"Everyone wants to be the beast -- you've heard that one before -- until you have to do what the beast do. Well, when it gets hot outside and you have to practice in pads and take a lot of reps, you either have beast mode or you don't have it." - Coach Nick Saban
Well, that was impressive...even if it was against the Owls of FAU.
Denigrate the level of Bama's competition last Saturday if you must, but the way the Tide played answered a few questions in its performance last Saturday afternoon, controlling the game in all three phases for 60 minutes.
There was no let-down, no inkling of a Tide team playing down to its level of competition. No, Alabama was in control from the beginning, when Blake Sims executed a textbook opening drive capped by a TD run. It was simple, methodical, smooth, physical football, which is what fans of the Crimson Tide have come to expect during the tenure of Coach Nick Saban. With senior LB Trey DePriest back in the fold at middle linebacker, the defense dominated. Eddie Jackson's emergence at corner appears complete for the time being, despite Saban's declaration that the corner was on a "pitch-count" due to his injured knee that many thought would keep him out of action until November.
The Tide didn't even need its vaunted running game to dominate the hapless Owls, as OC Lane Kiffin let Sims throw the short passes and screens while using his feet to get out of the pocket when the situation allowed. Jake Cocker spelled Sims and got his chance to show off that arm of his, though the accuracy still leaves a little to be desired. Kicking was solid, and Cyrus Jones had a near touchdown on a return. Things are back to normal on the Crimson Tide sidelines, right? RMFT#16, no?
Let's not get carried away with ourselves. It was an Owl squad missing its best defensive player and fielding a dinged up quarterback. Alabama was supposed to win this game, and the Owls were paid eleventy-billion dollars to come take their beating in front of the Crimson Tide faithful. We all know what happened here.
Though Saturday's performance likely lowered a few pulse rates and eased some anxiety, there are many, many questions left to be answered for this Alabama squad. Will Sims continue his steady play at quarterback, and can he stretch the field when defenses stuff the run? Will the offensive line continue to develop into the kind of unit Saban and the staff can count on when the chips are down, ala 2012? Will the defense, with the return of DePriest and Jackson, become the defensive unit that elevates the Crimson Tide against the HUNH?
These questions and more await...but for now, the Tide must only focus its mind on dominating its next opponent, Southern Miss. Certainly the Tide will have little trouble dispatching the hapless Golden Eagles, a team under second year head coach Todd Monken that has won only two games in more than two seasons. In 2014, the Golden Eagles are 1-1, falling to Nebraska in the opener then winning against Alcorn State last weekend.
No one believes that USM will shock the world Saturday night by walking out of BDS with a win. I wouldn't insult your collective intelligence by asserting as much. However, the game will give Bama a chance to further develop, to seize its impending destiny, and to prepare for the lurking Gators who will attempt to drag Bama into the murk of the Teams of Championships Past swamp. After the Southern Miss game, we should know more about the quarterback situation, more about the rotation in the secondary, more about the defense as a whole. Southern Miss doesn't have the guns to shoot down Bama offensively, but their scheme is one that can only aid Alabama in preparing for future opponents who are, indeed, armed-to-the-teeth.
So while this week's game should be rather blasé on the scoreboard, intrigue will filter throughout the contest...the battles within the battles, if you will. This will be the last "pre-season" game, the last chance at preparation for the gauntlet ahead of them. This is the time to work out the kinks, for the penalty of carrying one's kinks further into the schedule grows exponentially by the week.
Now, let us take a closer look...
Alabama offense vs. Southern Miss defense
The demise of the USM defense had been well-recorded since the departure of former head coach Jeff Bower several years ago. In that golden era of Golden Eagle football under Bower, Southern Miss was renowned for two reasons: its "anyone, anytime, anywhere" attitude and its salty defense (I guess you can throw its most famous graduate, Brett Favre, in there too). In those days, USM took the leavings from the Mississippi schools, along with those players who weren't recruited by LSU, Bama an Auburn, and turned them into future NFL prospects. NFL journeymen like linebacker Michael Boley and defensive lineman Adalius Thomas were sown from those USM defenses of yore, as one could always count on a backyard brawl when the Golden Eagles came to town.
Flash forward to the present day: Southern Miss has become known as an offensive team after the departure of Bower. His replacement, Larry Fedora, is known as an offensive guru, as is current coach Monken. Gone are those aggressive, athletic defenses of the past, a mere shade of memory for those who have followed the USM program for decades.
But just because the team's current identity revolves around offense doesn't mean the defense is a completely forgotten endeavor in Hattiesburg. Defensive coordinator Dave Duggan knows what he's doing there, and after two years of dreadful defense, the 2013 version of the Golden Eagle squad improved. Overall, last year's defense allowed 224.6 yards per game rushing (good for 108th in the nation) and 210 yards per game passing (good for 24th in the nation). Those numbers won't win any beauty contests, but the defense continually improved as the year crept on, leading to USM's first win of the season (against UAB) to end the year.
That said, the Golden Eagles simply don't have the weapons to keep the Tide offense in check, regardless of which quarterback ultimately starts the game. Sims, along with got-to receiver Amari Cooper and tailback Kenyan Drake, should be able to pick apart the soft underneath of the Golden Eagle defense. The Golden Eagle D wields a surprising good pass rush, which was part of the reason for USM's strong pass defense in 2013. The group is led by sophomore defensive end Dylan Bradley, a big body with the kind of fast-twitch style that has given Bama's tackles trouble in the past. Southern Miss brings a veteran group of role-players behind Bradley, including defensive tackles Adam Williams, Kaleb Eulis and Rakeem Nunez-Roach, nose tackle Draper Riley and defensive ends Dasman McCullum, Preston Smith and Michael Smith.
Expect to see some rotation of these pass-rush specialists in either the 3-3-5 or 4-2-5. This line is talented enough to give Alabama's developing offensive line a chance to hold a dress rehearsal versus a decent pass-rush, a skill that will be more critical in next week's game versus the Florida Gators. If Alabama runs first, expect this game to get out of hand early, as the Golden Eagles simply don't have the horses to hold the full-bore Bama rushing attack at bay.
As for the quarterback question, it doesn't matter which QB tosses the ball, so long as he gets it in the hands of Cooper, who is quickly gaining a reputation as the most lethal offensive weapon in the country. Sims managed the game and played within himself, which is approximately 100% of what Tide fans can expect from him. Coker played a considerable number of snaps versus FAU, and while he clearly demonstrated the arm strength that has NFL scouts drooling, he also demonstrated the lack of accuracy and overall command of the offense that would give those same scouts pause.
This game may be the last semi-live-fire chance the Tide offense has to work on execution, as the opponent coming into Bryant Denny next week will wield one of the nation's best defenses. If Alabama can hold off the USM pass rush and exploit opportunities in the passing game, the anxiety outlook for Florida will brighten considerably.
Alabama defense versus the Southern Miss offense
Alabama's defense eased tension last week with a dominating, shut-out performance against the Owls. There was never a time in the game that it appeared FAU would be able to successfully mount any kind of offensive attack, as the defensive statistics overwhelmingly favored the Tide.
DePriest's return as the defensive quarterback resulted in a Tide interior that functioned like a machine, stuffing the run and effecting the quarterback, if not always sacking him. The Tide got its share of sacks on the day to be sure, but one also got the feeling the Tide defense was throttling back a little.
Probably equally as important as DePriest's return was the return of Eddie Jackson, who played exceptionally well in the spot formerly occupied by Bradley Sylve. Sylve was shelled in the first game, and with Jackson's recovery from a spring knee injury complete, the sophomore corner played physical, tough football (Jackson forced a fumble in the game) and showed excellent coverage skills when called upon. Jackson is the kind of physical cornerback Alabama has needed, and if his knee is truly healed, his continued development can only mean good things for a Tide secondary that has struggled.
That said, this isn't Todd Monken's first rodeo against a strong defense. Known as an offensive mastermind, his system is beginning to sink in in Hattiesburg. In the season-ending 2013 match-up with UAB, that was apparent, as starting quarterback Nick Mullens led a Golden Eagle attack that exploded to a 62-27 win against the Blazers...and that was after USM trailed at the half.
Mullens struggled along with his team for much of 2013, producing only 659 yards passing with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. However, he was a freshman and he endured injury like many of his USM comrades. That said, with another year in Monken's system, Mullens hasn't necessarily lit up the stat charts, completing 54.7% of his passes en route to averaging 210 yards per game passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Let's not kid ourselves...it doesn't matter what system USM runs (for the record, it's a spread scheme that includes some hurry-up tactics), the Tide defense will man-handle the Golden Eagles. The undersized offensive line has little hope of containing the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Williams and company. The Tide secondary will lock down the Golden Eagles' main receiving threats in Casey Martin and Markese Triplett, and the reserve players in the secondary will likely glean useful experience in the game's latter stages. Poor freshman running back Ito Smith will likely find tough sledding in the heart of the Tide defense, and behind Ito, the Golden Eagles are bereft of a rushing attack.
The Mental Game
With the aforementioned war with Florida looming ominously, will Alabama look past the Golden Eagles? Of course, every member of the Crimson Tide knows exactly what we know: that there is absolutely no reason that Saturday's game shouldn't result in a win for the Tide. Given that apparent comfort level, will the Tide be able to focus on making the type of improvement necessary to stay on the field with Florida next week?
Factor in the ever-present threat of injury to talented players, especially along the offensive line or in the secondary, and it is more imperative that the Tide has its collective mind right. After all, injuries often occur on plays in which the players are not going full-out, so keeping one's mind right is of the utmost importance for a number of reasons.
As fans, our minds are already wandering to the following weeks, the SEC schedule, the rivalry game against a rising Tennessee team...can we expect the Tide to retain their focus when the natural inclination is to look towards the beast silhouetted on the skyline? It doesn't really matter what we expect, because Saban expects the Tide to prepare and execute against Southern Miss the same way it executes against any other opponent.
In this particular game, the biggest win won't come on the scoreboard, but rather through The Process. Can Alabama do what it must, locate its ‘beast mode," as Saban stated this week?
If ever there was a moment for beast mode, that moment is now. For the battles that remain ahead will most definitely be far bloodier. If Alabama is going to survive, it better-damn-well be ready to find that inner beast, and it better find it quickly.
As always, hope for the best.