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September 8, 2012

HURT: Glass half-full and half-empty

Coming out of Cowboys Stadium last week, no one looked at Alabama's glass as half-empty, or anything close to it. The general consensus was that the Crimson Tide was overflowing with talent, with experience, with all-around awesomeness. And no one put a cork in all the free-flowing champagne gushing all week long, no matter how many times Nick Saban said one should.

The predictable result of that imbibing? A slight touch of the dreaded hangover. It was not enough to incapacitate the nation's No. 1 team, just enough to make it intermittently look as wobbly as a new sailor on his first boat.

"I think there was, a little bit," UA center Barrett Jones responded when asked the hangover question. "Maybe we just didn't do a very good job of preparing. I don't think it was effort. I think it was execution, but maybe that comes from not preparing as well as we should.

"We learned that if we don't bring out best, we are pretty average."

First, a quick update on perspective: Alabama did not conquer the college football world in winning over Michigan, nor did that world implode in a fiery ball of doom because AJ McCarron was sacked six times in a 35-0 win over Western Kentucky. Alabama will remain No. 1 this week. Around the nation, where Alabama is followed but not scrutinized with the mighty microscopes utilized by Crimson Tide fans, the reaction will be "another shutout" with a few chuckles at all of Saban's midweek grousing.

A closer look reveals a lot. Alabama was decent defensively, especially considering that two All-Southeastern Conference defenders, cornerback Dee Milliner (hip flexor) and nose tackle Jesse Williams (concussion) didn't play at all. But there probably isn't a team in college football that could thrive, or even survive, with four turnovers against Alabama. Western Kentucky certainly couldn't.

More worrisome, perhaps, was the offense. Again, it is a pesky half-empty/half-full situation. Was Western Kentucky actually pretty good, as Saban spent a week warning everyone in terms as ominous as if he had been the Weather Channel announcing Hurricane Hilltopper on the horizon, bearing down with Katrina-like force? Or did Alabama just play poorly?

As you might expect, it was a little bit of both. Awesomely dominant teams don't give up six sacks, but, to give Saban his due, you don't play awesomely dominant football if you think that just happens weekly without hard work.

For instance, the simplest explanation of the six McCarron sacks came straight from Saban.

"On some of them, guys just got beat," Saban said. "On a couple of them, we held the ball too long, but on some others, they just beat us on the edge."

That's college football. Players, even good ones, get beat by the other guy now and again. Is there ever a way to determine whether "believing your hype" makes that happen? Not really. Certainly, the offensive line described in regal terms last week came away, to paraphrase King Lear, smelling of mortality on Saturday. Was it because it basked in its own press clippings until a WKU defensive end went racing by? Was it tricky stunts by WKU, which, as Jones admitted, "did some things we hadn't seen?"

The only consensus, as Jones affirmed in answering a fairly leading question from some reporter ("Do you need to play better next week?") was that the offensive line - among other areas - does, in fact, need to play better. On that, agreement was universal. McCarron needs to stay off the ground. The running game needs to be strong. But does the line, or any part of the team, need to start over from scratch? Not really.

Saturday's final score, 35-0, supported the pregame argument that Alabama would handle Western Kentucky easily. Scoreboard, as they say. The run of play said something else, so much so that Saban - who many expected to be as steamed as a Maine lobster when he took the podium - was relatively low-key, one dig aside.

"It was a lot more like I thought it would be than a lot of you thought," Saban said, seemingly satisfied that his analysis had been borne out.

The Crimson Tide head coach will have everyone's attention this week. Oddly, the emotional swings of the past two weeks - up after Michigan, sort of down after Western Kentucky despite the score - probably puts the team squarely where Saban wanted it all along: hungry to prepare as it heads into SEC play at Arkansas - with a little bit less of that champagne cloudiness.





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


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