In its first two games Alabama has had a tough time pulling away from its opponents in the first three quarters even though statistically they were dominating both games. Bama didn't pull away until the fourth quarter in both games but the latest game was against an obvious weaker opponent in Florida International. What strengths and weaknesses can we now know about Alabama from its 40-14 win this past Saturday?
1. It looks like QB Greg McElroy has a chance to be the great quarterback many thought he could become when he beat out Colt McCoy for the Texas high school player of the year. He completed 14 straight passes for a new Alabama record on Saturday (if not for Julio Jones dropping a pass in the end zone he would have started the game with 17 straight completions).
2. The Tide is in better shape this year. The sheer size of the team has grown noticeably but their endurance seems to be better as well. Last year in the SEC championship game the Crimson Tide was leading the Florida Gators in the fourth quarter. They fell apart at the end and after the stinging defeat coach Saban remarked that his team "ran out of gas" down the stretch. They put a lot of effort into making sure the same thing doesn't happen this year and it is returning good results. Both Virginia Tech and FIU appeared beat up in the final period while Alabama appeared to get stronger as the game went deep into the fourth quarter.
3. Offensive Coordinator Jim McElwain's game plans are working. Bama has scored in 6 of its 7 first quarter possessions. Although they are settling for too many field goals scoring early is a result of great game planning. It is amazing coach Saban picked this guy out of relative obscurity at Fresno State knowing he was the man for the job. Actually, McElwain was amazed too. When Nick Saban first called him the coach laughed and told the Saban it must be a joke. It wasn’t.
4. DT Terrance Cody is growing into a third and long pass rusher. Cody is arguably the best nose tackle and run stopper in the country but last year he was taken out on obvious passing situations on third down. Projected to be a 1st rounder if he can also rush the pass Cody stayed for one more year, slimming down and speeding up. At 354 he is only 5 lbs away from the goal his coach set in order for him to become their 3rd and long guy. He played a more against FIU in those situations meaning the big guy is getting up the field more which is a scary for the other offensive line coaches in the SEC.
5. Trent Richardson is Bryce Brown without the sideshow headache. While Tennessee's top freshman running back likes to work out on his own, has had his own manager for four years and is rumored to be a head case in the locker room Richardson appears to be as good of a running back with but with a good attitude. After Richardson ran for the first touchdown of his career he ran to hug his offensive line on the sideline.
6. Coach Nick Saban will start anyone who plays hard, has a good attitude and is effective - even if it means sitting the Offensive Player of the Week. It’s easy to look at SEC POW Mark Ingram’s battle with the flu bug earlier in the week and think starting Roy Upchurch was the only logical thing to do. However, name me another coach that would not start the current top offensive back in the SEC if he is anywhere near 95%. The fact is that Upchurch could stake a claim that he could be the best running back right now on the team. Against Virginia Tech he ran with more authority and for more yards per carry than Mark Ingram. Upchurch earned the spot, even if only for a week. Imagine this: Upchurch may end up playing on Sundays in the NFL and yet had to platoon with two other backs his senior year in college because Alabama has great depth at running back.
Three Main Concerns for Alabama After FIU:
1. Red Zone is still a big issue. The Tide has made it inside the 20 often in the first two games but has had to settle for too many field goals.
2. Mistakes are keeping this team from being great. For the 2nd week the score was far closer than the stats would suggest. Penalties, turnovers and special team miscues are costing Alabama. All three of those were strengths on last year’s team that finished the season undefeated.
3. Kickoff coverage is horrendous. After Virginia tech's kickoff returns scorched Bama most fans told themselves that Tech’s Dyrell Roberts was going to be the best return man we would see this year. When the first two teams you face both have a return for a touchdown maybe it’s not the competition. Maybe it’s the Crimson Tide’s coverage.
Lesson Learned from the players and coaches of FIU:
Confidence and hustle can win battles on the field. FIU was outmatched in probably every position on the field, missed their plane, arrived very late on Friday night and was unable to get to bed until after midnight yet was still pesky enough to hang around for three quarters.
Alabama may indeed be better than last year but they can’t continue to keep playing this same way and make it through the SEC unscathed.