like the offensive line, this unit has come on as the season has progressed. The Tide DL was never the weakness that the OL was early in the season, but has nevertheless progressed at a similar rate, which means that the defensive line is now very, very strong, stuffing running games and getting a consistent pass-rush push even while staying at home in their lanes, as Nick Saban pass rushers always do. This is certainly one of Saban's best D-lines at Bama, maybe the best.
Over the last 3 games, Alabama has given up only 63 yards rushing per game, and all three of those teams - LSU, Mississippi St., and Chattanooga - are more run-oriented than the average team. The Tide has also averaged 7 TFLs and 2.3 sacks over that period, after averaging just 4.5 TFLs and 1.3 sacks over the first 8 games.
Key has been the development of true freshmen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, but Jeoffrey Pagan has also noticeably upped his game since early in the season, and Brandon Ivory has played better as of late, as well. Ed Stinson has been a consistent force all year. Xzavier Dickson has also had a consistent season, particularly as a pass rusher, in somewhat limited opportunities.
C.J. Mosley quietly gathered 7 tackles and 2 TFLs in little over half the game, continuing his streak of excellent play. Mosley seems to be playing the best ball of his career right now and I look forward to seeing what he can do under the bright lights, because that's where the rest of Bama's games will be played, so long as the Tide keeps winning.
Trey Depriest also continued his improved play over the second half of the season, with 5 tackles, including a couple of right proper shots, and a first-quarter interception. While some will note that the pick was on 4th down and cost the Tide 12 yards, Depriest was off-balance, moving backward and underneath the ball when it got to him, a very difficult position to knock it down from. Just catching it was probably the safest thing to do and a fine defensive play, made when it counted.
Reuben Foster tied Depriest for 3rd in tackles, with 5, including one very impressive TFL when he shot the gap between blockers at high speed on a sweep right. We've seen Foster make that move previously this season, but not successfully. #9 looked a lot more comfortable out there than he has done on previously garbage time play, comfortable enough that it wouldn't be shocking to see him out there for a few plays in competitive situations before the season is out. He is one impressive athlete, big and fast.
I did not see Dillon Lee and he did not record a stat, although he does show up on the participation chart.
This is another unit that has improved as the season has gone along. The Tide put a solid linebacker corps out there for game one, but Depriest struggled a little in the first half of the season, and while Mosley never struggled, he appears to have saved his best for last.
It has been a bit of a disappointing year for Adrian Hubbard, who is not on pace to equal his 2012 numbers of 39 tackles, 10 TFLs, 6 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. So far in 2013, Hubbard has 25 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and has not forced a fumble. Hubbard has been playing most or all of the season with splints on multiple fingers, and one would suspect that has something to do with his decreased output.
Dillon Lee has appeared to be the most talented of the young backups, at least until Saturday when phenom recruit Reuben Foster showed progress in his transition to the college game.
Landon Collins equaled C.J. Mosley for the team lead with 7 tackles, and was not picked on in coverage. Geno Smith had another good game, with a nice early knockdown and an excellent later play on a sweep where Smith fended off his blocker to turn the runner back with his free hand, allowing Collins to polish him off behind the line. Cyrus Jones made a very athletic catch and not-quite-successful attempt to get a foot down for a pick.
Maurice Smith missed or was blocked away from 3 tackles that were his assignment on the UTC drive that led to their only field goal attempt. After the third miss, Smith gave way to Bradley Sylve, who hasn't been seen on the field the last few weeks. Sylve did not look quite full speed, but he didn't look rusty, either. He has been practicing.
There was an Eddie Jackson sighting, as #4 rumbled 35 yards down to the 5 after the fumble caused by Jonathan Allen. As always seems to be the case, the Alabama defense treated the turnover as a scoring opportunity and gave Jackson solid blocking.
The defensive backfield - and more particularly, cornerback - has been Alabama's weakest link this year, but it hasn't been particularly weak. Alabama has so frequently led the nation in passing efficiency defense over the last few years that being #11 seems pretty horrible - but you know, it really ain't.
Still, it's a little worrisome that Deion Belue missed the game, apparently with the turf toe that has been bugging him all year. Sure, he wouldn't have missed the game if it had been Auburn instead of UTC, but if Belue isn't full-speed, Alabama probably doesn't have a top-notch cornerback on the field: after all, LSU to some extent picked on Belue.
Cyrus Jones has clearly been improving with playing time, and Bradley Sylve, who may be the fastest player on the team and was looking solid before his injury, is rounding into health. These cornerbacks won't be confused for Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner, but they don't make you think you're watching a Big 12 team play, either.
Fortunately, the safety position has been solid as a rock, skipping not a beat when Vinnie Sunseri went down, even though Sunseri had been playing at a high level. That's because Landon Collins, a freak athlete with excellent football skills, stepped right in to immediately become one of the Tide's top defenders. Collins, who is a world-class run stopper, is the perfect complement to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a free safety with cornerback-level coverage skills.
Christion Jones was the main guy making it interesting out there on special teams. On UTC's first punt, Jones caught a tough break trying to field a bouncer, as the ball took a wicked low hop just before it got to him and he didn't quite think fast enough to pull his hand out of the way instead of continuing to try to make a catch that had just become overly difficult. Then again, he could just blame it on UTC's horrible punter, who had a tendency to loop it down the sidelines about head high. One of ‘em actually caught Kenny Bell in the back as he ran down to block, although Bell hustled back to recover it himself, with an assist from Dee Hart.
UTC's second punt was about their only normal-looking one. Jones caught it, ran left for several yards, reversed his field, and then cut upfield and outran the Moccasin's coverage team all the way to the house. The 75-yard TD was Jones' 2nd punt return TD of the season to go along with one kickoff return TD.
A'Shawn Robinson blocked UTC's field goal attempt. Clinton-Dix made a smart play on the loose ball, batting it backward several yards when he didn't have a good chance to recover it. Too many players don't seem to realize how meaningless recovering a blocked field goal is, at least unless you can scoop it up running and then advance it. All that really matters is where the ball winds up, not who has it.
And how about Xzavier Dickson with those ball skills! #47 slogs on the defensive line most of the time, but made a nifty catch of the second-half kickoff near the sideline and then wove his way for 14 yards on the return to give the Tide good field position.
Gimme some of that old time kickoff return coverage. Alabama kicked off 8 times and the Mocs never made it out past the 27.
I've already called Bama's receivers the Tide's best ever, and I think it's true of the entire special teams unit. With one brief breakdown consisting of two long returns given up to the talented Odell Beckham, Bama's special teams have played at a superior level in every phase.
Cory Mandell is one of the top punters in the nation both in average and net average, although neither of those numbers accounts for the astonishing number of punts the Tide has downed inside the 5. Cade Foster is 11 for 12 on field goals. Kickoff coverage has been lights out in every game but the LSU game, and punt coverage has also been outstanding. And then there's Christion Jones, with the aforementioned three return TDs - so far. And the Tide has blocked 3 kicks to zero for its opponents.