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Hope For the Best: Alabama versus Western Carolina

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Let's face it...the outcome of this game is a foregone conclusion. But that does not mean there won't be interest as the stars of the Tide's future will see the field, and Alabama must maintain focus heading into the war with Auburn next week.

Blake Sims has emerged as a weapon for the Tide this season.
Blake Sims has emerged as a weapon for the Tide this season.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

"We certainly don't want our players to be satisfied with where they are. They need to understand there's always a bigger challenge out there we need to get ready for." - Nick Saban

After unseating the number one-ranked team in the nation last Saturday night in front of the raucous Bryant Deny crowd, it would be hard for the players, coaches and fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide to be anything but satisfied.

After all, by Coach Nick Saban's own admission in the days leading up to the heavyweight slugfest, Mississippi State represented the cream of the Crimson Tide's 2014 season. The Bulldogs had proven themselves the best opponent on the Tide's schedule, and an Alabama team that many thought would be below standard at the dawn of the season clearly had its work cut out.

Many have questioned the Tide's talent, ability and perceived sense of entitlement since the ugly finish to the 2013 season. Though the 2014 incarnation of the Crimson Tide seemed shaky at the initial stages of the season, it has become clear that the Tide is truly not withering on the vine: Alabama is no relic of a bygone dynasty on the wane. No, this Bama team, though different in scheme and identity, has more in common with championship teams of the past, sharing a spiritual resiliency with those vaunted ghosts of recent yesteryear.

Nowhere is that similarity more apparent than in the way the team has handled adversity thus far in 2014.

Admittedly, the Tide appeared to still be staggering following the flash-knockdown landed by the Rebels earlier this season, so much so that Alabama struggled afterwards against Arkansas, a team that until last weekend had not accounted for an SEC win in nearly two seasons. Many looked upon this year's Tide team as a shell of crimson contenders past, a rebuilding team without a battle-tested on-field captain at the rudder, a team with a raw, inconsistent defense, a team that was still working to build an offensive identity.

But the way the Tide responded in the weeks following the game against the Razorbacks lit the fuse of the semtex that ultimately demolished the arguments of those who claimed the Tide had ebbed and crept back into the sea of history. For you see, Saban and his crimson juggernaut were not willing to go softly into that good night, taking a comfortable spot on the mantelpiece of SEC domination.

No, the message the Tide has broadcast in the weeks since the Arkansas game has been resounding and fear-instilling. The Tide never left, despite a sub-par (by Bama standards) 2013. There has been no surrendering of the sword, no discarding of the arms. This Bama team has what last year's team lacked...a sense of urgency, and the killer instinct to match.

Through the demolition of Texas A&M, the manhandling of a rising Tennessee team, the resilient heavy-fisted battering of LSU, and the submission of Mississippi State, this Tide team has established itself as the Once and Future King in this, the first year of the College Football Playoffs. Sure, the game has changed, but the constant has been that Alabama is the team to beat, the king of the hill, the Ric Flair-ian "man" all other teams aspire to become.

At no time was that more apparent than in the Tide's dispatching of highly-vaunted (and rightfully so) Mississippi State in front of the Bryant Denny crowd last Saturday. Though Saban's claim that the game-clinching drive in the second half was "one of the greatest in Alabama history" may have a tinge of hyperbole, one can't deny that when the Tide had its back was against the wall, it responded like a cornered grizzly. The viciousness with which Alabama's defense destroyed one of the highest-powered offenses in the SEC was reminiscent of the teams of the Stallings Era of Bama greatness: physical, tooth-shattering power football.

As was the case with Stallings teams of yore, Bama's offense sputtered at times, sure. But with a defense that was dynamic, it didn't take an offensive explosion to corral and demoralize the Bulldogs. That sense of maroon resignation was evident in the play-calling of MSU coach Dan Mullen late in the game, just as it was present in the darkening glimmer in the eyes of the hopeful Bulldog players as the game wore thin in the fourth quarter. Bama's boa constrictor had awoken, and once enwrapped in its lethal embrace, even the Bulldogs themselves knew there was no future for them in BDS, at least not on that autumn afternoon.

The win vaulted Bama backinto a position it has enjoyed so many times in the past, and has relished ever since losing it earlier this season. Some have said that Bama is back, but that would assume that the Tide has ever relinquished the reigns in the first place.

This week, the Tide will have the rather subdued task of maintaining intensity against a team that has no business in the ring with college football's elite, a virtual flyweight pitted against a super-heavyweight force of nature intent on re-establishing (or, rather, building upon) its lost dynasty. There are no two ways about it...the Tide will defeat the Western Carolina Catamounts, and though there are no foregone conclusions in the sport of football, this Saturday's game will be as close to one as can be imagined.

Despite the mismatch, however, there is still much to be accomplished for this Bama team as it gears up for the grudge match with Auburn next week, and after that, the team that defaults its way into the SEC Championship Game as the representative of the East.

But as Saban reminds Bama fans with regularity, the most important game is the next game...let's take a closer look.

Alabama offense versus Western Carolina defense

If ever there was a mismatch, this contest would be a case study. Few teams have the ability to successfully stymy the phenomenon that is Amari Cooper, and while many have pinned Blake Sims' relative success this year on the presence of the All-American wide receiver, credit must be given to Sims and his development as a passer in 2014. Against Mississippi State, Sims struggled at times, but he also showed sharpness with his passes, great decision making and the wildcard that makes him a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, specifically, his ability to escape a collapsing pocket and make defenses pay for their aggression.

Sims performed these feats of the feet in Alabama's historic second half drive last week, twice converting critical third downs with his legs when the Bulldogs managed to hem up the Bama receiving corps. It is that kind of talent that makes Sims so dangerous. Couple that with his ability to run through his progressions like a seasoned veteran and execute offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's mismatch-based passing attack, and it's not hard to see why Sims' numbers thus far in the season have bested those of his championship-winning predecessor AJ McCarron.

Sims is not just Bama's stop-gap, which is how many observers viewed him at the beginning of the season. He has become a weapon, a leader, a force for which defenses must account, oftentimes unsuccessfully. While Cooper and fellow offensive superstar T.J. Yeldon get the top billing, it has been Sims that has been the fuel in the Bama offense's jets this year.

There's no need to crunch stats for this week's game, as there is no doubt Alabama will be able to execute its offense at will against a Southern Conference member Western Carolina unit that will be doing well to keep the score under 35 at the half. Expect Alabama's starting offensive line to get additional reps early to burnish any possible rust before next week's match-up against Auburn. Yeldon, who is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered versus LSU, will likely make a token appearance before ceding the running duties to Derrick Henry and Tyren Jones. Cooper will assuredly play, but watching the wide receiver against a Western Carolina secondary that is sub-par (even by Southern Conference standards) will be akin to watching a lion toy with its prey before dispatching it.

The interest in this match-up will be the focus on additional playing time for the offensive stars of the future, players who rarely see the field during critical games and critical possessions. These games provide valuable seasoning for the younger elite athletes that Saban stores in his crimson cupboard, so keep an eye out for the next Cooper or Yeldon as the game wears on Saturday evening.

Alabama defense versus Western Carolina offense

Again, to call this a mismatch is a grand understatement. While Alabama has had growing pains this season as its youthful talent began to mature, the performance of the defense over the course of the last four games has been a thing of beauty. While it's still too early to put the 2014 Bama defense next to those of 1992 and 2009, one can see the makings of a dominant, impenetrable unit blossoming into fruition.

While Bama's defensive line was expected to be excellent as one of the deepest units in the SEC's lineup of killer defenses, there were question marks at linebacker and in the secondary. And rightfully so, as one does not simply replace a C.J. Mosley with the "next man up." That, however, is exactly what has happened this year, as inside linebacker Reggie Ragland continues to impress. Trey DePriest has matured into a feared run defender, and his lateral speed between the sidelines has seemingly improved dramatically this season.

Probably the biggest surprise on the defensive side of the ball has been the performance of the Bama secondary. Sure, everyone expected Landon Collins to be the best player on the field in most of the Tide's games this season. However, it has not been a one man show by any stretch of the imagination. Nick Perry, previously a genuine liability in coverage, has become a dependable role-player opposite Collins at safety, especially against teams the run the ball well.

The corners have also risen from the ashes of the prior 2013 campaign, with the oft-criticized Cyrus Jones evolving into the Tide's best cover corner. While his play has not been flawless, he has been aggressive and physical in attacking receivers, and his play is a big part of Alabama's defensive success thus far in 2014. Earlier in the season, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown battled for the starting slot opposite Jones, and despite the true freshman's heroics at times, the position is now Jackson's alone. The sophomore has evolved this season after recovering rather miraculously from a knee injury in the spring, and his play has improved as his confidence has grown in the status of his repaired knee.

Regardless, the Crimson Tide will likely see many starters on the bench by the half, giving young Tide defenders a chance to make an impression and increase their respective roles in games to come.

Intangibles

Though this will likely be a snoozer of a game from a competitive standpoint, the interest will be derived from watching the less experienced members of the Tide match-up against the Catamounts. While the WCU squad has veterans on both sides of the ball, the talent gap will be too much to create even a passing chance of on-the-field competition.

One point of concern for Alabama pertains to injuries. The Tide is dinged up but intact (for the most part) heading into the final regular season game against Auburn at Bryant Denny Stadium next weekend. While Saban would smite any of his charges for looking past even the most outmatched of opponents, it is clear that the ball will not bounce the way of the Catamounts this Saturday.

Though the game will have largely been decided before the ball is kicked, what remains to be seen is whether the Tide can continue to play with intensity and make improvements, even against lesser opponents. When players relax and let their collective guard down, bad things can happen...not only on the scoreboard, but in terms of injuries. Alabama will need to maintain mental focus and momentum heading into Auburn week, and doing so against an opponent so egregiously undermanned is a task in and of itself.

If Alabama can continue to make the constant improvement demanded by Saban, even against lesser teams such as the Catamounts, that bodes well for the chances of the Crimson Tide to step into the Ring of Four at season's end. Though much is left to be determined in the Tide's most heated rivalry game and the SEC Championship, the path to the playoffs has been cleared.

Can Alabama continue its late season inertia and ride it into the halls of history as the first College Football Playoffs champion? Time will tell. But first, it must emerge injury-free against the Catamounts this Saturday, and execute at a high level heading into the final trials of the 2014 season.

As always...hope for the best