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Hope For the Best: Mercer edition

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Playing to a standard means it’s not what the other guys do, but about what Bama does, that ultimately defines them

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

As Alabama approaches the week of the year when the attention of the masses rests squarely upon the post-Thanksgiving showdown known colloquially as the Iron Bowl, many among the Alabama faithful draw a deep breath knowing full well what challenge awaits the Tide as it fords the chasm between it and he championship Promised Land.

Alabama will not be challenged to any meaningful extent by the Mercer Bears. That much is known. A team only five years into its renewed football tradition after a nearly 75-year latency, Mercer is simply outgunned, outmanned, and outclassed. Sure, they’ll give it a game effort, just as they did in September in a close game with Auburn that almost saw the Tide’s in-state rival fall to the plucky Bears in embarrassing fashion. But when the clock hits zeros in the fourth quarter this Saturday, Alabama will likely cruise to a modest victory in the final tune-up before tearing into the depth of its schedule on another championship run.

Many are focused on Auburn, there’s no doubt about that. And beyond the Tigers, should the Tide be fortunate enough to beat the nation’s fifth-ranked team, the sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs will await them in the SEC Championship Game as kings of the East. Both teams provide a daunting challenge, and the Tide’s hopes of a return to the College Football Playoffs will probably crumble should they fall in either battle.

But this week’s opponent is Mercer…at least that’s what the schedule says. In reality, however, this week’s most important match-ups will not be etched out on stat sheets or play cards of the All-22, but rather in the minds of 18- to 22-year-old men. For the challenge this week, the true opponent, is not a ramshackle assemblage of underdogs who call themselves Bears, but rather, the Crimson Tide themselves.

Alabama must find a way, after two weeks of somewhat lackadaisical performances against better competition, to refocus the laser-like intensity that was the trademark of the program in the first half of the season. Sure, Alabama was throttling lesser teams in the opening stages of the 2017 season, and he road has gotten rougher as the level of competition improved. But they were also playing with precision, with controlled aggression, with a purpose and motivation that spelled good things for the Tide’s championship aspirations.

In the current moment, however, Alabama has looked more like a wounded predator limping towards its lair than a raging contender on the hunt for yet another national championship. It likely has something to do with the unheralded spate of injuries that have slashed the Tide’s roster to the bone, cleaving away talented veteran performers and leaving the unseasoned and uncertain to rise into their ranks. The injuries have been unfortunate, and have made their impact. There was something to be said about the seeming waning of intensity among members of the Alabama team…at least until the Mississippi State Bulldogs bullied Bama into a corner in Starkville last week, causing the Crimson Tide, blood in mouth, to fight with renewed fervor just to keep their playoff dreams alive.

A hard-fought battle with LSU the previous week wasn’t enough to wake Bama up, but in pushing Alabama to the very brink of disaster, the Bulldogs may have done the Tide a favor. In the afterglow of last week’s stunning come-from-behind victory, Alabama once again seemed to burn with renewed flame. As the Crimson Tide stared into the cavernous maw spelling the death of their title hopes, they refined that conquering intensity that has made them the most feared gladiator of the last decade of college football. Jalen Hurts cemented his place in crimson lore by taking the team on his shoulders and willing them to victory, despite a limping defense gutted by injury and struggling to contain the State rushing juggernaut. In those waning minutes, amidst the clanging din of those obnoxious cow bells, the Tide resumed its championship mantle, honing its essence and imposing its will on a Bulldog defense that could offer little resistance to a fully-functioning Tide Death Star.

The Alabama team that rose in the ashes of a putrid early-game performance last week was a phoenix writ in crimson flame, the once and future king of college football, an imperfect bludgeon that is more flawed than recent incarnations of Alabama’s team, but which bears the heart and pedigree of a champion. The fiery kiln of that close call in Starkville refined and tempered the reddened steel upon which Tide championships are built. Young men, unfamiliar starters, untested talents, rose to the occasion despite their previous struggles. The malleable became rigid, the timid roared as confidently as maned lions, and the untested earned their veteran stripes. It was a great victory to be sure, one that will live on in the consciousness of the Tide faithful if Alabama does indeed ride the momentum to a championship run.

Yes, Auburn and possibly Georgia loom in the future for the Crimson Tide, and both pose a formidable obstacle to greatness in this 2017 season. But that Bama team that clawed and fought back through the hardscrabble of the Mississippi clay last week would find a way to win against either team on any given day, even if not in as impressive a fashion as the Alabama teams of September and October.

The challenge now is not the teams remaining on the schedule. The true challenge (and real reason that Saban rakes in that paunchy paycheck) is motivating the young men in crimson to field that same fiery team that finished MSU for the remainder of the season. Scars and flaws aside, the Crimson Tide remains the predator rather than the prey: the team to beat, the number-one ranked squad in the polls and the conqueror of any team that fails to bring its best effort (and a lot of good fortune) into any meeting with the Tide.

Alabama’s first job against Mercer is to stay healthy, of course. This will likely mean a few series to burnish the starters before they make way for the roster of unseasoned players who may be called upon to finish out the year given the unfortunate stroke of bad luck that Fate has dealt the Tide on the injury front this season.

To say the Tide is dinged up is an understatement. The defense in particular has been gutted by injuries, and players who, at season’s dawn, were projected to be limited reserve players are now in the starting line-up. That doesn’t leave much margin for error on the Bama roster, so the coaching staff will walk a fine line this week between keeping the starters sharp with a little live action, and running the risk of an utter catastrophe by exposing critical personnel to injury risk. Expect a conservative Tide staff to err on the side of caution, with starters (especially on defense) deferring to their back-ups as soon as possible.

The second half of the equation for Alabama involves getting reps for the players who are now the supple, untempered undercarriage of the Tide defense. Now is the time to get those newcomers precious live-fire snaps, and while Mercer offers little legitimate threat to Alabama, they are athletic enough to give Bama a high-level scrimmage as the coaching staff uses the game to develop and evaluate those players who may be called upon to spell the starters in the coming weeks.

Finally, as previously mentioned, the Tide team that crushed the upset hopes of the Bulldogs last week is good enough to beat anyone in the nation. After a statistically dismal game in which Alabama had its worst performance against the run since 2006 and saw its offensive line struggle to create even modest space for Alabama’s backs, the team found a way to flex its muscle and pull out a win. That team that finished the game…not the one that began it…was, and remains, the chief contender for the national title. Auburn is good, as is Georgia. But when even an injury-diminished Alabama team is humming on all cylinders, there’s little all but a handful of challengers can do to dethrone the king.

Therefore, heading into the pivotal games of the 2017 season, Alabama must rekindle and harness the fervor and energy of the final minutes of the MSU game. That will indeed be a challenge against a withering opponent like Mercer, but Alabama will need to continue that positive momentum unabated as it travels to Lee County next week. Even with the injuries, Alabama is a more talented team than the one they’ll face on the Plains. But it will be the mental state, not the talent level, of the men in crimson that will dictate their fate in that game, and the remainder of the season for that matter. If Alabama plays like champions and remains resilient in the face of adversity, then a return to the playoffs will be in the cards.

This week, there will be no breakdown of schemes or personnel, as everyone, including the players, knows the true challenge that befalls the Tide in this game. It’s not anything that Mercer will do that will shape the course of Alabama’s season. It’s what the Crimson Tide does that will determine their greatness, play in and play out.

That will be true in every remaining game of the 2017 season. Mercer is but cannon fodder while the barbarians at the gate await. Auburn and Georgia will be worthy challengers, to be sure, and they’ll be coming for the Tide in its weakened state, intoxicated by their dreams of storming the walls of Bama’s once-impenetrable bastion and planting their heathen flags as new kings of the empire that Alabama built.

Bark as those challengers may, ultimately their baying is of little consequence. Alabama’s only enemy, this week and beyond, is itself...hope for the best.