#2 Alabama Crimson Tide 8-0 Entering Bye Week
So, here we are at the bye week and Alabama is 8-0 after playing eight straight games. The Tide are neck and neck with the Florida Gators in the polls while Texas is right there with them and everyone has the Longhorns penciled in to play against the SEC Champion for the BCS Trophy. Yet each of the three teams have their weaknesses and could very well watch those championship aspirations crumble before there very eyes as each team has shown vulnerablility. Bama and Florida both have had games decided by a field goal, with Florida kicking one to beat Arkansas at the Swamp in the waining seconds of the game and Bama's Terrence Cody blocking the would-be game winning kick of Tennessee's kicker, Lincoln. Texas hasn't been untouched either, as the 'Horns have had to come from behind in the 2nd half against a bad Colorado team and were taken to the limit by a battered and bruised Oklahoma team that is better than their record says for sure. However, those teams can worry about their own problems as the Tide have plenty of their own. The bye week couldn't have come at a better time as the Crimson Tide have plenty of bumps and bruises to heal up as well as trying to fix an offense that, after opening the first 5 games scoring more than 30 points in each, a feat never produced before at Alabama, has steadily declined in production in the last 3 games.
Part of this is because they had hit the meat of their schedula and the competition was definitely going to be tougher. Another part is bad offensive play calling, especially in the redzone. Bama's offense has moved the ball well with either the running game or the passing game only to settle for a field goal almost every time they have reached inside the 20 in the past 3 games and have just 3 touchdowns. It seems as if Saban is starting to get this as he initially shrugged and gave the reporter an exaggerated look that said "You tell me." after he was asked about the questionable calls to throw back to back passes to Jones in the endzone when the Tide had 2nd and 2 on the Tennessee 5 yard line. That exact questionable playcalling would have cost us if Leigh Tiffin would have missed one of his four field goals, Mr. Lincoln (would not want to be him today) had made any of his last three and Cody wasn't able to channel the Hulk. It definitely looked like it when he saved Bama's national title hopes as he ran over 1 lineman and charged towards the kicker and smashing the vols upset hopes single handedly, literally, as he batted the ball to the ground. That one redzone appearance should have opened his eyes and probably did as he said that they ran an unusually conservative game than they normally would. Sounds like he is going to have a talk with his offensive coordinator.
One of the biggest parts that need to be fixed seem to be the passing game as McElroy has struggled to make passes downfield and the receiving corps continues to drop passes that hit them in the hand. McElroy seems to be the main concern as he seems to have lost his confidence. Against Tennessee he looked better than his previous two outings, but the majority of his passes, and all his completions except for 1, were dink and dunk passes. He only went downfield a handful of times and all but 1, a 14 yarder, were dropped. If I were Nick Saban I would sit McElroy down and tell him that he doesn't have to be so anxious in the pocket and to have faith in his offensive line, make his reads and pull the trigger when he feels it is right. I would continue, telling him that he has sat on the bench for 3 years waiting for this moment and now it is here. McElroy has never lost as a starter, including high school where we all know he sat behind Chase Daniels for 3 years before winning the state championship. He made some steps against Tennessee, but apparently the OC wanted to keep them baby steps.
The catching game should be fixed by LSU time. There is no reason there should be as many dropped passes as there have been in the past 3, maybe even 4 games. It's not just one individual either. Everyone from Julio Jones to Darius Hank to the tight end Colin Peek and everyone in between have dropped passes that have hit them in the hands on more than one occasion. It's crazy when you compare the first 4 games with the last 4 as McElroy went from hitting an average of around 67% of his passes to hitting around 50%, give or take a percent or two and we went from having 16 different recievers with at least 2 catches to catching a bad case of butterfingers.
Whatever the Tide need to do to fix the passing game better be done before Nov. 7th when LSU comes to T-Town. Bama has a chance to lock up the SEC West with a win over LSU. They may aslo have to beat 1 of it's last 2 SEC opponents just to make sure, but if they want to get to the crystal ball they will have to do that anyway...well that and more. LSU will have a chance to take the lead in the SEC West and keep their own championship aspirations alive as well.
The defensive side of the ball has room to improve as well. While the D has been suffocating, they definitely miss Hightower as they have given up more big plays and are giving up around 20 yards extra in almost every category than they were when he was healthy. It may still be unfair to compare the games when he was playing with the games he wasn't as two of his games were against perceived easy wins and the last four games have all been SEC teams, two of which were and are nationally ranked. Add to that the team hasn't had a bye untl now along with the team having to lean on the defense lately and it was inevitable for the defense to tire out and Bama to have a nailbiter. They are fortunate they were able to pull it out this time. It hasn't happened that way in the past on multiple heartbreaking occasions.
Just like our catching game needs work on offense, our pass d needs work. Specifically in the secondary where Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson have been burned badly and have either given up huge chunks of yardage, a td, or committed a pass interference penalty to stop a td or large gain. While there are others who have been burned this season, none more so than Jackson. He continues to play well on short to medium plays, but is consistently burned on long passes in man coverage either overrunning his cover, losing sight of his cover, committing multiple pass interference fouls, falling down, or not seeing the ball. Don't get the wrong idea, Jackson plays well in short to mid range, but his consistently getting burned against the long ball is definitely a problem that needs to be worked on. There are other players that have made plenty of bad plays, missed tackles, ect. but Jackson is one that definitely needs to be pointed out.
After the bye week Alabama gets LSU at home before traveling for an unpredictable Miss. State away game, followed by the last home game of the season against Chattanooga, before closing against a rapidly unraveling Auburn team. If Alabama hopes to get to the SEC Championship game for the right to play for it all in the BCS title game, whether Florida makes it to the SEC title game or not, then Bama has to win out. For Bama to win out they are going to have to be better than they have the last three games. All of this starts with McElroy and the passing game. If McElroy doesn't get back whatever it is he lost after Arkansas then there is only so far Bama can ride Mark Ingram and the defense.
One thing is for sure, the regular season isn't over and Alabama still has control of their own destiny. Can they refill the tanks enough to bring home the 1st SEC title since 99 and the 1st national championship since '92, or does the season end in heartbreak again? Time will tell, but don't underestimate this team. As bad as the Crimson Tide played against Tennessee, they still never trailed and have yet to trail this season since halftime against Virginia Tech. A team that plays their worst game of the season to date, and still wins without scoring a touchdown is a dangerous team indeed. The Alabama faithful are hoping they are more than dangerous. They are hoping this team is a team of champions.