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Mystery '13 Tide Team Not All That Mysterious

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Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has completed 50-of-74 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns this season, but the offensive line and secondary have been inconsistent. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has completed 50-of-74 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns this season, but the offensive line and secondary have been inconsistent. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

The majority of the college football preseason magazines such as Lindy’s Sports, Phil Steele, Athlon and others picked Alabama to win their third consecutive BCS National Championship this season.

The magazines pointed out one of the primary strengths of this year’s team centered around possibly the most talented offense in the history of the program. The offense has the potential to be prolific with such talent returning as senior quarterback AJ McCarron, All-SEC wide receiver sophomore Amari Cooper and sophomore running back T.J. Yeldon.  All-American linebacker CJ Mosley surprised many fans and decided to return for his senior season.

There were concerns about the loss of leadership, especially on the offensive line, which lost three All-Americans in Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. Most college football pundits speculated if the Tide could beat Texas A&M on Sept. 14, it would set up another “battle of the century” for Alabama against LSU in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9.

After three games the Crimson Tide is in the position must experts thought they would be, undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Alabama (3-0) already has cleared one of its biggest hurdles of the season, beating Texas A&M in a thrilling 49-42 shootout. However, the growing pains of a new team have been evident, especially on offense. Alabama was sluggish against an underrated Virginia Tech defense and an inspired Colorado State team coached by former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.

Let’s take a look at the reasons for concern through three games:

Running Game Stuck In Neutral

One of the staples of a Nick Saban-coached team is “downhill running." Alabama has struggled to run the football in two of the first three games. The Crimson Tide currently ranks last in the SEC and 90th in the nation, averaging 132 rushing yards per game. The three teams Alabama's faced currently rank No. 15 (Virginia Tech), No. 105 (Texas A&M) and No. 55 (Colorado State) in rush defense. One year after averaging 5.6 yards per carry, the Tide is rushing for 4.1 yards per attempt. Yeldon has 273 of Alabama's 396 yards and received more than half of the carries. By this point last season, Alabama had nine rushing touchdowns. It currently has four.

According to Andrew Gribble of AL.com, Alabama only had 21 rushing attempts in last Saturday’s game against Colorado State. The Tide ran the ball fewer than 30 times just once last season (25 at LSU). The 21 rushes marked the fewest single-game total of the Saban era.

Alabama’s offensive success is predicated on running the ball successfully.  The statistics below show the dramatic difference in rushing yardage per game through three games during the Saban era:

2007: 219.0
2008: 206.3
2009: 267.7
2010: 250.7
2011: 242.0
2012: 186.7 

The offensive line has received the brunt of the criticism.

When asked after the Colorado State game about the cause of the offensive inconsistencies, McCarron answered tersely. "Communication," he said.

McCarron is working with a new center, Ryan Kelly, and when McCarron audibles, the center must change his line call too. Kelly struggled against 327-pound nose guard Calvin Tonga of Colorado State on Saturday, which begs the question: How successful will Kelly be blocking against some of the behemoth SEC nose guards he will face later in the season?

Alabama gained 247 yards rushing against Texas A&M because McCarron did a masterful job of calling plays to the opposite side of the run blitzes by the Aggies. Also, Kelly and Arie Kouandjio pulled on plays to the left side with devastating success. Former offensive lineman Brandon Greene also has been surprisingly effective at times blocking from the tight end position. Alabama’s best offensive lineman, Anthony Steen, missed the Colorado State game because of a concussion. Kellen Williams filled in admirably, but the Tide needs Steen’s experience to move the ball consistently against Ole Miss.

Through three games, Ole Miss has surrendered an average of 114.3 rushing yards per game. All-SEC linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche is probable for the game after suffering a knee injury against Vanderbilt, but Ole Miss has a lot of other talent at linebacker, including Mike Marry and Serderius Bryant. The Rebels' defense will provide a stiff test for an ailing rushing attack.

Third-Down Struggles

It has been noted how much the offense has struggled on third down this season. 

The Tide’s season average on third down dropped to a 33 percent (11-of-33) success rate. Alabama converted 48 percent of its third downs in 2012.

It’s obvious when the running game isn't working McCarron has to settle for check-down options on third down and a lot of these against Colorado State were short of the first down marker. The Tide had a 10-minute advantage in time of possession against Texas A&M, keeping the explosive Aggies offense on the sidelines. Alabama will need to do the same against Ole Miss and other up-tempo offenses it will face later this season.

Where Are The Sacks And Turnovers?

Saban defenses are not known for picking up a lot of sacks during a season. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart are more concerned about pressuring the quarterback.  Alabama has three sacks in three games. A true freshman, A’Shawn Robinson, a five-star high school prospect from Fort Worth, Texas, has two of them.

Many believe the sacks will begin to pile up later in the season. The Tide defense had 35 sacks in 2012 and 30 in 2011. Other defensive lineman, especially Jeoffrey Pagan, should’ve had a minimum of two sacks against Johnny Manziel, but the Aggies quarterback squirmed away twice to somehow complete passes. Linebacker Adrian Hubbard seems to finally be living up to his huge potential finishing with five total tackles, including four solo tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss against Colorado State. Defensive end Ed Stinson has 15 tackles and one-half sack on the season. Mosley leads the Tide with a total of 28 tackles.

Alabama is plus one in turnovers after three games. Turnovers are a staple during the Saban era. According to PhilSteele.com, here are Alabama's turnover margins since '07: 

2007: +4
2008: +6
2009: +19
2010: +12
2011: +8
2012: +14.

Alabama has three interceptions this season. Vinnie Sunseri has two interceptions returned for touchdowns and Cyrus Jones has one interception against Texas A&M. The Tide has recovered only one fumble.

There are some positives to the 2013 season. The first big positive is a team that is currently 3-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Even with the struggles on offense, McCarron is having a successful season and special teams have been very effective so far.

Perception Of McCarron Changes

Alabama fans chuckle now every time they hear an announcer or college football pundit describe McCarron as a game manager — or at least they used to. McCarron shed that tag last year by throwing for more than 2,900 yards, 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions. This year he is on pace for another impressive year. He has already completed 50-of-78 passes for 740 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. His senior leadership is even more critical for a struggling offense with an inexperienced offensive line.

Elite Special Teams Covers Mistakes

One unit that has really excelled this season is special teams. Saban and special teams coordinator Bobby Williams believe in putting first-team players and key reserves on special teams units. This is where No. 1 rated recruiting classes really pay off.

A few years ago, LSU used to hang around or beat Alabama because  of superior special teams. Not any more.

Christion Jones has returned one punt 72 yards and one kickoff 94 yards for touchdowns. He leads Alabama in all-purpose yards with 172 per game. Punter Cody Mandell, who was criticized severely two seasons ago, is averaging an impressive 47.2 yards per punt on 17 punts. Cade Foster has kicked one 47-yard field goal and missed another one. Landon Collins has been a head hunter on special teams, making multiple crowd-pleasing hits this season. Alabama has scored 13 special teams touchdowns during the Saban era.

The Texas A&M game skewered many of Alabama’s defensive statistics. Manziel threw for a career-best 464 yards and added 98 yards rushing (the Aggies gained 628 total yards). The Tide held their other two opponents to less than 300 total yards (Virginia Tech gained a total of 212 yards and Colorado State picked up 279 yards). If Alabama can execute a similar game plan against Ole Miss by controlling the clock and rushing the ball, the Tide should be able to go into the Nov. 9 game against LSU in Tuscaloosa undefeated with another shot at going to the SEC Championship game.

But the Tide must beat a young, talented Rebels team Saturday in Tuscaloosa. According to past history in the Saban era, his teams improve as the season progresses. Saturday against the Rebels will be another major test.