(Sports Network) The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide finish off a three-game SEC gauntlet this weekend, as they make the trip to Columbia to take on 19th- ranked South Carolina.
The defending national champions are playing their third straight top-25 team and fourth in the first six games overall. Thus far, Nick Saban's team has been flawless, winning all five games in the 2010 season, including an impressive 31-6 romp over the Florida Gators last weekend in Tuscaloosa. With the win, Alabama has now won 29 consecutive regular season games dating back to the 2008 season-opener.
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks come into this contest well rested, having sat idle this past weekend. South Carolina opened the year with three straight victories, before falling at nationally-ranked Auburn two weeks ago, 35-27. South Carolina is 0-4 when facing the top-ranked team in the country.
The Crimson Tide have won 12 of the 14 all-time meetings in this series (two of the victories were before NCAA rulings), including the last two. The two teams have not met at Williams-Brice Stadium since 2005, a 37-14 win for Alabama.
The Crimson Tide failed to put up huge numbers offensively against Florida last weekend, but did enough, especially running the football, to keep the Gators at bay. It has been a potent rushing attack (229.8 ypg) that has fueled Alabama this season, thanks to the running exploits of sophomore Trent Richardson and Heisman winner Mark Ingram. Ingram has played in just three games this season, but has made up for lost time, averaging 118.3 ypg, on 7.9 yards per carry. He has also scored six times in those three games. Richardson is averaging 7.4 yards per carry and has scored four rushing TDs.
When the Crimson Tide do pass the ball, Greg McElroy is usually accurate, having completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, for 983 yards and seven TDs. The top receivers on the outside are Julio Jones (24 receptions, for 322 yards, two TDs), Darius Hanks (14 receptions, for 230 yards, one TD) and Marquis Maze (10 receptions, for 158 yards, one TD).
Alabama lost a great deal of talent on the defensive side of the ball this season, but the numbers aren't really reflective of that. The Crimson Tide are among the nation's best in terms of scoring defense (9.0 ppg), holding foes to a mere 292.4 yards of total offense. While the sacks have piled up (just five in five games), the team does have 11 interceptions, led by safety Robert Lester's four picks. The 6-2 sophomore also has one sack and a fumble he returned 89 yards. Joining him in an active secondary is All-American candidate Mark Barron, who leads the team with 31 tackles, with two sacks, one INT and a forced fumble. Dont'a Hightower (26 tackles) highlights the play in the LB corps, while DE Marcell Dareus is the player that must be accounted for up front.
Despite the team's run thus far, Saban knows he still doesn't have a finished product out on the field.
"I really think our team is progressing. Each week you have a new challenge and you learn more about your team. Like how are we going to respond this week? We play another very good team on the road in a difficult place to play. Are we going to be able to challenge ourselves to continue to do the things we need to do to play at a high standard? Are we going to be relieved with what we've done up to this point? I can't answer those questions. They have to come from within, with what people accomplish and what they want to do. So far we've responded fairly well, but not consistently all the time and that is something we have to continue to work on."
South Carolina will try to use a balanced offense to continually move the chains and keep Alabama's potent offense off the field. It starts with talented freshman Marcus Lattimore. The 6-0, 218-pound youngster is churning out 4.4 yards per carry and is averaging 91.5 yards per game. He has also scored six of the team's nine rushing TDs.
Quarterback Stephen Garcia has been efficient when called upon to throw the ball, connecting on 69.1 percent of his passes, for 743 yards and five TDs. His primary target is a real good one in 6-4 sophomore Alshon Jeffery, who leads the SEC in receiving yards (124.5 per game), having hauled in 27 passes, for 498 yards and two scores.
While South Carolina's offense has shown consistent balance, the defense has failed to follow suit. The team is limiting the opposition to just 18.2 ppg this year, but has shown generosity both against the run (128.2 ypg) and the pass (240.2 ypg). In addition, big plays have been few and far between, with just seven forced turnovers. Where this squad has done a nice job is getting after opposing QBs, with 12 sacks in the first four games. Sophomore end Devon Taylor leads the way in that category with three sacks among his 15 total tackles. Another sophomore, strong safety Devonte Holloman paces the defense in tackles, with 26. He is followed closely by yet another sophomore, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and his 22 stops.
At some point one would assume that Alabama will be ripe for the picking, considering the murderous schedule thus far. However, this is a team that has delivered and done so convincingly at that.
Spurrier doesn't see a letdown coming following Alabama's big win over Florida.
"I doubt it. We hope so but we doubt it. You don't sneak up on a team like Alabama with the tradition of that school, that coach and the success he's had in the past. That coaching staff is a veteran bunch of guys. They have the ability to go one game at a time and to not get full of themselves after wins. They have a track record that a big win does not affect them the next week."
Until an opponent actually knocks off the champs, its tough to go against them.