Through three games, the Alabama Crimson Tide has looked vulnerable. They’re 3-0, and the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, but they have not looked like the championship teams of 2009, 2011 or 2012.
The team they have most resembled in recent Crimson Tide history is the 2010 version; the team that entered the season with a wealth of expectations following the 2009 BCS National Championship.
Much like this team, the 2010 Tide brought back the majority of their skill-position players and were the unquestioned No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. Starting quarterback Greg McElroy was back, and undefeated as a starter. Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and his talented understudy Trent Richardson, a future Doak Walker Award winner, were back in the backfield. Alabama’s top three wide receivers returned as well, including Julio Jones, who went on to an All-American season en route to being the sixth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Sounds familiar, right? This Alabama team brought back AJ McCarron, who has led the team to back-to-back national championships at quarterback. They lost Eddie Lacy, but 1000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon entered his sophomore season, and a bevy of talented runners sit behind him. All of the top skill-position guys returned for the Crimson Tide, including wide receiver Amari Cooper, who broke Julio Jones’ freshman records for yards and touchdowns last season.
The big question mark for both teams? The secondary. Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson, the team’s starting cornerbacks, left for the NFL after the 2009 season. Nickel corner Marquis Johnson was gone as well. As was starting safety Justin Woodall.
Talented corners, and future first-round picks Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner were thrust into action, and they had growing pains. Robert Lester was replacing Woodall at safety alongside Mark Barron. Transfer corners DeQuan Menzie and Phelon Jones were coming into their first season with the Crimson Tide.
That team was lit up on several occasions through the air, and had some key lapses in the defensive backfield that were the impetus for the team’s three losses.
That team had all the talent in the world, and so did this one, but inconsistent play, a young secondary, and complacency cost them. We’ve seen the same recipe for disaster setting up this Crimson Tide team in the first three games of the season.
Special teams and defense lifted Alabama to a 35-10 win over Virginia Tech in the opener while the offense sputtered. Alabama manged just 206 yards of offense against the Hokies in Atlanta, but two return touchdowns by Christion Jones, and a pick-six by Vinnie Sunseri allowed the Tide to coast to victory.
The script was flipped two weeks later in College Station, as the offense did whatever they wanted against Texas A&M, but the defense had zero answers for Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans.
Alabama racked up 568 yards of offense at Kyle Field. AJ McCarron was terrific – throwing for 334 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. The Tide raced to 234 yards on the ground, with T.J. Yeldon leading the way with 149 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
But the defense allowed 628 yards to Texas A&M; the most ever allowed by the Crimson Tide. Manziel was his typical slippery self and lit up Alabama’s defense for 464 yards and five touchdowns. Receiver Mike Evans averaged nearly 40 yards per catch, including a 95-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Alabama hung on to win, mainly thanks to two costly interceptions thrown by Manziel; one of which was returned for a touchdown by Sunseri. The other was picked off in the end zone by Cyrus Jones when it looked like the Aggies were poised to take a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.
And then this past Saturday against Colorado State, Alabama played a sloppy game in a 31-6 win. It was actually a 17-6 score in the fourth quarter, but a key Rams turnover in their own territory allowed McCarron to put the game away on a play-action touchdown pass to DeAndrew White.
After the game, McCarron was short with the media and blamed a lack of communication for the struggles on offense against the Rams. Alabama didn’t convert a third down until late in the fourth quarter. A lack of communication is an alarming sign four weeks into the season.
In comparing this team to 2010, one could draw comparisons between Alabama’s matchup with Texas A&M to their game with Arkansas three years ago. That game was billed as the biggest game in Arkansas history, much like it was for Texas A&M this season, and the Hogs led 20-7 in front of their raucous home crowd late into the third quarter.
But Alabama rallied with touchdowns from Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram with a Jeremy Shelley field goal mixed in to walk out of Fayetteville with a 24-20 win. Ryan Mallett, much like Manziel, lit up the Crimson Tide secondary for 357 yards. And, just as with Manziel, costly turnovers from Mallett – who threw three interceptions – ended up costing Arkansas.
Two weeks after that tough test with Arkansas, Alabama was humbled on the road by South Carolina as Gamecocks QB Stephen Garcia caught lightning in a bottle at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Is this week’s Ole Miss game shaping up to be another South Carolina-style upset? The Rebels are 3-0 as they head to Tuscaloosa with a pair of impressive road wins on their resume. They knocked off Vanderbilt in Nashville in a thrilling game on the opening night of the college football season. Two weeks later they beat Texas by three touchdowns in Austin, and even though the Longhorns have struggled in the early portion of 2013, it was still an impressive win for Hugh Freeze as he rebuilds the Rebels program.
Also, just as with South Carolina, Ole Miss has had an extra week to prepare for the Crimson Tide.
Armed with a historic recruiting class, and an up-tempo offense piloted by Bo Wallace, who has completed 64 percent of his passes without an interception this season, the Rebels will cause some problems for Alabama’s defense. They also have some wide receivers, namely Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell, have the potential to be a Mike Evans-sized thorn in the Tide’s side on Saturday.
Nick Saban shuffled the deck at cornerback against Colorado State as senior Deion Belue was held out with a turf toe injury, and fellow senior John Fulton was benched after struggling mightily against Texas A&M.
A lot of younger guys got reps in the secondary last week against Colorado State. Freshmen Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith, redshirt freshman Bradley Sylve, and sophomores Geno Smith and Cyrus Jones all saw a lot of action on Saturday. They had their growing pains as well, with Rams QB Garrett Grayson finding gaps in coverages and throwing for 228 yards on 24-of-38 passing.
The status of starting cornerback Deion Belue, as well as reserve safeties Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams, are up in the air for Saturday’s date with Ole Miss. Belue would be the biggest loss, but both Perry and Williams would see a lot of action against the Rebels on Saturday. Williams was the team’s stater at nickel corner the first two weeks of the season before sitting out Saturday’s game after being poked in the eye against Texas A&M.
There is plenty of talent across this blue-chip laden roster, but a dearth of experience in the secondary that could prove costly, just like it did three years ago. Alabama has yet to truly dominate an opponent in three games, even though the team has gotten off to a 3-0 start that included a huge win against Texas A&M.
But that win over A&M could prove similar to the team’s win over Arkansas in 2010. Remember, that Razorbacks team went on to win ten games and play Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl that season. They were a pretty similar team to Texas A&M, aside from Mallett being no Johnny Football.
While Ole Miss is improved, I don’t think they are good enough to beat Alabama due to their own inexperience in these kind of games. It also helps that the Crimson Tide is at home, and will have the support of 102,000 Tide fans behind them when the Rebels walk into Bryant-Denny.
While Alabama is likely to win, this game could be closer than some expect if the Tide do not shore up some of the concerns, and in a close game, anything is possible.
Last season’s run to a second consecutive BCS National Championship was fueled by the memory of 2010′s shortcomings. All the talk last year was about if the Crimson Tide could avoid the letdown they suffered after winning the title in 2009. It was the fuel to the fire as the Crimson Tide marched to Miami and dominated Notre Dame to win their second straight, and third title in four years.
That 2010 team was possibly the most talented team in the country, but they let complacency, along with key miscues in big situations derail their quest for back-to-back national championships. They were humbled by South Carolina, and then lost games to LSU and Auburn where they had every opportunity to win.
This team could face a similar fate if they don’t start playing up to the standard that Nick Saban has set in Tuscaloosa. Anything less than a national championship is failure for the Crimson Tide, and through three weeks this team doesn’t look like one that will hoist the crystal pigskin in Pasadena at season’s end.
They certainly have the potential to be that team, but they have a lot of work to do to get there.
Follow John on Twitter.