Alabama romped Western Carolina 49-0 on Nov. 17 and the Tide remain in control of their own destiny in terms of the Sugar Bowl. The national championship is still dependent upon losses by two of the top three teams and a Tide victory in the SEC title game, assuming they get past the Iron Bowl still with only one loss.
One thing Western Carolina did give the Tide was a laundry list of things they need to address before Auburn comes to Bryant-Denny. Make no mistake about it, Auburn has the talent to contend with the Tide for at least one game. If the Tigers are motivated, they can play very good football.
Step one for the Tide is addressing those issues. From the win over Western Carolina, here are 10 things we learned about the Tide. Presented in no particular order, the following slides contain both the good and the bad from the Tide's win over the Western Carolina Catamounts.
Christion Jones had another muffed punt this week against Western Carolina. The Catamounts recovered the ball and faced a first-and-10 from the Alabama 29.
While that's not a lethal mistake in a game like this, a similar mistake could have cost the Tide a win in Death Valley two weeks ago. (No, Jones wasn't the only person to blame for the near-loss at LSU.)
Jones is a valuable asset to the Tide's offense. He even had a 29-yard touchdown catch in this particular outing, though he was not "tangibly" effective in the game other than that. His blocking for the other offensive members was effective, though.
While he won't be in the worst room in Saban's doghouse, expect to see a lot of Cyrus Jones in the return game against Auburn. He may even get a lot of time against Georgia in the SEC title game if Alabama beats Auburn.
While it was against Western Carolina and not a major team, Alabama held the Catamounts to 2-of-11 on third down.
While the two third-down conversions did look bad for the Tide as far as coverage was concerned, the two-of-11 mark was definitely an improvement on the Tide's play of late. Texas A&M was 11-of-18 on third down, and LSU was 10-of-20.
Looking ahead, the Tide will have to clamp down on third down in order to be a legitimate contender for the national title. Right now, there is every reason to believe they can get there; the question is whether they can win it if they get there.
Alabama has improved on third down, but there are still some lingering issues on Alabama's defense. We will cover those next.
At first glance, the performance on Saturday looked really good. Upon further review, that ruling would be overturned.
No, it's not an issue giving up fewer than 10 first downs on a normal day. This, however, was not a normal day. The WCU Catamounts have only one victory on the season, and that was against Mars Hill. Alabama gave up eight first downs to the purple and gold.
Some of those first downs were absolutely unnecessary. There were first downs that were gained after Tide players had gotten initial contact at or behind the line of scrimmage. Again, it isn't the fact that the Tide gave up first downs, it's that they were all in the right position to prevent that from happening.
The play was better than it was against Texas A&M and LSU, though, and that's a big win for Alabama.
Alabama's pass defense got them into some trouble recently. (We will get to the offense in a bit.) Against Western Carolina, though, they did a bit better than usual. While that's to be expected, let's cover why this week's performance is actually better than the past two weeks.
Prior to the Western Carolina game, Alabama's defensive unit had given up 23 passes of 20 or more yards. In this game, the Tide only gave up two. One was for 28 yards, and the other was for 30 yards.
That 30-yard completion was given up with mostly backups in the game to gain experience. The Tide still kept the Catamounts under 20 yards on every rush. The longest of those allowed was for 15 yards.
While those marks are still a little too much for Tide fans to be extremely comfortable with the performance, it shows improvement from the early part of the season. Improvement is all the Tide need.
If they can keep improving over the next couple of weeks, a lock-down secondary is on the horizon sooner rather than later.
While his numbers didn't approach McCarron's, Blake Sims will be a great Alabama quarterback when he gets his chance.
While his two-of-six passing mark wasn't all that impressive, the majority of the plays called while he was in were rushes. His eight rushes for 70 yards and a touchdown were only behind Eddie Lacy in terms of production.
Sims will be a valuable dual-threat asset when the Tide finally call him up to start. It's one thing to establish the run to sell the play-action pass. It's another animal entirely when you can sell a run from anywhere in the backfield. Sims will freeze a lot of safeties in their tracks when he steps up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush.
No Tide fan is ready to see McCarron go, of course, but it's nice to see what's waiting in the wings.
While the internet almost exploded from all the "Alabama should have run the ball" chatter last week, somebody at the Capstone was paying attention. Maybe they were just assessing game film, but they were paying attention to something.
This week, Alabama attempted 12 passes and 39 rushes. While a lot of that happened during the clock-eating phase of the game, it still proved that Alabama is a beast at running the ball. Eddie Lacy had 10 carries for 99 yards and three touchdowns.
Blake Sims came in behind him with eight carries for 70 yards, and T.J. Yeldon rounded out the top three with 55 yards on seven carries. Alabama needs to ensure that its running game stays intact over the next few weeks. Under no circumstances should the Tide be passing the ball when it's largely ineffective.
This game allowed the Tide to see what it can do when its game is working. We will cover the passing in the next slide.
McCarron went six-for-six in this game for 133 yards and a touchdown. What was impressive was his ability to put balls into coverage in the perfect spot.
While that may not seem like much, it showed that he was confident in his abilities. That's a trait that was severely lacking against LSU (except for two drives) and Texas A&M (except for a few drives).
What McCarron needs to do now is realize that those perfect throws will work against teams like Notre Dame, Kansas State, LSU and Texas A&M.
If he had shown that much confidence in himself against any team this year, that 52-0 shutout of Arkansas wouldn't look like a fluke right now. It would be the "normal" Alabama score.
McCarron is a quality quarterback and had a great shot at earning a trip to New York this year. While that hope may have been postponed for another year, the confidence can return right now.
If McCarron plays with confidence, there isn't a team in the nation that can beat him. Not even Texas A&M, although that's a moot point until next year as well.
Alabama's backups were in for the majority of the second half. While they gave up some plays to Western Carolina, there was nothing lethal allowed.
WCU got a couple of really good plays in the second half, but they could not string them together into a scoring drive. The fourth-and-short attempt by the Catamounts was stifled by the 'Bama defense, and that was a big "little win" for the Tide.
Western Carolina played with a lot of heart, and the Catamounts never gave up. They are to be commended for that. Alabama's backup defense ensured that heart never got them points, and they are to be commended for that as well.
Alabama's next defense is shaping up into a great unit. If this year's youth can lead them well, there may not be a lot of drop-off between 2013 and 2014.
That will remain a backstory to what's going on this year, but it's a juicy backstory.
Maybe Alabama fans didn't learn this today, but it was still evident all over the field. Whenever an Alabama player was within a couple of feet of a downed Catamount, the Tide players were helping them up.
In the big rivalry games, that is much less common, as the general rule is to let the other team help their players up. However, the Tide didn't waste any time helping up those wearing purple today.
Sometimes, it takes a game like this, where everyone is enjoying a "friendly" game of football to see the light inside some of the nation's top football players. The Tide represented the university with class, pride and character.
Somehow, it seems even more genuine coming from a team in classic colors that have remained unchanged for decades.
Alabama's only glaring weakness that still needs much improvement was the solo tackling. As mentioned in a previous slide, the Tide were frequently in position to clamp down on plays long before they turned into first downs.
Ultimately, the Catamounts only gained 163 total yards against the Tide, but assume double that number would come against any solid FBS team. That makes this game roughly a 326-yard performance by the Tide's defense.
While that still wouldn't allow 90-percent of the nation to beat the Tide, it's certainly a bit of a concern. It's merely confirmation that the defense needs to gel more. This season's schedule took a lot of the Tide's opportunities for growth away from them.
Arkansas and Missouri didn't have their starting quarterbacks, and Michigan was missing its second-best running back. (Michigan's best running back is Denard Robinson.)
Alabama needs to lock down the tackling in space. If that happens, this is by far the nation's best team on any given Saturday.