NCF Nation: Eddie Jackson

The season isn’t even over yet, but does that mean it’s too early to start looking ahead to 2015? Not when it comes to Alabama and Auburn. Fans are already talking about which team will be better next season and who will have the advantage come November.

So who does have the edge? We decided it break it down for you … in January.

Offense

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry will return to lead Alabama's offense and running game.
Alex Scarborough: In terms of knowing what you're getting at the skill positions, I'm inclined to give Auburn the edge.

But that's not to say that Alabama isn't loaded with potential. Derrick Henry is clearly a beast and the return of Kenyan Drake from injury could provide a lethal one-two punch at running back. But outside of those two, is there a position where you know who the starters will be? That's not the case at receiver, where Amari Cooper and his 124 receptions exit stage left, along with the next two leading receivers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. The wideout with the most receptions returning to school this spring? Chris Black, who caught all of 19 passes this past season. Cam Sims, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart have great potential, but they're unproven. Heck, O.J. Howard has the skill to be an All-SEC tight end, but two years in he hasn't found any consistency in the passing game.

And that's all not to mention the quarterback, which could be Jake Coker ... or Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell or Blake Barnett.

The one spot where I feel most sure Alabama will succeed is up front. On the offensive line, the return of center Ryan Kelly is an enormous help in terms of leadership for the rest of the line and continuity with whoever wins the starting job at quarterback. As is the return of standout freshman Cam Robinson. With Robinson anchoring the line at left tackle, there's plenty to build around. Grant Hill, Alphonse Taylor and Dominic Jackson have gained plenty of experience as a backups and could slide into the starting rotation with minimal stress.

Greg Ostendorf: Don’t be so quick to give Auburn the edge at the skill positions considering the Tigers are losing Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Corey Grant.

The good news is that D’haquille Williams is returning to school. He solidifies a wide receiver group that would’ve been a huge question mark otherwise. Auburn should also be set at running back with Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber taking over for Artis-Payne and Grant, not to mention the addition of Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player. Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, and that trend should continue in 2015 with at least one of the players mentioned above.

The Tigers have a proven commodity at quarterback, too, which is more than their cross-state rival can say. Jeremy Johnson could’ve started for the majority of teams in college football, but he was stuck behind Nick Marshall, one of the best to ever play at Auburn. The offense might look a little different with Johnson under center, but don’t expect a big drop-off in production. Not after what we saw in the first half of the Arkansas game.

The concern will be up front on the offensive line. How do the Tigers replace Reese Dismukes? How long will the coaches stick with Shon Coleman at left tackle?

The pieces are there -- Avery Young is returning; Alex Kozan will be back from injury; Braden Smith will have a full year under his belt -- it’s just a matter of how they fit together. If Auburn can figure that out, this offense will be scary good.

Defense

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAuburn is looking to Will Muschamp to lessen the talent gap between Auburn and Alabama's defenses.
Scarborough: The gap between the quality of Alabama's defense and that of Auburn's has narrowed of late. This past Iron Bowl and the bowl season showed that neither program is particularly adept at playing defense these days.

But in terms of who has the better defense entering the offseason, it has to be the Tide.

For one, there's no change in the system like Auburn is having to deal with. For another, there's a wealth of talent to draw from.

Alabama's secondary may be shaky today outside of Cyrus Jones, but there are so many four- and five-star DBs in Tuscaloosa it's hard to walk near the practice field without tripping over one. If for some reason Eddie Jackson continues to backslide and Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook don't develop as planned, there's always the pair of top cornerbacks from last year's signing class in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. If they don't work out, there are two top-five cornerbacks committed and two top-10 safeties committed as well.

But the big reason to like Alabama's chances on defense next season rest primarily with the front seven and the defensive line in particular. With the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson returning, most of last season's two-deep depth chart will remain intact. If Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway stays for their senior season and the signing of Jonathan Taylor works out, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have more defensive linemen than he'll know what to do with.

Ostendorf: I’m not going to sit here and try and argue that Auburn has a better defense. It’s just not true. As bad as Alabama looked against Ohio State, Auburn was worse.

What I can say is that the Tigers will be better. Bringing in Will Muschamp to run the defense was the best move Auburn made all offseason. He’s one of the more renowned defensive coordinators in college football, and regardless of talent, he’ll have this defense playing much better than they did down the stretch.

But really, talent shouldn’t be an issue. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have both announced they’re returning to school. Cornerback Jonathan Jones will be back after he quietly put together an All-SEC caliber season. Oh and did I mention that Carl Lawson will be healthy? Lawson missed the entire 2014 season due to injury, but he has a chance to be one of the league’s top pass-rushers this fall. Remember what Dante Fowler Jr. did at Florida? That’s what Muschamp wants to do with Lawson.

This unit might look even better a month from now depending on whether Muschamp can reel in five-stars Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson.

Alabama might have the better defense next year. And they should; that’s Saban’s identity. But like you said earlier, the gap won’t be as wide as it looked at times this past season. Auburn’s defense isn’t giving up 55 points in the Iron Bowl. I don’t care if Braxton Miller transfers to Tuscaloosa. That’s not happening again.

Best of Alabama at media day

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NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama and Ohio State spent an hour apiece at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Tuesday's media day leading up to their meeting in the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Day.

Here are some of the highlights from Alabama's morning interview session:

Alabama coach Nick Saban on Jim Harbaugh's return to college coaching at Michigan: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Harbaugh family. I knew his dad when he was a secondary coach at Michigan and I was a secondary coach and we used to spend time together. So to see both of the Harbaughs do really, really well as NFL coaches in Baltimore and San Francisco, tremendous amount of respect for the entire family, and Tom Crean, who is the head basketball coach in Indiana, is married to another Harbaugh coach, which I'm sure she does a good job of supporting him just like my wife does me. And they were at Michigan State when we were there. He was an assistant for Tom Izzo, and we were really good friends. So I've had a good relationship with the entire Harbaugh family for probably 30 years. So I'm happy and excited that someone of Jim Harbaugh's character and quality is going to come back and be a part of college football."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Images/Gerald HerbertAlabama coach Nick Saban answers reporters' questions on everything from the matchup against Ohio State to Jim Harbaugh's hiring at Michigan.
Receiver Amari Cooper on what he has learned from Saban: "I've learned many things from him. He has a lot of parables he likes to tell. He once told the team something about this, I don't know, a rock hitter or something like that, I don't know what the guy was hitting a rock for. But he said the guy hit the rock 100 times and the rock didn't do anything. The 101st time he hit it and the rock split. He used that to try to give an example to the team that even though you may be working hard or might not be seeing the results so quick, we have to keep working hard because at the end of the day all the results will come from your hard work."

Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest on growing up in Ohio and the difference between Alabama and Ohio State fans: "It's similar. Ohio State, they've got some diehard fans, too, regardless of the situation, whether it's up or down, just like the fans in Tuscaloosa. They do a good job regardless of the situation with us. If we're down, they're still going to scream for us."

Quarterback Jake Coker on the importance of winning to protect SEC bragging rights: "We always talk, I guess trash-talk, because we are in the SEC. If we didn't say the SEC was the best, then there'd be something wrong with us because we came to play in the SEC for a reason. So heck, we've just got to make the SEC look good."

Coker on whether he felt that way last season as a Florida State player before transferring to Alabama prior to this season: "I don't know. There were some really good ACC teams, and hey, the ACC's a really good conference, especially this year now that they've acquired all those other teams. But my stance on it this year is the SEC's the best, I'll tell you that."

Alabama safety Landon Collins on whether it's difficult for an opposing offense to function because of the way the Crimson Tide defense disguises its coverages: "That would be a question to ask Blake [Sims, Alabama's quarterback] because he plays against us all the time. I mean it would be one of the hardest because we sometimes will sit there. Then I know me and Nick [Perry], we'll try to mess with the quarterback. We'll look at the quarterback and just sit there and just stare at him the whole time while he's looking at us to see whether we're going to move or anything like that. But by the time he thinks it's going to be something, we've totally changed the whole front."

Collins on how Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones might have difficulty against those disguised coverages since this will be only his second career start: "When you mess with a quarterback that just got in the game and has to play a defense like ours, definitely it's going to be a competition for him because they don't know what we're going to throw at them and what we're coming with."

Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland on how his family and his roommate Collins' family typically hang out together at their apartment after games -- for a little while, anyway: "After the game and stuff, we'll crack up and have jokes, and then it's time for them to get up out of our house."

Cornerback Eddie Jackson on the key to defending Ohio State's speedy receivers: "Basically just keeping the receivers cut off, not letting them stretch the field vertically because they are pretty fast, nice route-running receivers so they can get down the field. And also going to get the ball at its highest point when it's in the air. A lot of times quarterbacks just throw the ball up and receivers go up to make plays, so we're going to try our best to keep them cut off."

Fullback Jalston Fowler on what it takes to play multiple positions (also including running back, tight end and receiver) like he does: "It's a whole bunch of knowledge I have to have. You have to look over that playbook a lot because you've got to know what you're doing at receiver, you've got to know what you're doing at H-back, you've got to know what you're doing at running back. So it's just a lot for me, but I appreciate it because it helps me show my versatility."

NEW ORLEANS -- Finding a weakness in Alabama often requires a microscopic lens. There's a reason the Crimson Tide are No. 1 and have been the most dominant team in college football the past few years.

But there appears to be one glaring Achilles' heel on this otherwise imposing elephant right now, and it's one that could provide underdog Ohio State some hope in Thursday night's College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Alabama has struggled -- at least relative to its own high standards -- at the cornerback position and is vulnerable to big plays in the passing game.

"I thought we'd play better in the secondary than we have," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "We've obviously worked on it, tried to attack that area, tried to help those guys some. And at the end of the day, we have a lot of situations where if we can make the play and finish the play, then we're probably not talking about it."

The coverage concerns, though, remain a major talking point in Tuscaloosa, and never more so than after the Auburn game. Tigers receiver Sammie Coates so thoroughly burned the Alabama defense that Smart tried three different players at one cornerback spot during the game. Starter Eddie Jackson later apologized for his performance on Twitter, though he's moved on since then.

"We made our mistakes in the secondary," Jackson said, "but we try not to listen to what the media says and just worry about the team and the task that we have at hand."

It wasn't just one bad game, either. Alabama ranked a mediocre 57th in the FBS in passing yards allowed and was 24th among Power 5 schools in yards per attempt on 15-plus-yard throws, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Deep passes down the sideline particularly hurt the Tide, especially the past two games.

That's a pressure point Ohio State might be able to squeeze, especially since the Buckeyes' receiving corps is one of the team's strengths. Ohio State is led in that area by senior Devin Smith, whom offensive coordinator Tom Herman called the best deep-ball receiver in America after he reeled in three touchdown passes -- all of which went at least 39 yards -- in the Big Ten championship game bludgeoning of Wisconsin.

"I think it speaks volumes that he would say that," Smith said. "It's really my speed. I can get behind defenders really easily, and if you have the speed to threaten a DB and then make a move, you can get open."

Herman said Smith used to be "a one-trick pony" who could only go on fly routes. He has become a more complete receiver this year, but the big play remains his calling card. Smith averaged an FBS-best 26.6 yards per catch this season and has averaged 37.6 yards on his 29 career touchdowns. He has 14 catches and nine touchdowns this season on throws of 20 yards or longer, which is the most among all Power 5 players, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

His wheels are now combined with quarterback Cardale Jones' howitzer arm -- remember Smith helped Jones look good in his first career start against Wisconsin by catching some 50-50 balls -- to make the Buckeyes even more vertically venomous. Jones also has an array of other targets, like Evan Spencer, Michael Thomas, Corey Smith and Jalin Marshall.

"They remind you of an SEC receiving corps when you look at them," Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said. "Their receivers are probably the best thing that stands out about their offense."

The opposite could be said of the Tide's corners with their defense. Cyrus Jones said the communication has been off at times between players, made more difficult by the juggling of roles throughout the season. He thought they made strides in the SEC title game against Missouri except when Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk made plays outside the pocket, something Cardale Jones can do as well.

Cyrus Jones is well aware of the criticism aimed toward his position group and the heat they're facing Thursday.

"I take that personally," he said. "Any time people think we're the weak link of the defense, that's something that motivates us to come out and try to shut offenses down."

There's little doubt the Buckeyes will try to pinch that bruise. One reason teams like to throw it deep against the Tide is that there's such little room to maneuver at the line of scrimmage against the nation's No. 1 rushing defense.

"You're not going to grind it out," Herman said. "You're not going to score whatever it takes to win with seven- or 10-play drives down the field [getting] six yards a pop. You've got to find a way to manufacture explosive plays."

That fits right in to what Ohio State likes to do on offense anyway. And if successful, that could give the underdog Buckeyes one of their only true advantages in this game, along with perhaps their best shot to win it.

Alabama-Missouri primer

December, 5, 2014
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On Oct. 11, it didn't look like either Alabama or Missouri would be playing in the SEC championship game. Alabama, who lost to Ole Miss the week before, escaped with a 14-13 win at Arkansas that wasn't pretty. Earlier in the day, Missouri played even worse. The Tigers were blown out at home by Georgia just weeks after a home loss to Indiana.

And yet, here they are, the last two SEC teams standing. Both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers went on to win their next six games, clinching their respective divisions, and on Saturday they will play for the conference title in Atlanta.

Alabama's key to victory: Missouri’s secondary is exploitable, but it's up to Alabama's offensive line whether or not Blake Sims gets the ball downfield. More specifically, the onus is on tackles Austin Shepherd and Cam Robinson as they go up against what could be the most fearsome pair of defensive ends in the country, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. O-line coach Mario Cristobal should feel good about Shepherd's prospects, as the senior has been the most consistent starter on the line. But Robinson's health should worry Cristobal. On Monday, coach Nick Saban said his freshman left tackle is "day to day" with a sprained shoulder. That comes on the heels of an ankle sprain against Tennessee and another ankle injury against Western Carolina. If Robinson's mobility is limited, Ray and Golden will take advantage and harass Sims into mistakes.

Missouri's key to victory: To take that one step further, Missouri is 17-0 since joining the SEC when recording three or more sacks. Meanwhile, Alabama has not allowed three sacks in a game this season. Something has to give. But it's not all about the defense for Missouri. The Tigers are going to have to score to keep up with this potent Alabama offense, and that means getting production from the running game. Missouri is known more as a passing team -- and rightfully so with past quarterbacks such as Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin -- but this year's team has relied more on the ground game. The Tigers are averaging 178 rushing yards per game in their current six-game winning streak. It won't be easy against the SEC's top rushing defense, but Missouri has to find a way to establish the run.

Alabama X factor: Eddie Jackson couldn’t hide from the beating he took against Auburn. In fact, the cornerback for Alabama took to Twitter on Monday and apologized for his play. But now the question becomes whether to bench the talented sophomore or replace him in the lineup. If Jackson doesn’t play, look for either Bradley Sylve or Tony Brown to step in. Sylve got the nod late against Auburn, but it's hard to forget the veteran's struggles early in the season that led to his demotion. Meanwhile, there's Brown, who has played some as a true freshman but hasn't seen the field with much consistency. On the big stage, would Saban be willing to gamble on such an inexperienced player?

Missouri X factor: Russell Hansbrough might be the "lead" back, but senior Marcus Murphy has emerged as a perfect complement in Missouri's backfield. The diminutive Murphy has rushed for 373 yards and three touchdowns over the past five games. He’s fast, he’s explosive and he's liable to take it to the house every time he touches it. Just ask Florida. Murphy accounted for a career-best 224 all-purpose yards against the Gators and scored on a 5-yard run, an 82-yard punt return and a 96-yard kickoff return. Alabama ranks outside the top 60 nationally in both kickoff and punt return defense. Missouri is going to need hit on some big plays to upset the Tide, and Murphy is a prime candidate to make that happen.

Playoff impact: Sorry, Missouri, even with an upset win on Saturday it's implausible that you sneak into the playoff. It's not just the two losses that cost you; it's the fact that you lost at home to Indiana, the same team that couldn't beat Bowling Green. So with that said, this game is essentially about whether or not the SEC will be represented in the College Football Playoff and whether or not that team will be Alabama. If the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide win, they're in as the top seed, as which they'll play a semifinal game in nearby New Orleans. If the Tide lose, the SEC is likely to be shut out of the top four entirely.

National links: UAB football on the brink 

December, 1, 2014
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If multiple media reports on Sunday are correct, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is on the verge of becoming the first FBS school to eliminate its football program since Pacific in 1995.

Although UAB students and fans held a rally on Sunday night in a show of support for the football team, Sports Illustrated reports that the school will fire athletic director Brian Mackin and announce the elimination of football this week.

Sunday’s news was not a shock, as word began to spread around Birmingham a month ago that the university was studying football’s long-term financial viability. Although first-year coach Bill Clark led the Blazers to a remarkable turnaround, finishing 6-6 and achieving bowl eligibility for just the fourth time since UAB joined the FBS in 1996, UAB noticeably refused to commit to Clark or to the program’s future.

At the root of the issue are the decades of distrust between UAB, its supporters and the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees, which governs UAB, Alabama and Alabama-Huntsville. Blazers fans claim that the Board not only offers preferential treatment to the football factory in Tuscaloosa, but that it frequently undermines the UAB program -- and they cling to numerous conspiracy theories as to why that might be the case.

Week 6 roundtable: Breakout player

October, 2, 2014
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Derrick HenryKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry has 320 yards and two scores on 53 carries this season.

Saturday should be fun -- a full-scale clash of the SEC West titans. We're focused on three games from the nation's toughest division featuring six top-15 teams -- Alabama-Ole Miss, Auburn-LSU and Mississippi State-Texas A&M. So far, our roundtables have discussed the game we'd pay to see, the team with the most to prove and the best clutch quarterback.

The West crown, a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, a berth in the College Football Playoff … it all hangs in the balance on Saturday. With that in mind, here are our SEC writers' picks for the breakout players whose performances will carry the day.

Alex Scarborough: Call him Megaquon. Laquon Treadwell is the star no one is talking about, and against Alabama, that's going to change. Ole Miss' sophomore receiver is the complete package: big, physical and explosive. Just look at his stat line last week: Five receptions, 123 yards, two touchdowns. Alabama's cornerbacks can't handle that. Cyrus Jones gives up four inches and 30 pounds to Treadwell. Eddie Jackson is a better matchup physically, but we don’t know how his body will hold up. Tony Brown is on a level playing field as far as talent goes, but the true freshman lacks experience. All that adds up to a matchup nightmare for Alabama.

Greg Ostendorf: If Alabama wants to beat Ole Miss on Saturday, it has to run the football. There, I said it. I don't care how good Blake Sims looked against Florida, this Ole Miss secondary is no joke. AJ McCarron struggled against the Rebels last year, and I can see Sims having a rough day on the road. That means it's up to T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry to carry the load. Take your pick for breakout player -- they're all good -- but I'm going with Henry. He's averaging 6.0 yards per carry, had a big game against Florida and has a knack for ripping off long runs. The only question is do the coaches trust him? I say yes.

David Ching: Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne, Mississippi State's Josh Robinson and Treadwell all came to mind as I considered this question, but I'm going with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris. He'll get his first career start on Saturday at Auburn, which is a tall order for anybody. But this kid possesses special talent. Even if he makes some mistakes or if LSU fails to pull the upset, he's going to become a star eventually. My bet is he will validate Les Miles' decision to allow him to guide the Tigers offense by keeping Saturday's game competitive.

Jeff Barlis: I knew I wouldn't be alone in choosing Harris. He just oozes athleticism, has an efficient delivery and poise beyond his years. Despite being a true freshman, Harris has looked worlds better than LSU's previous starter, sophomore Anthony Jennings. When Harris has been in the game, the LSU offense has come alive, as evidenced by his touchdown on all seven of his possessions after relieving Jennings last week. The Tigers have plenty of skilled athletes in Cam Cameron's offense. With Harris at the reins, LSU flat out has a better chance to go into Auburn and pull off the upset.

Sam Khan: Keep an eye on Mississippi State sophomore wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. He's coming off a good game at LSU (four catches, 91 yards and a touchdown) and he looks like a budding star for the Bulldogs. He had success against Texas A&M last season, catching seven passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 51-41 loss at Kyle Field. He's big (6-foot-5), athletic and has a large catch radius, which is perfect when Mississippi State needs to move the chains on third down or get in the end zone. He leads the team in catches of 20-plus yards this year (four), and this game looks to be a shootout, so he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impression.

Edward Aschoff: My breakout player is Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones. He was supposed to be an All-American this year, but he's yet to really get things going for the Bulldogs. He does have two sacks on the season, but those came against cupcakes. Texas A&M’s offensive line presents a great test for the sophomore, who I think will put some nice pressure on A&M quarterback Kenny Hill and force him into some tough situations. It's time for him to impress us. His bulky, 6-5, 308-pound frame will clog the middle against the run, but where I see him standing out is against the pass, which is the key to stopping the Aggies' offense.
 
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s a familiar storyline by now, Alabama attempting to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle.

You know, Nick Saban’s supposed Achilles' heel?

Texas A&M started the talk with Johnny Manziel running laps around the Tide. Then Auburn got on board, punctuated by its last-second miracle on the Plains. Finally, Oklahoma pushed the tempo and won last season's Sugar Bowl, racking up 429 yards of offense. And if you thought it would get better with another offseason to prepare, then the season-opener wasn’t for you. All West Virginia did was march up and down the field in Atlanta, barely missing out on 400 yards of offense thanks to a handful of untimely drops.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell presents a difficult matchup for the Alabama defense.
Saban has defended himself against the less-than-flattering narrative, albeit with mixed results. Because until we see Alabama’s defense actually stop an above-average offense that employs the HUNH (sorry, Florida), we can’t say with any certainty that the riddle has been solved.

That’s what makes this week so important. Against Ole Miss, Alabama will either put the talk to bed or add further fuel to the fire.

The No. 11-ranked Rebels are an up-tempo program, through and through. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn are buddies, former high school coaches who both believe time spent is time wasted. Bo Wallace, Freeze’s senior quarterback, is in his third year running the HUNH system. With so much familiarity, he can throttle the offense high and low at will. And with the talent surrounding him, there’s no question that Ole Miss’ offense is as dynamic as any Alabama will face this season.

Running back Jaylen Walton is tough to get a hand on, as evidenced by his 6.9 yards per carry coming into this weekend.

Tight end Evan Engram is a matchup nightmare with the size to overpower defensive backs and the speed to run past linebackers.

All wide receiver Cody Core seems to do is catch touchdowns.

Then there’s Laquon Treadwell, arguably one of the top-five receivers in the country. He alone can wreck a secondary.

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“He’s, obviously to me, an outstanding player,” Saban said of the much-heralded sophomore on Monday. “He’s got really good size. He’s a really good athlete. He’s got a big catch radius. He can get in and out of breaks. He plays with a lot of toughness, very physical blocker. So he’s the complete package.”

Said Alabama safety Landon Collins: “He's a very quick receiver, explosive. You get the ball in his hands and he can do basically anything with it. We have a lot of respect for him and we're definitely going to look to him and not turn our backs to him because he can be a game-changer.”

 
But does Alabama have anyone who can actually cover him? That’s the real question.

Cyrus Jones might be up for the task, but he gives up four inches and 25 pounds. Eddie Jackson is the more physical option, but his health is a concern. Then there’s Tony Brown, who is a five-star talent but lacks experience as a true freshman.

To make matters worse, given the way Ole Miss goes without huddling, Alabama doesn’t have the option to put one man on him.

“We went through this last year in a couple of games when we tried to put a guy on a guy in a game of no-huddle and it really is difficult for the corners to get lined up, so you really can’t,” Saban explained. “I think whoever is on him is going to have to study him and play him and play him well and keep him cut off. ... He’s an outstanding player and that’s a difficult task.”

Whether it’s the unenviable job of stopping Treadwell or the much-talked-about issues with the hurry-up, no-huddle, Alabama is used to a challenge. After so many wins and so many national titles, doubters come with the territory.

According to Collins, it’s just motivation.

“Everybody is going to doubt how we play or how we come out or any aspect of our game,” he said. “We're always going to have that. That's Alabama. We just take that into consideration and use that to push us and motivate us moving forward.”

Why Ole Miss can upset Alabama 

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Bo Wallace, Ole MissThomas Graning/AP ImagesBo Wallace's impressive QBR numbers suggest he could lead the Rebels to a win at home.
Ole Miss could be embarking on one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history.

The Rebels are 4-0 for the first time since 1970 and have a top-10 ranking in the Associated Press poll for only the second time in the past 44 years. To top it off, ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew is headed to the Grove for the first time in the pregame show’s history, as the Rebels host Alabama in one of the most important games ever played in Oxford.

Since Alabama has won the past five meetings between these teams by a combined score of 155-34, many may be writing this game off as one of those early season tests the Tide tends to pass with ease.

Anyone with that mindset would do well to reconsider.

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Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country, at least according to the latest coaches' poll.

[+] EnlargeSaban
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and the Crimson Tide will play at the No. 11-ranked Ole Miss Rebels in Week 6.
Through four games, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have done nothing to not deserve their spot atop the college football world.

Forget Jake Coker and forget being a game manager, Blake Sims has developed into one of the SEC's best quarterbacks. The hiring of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator hasn't signaled the end times, it's brought about a renaissance replete with screen passes, misdirection and even the use of the hurry-up, no-huddle.

After fumbling about against West Virginia in the season opener, Alabama's defense has returned to form. If it weren't for four turnovers, Florida wouldn't have scored a single point in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made the Gators look inept as Jeff Driskel struggled to complete 9 of his 28 pass attempts.

Alabama has developed into a complete football team these past few weeks. Even the punting and place kicking have been better than expected.

But now comes the real fun.

Now comes Ole Miss.

Whatever we think we know about Alabama will be challenged Saturday when the Crimson Tide have their first true road test against the No. 11-ranked team in the country. Oxford, Mississippi, may be a picturesque college town that prides itself on never losing the party, but what awaits Alabama inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium won't be so friendly. Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche want to knock off the No. 1 team in the land, not serve it sweet tea and barbecue.

How will Sims hold up under that type of pressure? He's played well so far, tossing eight touchdowns to two interceptions. Among quarterbacks with at least two starts, he ranks third nationally with an adjusted QBR of 89.4. But he hasn't played in a raucous road environment yet, and he hasn't faced a defense that's as good top to bottom as Ole Miss'. The Nkemdiche brothers can get after you. So can C.J. Johnson and D.T. Shackelford. And if you try throwing into that secondary, don't expect the ball back. Senquez Golson leads the SEC with three interceptions this season and Cody Prewitt led the league with six picks last season.

Speaking of defense, what do we really know about Alabama's? The Crimson Tide barely survived West Virginia Week 1, and in subsequent games they haven't really been put to the test. Florida was supposed to be a measuring stick, but we saw how that played out.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, should give Alabama everything it can handle. Wallace may be up and down as a passer, but when he's hot, he can really sling it. He's elusive in the pocket and knows Hugh Freeze's offense like the back of his hand. Plus, he's protected by an offensive line that stars one of the best tackles in the SEC in Laremy Tunsil.

Alabama's secondary won't be able to sleepwalk by the Rebs. Treadwell is one of the most productive receivers in the country and Evan Engram is a constant mismatch at tight end. And that's not to mention Cody Core and Vince Sanders, who are difficult to account for in their own right. If you're Saban, you're worried because your top cornerback is generously listed at 5-foot-10, your second-best cornerback, Eddie Jackson, has health concerns, and your third-best cornerback, Tony Brown, is a true freshman.

And all that goes without saying how Alabama has continued to struggle against the hurry-up, no-huddle. Go back and look at Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and West Virginia; it hasn't been pretty.

Meanwhile, Freeze just so happens to be one of the leading experts on uptempo offense. And unlike last season's game, he's probably going to make sure his signals aren't so obvious.

If Alabama wants to remain the No. 1 team in the country, it will have to prove it against Ole Miss.

From the play of Sims to the offensive line to the secondary to the defense as a whole, there won't be one phase of the game where the Crimson Tide won't be tested on Saturday.

Finally, the game is almost here.

For both Alabama and Florida, it's been a long time coming. The Crimson Tide breezed through the nonconference portion of their schedule to get here. The Gators missed their season-opener, gassed Eastern Michigan and survived Kentucky to reach its trip to Tuscaloosa undefeated and eager to prove that last season was a fluke.

What do we know about both teams so far? Not a lot. But that's what Saturday is for.

To get you prepared, we had SEC writers Jeff Barlis and Alex Scarborough assess the matchup.

Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.

I could tell you Blake Sims is a changed man. I could tell you he's transformed overnight into a quarterback capable of carrying an offense against a good defense like Florida's. But I might be stretching the truth.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxThe challenge for Florida will be to keep Alabama's defensive line off Jeff Driskel.
Sims' numbers are impeccable -- 75 percent completion percentage, 215 passing yards per game, six total touchdowns, one interception -- but that's just the top layer. Dig deeper and you'll see that of Sims' 646 total yards passing, 454 of which has gone to one receiver. And that one receiver, Amari Cooper, has racked up 245 of those yards after the catch.

So what happens when Vernon Hargreaves III takes away those quick passes that have been so effective? What happens when Dante Fowler rushes off the edge? What happens when Sims gets in the weeds?

Frankly, I don't know.

But I do know this: I trust him more than I do Jeff Driskel.

Barlis: There's no doubt Driskel's performance against Kentucky undermined some of the optimism that had grown for him and for the Gators. He failed to recognize obvious blitzers, didn't run the ball when he needed to, didn't give his receivers a chance at catching the deep ball, and hesitated to hit an open Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on what could have been a crushing mistake in overtime.

Driskel's numbers -- 25-of-43 passing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- weren't bad, though, and he deserves credit for some key plays that helped Florida stave off a colossal upset.

I don't think anyone is expecting Driskel to brilliantly engineer an upset of his own this Saturday, but he can't afford the kind of big mistakes that have plagued him in the past. He just needs to be efficient, manage the game and give his team a chance.

It's not all on Driskel's shoulders. I think one of the biggest matchups of this game will be in the trenches when Florida has the ball. The Gators' offensive line has been a sore spot, particularly in pass protection, for the last couple of years.

Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (ankle) is out, and while senior right tackle Chaz Green is a capable fill-in, his understudy is Roderick Johnson, a redshirt freshman making his second start in the third game of his career. He's never seen anything like the No. 3 Tide and it's stable of defensive linemen.

Scarborough: That's an interesting point. Alabama's D-line has been solid so far, but hasn't lived up to the preseason hype yet. A'Shawn Robinson, the All-SEC tackle/end, has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss. He's got help rushing the passer with Ryan Anderson, Xavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen, but that group can't allow Driskel time in the pocket.

If that happens, watch out for Alabama's secondary. Nick Perry will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting, and Jarrick Williams isn't likely to play after fracturing his foot a few weeks ago. Those are two of the Tide's most veteran DBs.

Landon Collins is as solid as they come at safety, but he'll need help. Eddie Jackson's return has been a boon, but pay attention to rookie Tony Brown, whom Nick Saban said will play a lot on Saturday.

Still, my biggest question mark for Alabama isn't on defense. Setting aside Sims' play at quarterback, who is going to step up besides Cooper? O.J. Howard hasn't caught a pass all season and Christion Jones has dropped a few passes himself.

While there are a lot of talented tailbacks to turn to, I'll be interested to see how Alabama's receivers and Florida's defensive backs match up.

Barlis: I will, too. These are two of the best run defenses in the SEC if not the country. Although both teams are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, neither passing game has more than one scary playmaker -- Cooper for the Tide, and Robinson for the Gators.

It appears both defenses will be in a similar situation -- apply consistent pressure on the quarterback or else a vulnerable secondary could be exposed. Florida's D-line was strong in the first half against UK but fatigued in the second when Patrick Towles went off. That made the mistakes by young DBs even more glaring.

I say the matchup the matters most on Saturday is Florida's defensive line against Alabama's offensive line. The Gators desperately need someone other than Dante Fowler Jr. to emerge, but I'm not sure this is the game for that to happen. Bama has an outstanding line that has keyed a deadly efficient offense. The Tide have just two three-and-outs in 32 possessions this season.

The bottom line in what could very well be a defensive struggle is that both teams prefer to run the ball but probably won't be able to dominate the game that way. It'll be up to the passing attacks.

I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin and the quarterbacks were what everyone wanted to see when Alabama took the field against West Virginia on Saturday. The Crimson Tide’s new offensive coordinator would be calling plays from the sideline, mere feet away from head coach Nick Saban. And on top of that, he’d be managing the quarterback situation, which promised to pit Blake Sims, the veteran who had paid his dues, versus Jake Coker, the strong-armed transfer from Florida State.

But Kiffin Cam and the QB battle didn’t yield much in the way of controversy. There were no sideline sparks between Kiffin and Saban, and Sims played well enough to hang on at quarterback until the game was essentially over. Coker came on for the final series, only to turn and hand the ball off to the running backs until the clock struck zero.

[+] EnlargeKevin White, Bradley Sylve
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBradley Sylve and the Crimson Tide secondary gave up 365 yards to West Virginia on Saturday.
The offense, it turns out, wasn’t the problem.

The game everyone expected to see against West Virginia wound up being turned on its ear. Alabama’s defense -- you know, the one everyone assumed would return to its 2009-2012 form -- instead laid an egg in the Georgia Dome. Tempo got the best of them once again. West Virginia’s running backs gashed the front seven. Its wide receivers ran roughshod over the secondary. Had it not been for a number of dropped passes, quarterback Clint Trickett might have led the Mountaineers to within reach of a monumental upset.

Returning to Tuscaloosa, Saban took stock of the hard-fought win on Monday. He started out optimistically, praising the team’s effort and the “intangible things” it did, like playing with toughness, competing and not letting one bad play carry over to the next. He pointed out that his defense made “two huge stops inside the 10-yard line” and that when Sims did turn the ball over, it responded by forcing a three-and-out.

That was the good news. But there was plenty of bad. Nearly 400 yards of offense and nine trips inside Alabama’s 40-yard line said so.

“We didn't play very well in the secondary at all,” Saban explained. “We didn't play very well at linebacker. We had too many miscommunications, too many missed coverages, too many missed assignments."

On one play, Jarran Reed doubled back nicely on a screen pass and helped force a minimal gain. But then, Saban said, there was another screen where the lineman didn’t get back and it ended up resulting in a 17-yard pickup.

“I think we have a lot to improve on defensively, all the way around,” he said. “So I'm not disappointed. It is what it is. This is where we are. This is the starting point.”

If Alabama hopes to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it better hope so. Because while West Virginia is certainly talented offensively, there are a handful of teams on the schedule that could give the defense even more trouble. Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all have explosive offenses that like to push the pace. Even Mississippi State, with the improvements its made at receiver and running back, can move the ball in a hurry.

There’s plenty of time to improve, though. Florida Atlantic, which lost 55-7 to Nebraska on Saturday, is up next, and its starting quarterback might not even be available to play. After that it’s Southern Miss, which has won one game since 2011. Neither opponent figures to challenge the defense.

Taking advantage of those tune-ups will be crucial.

By the time Week 4 and Florida comes around, Alabama's defense could take on a different look, especially in the secondary.

Cyrus Jones has shown signs of improvement at corner, but Bradley Sylve had a rough go of it on Saturday. Five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey are itching to take their spots in the starting lineup, but for now the fear is that their inexperience will lead to busts in coverage. Eddie Jackson might be the answer, but the sophomore is only five months removed from a torn ACL. He was cleared to play recently, according to Saban, but his status is uncertain as of today.

On top of that, veteran nickel back Jarrick Williams is out for the next four weeks with a fractured foot.

The good news is there’s time to find the right personnel and fix some of the issues we saw against West Virginia. The bad news is there are so many issues in the first place.

Maybe after so much time and energy devoted to Kiffin and the quarterbacks this offseason, it’s worth finally turning our attention to the other side of the football. It’s there where the most things are happening.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So much about LSU-Alabama is built around the physical style of play, and rightfully so. UA coach Nick Saban called the game a "heavyweight fight" where you have to show up in every round. His veteran defensive end, Jeoffrey Pagan, said it was a "dog fight" he looks forward to every season.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWith a powerful run game, plus Jarvis Landry (pictured) and Odell Beckham Jr. stretching the secondary, LSU's offense presents a bigger challenge to Alabama's depleted secondary.
But it won't be all smash-mouth football when the two teams meet in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if LSU coach Les Miles puts the ball in the air against the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

And given the Alabama's depth concerns in the secondary, why not? Eight different players have started there and two key pieces at safety -- Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry -- are out for the season with injuries. Deion Belue has been consistent, but who plays opposite him at corner hasn't been. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have all tried their hands there and none have risen to the top of the pile. It's unclear who among them will start against LSU.

"We like the matchup," Miles said of getting the ball to his two star receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who rank in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and have combined for 16 touchdown catches. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space.

"Again, who we're playing, they are a very good team, but we think there is a matchup there that benefits us."

LSU certainly has the pieces to hurt Alabama through the air.

Zach Mettenberger had his own personal coming out party against the Tide last season, throwing for a then-career high 298 yards in defeat. He carried that over to this year and has made the most dramatic improvement in opponent-adjusted QBR (+38.6) of any quarterback who qualified. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It helps that he's got two good ones to throw the football to.

"The combination of these two guys are as good a receivers as we've played against all year long," Saban said. "Not the same style as the Texas A&M guys, but very quick, very athletic. They have the speed to get on top. Very smart in terms of route runners. They do a good job of putting them in various positions that makes them difficult to cover and get the kind of matchups on that you'd like."

Beckham is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the SEC with his ability to create separation. He has premier top-end speed and the burst to make a guy miss and take it to the house. He's currently second in the country in all-purpose yards.

Landry, on the other hand, can go up and get it. He's listed as 6-foot-1, but plays much larger. He's sixth in the country in receptions (57), seventh in yards per catch (21.02) and fifth in creating first downs on a reception (40).

"They know how to run their routes, just like our receivers," UA safety Landon Collins said. "It’s hard to stick our receivers. They know how to run their routes and stick on a dime. Watching it on film, it’s going to be a pretty tough game sticking them, our safeties playing their wide receivers."

It won't help that LSU is so balanced. Alabama won't be able to help the secondary out by dropping many defenders back in coverage. There's simply no ignoring LSU's running game, headlined by Jeremy Hill, who ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards (922) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).

Given all that, the Tide secondary knows the task that lies ahead.

"They have very good wide receivers, very good quarterback," Collins said. "And their run game is tremendous. We just have to stay settled and stay watching our keys."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's an elusive nature to Vinnie Sunseri's game, a nagging need to define what makes him so special. In a sports that lusts after measurables, he doesn't fit the mold. He makes play after play at safety for Alabama, but we're not sure why or how.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsVinnie Sunseri has shown a big-play ability this season as both of his interceptions have been returned for scores.
Trey DePriest wishes he could tell you what makes his friend and teammate such a playmaker, but the junior linebacker doesn't know. The two came up on special teams together as freshman and he's still trying to figure him out. Both of Sunseri's interceptions this season have been returned for touchdowns, including one which came against Texas A&M when he juked Johnny Manziel out of his shoes. He had no business making the defending Heisman Trophy winner look that bad. No one expected it.

"That's just what he does," DePriest said. "That's him."

At 6-feet tall, there's nothing inspiring about Sunseri's size. Sure he's sturdy, quick and has a nose for the football, but in terms of what scouts crave -- the numbers combines generate like 40-yard dash, vertical jump and the three cone drill -- he leaves something to be desired. Mike Smith, Sunseri’s former coach at Northridge High (Ala.) did say via text: "He's a relentless competitor!"

"He's a throwback guy in a modern era," Mike Smith said. He knows how athletic Sunseri is having played him at linebacker, punt returner and running back, but defines him in simpler terms. "He's the way it used to be played. He breaks the mold of what we are led to believe is needed to win in college football."

Sunseri, the son of longtime college football assistant coach Sal, is a coach's dream. He hurls his body around like a bowling ball crashing against the lanes. And more than making plays at pivotal moments, he's a teacher and a leader. In a secondary that's had more than its fair share of turnover, he's been a driving force for youngsters like Landon Collins and Geno Smith who have had to fill in at free safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serving a suspension.

One week it's Sunseri shouting out the play to John Fulton at cornerback, the next it's Eddie Jackson and then the next it's Bradley Sylve. The carousel in the back end of Alabama's defense has been spinning from early on this season with Sunseri calmly holding the wheel.

"Vinnie's a very smart guy," UA coach Nick Saban said. "He's been showing leadership in terms of making calls and trying to help the other guys in the secondary, which I think they appreciate.

"He all of a sudden is one of the most experienced guys back there right now."

Saban explained how the communication Sunseri provided against a no-huddle team like Kentucky was vital to the Tide holding the Wildcats one touchdown, less than 200 total yards of offense and under 50 percent completions through the air. Sunseri narrowly missed his third interception of the year when he jumped in front of a pass from Maxwell Smith, knocking it to the turf.

It was easy to see the joy in his face in the waning moments of the Kentucky game. He bear-hugged wide receiver Kevin Norwood on the sideline and congratulated his fellow defensive backs for a job well done. They'll need to improve with Arkansas coming to town this week and LSU in less than a month's time.

"It's been fun to see all these guys develop: Bradley, Eddie, Landon Collins, and see the players they're becoming and teach them all the things they need to know has just been something really fun," Sunseri said. "They're doing a great job."

"He’s taken the leadership role very hands-on because he’s got to make more calls now because we’ve got two new safeties doing the position,” Collins said. “There’s more calls now, doing a lot more and talkative so he’s helping a lot more than I think and I appreciate that."

Though his role as a starter and leader of the secondary might be larger, teammates insist nothing has changed. He doesn't have the flash of some big-name players in the SEC, but he's just as important as any of them to his team.

"He's still the same old Vinnie, which has always been a leader," defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said. "Since he's been here he's always been a leader."

It’s everyone else that’s just now catching on. Both ESPN and CBS Sports named Sunseri a Midseason All-American this week, though as many as three of Alabama's defensive backs could be more physically gifted. But it's that old-school idea that production trumps all that makes Sunseri so special. After a while, the interceptions and big plays are too much to ignore. The why and how he's doing it starts to become irrelevant.

"He's got great ball instinct," Pagan said matter-of-factly. "The guy knows football. I'll give him this: he's a football player."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's safe to assume that Eddie Jackson understands the opportunity ahead of him at Alabama. He can't say as much publicly because of the school's policy prohibiting freshmen from speaking to the media. But given all he's already gone through, it would be a wonder if he didn't look back on his road to Tuscaloosa and comprehend the enormous turnaround it took for him to get there.

It's a wonder he's wearing Alabama's signature crimson helmet in the first place. The fact that he's starting at cornerback for the defending national champions is something even more implausible considering where he was at this time last year.

Jackson needed a change of scenery before any of the chips fell into place. He likely learned the value of a fresh start from his brother, Demar Dorsey, a former blue-chip defensive back prospect who signed a letter of intent to play for Michigan in 2010 but never made it to Ann Arbor. Dorsey's past included poor grades and three felony charges that robbed him of the opportunity to play at a BCS-level football program. He failed to meet Michigan's standard for admission, announced he would transfer to Louisville, failed to make it there because of more issues and eventually landed at Grand Rapids Community College. Dorsey was supposed to transfer to Hawaii in 2012, but he never reached the Big Island and today is not listed on Hawaii's roster.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinEddie Jackson was a virtual unknown in recruiting at this point last year. Now he's a key piece on defense for the No. 1 team in the country.
Wayne Blair knew of Dorsey's story when Jackson walked into his office at Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., looking to transfer after becoming academically ineligible at his previous school. Blair saw Dorsey's "pitfalls" up close at nearby University School, where he was an assistant in 2009. He took a chance on Jackson, who was then a junior with serious eligibility issues. His grades were "way below normal standards," said Blair, who helped get Jackson eligible just in time for spring football.

Blair's investment and Jackson's hard work paid off instantly.

"He played free safety for us at the time," Blair said of the spring game against University School, a national powerhouse. "He had an interception, he returned one for a touchdown and then had another interception. And I realized then that I had something really, really special on my hands."

Jackson, though, had no college offers at the start of his senior season. Blair worked the phones, calling contacts at all the major conferences looking for someone to take a flier on his wide receiver/defensive back, a tall kid with enormous raw potential. Blair said he told them, "I got a guy that if I can get him NCAA eligible, you might want to go ahead and put your vested interest into him." Of course, no one took him seriously.

What Jackson did on the football field as a senior caught their attention, though, making him an increasingly rare sight in college recruiting: a late-blossoming prospect.

"Every game he either did something extraordinary offensively or completely excellent defensively or on special teams," Blair said. "And the buzz started growing as we had ourselves a good year. We went into the playoffs and he went off."

Jackson's grandmother passed away early in Boyd Anderson's postseason run. Blair said that's when "he went from good to great within a two-week span."

Blair had to chuckle when he retold his "folklore of Eddie Jackson" by telephone this week. He remembered how Florida State offered Jackson as a wide receiver, LSU wanted him as a defensive back and Miami looked at him as a wide receiver. Alabama had him strictly as a cornerback, though, drawn to his raw athleticism and 6-foot-1 frame.

"We thought Eddie was a good player," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "There were some academic questions and some of those things. We're always looking for longer corners, guys that have got a little bit more size. We had Maurice [Smith], who had committed to us. We were still looking for somebody else and we found Eddie. We'd known about Eddie, but we weren't sure we were going to be able to recruit him. As soon as we found out that he would be qualified and all that, we really jumped on him."

Being able to work closely with Saban, who coaches cornerbacks one-on-one at Alabama, was part of what swayed Jackson to sign with the Tide. The other factor was timing. With last season's top corner for Alabama, Dee Milliner, likely to enter the NFL draft and not much behind him in terms of depth, Jackson and Blair saw an opportunity to play right away.

"I knew he'd probably be jumping into the starting lineup; I just didn't know when," Blair said. "I was thinking by Week 6. Low and behold, here we are."

Blair's prediction was off by two weeks. Jackson accomplished the improbable, learning enough of Alabama's complicated defensive scheme by Week 4 that he was inserted into the starting lineup against Colorado State.

A week later he proved that his first start wasn't a fluke opportunity against a cupcake opponent, starting again against No. 21 Ole Miss. On Saturday, Jackson was fourth on the team in tackles, had two pass breakups and a key interception against the Rebels, prompting senior cornerback Deion Belue after the game to say, "We finally found a piece to our secondary so that we all can come together."

"He fit in perfectly," said safety Vinnie Sunseri. "Having Jarrick [Williams] and Deion [Belue] back was a huge part of it, too, but Eddie in there, and him getting comfortable and getting that one pick, kind of gave him that confidence booster that he needed. He played unbelievable. I was so proud of him."

Jackson's first-half interception was a defining moment. The rookie corner whiffed on Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss' veteran wideout, on the previous play, allowing a 36-yard gain and a first down. Coach Hugh Freeze then reached into his bag of tricks, calling for a backward pass to Laquon Treadwell, who looked toward Jackson's side of the field for a pass. But Jackson didn't bite on the fake, stuck to his assignment and secured the ball for the takeaway.

"He did everything perfect," Sunseri said. "He jammed the guy off the line, stayed, stepped in the divider, and he threw one right to him and he got the pick. It was a great momentum swing for us."

Saban, who covets long, aggressive corners such as Jackson, was pleased. He and his staff had been searching for an answer at the position after John Fulton and Cyrus Jones were torched by Texas A&M and Mike Evans, and in Jackson it appears they've found someone to work with. He's still just a freshman, but he's already done more in one game than all but Belue, Alabama's top on-ball defender.

"He played well," Saban said of Jackson. "Made a couple of mistakes, but I thought that most of those were because of communication, which is one of the things that we emphasize, where he wasn't sure about what the call was. But when it came to just his technique and what he was supposed to do and the way he competed in the game, I thought he did a really good job."

Blair, who talks to Jackson regularly, said it's now "his position to lose."

"Before it's all said and done, he could end up being the prototype defensive back like that guy over at Seattle, Richard Sherman," he said. "You have a tall, smart kid with good range, good hips. He can end up being the prototype Coach Saban has been looking for."

Reading into Blair's comments, it's clear he thinks that development could happen quickly. And why shouldn't it? It might seem improbable, but everything about Jackson's journey, going from academically ineligible with no college offers to a top prospect signing a letter of intent with Alabama, has been just that.

Jackson turned it around in a hurry in high school. What's to say he can't take the next step in just as timely a fashion? He's certainly showed he's no stranger to making the most of an opportunity.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was no dipping a toe in the water for preseason No. 1 Alabama. The Crimson Tide instead had to jump right in, battling sharks every week in the first month of the season.

The early stretch was brutal at times. Sure, Alabama looked like the best team in the country and got through the first four games undefeated, but there were certainly some blemishes revealed along the way. Each week and each win was a struggle.

Virginia Tech opened the season by stifling Alabama's offense in Atlanta, getting into the face of quarterback AJ McCarron by applying constant pressure on the backfield. The offensive line, a group that featured three new starters, looked nothing if not inexperienced.

[+] EnlargeScott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Crimson Tide defense had its most complete effort of the season on Saturday.
Ninth-ranked Texas A&M then lit up Alabama two weeks later. Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans tore apart the secondary, abusing the Tide with the deep pass. UA set a kind of record you don't want to see, allowing the most yards in school history.

Even Colorado State, the $1.5 million cupcake courtesy of the Mountain West Conference, gave Alabama trouble. The Tide defense made too many mistakes and the offense was terribly inconsistent, failing to convert on a single third-down attempt in the first three quarters.

Then came No. 24 Ole Miss, an undefeated team playing with house money against Alabama. But this time, mercifully, the Tide put together a complete game and won, ending a four-game streak that tested the mettle of the championship contenders.

Now it's time to exhale. Alabama survived the early onslaught and can now take a breath to regroup with Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee up next. None of the four is ranked, and only the Razorbacks and the Vols are above .500, albeit at just one game over each. The four teams' combined record (7-11) is noticeably worse than the combined record of the first four teams Alabama faced (13-6) and the last four teams Alabama will face to end the season (11-6).

To make matters even more favorable for the Tide, Alabama will get a bye to start the month of November before hosting LSU on Nov. 9.

No team in the SEC has an easier next five weeks than Alabama. South Carolina is a close second and the only other school in the conference that won't face a ranked team over that time, but at least the Gamecocks don't have a cupcake like Georgia State to snack on. Instead, Steve Spurier's team will be tested somewhat by Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi State and undefeated Missouri. In fact, if one-loss South Carolina plays like it did against unranked UCF this past weekend, it might not be much of a championship contender come November.

The rest of the league's title contenders don't have it so easy. Georgia has rival Florida to contend with, LSU has Florida and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks, and Texas A&M has to deal with the same explosive Rebels on Oct. 12.

Ole Miss is one of seven SEC schools to play two ranked opponents over the next five weeks. Only Tennessee and Missouri have it worse with three ranked opponents each in the month of October.

While Nick Saban might not be fond of focusing on records, it's hard to ignore the obvious -- if Alabama doesn't make it to November undefeated, it would be a shock. The Crimson Tide's coach isn't one to admit those things and he won't ever say an opponent is overmatched, but he and his staff do have the luxury of not stressing over serious competition the next few weeks.

Instead, they can budget their time wisely, resting banged up starters such as Ryan Kelly and T.J. Yeldon while working out the kinks with some younger guys for the stretch run, especially those on defense such as rookie cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith.

"I'm looking more at the standard, not the record," Saban said following his team's shutout of No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday night. "And I think it's important that our players do the same so we can continue to improve."

Improvement, though, might be the best Saban can hope for. Making another statement like his team did by thumping Ole Miss doesn't appear to be possible against the forthcoming carousel of unranked, overmatched opponents. Rather, building up some level of consistency over the next few weeks will be the challenge as the scoreboard certainly doesn't figure to be.

"We have high expectations for the standard of how we play," Saban said. "And I think more than what the record is, I think and our team thinks, what do we need to do so we can continue to improve so we can play the the standard on a more consistent basis.

"I would say if there's any criticism of myself, our staff and our team, it would be the fact that we have not been as consistent as we'd like to be."

Saban got through a rough, inconsistent start to the season intact and in the driver's seat for another run to the national championship. For the next month, he'll be in the enviable position of fine-tuning his team's mistakes against lesser competition.

While the rest of the SEC slogs through the ghoulish month of October, Alabama will be playing trick or treat each Saturday. All that remains now is reaching LSU on Nov. 9 without slipping on the proverbial banana peel.

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