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September 30, 2012

Tide will need to be better down the line

This might have been the perfect moment to find out how AJ McCarron and the University of Alabama offense would respond to a situation they hadn't faced all season - playing from behind.

That didn't happen. Christion Jones didn't allow it.

Special teams are, of course, an integral part of a team, so Nick Saban was probably gratified to see Jones race 99 yards with the kickoff to put Alabama back ahead of Ole Miss after the first Rebel touchdown. That score had put Alabama behind in the regulation portion of a game for the first time in nearly a year, since Tennessee held a brief edge in last season's game.

But the Ole Miss touchdown wasn't a fluke score, either. A pass interference call kept the drive going early on. The Rebels took advantage, though, getting their no-huddle attack into a good rhythm, driving and scoring early in the second quarter.

But like a Sasquatch sighting or Tater Tots on a press box buffet, the moment vanished almost before witnesses had time to comprehend. Ole Miss was ahead, Jones touched the ball, Ole Miss was behind and the floodgates opened, just like that. The Rebels, perhaps running on adrenaline, started to try once more to push the ball downfield with deep passes that were all less than well-advised (or well-thrown). Alabama intercepted all three, and two turned into touchdown passes to freshman Amari Cooper and, as has been the case all season, the fight was over before halftime.

Except it wasn't. For the first time all season, an Alabama opponent weathered a Crimson Tide onslaught. The Rebels came back and outscored Alabama 7-6 in the second half, and while they never actually seemed like a threat to win, they were too pesky to put away.

The brief seconds of trailing by a single point were a statistical oddity. The fact that Ole Miss had some momentum going was not. Alabama responded to that, forcefully, then seemed to drift again after halftime, raising the question of whether there could be some carryover against better teams coming up after the impending UA open date. Missouri hasn't been great but won on the road at Central Florida on Saturday and may be improving. Tyler Bray looked like he could be a danger to any team - admittedly, including his own - in Tennessee's shootout loss to Georgia. The win over Ole Miss doesn't "prove" how Alabama will respond if it faces road adversity. There is no reason to think the Crimson Tide will panic, but it didn't have time to do so on Saturday night before Jones was in the Ole Miss end zone. Still, Alabama seemed less like a juggernaut than it had for the previous month.

Nick Saban was actually asked, earlier in the week, if he was "worried" that his team hadn't been behind during the season. The question was curious, since that isn't a situation that a coach can control, at least not a coach in his right mind. Coaches always want to be ahead. On the other hand, there does have to be a curiosity factor, even for Saban. You can replicate all kinds of pressure situations in practice, but that is never quite the same thing as actual game action.

Championship seasons usually do require a team to prove its mettle at some point. The 1992 team that was honored Saturday night had to do so in Starkville and again in the SEC Championship Game at Legion Field. Those opponents, Mississippi State and Florida, were much tougher foes than a rebuilding Ole Miss was on Saturday night. The same thing lies ahead for this team, and will require more than Saturday saw.



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


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