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Bama Survives Manziel Hangover; Questions Remain

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Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and the receivers connected on seven of nine third-down throws, but often short of the first-down marker. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and the receivers connected on seven of nine third-down throws, but often short of the first-down marker. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Coming off a thrilling 49-42 win over Texas A&M, the college football world wondered whether No. 1 Alabama would have a “Johnny Manziel" hangover against Colorado State. Former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain coaches the Rams. Would McElwain have the Rams prepared to move the ball against a Nick Saban defense he watched for four years in practice?

Here are some takeaways from the 31-6 Alabama win:

How long did the hangover last?

Alabama managed just one offensive touchdown through three quarters. The offense struggled facing the nation's No. 92 overall defense. The Tide led just 17-6 after the first 45 minutes. It outgained the Rams just 248-227 while running 17 fewer plays. The Tide finally put the game away, but not until Trey DePriest recovered a fumble by Rams quarterback Garrett Grayson with the assistance of instant replay review. Tide offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier went for the jugular on the first play after the fumble recovery as Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron hit a wide-open DeAndrew White on a 30-yard post pattern and the Tide increased its lead to 24-6.

Would the offense look like the Texas A&M game or Virginia Tech II?

Alabama fans thought they were watching another replay of the Virginia Tech game as Alabama could not successfully run the ball against the Rams' tough defense, which stuffed eight men in the box. The Tide’s offense is predicated on running the ball between the tackles, but only gained 66 rushing yards. Senior right guard Anthony Steen did not play because of a concussion as swing man Kellen Williams replaced him. All-SEC left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio whiffed on several blocks, allowing Rams defensive ends to sack or hit McCarron. McCarron’s interception was a poor pass that seemed to deflate the team for the remainder of the third quarter.

The Tide struggled on third down again. The Tide’s third down efficiency was 0-of-8 until two third-down conversions well into the fourth quarter improved it to 2-of-10. McCarron was 7-of-9 for 48 yards on third downs. The one common theme on third down was that most of those throws were under the coverage and short of the first down. This is maybe the most talented receiving corps in Alabama history, but they must catch the ball past the first down marker. The Tide dropped to a 33 percent (11-of-33) conversion rate for the season. Alabama converted 48 percent of its third downs in 2012. Wide receiver Christion Jones was the offensive MVP in the game, catching nine passes for 90 yards.

After being torched by Manziel and future NFL receiver Mike Evans for 42 points and 600 yards, would the defense improve?

Yes and no. Alabama didn't let Colorado State cross midfield during the first half, but the Rams moved the ball on two impressive drives in the second half, going 21 plays for 118 yards and eating up more than nine minutes on the clock. The drives resulted in field goals by Jared Roberts. While Alabama could not convert on third down the entire game, the Rams were successful in converting five third downs in the second half, sustaining drives in Alabama territory. On the positive side, linebacker/defensive end Adrian Hubbard finally seemed to live up to his potential with five total tackles, including four solo tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

Would the Tide score another non-offensive touchdown?

Yes. For the third consecutive game, special teams and defense provided a much-needed spark. Early in the second quarter, running back Kenyan Drake blocked Hayden Hunt’s punt and linebacker Dillon Lee picked up the ball and scored his first career touchdown to put the Tide ahead 14-0. It was Alabama’s fifth non-offensive touchdown.

Will the Tide be healthier for Ole Miss next week?

One of the other reasons for the sluggish performance was the absence of five starters: Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood, Anthony Steen, Deion Belue and Jarrick Williams. Key reserve defensive back Nick Perry also did not play because of vision problems.

The answer? We'll see.

Up next: vs. Ole Miss, Saturday at 5:30 p.m. CT on ESPN