(RNN) - Seriously, how great is the Alabama Crimson Tide this year?
The question isn't meant to be rhetorical. It's not asked in terms of their "place in history," and it's not meant to poke fun (like this) either.
What I'm asking about is greatness within the confines of this season. Is this team actually better than everyone else in the country? Or even the SEC?
Many believe so, but there is not enough evidence to support a perceived gap between Alabama and everyone else. And I think the Tide looks primed for an upset.
Head coach Nick Saban has been saying as much all season, in his "Bill Belichick Charm School" kind of way.
The team kicked off the season with a 41-14 win against Michigan, which was supposed to be a Top 10 team. Then the Wolverines followed by eking out a win against Air Force, couldn't score a touchdown in a loss to Notre Dame and dropped out of the polls.
The rest of the Tide's path has been a relative cakewalk. The best team they have played is Ole Miss, which got crushed by Texas two weeks prior.
Another issue is talent, especially on offense. They still have it, but could anyone argue they have that much more than other top teams?
Trent Richardson was the engine that made the team go last year, and he's gone. Yes, the O-line is the best in the country, but it can't score touchdowns on its own.
A.J. McCarron is an accurate, pocket quarterback, but that's it. Eddie Lacy is a good running back who can get tough yards up the middle, but that's it.
True freshmen T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper look like they could be the real deal, but … they're true freshmen.
The Ole Miss game showed how much work Saban and Co. still has to do. It also offered a blueprint on how to attack and defend the top-ranked team.
The strategies aren't as simple as "don't turn the ball over" or "wrap up on tackles," (clearly) but they aren't exactly rocket science either. It all comes down to two basic principles.
Be Decisive. Be Efficient.
Alabama scored 33 points on the Rebels, but one touchdown came on a kickoff return, and the other two TDs were scored after Ole Miss turnovers.
The rest of the game Alabama was held in check by a disciplined defensive strategy: keep them in front. The usually proficient rushing game got stalled by linebackers staying home, filling the gaps opened by blockers and not over-pursuing.
In the passing game, McCarron was allowed to find receivers open on short routes, but defenders were quickly on top of them before they could gain yardage after the catch.
Ole Miss only rushed four defensive linemen for most of the game, too, because – again – Alabama has the best O-line in the country. Why bother?
While McCarron rarely dealt with pressure, he had to look out on a field of more defenders than passing options. And he's not a guy who can make first downs with his legs.
Forcing Alabama to take what is given won't lead to a shutout, but no team could accomplish that anyway. By keeping them from breaking plays for long gains, it increases the chances the offense will fail to convert or make a mistake.
Oh, one more thing - Lacy doesn't protect the ball before contact. It's in one arm all the time. Go get it.
The same thing Team X should try to get Alabama to do is the same thing Team X should do when they have the ball. In other words, take what they give.
Sounds crazy, right? Well, the Tide defense is a rare combination of size and speed, so a team can't overpower them or outrun them. In order to move the ball, opponents needs to make quick decisions, try not to do too much and live with the results.
That means a running back gets the ball and hits his spot, no dancing behind the line. And a pass-catching running back is an offense's best weapon against the Tide. It provides a safety outlet for the QB and stretches defenders horizontally, opening up the middle of the field.
Team X should keep three or more wide receivers on the field, because Alabama is best when it can keep four defensive lineman and three linebackers on the field.
Oh, and no-huddle offense the entire game. Even the best defenders get tired, especially the D-line – the biggest strength of the Crimson Tide on that side of the ball.
The Rebels employed a short passing strategy and had success moving the ball. Alabama reacted by bringing their cornerbacks closer to the line of scrimmage, and leaving only one safety deep.
That's when Team X needs to look for the long ball. Ole Miss did this right on a pass down the sideline during their first scoring drive. Their problems came when the QB didn't look off the deep safety and threw it right to him.
If the QB can run, that's a big help; he can move the pocket and get yards when a play breaks down.
This is only an outline of what Alabama has been susceptible to so far. And if I'm seeing it, Saban and his coordinators are working to fix it.
But without a real superstar on offense and with inexperience on defense, Alabama is not the unstoppable juggernaut everyone has made them out to be, at least not yet. While they could be by the end of the year, let's hold off on crowning them for now.
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