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October 15, 2010

Column: Alabama has been good, but not great yet

Here's the one thing about college football statistics that many fans never fully realize: They lie.

This year's University of Alabama team is the perfect example.

The Crimson Tide is dead last in the Southeastern Conference in sacks so the defense must not be very good, right? Actually, it's second in total defense and first in scoring defense.

Senior quarterback Greg McElroy set single-game career highs for completions (24), passing yards (315) and tied for attempts (34) last week at South Carolina. Yet that game has to go down as a failure because it's his only career loss.

He's 19-1, but the game he'll always dwell upon is that "one."

"We know we had a down week," sophomore tight end Michael Williams. "We know we have to bounce back. That target is still on us, but people think we're vulnerable now. We're still as strong as we used to be."

At the midway point of the regular season, here's what we know about Alabama:

1) It's first three opponents were worse than expected.
2) No team in college football could have survived the last three weeks undefeated.
3) The offense is better than a year ago.
4) The young defense, with just two seniors in the two-deep rotation, remains a work in progress.
5) Alabama hasn't pulled it all together yet, or played its best game.

It may not be No. 1, but should the Tide ever have something like the second half at Arkansas and the first half vs. Florida there isn't an opponent that could match it.

But that's a big if, thus Alabama's approach this week, knowing it has to play two more games before its bye and subsequent stretch run.

"Just back to the basics," sophomore linebacker Nico Johnson said. "Back to square one, start all over, just like camp.

"We know now what we have to do and how we have to do it. Everything happens for a reason, we're just going to take it and run with it."

Quarterbacks: At this point of the season last year McElroy was entering his midseason swoon. He averaged 205.5 passing yards per game and had a 146.6 passer-efficiency rating, both of which ranked fifth in the SEC. This year, he's fourth, but with a 72.3 completion percentage - up from 60.8. The key to the second half of 2009 was that he had only one pass intercepted in 172 attempts (vs. LSU) and then had his best game in the SEC Championship. He's both made plays and taken too many sacks while trying to make things happen, but he's shown better poise, posted better numbers in key situations and continues to grow as a player. Grade: B+.

Running backs: In terms of talent and ability, the grade should be an easy A. The key word there is "should." Junior Mark Ingram doesn't lead the team in rushing, with 396 yards on 56 carries after missing the first two games due to arthroscopic knee surgery. He was averaging 18. 5 rushing attempts per game at this point in 2009, and this year it's just 14. His 99.0 average per game is down just 10 yards too (he was coming off the Ole Miss game where he had 172 rushing yards on 28 carries), and sophomore Trent Richardson is averaging 73.7 yards on 10.5 carries. The Tide is still averaging 5.6 yards per carry, but the 197.5 per game is only fourth in the SEC. Falling behind early at Arkansas and South Carolina skewered their numbers, and Alabama is surprisingly only seventh in time of possession, but Ingram and Richardson need the ball more and are both due for big-time games. Grade: B+.

Wide receivers: Two obvious areas of improvement that don't show up in the stats are route-running and blocking, the latter a big reason why the Tide has been running so many screens this season. The one thing that hasn't clicked like Alabama has hoped is the vertical passing game, which would help open things up. Still, there's a lot of improvement from this time a year ago when tight end Colin Peek and Ingram were tied or the team lead in receptions with 17. This year it's Julio Jones (32) following by Darius Hanks (16) and Marquis Maze (14). McElroy has completed passes to 13 different players, but it's time for the second tier of wide receivers to step up more - especially with Jones trying and play with a broken hand. "I feel like we're never satisfied, we have to continue to get better," Hanks said. "But I feel things have gone pretty well and have to get better in the second half." Grade: B.

Offensive line: The 17 sacks allowed is misleading because many have been from McElroy trying to make something happen and give his receivers time to get open. Despite deserving better they're taking it a bit personally. This time last year, Alabama was fourth in the SEC in rushing, passing, total offense and scoring. It's currently third in passing and total offense, and fourth in scoring and rushing despite have two new starting linemen. Both have fared well, although redshirt freshman (and yes, it's sometimes hard to remember he still has three more years of eligibility) D.J. Fluker sustained a severe groin injury at South Carolina and will be out for a while. Sophomore Chance Warmack has stepped in nicely at left guard, and can be extremely effective when he pulls. Sophomore Barrett Jones is the quiet leader of the unit, junior William Vlachos has been steady in the middle and senior tight end Preston Dial has been terrific. If the Tide's blockers get to the second level, it's almost always a significant gain. Grade: B+.

Front 7 vs. run: The lack of continuity and experience have taken their toll, in addition to some sloppy tackling, but Alabama hasn't had much stability either. Junior defensive end Marcell Dareus got off to a slow start after being suspended for two games, but is clearly the Tide's best defensive player as evidenced by his team-leading six tackles for a loss in four games. The rest of the team combined has just 20, with junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower still with zero, but look for improvement as the season progresses. There have been some amazing flashes, like when Florida twice had the ball at the Alabama 1 and after failing to punch it in turned the ball over, but there has yet to be an entire game with that type of intensity. The bottom line is that the Tide is giving up just 3.3 rushing yards per carry, 102.5 per game, three rushing touchdowns and the longest carry has been just 32 yards. So the grade is B even though there's a lot of room for improvement.

Front 7 vs. pass: Granted, sacks are an overblown statistic, but it's a problem when the team-leader is a safety (Mark Barron with two). The coaching staff has tried just about every combination possible between the linebackers and just when you think they're done they're tweaking some more - although in part due to injuries. Johnson has been better against the run and true freshman C.J. Mosley has been a force in pass defense, but with a healthy Courtney Upshaw (ankle/thigh) Alabama dominated Florida up front. Picking up receivers out of the backfield have been a problem, but the Tide has created five turnovers in the red zone while no one else in the SEC has more than two. It's also second in red-zone defense despite South Carolina scoring touchdowns during all four trips last week. Grade: B-.

Defensive backs: If anyone would have predicted before the season began that Alabama would be second in SEC interceptions or sophomore safety Robert Lester would lead the league with four, they'd have made a ton of money. Joining incumbent Barron, who leads the team in tackles with 40, have been two sophomores and a true freshman in the starting four, with a junior college transfer the nickel back and new backups across the board. Despite that, Alabama actually leads the conference in both pass efficiency defense and defending third downs (30.0 percent). Considering what the Tide lost from last year, that's pretty remarkable, but the unit needs to be more consistent and continue to make strides. Grade B.

Special teams: Alabama's special-teams MVP has been Richardson and it's not close. Not only is he averaging 28.4 yards per kick return, which his roughly five yards better than what Alabama averaged a year ago, but he also has five tackles in coverage while leading the SEC in all-purpose yards (177.0 per game). Despite every specialist being new the Tide really didn't stumble until South Carolina, where it had a missed field goal, extra-point attempt and came up short on a fake punt. The Tide is second in the SEC in kick returns, sixth in kick coverage (it was ninth a year ago), ninth in punts, fourth in punt-return average and fifth in field goals. Freshman Cade Foster's net average on kickoffs is 44.7 yards (last year Alabama was just 39.3) with five touchbacks. Grade: B.

Overall grade: B+, which sounds about right for a 5-1 team that's had so much thrown at it and still has a ways to go.


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