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November 12, 2011

HURT: Defense carrying Alabama

Tickets are expensive. Cable television is expensive. Gasoline for a road trip like the one the University of Alabama football team took to Starkville on Saturday is expensive. But there is one sure way to save money when you watch the Crimson Tide play: You won't need 3-D glasses.

Alabama is 9-1 and is by no means out of the BCS Championship conversation after Saturday's events, but the Crimson Tide is doing it almost entirely with one championship component - the defense - and one dimension, at best, on offense.

The Crimson Tide defense is virtually impregnable at this point. The debate about where this defense compares to the great units of the modern era, 1979 or 1992, 2005 or 2009, still has to wait until the end of the year before it is settled. However, this year's unit is compiling some compelling evidence to support its case. Consider the raw numbers against MSU. No, the Bulldogs are not a great offense, but UA held them to just 131 yards - 50 yards worse than their previous low output under Dan Mullen. When the game was still a game, in the first half, MSU returned an interception to the Alabama 4-yard line and got no points. That is defense.

But offense? Well, there was offense after a fashion, although it appeared like something from a different era of football when Trent Richardson was accumulating 3.97 yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Eddie Lacy, who had 96 yards and two touchdowns, summed it up accurately, saying, "I just do what I have to do and run the ball."

The reason he had to run the ball was twofold. First, this is the Alabama plan for the rest of the year. There is nothing hiding behind the curtain. Alabama is going to bludgeon away on offense and defy teams to score, and hope it gets a rematch with the one team that has been able to stand the bludgeoning, LSU. Second, the sophomore season of quarterback AJ McCarron seems to have reached a plateau, to put the best face on it. To be fair, McCarron has played good defenses - especially LSU's - but he has struggled. He threw a costly interception against LSU and one that could have been costly against Mississippi State, had the defense not come to the rescue. Those wobbles have not been balanced by big plays in the vertical passing game. There were a few downfield balls including a couple to the "Hey, Where Have You Been?" player of the week, Kevin Norwood, on Saturday. But there have not been as many defense-loosening plays as McCarron, or his coaches, or the Alabama fan base, have wanted.

Then there are the special teams. For two weeks now, there have been struggles in the kicking game. "Struggles" understates the case. Think of it this way: If a team of Tibetan anthropologists with no understanding of football were watching Alabama, they would understand that there was a ball being kicked, and a set of goalposts, but they would never guess that there was some relationship between the two.

On top of that, a 68-yard kickoff return led directly to the only MSU points. Again, here is some quick math: 68 yards equals over 50 percent of MSU's entire offensive output for 60 full minutes, and giving up that much in 15 seconds of kick coverage is concerning.

Before the criticism gets too far off the ranch, let's remember what we are discussing here. Alabama is 9-1. With Stanford and Boise State going down on Saturday, the Crimson Tide is probably one result away (say an Oklahoma win over Oklahoma State) from being in line for a BCS championship rematch with LSU. The issue isn't that Alabama is somehow a bad team. The issue is whether it is a national championship team, should the BCS game berth magically materialize. Viewed from one dimension - the dominant defense - it clearly is. But that unit, as good as it is, needs some more help from the offense and the kicking game. And those dimensions seem to be just a trifle out of focus at the moment.



Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0225.


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