When you look at the 24-20 close call in Fayetteville, you have to wonder if Arkansas is better than we thought or if Alabama has some serious holes. College FootBlog takes a look at a couple of areas of concern for the Tide and a couple of reasons they could represent the SEC in another BCS National Championship, and we’ll wrap up by breaking down our thoughts of just how far they should go in 2010.
1. Youth in the Secondary: Any time you lose three of four starters in the secondary, it takes time to reestablish that continuity. We saw this inexperience last weekend, as Ryan Mallett threw for over 350 yards. The Tide did manage to pick him off three times, but they showed that they can be vulnerable, particularly to the intermediate pass. This weekend, they face more speed and explosiveness at wide receiver. If they are relying on the interceptions and big plays (something Bama has had a knack for since Nick Saban’s arrival), the Gators could pull off the upset. If, however, they play more consistent and force Brantley to check down to the short routes, the Tide should win and win big. With Saban’s scheme and his ability to coach up DBs, this unit will continue to improve and could be lights out by season’s end. In the meantime, however, they still have some work to do.
2. Greg McElroy struggled against his first SEC Defense: After blowing up in the first three games against vastly inferior opponents (including Penn State, who struggled last weekend with Temple), McElroy looked like a different QB than the one we saw last season. Against the Razorbacks, McElroy struggled, going 18-26 for under 200 yards and two picks. He will face much more speed and athleticism against Florida and LSU. McElroy must step up in these games if he wants to lead a balanced attack.
While those two factors have been weaknesses in this early season, here are a couple of key factors that could continue to off-set the Crimson Tide’s few deficiencies.
1. The Running Game: Most running backs have a difficult time getting back after even the smallest knee surgeries. But Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram seems to have even more explosion after a late-August knee procedure. In his two games since being activated, Ingram has blown up for 308 yards and four touchdowns and is averaging nearly ten yards per carry. Add sophomore Trent Richardson and his 356 yards and 7.6 yards per carry, and Bama boasts the most explosive backfield tandem in the nation. Teams that run the ball effectively win games, and nobody does it better than the Tide, now that Ingram is back and healthy.
2. Remaining SEC Schedule: We discussed Bama’s need for improvement in the pass, but they just faced the best passing team they will face in conference play this year. Florida’s John Brantley has fallen short of expectations, and the rest of the teams on Bama’s schedule depend on the run to move the ball. The secondary will continue to improve under Saban’s tutelage, and the rush defense for the Tide is already solid, holding opponents to 106 yards per game. If they can continue to limit the ground game, there will be another SEC Championship Game in their future.
After losing three starters in the secondary, All-World linebacker Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody and several others on defense, there had to be at least a slight drop off on defense. Since his arrival, Saban has recruited well, and he has the talent to field one of the best defenses in the SEC, but it will take some games for the younger players to get acclimated. McElroy wasn’t nearly as sharp last week, but as the running game continues to hit its stride, that will only help the passing game. Records and rankings go out the window in rivalry games, and Bama has two big ones (one this weekend against Florida, and the Iron Bowl against Auburn). Florida has not found their rhythm yet, and Auburn is still probably a year away, and most importantly, both of those games are in Tuscaloosa this season, which is a huge advantage for Bama. It would be a huge shock if Saban doesn’t lead his team onto the field at this year’s SEC Championship once again. If they take care of business, there is every reason to believe they will be playing for a second straight BCS Title in early January.