What makes this year's AJ McCarron different than the McCarron who played last year and was very good but more game manager than "team on his back" game winner?
I'm not sure that AJ is really any different. If he performs differently this year, I think that would largely be a function of him being asked to do what he does well more often, rather than him actually doing anything fundamentally differently. If there is a difference, I think it is that for much of last season, AJ simply wasn't asked to go win the game because of a punishing running attack (which hasn't really been established this year). The few times where he really had to try to win the game last year (LSU/A&M) had mixed results, but the talent is there if we have to put the game on his back.
I watched the A&M game but was admittedly watching more as a casual observer rather than one looking heavily into strategy, etc. Were the defensive failings on the shoulders of Alabama, or are Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans just that good?
Both. Evans was a monster in that game, and really made Johnny look good in some ways. We had our best cornerback (Deion Belue) go out early in that game with an injury, and that really exposed some bad matchups for us. Another major factor was Johnny's ability to extend plays. A lot of their success happened 5-7 seconds after the snap, which means two things: 1) Johnny is ridiculously hard to corral quickly, and 2) most of the time, there wasn't a play to be made in the first 5 seconds on account of decent coverage.
Relating those struggles to the upcoming game, it's obvious that the focus has to be on getting Bo Wallace flustered, and perhaps more importantly on finishing plays relatively quickly. Even in the face of a couple star receivers, I expect Bama's secondary will acquit themselves nicely on Saturday, provided they don't get left on an island trying to cover a guy for more time than it takes to change a spare tire.
Most people believe that the Colorado State "struggles" were almost manufactured by Saban. What happened against the Rams?
I'm not really in the camp that thinks along those lines. The struggles are pretty easily explained, in my opinion, and none of the excuses involve something as silly as Saban going easy on another team. First and foremost, nobody took the opponent seriously, from the top down. Saban effectively admitted that the coaching staff didn't spend a lot of time preparing for CSU, and I think it was obvious that the coaches' lack of concern trickled down to reinforce some preexisting apathy.
Secondly, Saban sat out five or six guys that were starters/big time contributors. I don't think this should make that much difference against a team like CSU, but obviously it did to an extent. Pretty much all of those guys are expected to be back for Saturday, and honestly, most probably could have played last week had it been an important game. Sitting those guys probably only further reinforced the team's natural tendency to overlook CSU.
Have your expectations or thoughts about this team (not necessarily just their record) changed since the preseason? If so, how? If not, what did you expect, and how has that been validated?
From a record standpoint, I probably feel about the same. The regular season is effectively down to two games now, and if we get by you guys, LSU is the only legitimate threat before the conference championship. On a more general note, I think the offensive line has to be regarded as a disappointment at this early stage. The power rushing game that we've all become accustomed to has really not been there so far. In two of the first three games this year, we had a lower yards per carry average than in any game last year. I think much of that is attributable to Ryan Kelly, who is a first year starter at center. He had some big shoes to fill coming in after Barrett Jones, but he has struggled mightily early in the season, including getting manhandled at times by Colorado State's nose tackle. I suspect it will be a very rare occurrence for us to see him lined up one on one with a nose tackle for the rest of the year.
What's your prediction on the game? Give us a score and how you got there.
I'm going to guess 31-24, Bama. I think Laquon Treadwell and Donte Moncrief will both have a couple moments, as they match up well with our secondary. I know that your tight end Evan Engrem is your leading receiver (receiving yards), but I don't look for him to have as good a day, because I think our athleticism in the linebacker corps will neutralize him. Similarly, I don't look for Jeff Scott to have a terribly impressive day, because I think a lot of his success is predicated on wide receiver blocks, and while our cornerbacks have struggled a bit in coverage, shedding blocks and making sure tackles are areas where they have performed well.
Offensively, I look for Bama to try to use a barrage of shorter passes to get playmakers out in space where they just have to make one man miss. I think the running game will bounce back a bit, but I look for them to be merely competent, which will hopefully be enough to command the safeties' attention for the play action game.