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The Crimson Tide prepare for Saturday's Homecoming Game with Western Carolina.
It's not about being ranked No. 1.

It's not about playing a cupcake FCS team in Western Carolina.

For Alabama, this Saturday can mean one of two things, said coach Nick Saban.

Do you want to take advantage of the opportunity you have created for yourself or do you just want to do what you have to do to go on and win the next game?" he said.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama needs more consistency from quarterback Blake Sims as it begins its late-season push.
Focus, Saban explained, is like momentum. Lose it and it's difficult to get back.

"If I say 'what do we have to do to win this game,' I might think, 'Well, I don't have to practice as hard this week. The guy's not quite as big as what I'm used to having to play against, or whatever,'" he said. "Are you going to get better that way or not? Taking advantage of the opportunity that you have is much bigger than that. ... The major thing for me is stay focused on what you need to do to improve, so you take advantage of the opportunity. And that's for every player."

With that said, what areas do need to improve?

The final score on Saturday should be outrageous, but what should people hope to see from Alabama as it gears up for an enormous showdown the following weekend against Auburn?

More consistency from Blake Sims: It's been an up-and-down season for the quarterback. One week he's completing between 65-70 percent of his passes, the next week he's in the 50s. Against LSU, he was a paltry 20-for-45 passing. Of course, he followed that up with a solid 19-for-31 performance against Mississippi State. But that is the point. Sims needs to keep his accuracy up for consecutive weeks and show heading into the Iron Bowl that he can maintain a firm hold on the offense for all four quarters.

Keep getting other receivers involved: It has become a broken record, but Sims needs to expand the offense to receivers not named Amari Cooper. The more looks he gives the defense, the better. And in recent weeks, he has done that. Against LSU, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard each had three receptions. The following week against Mississippi State, White had four more catches and ArDarius Stewart had two, showing off the kind of breakaway speed that reminded some of Kenyan Drake.

Continue to pressure the quarterback: Alabama's defense did a fantastic job stuffing the run and getting into the backfield against LSU and Mississippi State. But it's hard to shake the sight of Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs running for 75 yards against the Tide four weeks ago. Might that be a prelude to what Auburn's Nick Marshall will do? Time will tell, but in the meantime Alabama's defense gets a good warm-up in Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell, who has run for 572 yards and six touchdowns this season.

The kicking game: Yes, we're talking about field goals. Though that might sound outrageous since Alabama should have no trouble finding the end zone against Western Carolina, it might do a world of good for Adam Griffith to see a few kicks split the uprights. After all, since starting the season 7-for-7, he has gone 5-for-11, including 1-for-4 on kicks of 40 or more yards.

UA jersey tour: Jeffery Holland

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Four-star outside linebacker Jeffery Holland was presented with their Under Armour All-America Game jersey Thursday afternoon in a ceremony sponsored by American Family Insurance. Holland was joined by his teammates Kevin Toliver II and Kendrick Norton, who were also selected for the game. The ceremony took place in front of friends, coaches, teammates and media members at the Trinity Christian School auditorium in Jacksonville, Florida.

The No. 4-ranked outside linebacker and the 40th-ranked prospect overall in the ESPN 300 said he felt honored to be selected to one of the top All-American games in the country.

"It’s a dream come true," Holland said. "I watched it when I was younger, and it’s always something I’ve wanted to be a part of. It’s real big to me."

Holland, at one point, had Florida and Auburn as his leaders, but with Florida head coach Will Muschamp stepping down at the end of the season, things have started to change for Holland.

"It’s kind of up in the air right now. Florida State, they're in it now. Auburn they are still in it. I haven’t talked to them in a while -- but they are still in it. I’m starting to talk to Florida State a lot, I know they are in my top five right now."

Despite being open in his recruitment, Holland said he does have a top five list of schools.

"I’d say Florida, FSU, Auburn, UCLA and probably Alabama are my top five right now," he said.

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Seven questions with Jeffery Holland

Who was the best player you ever saw play in the Under Armour game?

Holland: Jamie Harper is a guy I remember playing in the game because he went here and he did a flip in the end zone after he scored. I can flip, too.

If you could start a team with any other player in your class, who would it be?

Holland: Probably CeCe Jefferson. We played on the same little league team. That’s been my boy for a long time.

If you could go one-on-one with any other player in the country, who would it be?

Holland: I’d probably want to go against Martez Ivey. I’ve never gone against him, and I’d like to go against the No. 1 tackle in the country.

If you could take on a professional athlete in their sport, who would it be and why?

Holland: I want Cam Newton. I just want to sack him. He talked too much trash at that seven-on-seven event in Bradenton.

What would you like to improve on before you get to college?

Holland: I just want to improve on my technique. I need to add more moves to my tool belt. I know I got the speed rush, but I need to add the spin move and the club.

What are you looking forward to most about going to Orlando?

Holland: Just going and hanging out with some of the top players in the country. Just having fun and having a good game.

What is something about yourself that not many people know about?

Holland: I’m a top angler. I’m a fisherman.

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Every team has its flaws. It’s just that kind of season where no one in the top four is perfect. Florida State, the only undefeated Power 5 team left, is ranked third because there’s so much about the Seminoles that’s concerning. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to No. 1 Alabama. The SEC-leading Crimson Tide have come on strong of late, but that doesn’t mean they’re without a fairly serious problem: The offense, it seems, lets off the gas.

Mapping out the inconsistencies

Alabama has started awfully fast in games.

With Lane Kiffin guiding the offense, the Crimson Tide have put up an average of 21.5 points in the first half of games. They’re 12th nationally in average yards in the first and second quarters, with 96.1 yards rushing and 175.5 yards passing. And they have converted 55 percent of third downs in the first half.

But from the third quarter on, things change.

In the second half of games, Alabama dips to an average of 11.5 points. It dips to 52nd nationally in yards with averages of 101.8 yards rushing and 98.7 yards passing. And that wouldn’t be so bad if the Tide didn’t go three-and-out so much: 15 times in the second half Alabama has gone three-and-out, a number that ranks 81st nationally.

Alabama wins the turnover battle at plus-five in the first half. In the second half, that balance becomes minus-two.

Blake Sims is streaky

When Blake Sims is on, he’s on.

Usually, like the rest of the offense, he starts fast. In the first half of games, his raw QBR is an impressive 87.4, which ranks second in the country. He has 13 touchdowns, no interceptions and completes 60 percent of his passes.

But in the second half, his raw QBR falls to 61.9, his touchdown-to-interception ration becomes a pedestrian 5-3 and his completion rate falls by 2.5 percent.

Granted, he’s had some impressive game-winning drives, but far too often he’s been found to be pressing.

Against Mississippi State last Saturday, he conducted what coach Nick Saban referred to as one of the best drives in school history. In it, he scrambled on third down twice to move the sticks.

“We know that Blake's style of athleticism at his position, at quarterback, is something that can be of benefit to us,” Saban said. “We want him to use good judgment when he makes those decisions. I think so far this year he has used really good judgment when things break down, but at the same time we also want him to make sure he goes through his progression.”

What Saban was referring to was a key mistake in the third quarter.

“There was a time in the game where he got sacked when they didn’t cover the back. They were in man-to-man coverage, and they busted on the back," Saban said. “Well, he was thinking about scrambling and getting out of there. If he had completed the progression, he’d have thrown the ball to the shakedown and the guy probably would have run for a touchdown.”

Instead, Alabama scored just six points in the second half and hung on for a 25-20 win.

The running game hasn’t been dominant

Some of that has been Sims getting pressured by the defense, though.

Alabama’s offensive line just hasn’t been as strong this season as in years past, and often that shows up in the second half of games.

In the first and second quarters, Sims has been sacked just twice. From then on, he’s been sacked five times.

But it’s the running game that’s experienced an even bigger lag in production in the second half, as Alabama’s yards per carry fall from 5.14 to 4.67. Its touchdowns-per-rush ratio craters from 7.1 to 3.8, and nearly 18 percent of all the team’s carries end at or behind the line of scrimmage.

With little success running the football, Alabama becomes one-dimensional. Too much of the burden is placed on Sims, play-action is less effective and the offense sputters out.

Coaches will tell you there’s no bigger key to having a successful offense than winning on first down. And whether it’s running or passing, Alabama thrives in the first half of games, averaging 7.52 yards per play on first down. But in the second half, it isn’t ahead of the sticks as much because its yards per play on first down falls by nearly a full yard.

That may not sound like a lot, but it's a part of a larger problem facing the Tide.

Will it come back and bite them eventually? Who knows.

But like every team in college football, there's reason to be concerned.

Alabama's defense has been great this season, but the offense must do its part for all four quarters.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Their confidence never wavered.

Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and the rest of the Mississippi State Bulldogs weren't defeated, even in defeat.

They walked off the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium last Saturday in pain. The dream of an undefeated season was over. Their No. 1 ranking would soon vanish. That terrible feeling in the pit of their stomachs? Their coach, Dan Mullen, said to embrace it. Feel it. Let it serve as motivation.

An hour after that 25-20 defeat to Alabama, they met with the media. They were somber, but more determined than ever.

"I still think we're one of the best four teams in the country," Prescott said. "We just played one of the other best four teams in the country. It's an early playoff game, in my mind."

"We're never going to roll over," Robinson explained. "That's not us, it's not in our character.

"I'm pretty sure we're going to see [Alabama] in the playoffs. I don't know when, but we're going to see them."

It sounded unlikely at the time, another "We want Bama" sign in a pile of hundreds. From Ball State to Baton Rouge, everyone wants a piece of the Crimson Tide. Sometimes you'll hear fans chant it in the fourth quarter of blowouts.

But Mississippi State wanted Alabama -- again.

Something about the Bulldogs' 20-6 run and finishing only 5 points shy gave them confidence. In spite of losing the red zone battle, the field position battle and the turnover battle, they were right there at the end. As Mullen said, it wouldn't have taken a "Herculean effort" for them to win the game.

"Everybody felt like if we had five more minutes it would have been a different game," said linebacker Richie Brown. "So I know everybody wants a piece of them again."

If the season ended today, they would.

On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff selection committee ranked Alabama No. 1 and Mississippi State No. 4. If everything holds, they'll meet in New Orleans for a playoff semifinal game.

"I didn't see the rankings," Robinson said on Wednesday.

Informed of the situation, his eyes lit up.

"That's fine with me," he said. "Karma, it'll come back to you now."

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Mullen didn't watch the release of the committee's newest rankings, either.

"I didn't pay much attention to it because I knew we'd be in the mix anyway," he said. "We're 9-1 with wins over three top-10 teams and our only loss is a 5-point loss on the road to the No. 1 team in the country.

"Your vision is, ‘Hey, wherever they put you, you're still in the discussion.'"

Earlier this week, he told his players just that.

In a meeting with the team's leadership -- a group that consists of Prescott, Jay Hughes, Bernardrick McKinney, Richie Brown, Ryan Brown, Taveze Calhoun, Dillon Day, Malcolm Johnson and Kaleb Eulls -- Mullen set the tone.

He'd step up his leadership this week, he said, but he wanted the message to come from within, too.

"Hey, everything we want is still ahead of us," he told them. "The season didn't end on Saturday. We're 9-1 with two regular season games left with a lot of football left to be played by a lot of other schools.

"The minute you start worrying, you're going to end up 9-3 in a hurry."

In a nice bit of imagery, Mullen put it like this: "You hold that rope and you don't let go. Even if you got pulled across that line in tug-of-war, we're not going to let it go. Get your feet back in the ground and start pulling again."

As Mullen told them, "You get a chance to finish 11-1 and that's a whole different picture."

That starts Saturday against Vanderbilt. It will either culminate the following week against Ole Miss, or it will end with no shot of playing for an SEC title or reaching the playoff.

How the Bulldogs respond to their first loss of the season is up to them.

"I don't think you get over it as much as you move on," Mullen said.

If anything, it has made players more hungry.

"It's kind of a positive," said center Dillon Day. "A lot of people see it as motivation. ... That game opened our eyes that we can get beat if we don't play our A-game."

Which is why they want Bama again. They want to show what their best really looks like.

If only they had a few more minutes the first time around.

"Oh, the outcome would be different," Robinson said. "We just ran out of time."

It looks like maybe they'll get another chance to prove it.

But before there's any rematch, there's work to be done.

SEC Week 13 predictions

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
9:00
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Of all the weeks in the 2014 season, this is certainly one of them. While most of the conference takes it easy with FCS foes before rivalry week, there are a couple of big games on tap. Missouri looks to take control of the SEC East with a victory over Tennessee, while Arkansas hopes to build on last Saturday's win by knocking Ole Miss completely out of the playoff picture. It might not be the best day of games, but come April, you'll be wishing for a weekend like this one. With that in mind, let's get on with the picks.


Why Arkansas wins: Arkansas had been knocking at the door for weeks and the Razorbacks finally broke it down last Saturday when they shut out LSU to secure Bret Bielema's first SEC win. Now can they make it two in a row? Ole Miss is favored to record a key road win, but Arkansas' progress this season has impressed me. I'm tiptoeing out on a limb and rolling with the home team. Arkansas 20, Ole Miss 14 -- David Ching

Why Ole Miss wins: This is the definition of a trap game for the Rebels. They’re playing a hungry Arkansas team, fresh off its first SEC win, and they have the Egg Bowl next week. They can’t afford to start looking ahead. There’s just too much on the line for Ole Miss, though. I think the Landsharks defense will come out inspired and Bo Wallace will make just enough plays to win the game. Ole Miss 24, Arkansas 14 -- Greg Ostendorf


Why Tennessee wins: The Volunteers have played great on offense since inserting Josh Dobbs as the starting quarterback. In the last three games, he's averaging 263 passing yards per game and has thrown seven touchdowns and two interceptions, plus he's averaging 96 rushing yards per game and has rushed for four scores. Will that be enough for the Vols to notch just their second win against a ranked team under Butch Jones? Tennessee 24, Missouri 21 -- David Ching

Why Missouri wins: The Tigers haven't lost a road game in nearly two full years, a streak of nine in a row. Neyland Stadium holds quite the crowd, but so does Kyle Field, which drew more than 100,000 last week when Missouri beat the Aggies. And now that Markus Golden's nagging hamstring injury seems to be a nonfactor, the pass rush led by SEC-leading sacker Shane Ray and Golden is at full speed again, which will be a challenge for Josh Dobbs & Co. Missouri 31, Tennessee 27 -- Sam Khan Jr.

Unanimous picks

Mississippi State over Vanderbilt: The Bulldogs are coming off their first loss, but look for Dak Prescott & Co. to get back on track this week against the struggling Commodores, who are still searching for their first SEC win. Mississippi State 48, Vanderbilt 14

Alabama over Western Carolina: Alabama usually puts these games to bed quickly (and beat Western Carolina 49-0 when they last met in 2012) so expect the similar results here as the Crimson Tide get a tune-up before the Iron Bowl. Alabama 49, Western Carolina 7

Auburn over Samford: Auburn holds a 26-0-1 all-time series advantage over Samford, so don't expect the 28th meeting to buck that trend on the Tigers' senior day at Jordan-Hare. Auburn 52, Samford 6

Georgia over Charleston Southern: Georgia thumped Auburn at home last week to wrap up its SEC campaign, so now the Bulldogs must wait to see if Missouri loses. In the meantime, expect them to make quick work of this Big South foe. Georgia 49, Charleston Southern 3

Florida over Eastern Kentucky: Now that Will Muschamp's job status is clear, the pressure's off. The Gators still have bowl eligibility to play for and look to coast to a win over a quality FCS squad in Eastern Kentucky, which actually beat an FBS team this year: Miami (Ohio). Florida 42, Eastern Kentucky 7

South Carolina over South Alabama: The Gamecocks are looking to secure bowl eligibility. Expect them to build off the momentum of the comeback overtime win over Florida. South Carolina 45, South Alabama 10

Standings
Greg Ostendorf 77-17
Edward Aschoff 74-20
Chris Low 74-20
David Ching 73-21
Alex Scarborough 70-24
Sam Khan Jr. 69-25

College Football Minute

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
7:19
PM ET


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Marcus Mariota is caught speeding, ACC commissioner is already pushing for playoff expansion, and there are plenty of opportunities to make chaos in the top four. It's all ahead in the College Football Minute.
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Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre is trying to resurrect a program in the midst of what is arguably college football's most treacherous minefield. He knows the dangers of the Pac-12 South firsthand; his Buffaloes are camped out in the cellar of it.

"I think [the Pac-12 South] is the toughest division in college football, period," he proclaimed on Tuesday's conference call.

Uh oh. Those will almost certainly be considered fighting words by many in the Southeast, home of the rugged SEC West.

But MacIntyre's comments bring up a fun chance of examination: What is the toughest division in the country? This season, the argument inevitably boils down to the Pac-12 South -- which is fresh off surpassing its Northern brethren -- and the SEC West, which has maintained the upper hand in that area of the country for several years running now.

Of course, coaches advocate for the division in which they play -- MacIntyre's club is laboring through conference play with an 0-7 record, so we know what camp he's in.

"The [Pac-12 South] is very comparable to the SEC West, and I think people can argue that both ways," he said. "I think we have better quarterbacks. That always makes for a better team, when you have a better quarterback."

We asked for a little help in clarifying the argument from our friends in ESPN Stats and Information and the Football Power Index (FPI).

Although the Pac-12 South has more teams (5) ranked in the AP Top 25 than the SEC West (4), every single team from the SEC West -- including 1-5 Arkansas -- received votes in the most recent AP poll. When accounting for the total amount of poll votes as well as a teams' FPI, the SEC West sum is 97.3, greater than the Pac-12's 90.3.

When it comes to FPI, the SEC West has the advantage with an average rank 10.4, compared to the Pac-12 South, which has an average rank of 30.8. Although there are five teams with .700 or better overall winning percentages in the Pac-12 South, FPI predicts that on a neutral field, every team in the West would have a greater than 50 percent chance to beat two-thirds of the South: Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, and Colorado. According to FPI, UCLA and USC are the only two Pac-12 South teams that would have a better than 50 percent chance of holding their ground against a handful of SEC West teams.

Salt these projections however you like. Perhaps the most important factor in this argument is that Oregon, the Pac-12's top-rated team, resides in the North (Alabama, the SEC's biggest gun, is part of the West, so that gives the division a firepower advantage).

If college football history has taught us anything, this type of debate will rage on unresolved well beyond this season. But MacIntyre, who might know better than most, has cast his vote for the Pac-12 South.

UA jersey tour: Deionte Thompson

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
1:00
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ESPN 300 safety Deionte Thompson is all about playing for the little man.

Thompson’s high school, West Orange-Stark, is a Class 4A school in the state of Texas. While the larger-classification schools -- the 6A and 5A teams -- tend to get most of the national attention, Thompson does everything he can to make sure the smaller-classification schools get recognition.

Thompson has done his part and was rewarded for it with an Under Armour All-America Game invitation. The Alabama commit received his UA game jersey during a Wednesday ceremony sponsored by American Family Insurance.

“It feels great, and I’m very blessed to be in the position I’m in,” Thompson said. “My friends and family were here to support me. It’s been my dream to play in a game like this.

“I’m looking forward to showing that I can compete with the best of the best. People underestimate the lower classifications in Texas. I don’t want us to go unnoticed. We can compete with the big dogs, too.”

Ranked No. 69 in the ESPN 300, Thompson is the nation’s No. 3 safety and the 10th-ranked player in Texas. He was the first 2015 athlete to commit to Alabama in February 2013, and he’s watched the Crimson Tide’s class grow to 21 strong. Of the 21 committed, 17 are ESPN 300 athletes.

For nearly two years, Thompson has been solid with his commitment. And for nearly two years, he’s had to answer questions about how solid he is with the Tide. Thompson said he shut down his recruiting process a long time ago, but he still fields questions -- and now is starting to understand them.

“It’s been kind of crazy, because I’ve turned a couple schools away, and they keep coming back,” Thompson said. “At end of the day, it just shows how much the schools wanted me, and I respect it.

“But they all have to respect that I’m going to the University of Alabama.”

Before he makes a name for himself in Tuscaloosa, Thompson’s hoping to be an impact player as an Under Armour All-American. Thompson will join his all-star teammates on Jan. 2 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

For himself. For his family. And for the smaller schools everywhere.

“The smaller schools, we can play, too,” he said.

Quick hits on Deionte Thompson

Best player to put on a UA jersey: “Julio Jones. He’s dominated on the NFL level and dominated throughout college.”

Rank in order: A big hit, a pass breakup and an INT: “No. 1, an interception. No. 2, a big hit. No. 3, a pass breakup.”

Your jersey number: “I wear No. 6 … I saw LeBron [James] wear No. 6, and he’s a dominant athlete. He’s one of my favorite athletes.”

Favorite football memory: “It came this year. We were playing Port Neches-Groves. We went into overtime, and we scored first, and I got a game-winning interception.”

Did you know? “I hate pizza. In my younger days, when my mom ordered it, I never ate it. I hated the smell of it and how it looked.”
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Heather Dinich goes over the possibilities of a regular-season rematch in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
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Following his comments after the latest rankings, Brad Edwards wonders what role game control is having on Jeff Long and the selection committee's thinking.
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Following the latest rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee, Heather Dinich and Brad Edwards have a lot of questions about why some teams are ranked, and others are not.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before the season started, we knew Alabama's defense would be good. There was simply too much talent and a coaching staff too well credentialed for it not to be.

Landon Collins would be an impact player at safety, Trey DePriest would be a stabilizing force at linebacker, and A'Shawn Robinson would lead a defensive line as deep and talented as any in recent memory.

We knew, given that he has been molding top defenses his entire coaching life, Nick Saban would be there to make everything fit into place.

But to what end?

It was what we didn't know that gave us pause. It was what we didn't know that made us wonder whether Alabama's defense could be not good but great.

After all, greatness was the standard we'd come to expect. Ever since 2008, Alabama finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense.

But would this be the year that changed?

[+] EnlargeAlabama
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsJunior Reggie Ragland (19) leads Alabama in tackles a year after he couldn't crack the starting lineup.
Even Kirby Smart sounded skeptical. Speaking at the start of fall camp, the veteran coordinator wondered aloud about his cornerbacks, the youth of his linebackers and how the safety spot would look without long-time starters Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri. He was optimistic, of course, but cautiously so.

"In terms of where we are right now, we've got a long way to go," he said. "But where we can go, I'm really enthused about the group we've got."

For those who heard creaks in the defense's foundation, the season opener against West Virginia suggested there might be some trouble. Bama's smaller cornerbacks were picked on, and its safeties weren't much help over the top. Rushel Shell popped off a few good runs, and Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards on 64 percent passing. If it hadn't been for a handful of drops, the Mountaineers might have made Alabama's 10-point win considerably closer.

Ultimately, though, West Virginia proved to be the prelude to Alabama's return as a defensive power, rather than the beginning of some long, strange eulogy.

A group of four players who looked shaky the first week of the season grew solid and dependable. In doing so, they bucked a trend that under Saban's watch goes something like this: If you haven't produced in your first two years on campus, chances are you never will.

But Cyrus Jones and Nick Perry proved they weren't busts like John Fulton or Burton Scott. Meanwhile, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dickson showed they wouldn't wind up flops like LaMichael Fanning or Tana Patrick.

The four longtime reserves stepped out of the shadows to anchor a defense that now ranks sixth nationally in yards per game (290.5) and yards per play (4.35). It has allowed the second fewest touchdowns (12) and the third lowest red zone efficiency (38.5 percent) in the country.

Who would have thought we'd be asking where the secondary would be without Jones and Perry?

Jones, a receiver turned cornerback, was routinely picked on by larger targets last season. Perry, on the other hand, came off the bench in two games before he was lost for the year with an injury.

Today, Jones has developed into the team's most reliable corner. The junior is still on the small side, at 5-foot-10, but he's been locked up with bigger receivers and more than held his own. Thanks in large part to Jones, Mississippi State's 6-foot-5 De'Runnya Wilson was held without a touchdown and was unsuccessfully targeted six times Saturday.

Neither Marquez North, Laquon Treadwell, Travin Dural nor Demarcus Robinson had more than 60 receiving yards against Alabama. Among them, they found the end zone only once.

"[Jones] has done a really good job all year long for us," Saban said. "I think he has certainly been our best cover corner."

Perry, whom Saban called a "very bright guy," has been a part of that success, too. The senior has not just been serviceable alongside Collins at safety -- he's been a perfect compliment.

With Jones and Perry playing well, the rest of the secondary has come together nicely.

"Early on, we had guys hurt, different combinations in the lineup that sort of affected us," Saban said, noting how true freshman Tony Brown was forced into action. He later added, "Our secondary has improved through the course of the year."

In fact, every phase of the defense has gotten better.

Who would have thought we'd be saying Ragland and Dickson are Alabama's most productive linebackers?

Neither started a game as sophomores in 2013, and together they combined for only one sack.

Now Ragland's a Butkus Award semifinalist who leads the team in tackles (79) and is third in tackles for loss (7.5). He's recovered a team-best two fumbles and has defended four passes, including one interception.

Dickson, on the other hand, ranks sixth in the SEC with seven sacks. His 9.5 tackles for loss are the most of any Alabama defender.

If anyone tells you they knew that kind of success was coming from Dickson, they're most likely lying. The same goes for any weighty predictions regarding Jones, Perry or Ragland.

At Alabama, it's more often the case that veterans are passed by recent blue-chip recruits than that they find their way and mature into impact players as upperclassmen.

But the opposite has happened this season, and without their contributions, it's difficult to imagine where the defense would be. It most certainly wouldn't be ranked first in the SEC.

They were good all along, said Perry, the elder statesman of the defense. All it took was a little confidence.

"Saban recruited all of us," he said. "We all knew that we're great players. When we're out there, you just have to play with confidence and basically play like you belong out there."

ESPN Jr. 300: What to know in the SEC 

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
10:37
AM ET
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The SEC already has five commitments from players ranked in the top 25 of the ESPN Junior 300. That list includes Greg Little, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2016 and a Texas A&M commit. As a whole, the SEC has 27 commitments in the updated ESPN Junior 300. Here’s a closer look at the updated rankings.

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CFP Committee Chair Jeff Long explains why Alabama is first in the rankings

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