Through the first three weeks of the college football season, the Alabama Crimson Tide are 2-0 with a road win over No. 6 Texas A&M, the team many were projecting as the most difficult opposition of the season. Winning is great, and Alabama is the legitimate national championship favorite, but the unblemished record doesn't mean this is a flawless team.
The Tide have issues on both sides of the ball, and with a couple games under our belt, we have a better idea A) what those issues are, and B) which teams will probably have the best chance at exploiting them. Not necessarily beating Alabama, mind you, but at least giving the Tide a game.
|@ Virginia Tech||Sat 08/31||W 35 - 10|
|@ Texas A&M||Sat 09/14||W 49 - 42|
|Colorado St.||Sat 09/21||7:00 PM EDT|
|Georgia State||Sat 10/05||TBA|
|@ Kentucky||Sat 10/12||TBA|
|@ Mississippi St.||Sat 11/16||TBA|
|@ Auburn||Sat 11/30||TBA|
Johnny Manziel was able to rush for 98 yards on 14 carries on Saturday, and in Alabama's last two losses, quarterbacks have averaged over 67 rushing yards each.
Mobile quarterbacks have given Alabama's defense problems for years. Famously, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel have had big games, and while both of those players are exceptional talents, it's not like mobile quarterbacks are rare these days. Fortunately for Alabama, though, there aren't very many left on their schedule.
Ole Miss and Auburn both have them, but will be out of their depth against Alabama. Ole Miss has a dangerous offense led by "Dr." Bo Wallace, who has rushed for two touchdowns in Ole Miss' first two games. He may not have gaudy yardage stats (only 63 yards on 20 carries), but he's mobile and can extend plays. Auburn also has a mobile quarterback in Nick Marshall, a converted defensive back from Georgia. The Tigers probably aren't good enough to beat Alabama this year, but if Marshall plays a blinder, things could get weird.
After the regular season, Alabama would probably face either Georgia's Aaron Murray or South Carolina's Connor Shaw in the SEC Championship, both of whom are capable of causing problems and keeping plays alive. Also, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, arguably the country's best running quarterbacks after Manziel, could be waiting at the end of the year.
Ole Miss, South Carolina, Oregon, and Ohio State would each probably use more option runs and designed quarterback running plays, which could do more to soften up the defense and keep the secondary guessing.
Alabama lost center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack, and right tackle D.J. Fluker off last year's national championship winner, and naturally there was bound to be a step backwards for this year's unit. Some worries were confirmed in the season opener against Virginia Tech, where the team could only muster 96 rushing yards and McCarron was sacked four times.
How much did one good game against the Aggies quell those concerns? Other teams on their schedule most certainly will be able to give the Tide trouble up front. The Aggies showed flashes of defensive aptitude, but for long stretches of the game you were reminded that they were the same team that surrendered 509 total yards and 31 points to Rice. Rice!
LSU could present a real problem for Alabama's line. The Tigers have seven defenders with at least one tackle for a loss through their first two games, and even after playing a tough season opener against TCU, they are only allowing 110 rushing yards per game. It's possible that Alabama's line may gel by the time November rolls around, but the Tigers have the bodies and the talent to make a mess in Alabama's backfield. Ole Miss' young front, led by No. 1 freshman Robert Nkemdiche's three tackles for loss, is also improving.
The obvious elephant in the room here is Jadeveon Clowney, who could be a huge problem for Alabama's offensive line in the SEC title game. And Clowney isn't the only good pass rusher for the Gamecocks, considering Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. Some of the pieces on the defense have changed, but they're not far removed personnel-wise from the unit that finished sixth in the nation with 43 sacks in 2012. The Cocks rank No. 7 in tackles for loss so far this year.
Alabama's cornerbacks are talented, but their inexperience is showing. No defensive back can cover a receiver forever, but Alabama repeatedly lost A&M receivers in space on Saturday. Coverage issues can be exacerbated when the opposing team has a mobile quarterback that can stretch plays out and make defensive backs cover for longer. To be fair, this is not a problem that's unique to Alabama's corners, but the Tide just don't have a bona fide lockdown corner like Dee Milliner or Dre Kirkpatrick on their roster at the moment, or at least not one that we're aware of.
Deion Belue, John Fulton, and Cyrus Jones all have time to improve, but a lot of cracks were exposed by Manziel and the Aggies, particularly against Fulton. Manziel threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns on Alabama's secondary, but Mike Evans was the weapon carving up the defensive backfield. Evans caught seven passes for 279 yards, and took advantage of numerous blown coverage assignments by Tide defensive backs. It could have been worse too, if Manziel hadn't tossed up two interceptions. And Belue, the best of the bunch, could be hampered by injury.
Keep an eye on LSU here as well. Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry are likely the SEC's best receiver duo, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger is flourishing so far in Cam Cameron's offense.
The good news for Alabama is that they probably won't face a passing attack as potent as they did on Saturday for the rest of the season, but that doesn't mean there aren't teams out there that could take advantage of these corners, especially if projecting for a SEC title game against Georgia's high-powered offense or a national championship game against Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins.
The Tide have also been uncharacteristically sloppy so far this year in terms of penalties, racking up 12 for 104 yards on Saturday against A&M. Teams than run up-tempo offenses can draw the opposition into taking stupid penalties due to exhaustion, and since we all know how much Saban doesn't like up-tempo offenses (even though his offense got pretty good at it all of a sudden), it's pretty likely that teams will try to rush the pace against Alabama this year.
The road environment at A&M also played a factor, with three early false starts going against Bama. Mississippi State won't have the talent to beat Alabama no matter how CLANGA its crowd gets, but if Auburn keeps up its hot start, Jordan-Hare will be rocking.
Ole Miss and Auburn will definitely try to push the pace, but they may not have the horses to really make Alabama sweat late in the game. However, put this team against Oregon, and it could very well be a different story.
The remainder of Alabama's regular season schedule is pretty light on teams that appear capable of really hurting them, and the Tide will be a decided favorite over every team left on their schedule except for LSU, despite the fact that LSU runs one of the slowest offenses in the country. Some teams seem like they have the ability to stress one of the Alabama's pressure points, but the Tigers are the only one that should be able to give them trouble in more than one.
Obviously, the matchups get considerably trickier for the SEC title game, which would probably be against one of Georgia or South Carolina, as well as the BCS title game, but those are still hypotheticals at this point. Likely hypotheticals, but still hypotheticals. Alabama will have to get there first.