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September 18, 2011Unlike the NFL, college football doesn't really have an exhibition season.
So disregard what you might think about Alabama's first three games. Those games counted, whether it was the two shakedown cruises at home against outmatched Kent State two weeks ago and North Texas on Saturday night, or a road game last week against a Penn State team that was better in reputation than reality. Those wins go in the books at the end of the year.
As Gene Stallings used to say, if you think a game against (insert huge underdog opponent here) isn't important, just lose one of those games. Nick Saban did lose one once, to Louisiana-Monroe, and earlier this week he called that "the most embarrassing game of my coaching career," not because of the name of the opponent but because his own team "didn't come ready to play."
So Alabama has come ready to play in it first three games. UA is 3-0. But it is hard to shake the idea UA is like that first Viking ship Leif Ericsson piloted to an unknown shore. But the cruise is over. The landing has been made. The brave new world - or, more precisely, the SEC season - is here.
It isn't that Alabama has to do things differently to win in the brave new world, which starts against Arkansas next week. The basic formula - run the football, complement that with a controlled passing game, play ferocious defense and be solid on special teams - is proven.
What Alabama has to do now is take the raw material from the first three games - and some of it was very raw - and refine it. That refining was the purpose of much of the experimentation that went on in the first three games, even though they counted.
It was the reason for looking at two quarterbacks, or for moving Barrett Jones to right tackle for much of the North Texas game so Cyrus Kouandjio could get some much-needed left tackle reps. D. J. Fluker, meanwhile, spent much of the game watching from the sidelines.
Some of the moves - like having a defense that was nearly 50 percent freshmen in the late goal-line stand - will pay off in the more distant future. Some of it works already.
Clearly, the two-back tandem, Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson, works. The statistics from the game, as Nick Saban himself admitted, were a bit deceptive. Yes, Lacy and Richardson became the first pair of Alabama backs to go over 150 yards each in a single game, according to UA Sports Information. That is a noteworthy accomplishment regardless of the level of opposition.
But it didn't always come consistently - and Saban wants consistency.
"If you are running the ball, it is good to average 4 yards per carry and I think we did that even if you take out the big runs," Saban said. "But we have to eliminate the negative plays. We had too many. There were things that we can block and we should block that we didn't block.
"I think the big message is that every time you don't do the little things right, there can be consequences."
There is still time for Alabama to improve in these areas, even though SEC plays has arrived. The entire season is a chance for improvement.
The BCS champion isn't crowned in September, even if you get the opposite impression listening to national commentators crown LSU or Oklahoma or Boise State. Alabama will be in the conversation too, when it the appropriate time for that conversation arrives. At least it will be if it gets better at what it is trying to do.
There were some other positives for Alabama. Darius Hanks did not have a big day statistically - two catches for 20 yards - but his return after a two-game absence does strengthen the wide receiver position. Marquis Maze continues to be an exciting punt returner and possibly a kickoff returner, although Alabama receives so few kickoffs it is hard to judge.
The pass rush still wasn't outstanding, but there was occasional pressure. Blake Sims emerged from hiding very late in the game, although it is hard to project him having a big role at this point. Duron Carter was absent again and one has to wonder if 2011 is slipping away for him, as a possible playing season.
So far, it has been more questions than answers about this Alabama team. That isn't a criticism. It is true for a lot of teams, and only to be expected at this point. You can call this stretch what you want - prologue, or exhibition season, or a 3-0 start. But whatever you call it, it is over - and the real answers will have to start coming soon.