RCR: People predicted the Tide defense to take a step back this season after losing so many first round draft picks. Those predictions appear to have been wrong. Talk a little bit about who has stepped up this year in place of guys y'all lost.
Alabama's defense has been a pleasant surprise for everyone worried there would be gaping holes after losing players to the NFL Draft. Going into the Ole Miss game, Alabama is tied for fourth in the country with 12 turnovers gained this season.
A couple of players stand out. One has been junior cornerback Dee Milliner. He had an amazing game against Michigan and was named the Chuck Bednarik Award Player of the Week for his efforts. Another big piece of the puzzle is junior linebacker CJ Mosley, who has 29 tackles through four games with 1.5 sacks, two passes defended and a forced fumble.
The great thing about having dominated in their first four games has been that Saban has gotten to give a lot of young players the chance to get on the field. That experience is going to pay dividends later in the season, when wear and tear starts to take hold.
RCR: AJ McCarron appears to be an elite quarterback having thrown ten touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 63% of his passes. While he was strong last year, what do you think accounts for his seeming improvement to one of the best in the country? Age? Receiver play?
McCarron is only now beginning to get a little hype from the national media. Emphasis is always placed on Saban's system, and how quarterbacks are expected to be game managers. But McCarron has all the tools to be an elite quarterback. He's learned to play within the system, but also to play with emotion, which seems to help him.
Alabama's offense is very balanced and opportunistic. This allows McCarron to be efficient in the passing game, putting up good, if not gaudy numbers. He also has a very talented group of receivers to throw to this year, and has been distributing the ball very well among them. In all, I expect that as the year wears on, McCarron's success will start to impress more of the sport media world, and he'll begin to get mentioned more often in the Heisman conversation.
RCR: Everyone likes to talk about how Alabama doesn't actually do anything very complex, saying that they just play with excellent fundamentals. I personally think that defensively, Saban dissects opposing offenses and comes up with individual gameplans against them. Can you talk a little bit about some things you've seen the defense do against certain offenses schematically?
Sometimes certain offenses won't run their bread and butter plays out of respect for Alabama's defense. In the season opener against Michigan, the Wolverines completely abandoned running the ball with Denard Robinson. He ran the ball 10 times, but only a few of those were designed runs. Coming in, Alabama's gameplan against the Wolverines was to force Robinson to be a passer, and we found out pretty quickly that he wasn't going to beat Alabama with his arm.
Kirby Smart and Nick Saban focus on taking away what the opposing offense does best, and forces them to try to win the game with a weaker part of their offense. Alabama loaded the box to stop the Michigan run game, and mainly played man-to-man coverage against Wolverine receivers. It worked as Michigan ran for just 69 yards, and while they did hit on a couple of big pass plays thanks to busted coverages, all-in-all the Tide defense shut down the Michigan offense. How Alabama's defense played against Michigan is probably pretty close to how they'll play against Ole Miss with dual-threat quarterback Bo Wallace.
RCR: This isn't going to happen, so don't think I'm suggesting it will. If Ole Miss, or any team for that matter, is going to beat Alabama, they're going to have to find a weakness and try to exploit it. There may not be one. I don't know. If there is, talk about that weakness. What is the one part of the Alabama armor that appears penetrable offensively or defensively?
At some point this season, AJ McCarron is going to be forced to win the game with his arm. He's been spectacular through four games this year, but Alabama has yet to be really tested. While McCarron has proven in the past that he can win games throwing the ball, most notably against LSU in the BCS Title game last year, he hasn't had to do it on a consistent basis. Any team's best chance of shutting down the Alabama offense would be by stopping the run and forcing McCarron to throw to win, which unfortunately for the opposition, he's very capable of doing.
It's been tough to find any chink in the armor on the Tide's defense over the last couple of years. They have seamlessly made the transition this year with seven new starters. You have to be a balanced offensive team to have success against the Crimson Tide's defense. Alabama has been susceptible at times to giving up big plays in the passing game, and while they've looked good so far, the young secondary has yet to really be tested. I'm interested to see how this secondary fares against a big-armed quarterback. The October 20th game against Tennessee should be interesting.
RCR: What's your prediction for the game? I'm guessing you'll pick the shocking upset of Alabama beating Ole Miss. Seriously though, how does it play out?
Alabama clearly wants to dominate their opponent, no matter who that may be. But Nick Saban works hard to get this team to focus on the next play, not the numbers on the scoreboard. So whether it's a 3-point game or the Tide wins by 30, Saban will coach his team to execute.
All that said, I think Alabama is simply in a different league than just about everyone in college football right now, and Ole Miss needs to make the most of every opportunity to be able to stay close with the Tide this Saturday.