A marathon-like sprint pauses this weekend for an Alabama football team with six SEC wins in six SEC weeks.
A schedule without non-conference cupcakes meant a physical slog to this open week for a Crimson Tide team with all of its preseason goals intact.
Of course, this has been the most unusual of seasons and nothing can be taken for granted in a year like this. But there’s been a shade of normalcy the past few weeks in a year turned on its head.
In that spirit, we’ll spend this open weekend revisiting the questions we had in the preseason and assess where things stand with four weeks left in the regular season.
How will the program handle COVID-19 difficulties?
This was the biggest question facing every program entering a season that was never guaranteed to happen. Surging case numbers over the summer put the sport in a perilous position that required game-planning for a scenario never seen in the modern era of the sport.
Unlike SEC programs like Florida and Vanderbilt, there have been no mass outbreaks within the Alabama locker room that required the cancelation of a game. None of the starters or key contributors are known to have missed a game because of a positive coronavirus test despite the fact at least 2,585 Alabama students have been infected since classes resumed in August.
Of course there was the Nick Saban scare. A positive test three days before the highly anticipated showdown with Georgia would later be negated through SEC protocols with three negative tests in the days that followed. Alabama AD Greg Byrne remains the most notable known case of COVID-19 within the department, though basketball coach Nate Oats said he had an asymptomatic case over the summer.
Will the game look any different in this COVID-19 era?
It’s difficult to say with certainty but it’s fair to say there have been some side effects from a disjointed offseason. Fundamentals suffered early in the season — namely tackling on defense. That’s clearly something that would be more refined with a 15-practice spring that was canceled the day Alabama was set to begin.
Offensively, there haven’t been too many glaring issues that could be tied back to a lack of preseason practice. Timing has been as good as ever withing the passing game with veteran players showing their experience.
What about the quarterback?
That was a preseason question that vanished pretty quickly. There wasn’t much of a competition after fourth-year junior Mac Jones won the job from five-star freshman Bryce Young. Jones is now a serious Heisman Trophy contender with one of the most accurate deep passes in the nation. Young is clearly a talented young player who will have a bright future, but this is clearly Jones’ season.
What will be the strength of this Alabama offense?
There were solid options across the board and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has sprinkled a little bit of everything in the first six game plans. Several opposing coaches have called this Alabama offensive line among the best they’ve ever seen and they’ve done a solid job paving the way in the ground game while protecting Jones.
The Tide is averaging 175.2 rushing yards a game, but the aerial attack is driving the bus. Jones’ ability to accurately hit the deep passes to receivers like DeVonta Smith and John Metchie took the top off defenses loading the box to stop Najee Harris and the ground game. The 380 passing yards Alabama’s averaging leads the SEC and is No. 2 nationally among teams who’ve played more than two games. The loss of Jaylen Waddle is significant there for the matchup issues he obviously created but the passing game hasn’t suffered too much in his absence. The real impact of his season-ending injury likely won’t be felt until the postseason.
Can the Alabama defense get back to its “standard” after a few rough patches last year?
There’s a little momentum coming off the Mississippi State shutout, but it would be a stretch to say this Alabama defense is anywhere near the standard of the glory years. The 647 yards surrendered to Ole Miss in a 63-48 Tide win was the most an Alabama defense has ever allowed. It was clearly an embarrassment to past defensive stars who expressed their displeasure online.
The past few weeks saw improvements against offenses that weren’t as problematic as Lane Kiffin’s. Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi State went for 414, 302 and 200 yards respectively over the following three weeks as fundamentals clearly improved. There are also promising signs in the turnover creation column with the 11 takeaways ranking third in the SEC.
Which young players will take on big roles?
It’s was a challenging year for a true freshman to step into a prime role without a spring practice for early enrollees. Still, a few have stepped into starting roles on defense. Defensive back Malachi Moore has been consistent with two interceptions and a forced fumble he scooped and returned for a touchdown at Tennessee. The Hewitt-Trussville grad also been solid in pass coverage in a secondary short on experience.
Outside linebacker Will Anderson also emerged as a freshman fan favorite. The high-motor pass rusher dubbed “The Terminator” by teammates made his presence felt in the opener at Missouri with a few big hits in the backfield. His four quarterback hurries tie for the team lead. Others include defensive back Brian Branch who has seen his role expand in recent weeks. Young, the quarterback, has shown promise when entering late in games while receiver Javon Baker drew a comparison to Amari Cooper by defensive back Jordan Battle.
Alabama closes the regular season with four teams who’ve been all over the place so far this season. LSU opened the season with a stunning loss to Mississippi State that exposed a defense suffering greatly from the stars lost from the national title team. Kentucky scored impressive wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee before losing to Missouri and Georgia.
Auburn is the lone ranked team left on the schedule and the Tigers put together an impressive 48-11 win over that struggling LSU defense. That same Auburn offense was almost completely shut down by Georgia and a 30-22 loss at South Carolina was a low point for a 4-2 team. The final regular season game is at an Arkansas team that’s overperformed the last few dreadful seasons with a 2-3 record. The Razorbacks were competitive in all five games they played, something it hasn’t been able to claim since the midpoint of the Bret Bielema era.
That said, Alabama’s on track for a 10-0 regular season and an SEC championship date come December.