NCF Nation: Vinnie Sunseri

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “It’s not like we don’t have anybody at the position,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told a group of reporters prior to the start of spring practice earlier this month, running down the list of questions he had for his team before arriving at the safety position.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is gone at free safety. Vinnie Sunseri is gone at strong safety. Mark Barron has been around the practice facility training lately, but his eligibility ran out long ago, not to mention the pay is decent in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMIAlabama will need Landon Collins to solidify his safety role and lead the Tide's secondary.
So while everyone is craving news on the quarterback competition and the progress of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Saban, who happens to coach the defensive backs, is looking at the safeties where he must replace his two most veteran starters.

“We lost two safeties, but we've got Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins,” he said. “Nick Perry's coming back. Geno (Smith) spent a year at safety so he's probably going to continue to progress.”

Indeed, there are a few reasons for Saban to feel good about the position, maybe none more so than Colllins, who came on strong last season after playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012. The former five-star prospect filled in for Clinton-Dix when he was suspended and then changed roles when Sunseri was lost for the season to injury.

He didn’t start the first four games of the season, but Collins was in the lineup for the final nine contests, showing the playmaking ability that made him such a coveted recruit out of Louisiana. He finished second on the team in tackles (70), tied for first in interceptions (2) and fumble recoveries (2) and led everyone with eight passes defended. He was named second team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

Saban is expecting even more in 2014. From his seat as head coach, he has seen the key to Collins’ improvement: when the games slow down in his head he can play fast, and when he plays fast there’s no stopping him.

“All players have things that they can work on to improve, and Landon's certainly a guy that is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it,” Saban said following the third practice of the spring on Wednesday. “I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“With Landon, to me, when he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him this spring.”

Collins wasn’t expected to be a full-time starter last spring, which was his first on campus. This spring there’s no question he’ll be in the lineup week in and week out.

While most players might not love the grind of spring practice, where the finish line of a game each Saturday doesn’t exist, Collins is embracing it.

“Most of us love spring practice,” he told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “Speaking for the defensive part of it, a lot of our safeties are just trying to figure it out. It was fast-paced going into the season and in fall camp we still didn’t know a lot of the formations and calls and what to do. [In the spring] the coaches get a chance to sit down and take over everything slowly and go over every point and detail to help them act quickly on the field.”

If Collins can play fast, that’s a good sign for Alabama’s defense moving forward. He’ll need help, though. The free safety spot opposite him is up for grabs, along with both starting cornerback positions.

It will be an uphill climb for Saban and his staff to solidify the secondary, but at least they have Collins to start with. From there, at least there are options. As Saban said, it’s not like there’s no one out there to choose from.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One by one, teammates stopped and patted Vinnie Sunseri on the shoulder. Alabama's starting safety was in street clothes, limping gingerly with a bum knee. "How bad is it?" they wanted to know. And from high up in the stands, it was obvious. Their body language in response said it all: A quick shake of the head, a long hug and a slow walk away.

Not Sunseri. Not this season.

The destiny of a championship hopeful is precarious at best. Ask Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel fell awkwardly on his arm, hurt his elbow and was forced to the sidelines late against Auburn. His backup came on and the offense went three and out. Auburn took the ball and marched the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown. A valiant return by Manziel proved too little, too late. With two losses, the Aggies have to hope for chaos to reenter the SEC West race.

[+] EnlargeVinnie Sunseri
AP Photo/Butch DillAlabama safety Vinnie Sunseri holds his knee after being injured on a kickoff in the first half.
Top-ranked Alabama didn't suffer the same fate against Arkansas. With Sunseri watching from the sideline, the Crimson Tide took care of business and dominated the Razorbacks, 52-0, to remain comfortably in the driver's seat to reach Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS National Championship. But with its most experienced safety's season suddenly in doubt, the ride will be shakier than expected.

"It could be serious," UA coach Nick Saban said of Sunseri's injury, listlessly noting that an MRI would deliver the final verdict on Sunday.

"We need some guys to get some experience because we're going to need some depth. Obviously as you lose players, other guys have to step up and play. We had to do a lot of shuffling in the secondary tonight."

If there was a list of the top three defenders Alabama couldn't afford to lose, Sunseri's name would have been on it. Mark Barron and Robert Lester are gone to the NFL. Dee Milliner is gone, too. Alabama has tried John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve out to fill his shoes, and none has panned out. Nick Perry, a veteran safety, had season-ending surgery on his shoulder last month. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, regarded as one of the best safeties in the country, was suspended for the past two weeks.

Sunseri, an impact player from the day he signed with Alabama in 2011, had brought stability to the carousel known as Alabama's secondary. His leadership and big-play ability have been huge. When the Tide needed something to happen against Texas A&M early in the season, he intercepted a pass, shook Manziel out of his shoes and scampered the length of the field for a touchdown.

Without Sunseri, who knows what Alabama's fate will be? Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins and Geno Smith are all talented replacements, but there's a reason none of the three was starting in his spot coming into the weekend. Sunseri was supposed to be the one they'd follow. He was supposed to be the anchor.

"There's not a guy on our team that does a better job of setting an example when it comes to trying to be everything he can be," Saban said of Sunseri. "He's just a phenomenal guy to have on your team all the way around.

"He's going to be a part of our team whether he can play or not."

Sunseri put on his best happy face in the second half, smacking teammates on the behind after delivering the bad news during the game. He sat by Collins, smiled and told him it would be OK. When Jones came off the field after a late interception, Sunseri was the first one to greet him, delivering a bear hug to the true sophomore who was playing wide receiver only a year ago.

"Great leader, great leader," Collins said. "I looked up to him. He's helped me out at free safety with the calls and getting me to settle down. He's going to be missed."

Said veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley: "Whether he's playing or not, he's going to be on the sideline helping the young players out."

Against Arkansas, the defense looked fine. Sunseri's absence wasn't felt in the box score. Alabama forced three turnovers while limiting Brandon Allen to 7 completions on 25 attempts. The Razorbacks' two talented tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- rushed for just 125 yards on 31 carries. The two came into the weekend ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing.

Alabama's offense, meanwhile, continued humming along. Quarterback AJ McCarron toyed with the defense, picking apart Arkansas for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Kenyan Drake ran for 104 yards and two scores, while T.J. Yeldon rushed for another 88 yards and a touchdown. Alabama's third-string tailback, Derrick Henry, had 115 yards on six carries. All told, the Tide accounted for 532 total yards of offense.

But the tone after the game was stoic. The win against Arkansas came at a cost. A number of players were banged up after facing one of the more physical teams they'll see all year. Ice baths and hot tubs will be in high demand over the next 24 hours.

Sunseri, though, will face the trainer's table.

Only a week ago, Sunseri was throwing wads of paper at wide receiver Kevin Norwood, jumping up and down like a giddy child. He would be a key part of Alabama's quest for a third consecutive national championship. Another win on the road ensured it.

On Saturday, he was hobbling from teammate to teammate to tell them the bad news. He finally ventured to the far end of the bench and watched the rest of the game in silence. Alabama was moving on without him.

How far the Tide will go remains to be seen. What happens next is destiny.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jarrick Williams should have been in this position a year ago. Heading into fall camp last season, he was slated to be Alabama's primary option at nickel back. But in a practice, he went to make a tackle, landed awkwardly, bent backward and felt the tell-tale pop in his knee that every athlete dreads. His ACL gave and he was lost for the season. Geno Smith, a freshman, took over the position and made a handful of key stops against Georgia in the SEC championship game.

[+] EnlargeJarrick Williams
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWhen Jarrick Williams (20) hits, "you feel it," says Alabama teammate Vinnie Sunseri.
Largely overlooked during the offseason, Williams slowly worked his way back into shape. "There were some days I wanted to give up," he said, days where he thought he'd never be the same player again. A former four-star safety out of Prichard, Ala., Williams was a coveted prospect because of his size and athleticism. Scouting profiles noted his fluidity and ability to redirect in the open field -- all key traits in a defensive back. But with a bum knee, those skills were in doubt. Smith, it seemed, was the future at nickel back. Williams, at best, would provide some depth behind him.

"Going through all the surgery and stuff, I've just been ready to get out there on the field," he said.

Williams, who sought counsel from family members such as his mother to keep him focused during his rehab, stayed the course. And when Smith was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence during camp, he seized the opportunity. Immediately he stepped back in at nickel, playing with a physical style.

Trey DePriest, Alabama's starting inside linebacker, said Williams plays like a fellow linebacker only a few feet further removed from the line of scrimmage. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he has the frame to play wherever he wants.

"Jarrick is real strong, and when he plays and we go dime, he drops down into the box with C.J. [Mosley], he’s got the look of a linebacker," DePriest said. "He brings that presence."

That presence can boil over to off the field, too. Vinnie Sunseri, who directs the defense at strong safety, said, "When you get hit by him, you feel it." And that's not just during games.

"We'll be messing around off-the-field and he'll push me around and I'll say, 'You've got to calm down, man. You're too big to do that now,' " said Sunseri, no slouch at 210 pounds himself. "He can hit you, he can cover, and having him blitzing is a real threat, too."

Opposing offenses have felt Williams' pain as well. He's 10th on the team with 15 tackles. He had a highlight-reel sack against Kentucky last Saturday -- "He was either going to move or me. I moved him," Williams said -- and tipped a pass against Texas A&M that set up an interception return for a touchdown by Sunseri.

Mosley, the heart and soul of the defense at middle linebacker, said Williams has been "holding his own" since taking over at nickel back. Williams injured his eye against Texas A&M and temporarily lost sight in it, causing him to miss the following game. It proved to be a a cautionary step, but given his history, there was concern.

"He came back and hasn't missed a beat," Mosley said. "So he's helping us with our short depth at DB. He's doing a great job."

Williams, a man of few words himself, is now entrenched at nickel back. Smith has since moved to free safety, where he's rotating in with Landon Collins while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix serves a suspension.

With Arkansas next on the docket Saturday, Williams is poised to get plenty of looks in the nickel alignment, which is essentially a base formation for Alabama. The Razorbacks like to run the football, which is exactly like Williams wants to see.

"Oh yeah, a lot of contact," he said. "More tackling for me."
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. -- When something old is new again, you know you've come a long way. Suddenly half-shirts and slouch socks are in stores across the country once more. The 1980s style buddy comedy has returned to theaters and cars like the Dodge Charger have brought back a timeless feel to today's streets with their classic designs. Even the price of gas is floating mercifully back to $3 a gallon.

There's comfort in the familiar returning from extinction.

The last time Alabama saw an I-formation is anyone's guess. If it's happened at all this season, it's been sparingly. Power running teams have gone the way of the Dodo. Every weekend the top-ranked Crimson Tide goes up against the likes of Texas A&M and Ole Miss, offenses that have adopted newfangled designs that spread the field and push the tempo like a young driver blowing through traffic stops. Dual-threat quarterbacks such as Johnny Manziel would have been indecipherable to coaches in decades past. The term HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) would have sounded like an offshoot of the NASA program to grizzly men like Paul "Bear" Bryant.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas and running back Alex Collins will pose a different challenge on Saturday for Alabama's defense.
So when Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri was asked what he thought of seeing something resembling a traditional offense with Arkansas coming to town, he had to smirk. Sunseri, though not old enough to rent a car, could have called the Razorbacks schemes an offense of his youth and no one would have batted an eye. The HUNH has zapped ground-and-pound offenses such as theirs into hiding with increasingly few exceptions.

"It will be a little bit different because we have played these spread teams that like to sling it around a little bit," Sunseri said. His versatility to play at the line of scrimmage and in coverage has become coveted with the rise of the HUNH, but he's still a masher at heart, the son of a defensive line coach who values grit. "It will be fun to play the run a little bit more," he added.

Arkansas is exactly what you'd expect from a former defensive lineman from the Midwest. Bret Bielema built a reputation agonizing over the line of scrimmage. A barrel-chested, close-cropped man's man, he took the head coach's job at Wisconsin in 2006 and went to six consecutive bowl games largely on that philosophy. One of his tailbacks, Montee Ball, had more carries from 2010-12 (826) than any other player in college football over that time.

When Bielema came to Arkansas last December, he insisted on running the same physical style of offense. At SEC Media Days, he ignored his skill players and instead touted his center, Travis Swanson, and his fullback, Kiero Small, as his two best players.

Though the results haven't been what he wanted -- Arkansas is 3-4 and winless in league play -- Bielema has stayed the course. His team has the only pair of backs in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing. Jonathan Williams was the third back a year ago. Now he's sixth in the league in carries (87) and eighth in rushing yards (564). But he's still second on his team in both categories.

Bielema has fed freshman Alex Collins the football from his first step on campus. The 206-pound machine ran it 21 times for 131 yards in the season opener. He followed that up by running for more than 100 yards in each of his next two games, becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to reach the century mark in his first three games. Today he ranks 10th nationally in carries (123) and 11th in rushing yards (720). According to ESPN Stats & Information, he leads the SEC with 10 broken tackles. A whopping 37.2 percent of his total yards have come after contact.

Collins and Williams have done it all despite having an underwhelming passing game to keep safeties like Sunseri honest. Arkansas, by design as much as a lack of playmakers at quarterback and wide receiver, is dead last in the conference in passing yards. Compared to what Alabama's seen of late with teams throwing the ball incessantly, the change of pace will be as startling as much as it is challenging. The Tide's previous six opponents averaged 28.6 carries and 86.7 rushing yards per game, compared to Arkansas' per-game average of 39.6 carries and 216.3 rushing yards.

"They can run the ball really well," Sunseri said. "The freshman is really strong and explosive, can break it any point. We have to bring our A-game to stop them up front."

Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose team Bielema praised as "second to none," had only flattering things to say of Bielema in turn, saying, "Bret has really done a good job of getting his guys to play hard and compete and play with a lot of toughness." Saban sounded refreshed when he talked about how much of a change of pace Arkansas' offense will be.

Saban has been forced to evolve on defense to match HUNH offenses in recent years, trading the size he covets for speed. C.J. Mosley, for instance, isn't what Saban typically recruits in a middle linebacker at about 230 pounds. But Alabama still has bulk up front with 300-pounders Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake to clog the middle.

"It's going to take a very good effort," Saban said, "because this is really different than anything that we've played against so far this year in terms of how they run the ball and the sort of formations, the heavy formations, they get in to do it."

It will look different at first, but familiarity will sink in eventually. When it does, relish it. Arkansas is only one of a few programs still clinging to the old school. How Saturday plays out could help determine whether traditional power offenses like the Razorbacks will make a comeback or go the way of parachute pants and fly away for good.

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- An upset bug swept through the landscape of college football on Saturday, toppling contenders like so many dominos. Seeing an already bedridden Georgia team lose at home to Missouri came as little surprise, but Mark Richt's Bulldogs weren't the only ones left reeling by the end of the night. Title hopefuls Stanford, Oklahoma and Michigan fell. All three teams lost away from the comforts of home. All three lost inexplicably to unranked opponents.

The biggest Goliath of them all, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, swayed like a dizzy heavyweight on the road in Lexington early in the game. Coach Nick Saban threw his hands up in disgust as he watched his offense cough up the ball, fumbling twice against the unranked Kentucky Wildcats. A scoreless first quarter left the door open for an upset. The most dangerous thing in the game -- belief -- started swirling through the bleachers in Commonwealth Stadium.

[+] EnlargeA J McCarron
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron shined against Kentucky before giving way to backup Blake Sims.
But the feeling proved fleeting. There would be no Bluegrass Miracle for the home team. The landscape of college football, at least at the top of the mountain, would remain intact for another week. Alabama regained its footing after a brief intermission, riding a season-high 223 yards of offense in the second quarter to beat Kentucky 48-7.

By the fourth quarter, it was all smiles on the visitors' sideline as the second- and third-teamers played out the final minutes of the game. Kevin Norwood, who caught a spectacular touchdown pass, threw a wad of paper at safety Vinnie Sunseri, who found him and delivered a spine-cracking bear hug in celebration. After a so-so start, Alabama won going away. A UA staffer repeated to no one in particular, "Boring is good, boring is good."

"We just kind of do things the Bama way, man," Saban said after the game. "That's what we're trying to get our guys to do: play physical, play with effort, play with more toughness, compete well in the game for 60 minutes and improve and dominate the competition. And I think we did that."

AJ McCarron, Alabama's veteran starting quarterback, set a career mark with 359 yards passing. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, who each fumbled during a rocky first quarter, ended up rushing for a combined 228 yards and four touchdowns. The offensive line, which struggled to open holes in the defense early, found its rhythm quickly thereafter, helping the Tide manage 6.8 yards per carry.

Alabama's defense, meanwhile, was stifling. Kentucky, which lost its starting quarterback, Jalen Whitlow, early to an ankle injury, never got going. The Wildcats mustered just 170 total yards of offense to Alabama's 668. UK's lone touchdown came in the second half when backup cornerback John Fulton collided with Jarrick Williams, sending both to the ground while Javess Blue caught the ball and ran freely into the end zone.

Saban couldn't have liked what he saw from that play, but it proved to be merely an outlier during the full course of the game. Alabama, rather than fall victim to the upset bug, took care of business on the road against a team it was supposed to beat.

In fact, it's been a familiar routine. There hasn't been a game in which Alabama was perfect this season, but the outcome has always been on the money.

"I feel like we've done that all year," McCarron said of his team's ability to maintain poise despite a so-so start. "We got in the hole against Texas A&M and had some trouble against Virginia Tech. But this team does a really good job of bouncing back."

Said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops: "They're a good team, and they do that to a lot of people. I've seen them do it to top-10 teams before."

Saban, for his part, saw improvement. As giants around the game fell left and right this weekend, his team not only won on the road, it improved on its already impressive BCS credentials.

"I think we're a better team now than we were," Saban said. "I think we're making improvement, but I still think there are things we need to continue to work on so we get better each week."
Landon Collins AP Photo/Butch DillWith suspended safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's future status up in the air, sophomores Landon Collins (pictured) and Geno Smith made their career debuts at free safety Saturday against Georgia State.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Getting more insight into the suspension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wasn't going to happen Saturday afternoon. No. 1-ranked Alabama had just finished throttling Georgia State 45-3 to cap off the school's homecoming game, and Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban wasn't in the sharing mood when he was asked for an update on his star safety's status.

"I don't have any new information," he told reporters in Tuscaloosa. "And when we get new information, I'll certainly pass it along to you."

And with that, the matter of Clinton-Dix's future with the team was put on hold for another day. Nearly a week after it was announced, neither the nature of the suspension or its intended duration have been officially announced by UA.

But the matter of life without Clinton-Dix was addressed on Saturday when Landon Collins and Geno Smith took up for their departed teammate in the secondary, filling in for him at free safety. Clinton-Dix was on the sidelines, but all he could provide his teammates with was advice.

It was an awkward position for both sophomores to be in. Neither had started a game or played a meaningful snap at free safety in their careers. Smith was a cornerback all of last season before being moved to safety this fall. Collins, meanwhile, played almost every position but free safety prior to this week. The former five-star athlete learned cornerback, money, star and strong safety already, but he'd never tackled Clinton-Dix's position.

So like any college student would, Smith and Collins put in extra hours during the week studying. Under the direction of Professor Saban and his assistant, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, they took a crash course Free Safety 101. The syllabus might have read something like: Basic understanding of coverages with an emphasis on footwork, alignment and communication.

"Those guys came in at 1:15 every day, so for 45 minutes I would just meet with them about basic fundamental things," Saban said. "I would show teaching tapes of guys doing it correctly, whether it's hitting your mark in Cover 2 or how to play Cover 7. Whatever the circumstance was.

"Those days really helped those guys, because it gave them a visual of this is how we're supposed to do it and why. I think that extra time is just really beneficial to helping the players."

Collins said the one-on-one work made him more confident when game day finally arrived. Sure it was just Georgia State, a team in its first year in the FBS, but Collins felt some anxiousness when he took the field.

"It was my first start, so yeah I had some butterflies," he said.

It took only one play for those feelings to evaporate according to Collins, who said he thought he played well and made the right calls working alongside veteran strong safety Vinnie Sunseri.

Georgia State amassed all of 160 yards through the air, completing just 12 of 22 passes. Alabama gave up just two passing plays of 20 or more yards and, more importantly, no touchdowns.

Saban lauded the effort of both of his young safeties, saying of Smith that there were only "a couple of things that we'd like for him to do better." In the ultra-critical world of Alabama, that might be considered a compliment.

"I'm hopeful that they continue to improve," Saban said. "Landon Collins has been a really good player for us in whatever role we put him in. He's a fantastic special teams player. He also has played with six defensive backs in the game, so he's played a significant role and he does a great job at that. He hasn't had to play a lot of safety, but now he's playing safety and he did a good job out there today. I think that experience will help him feel more comfortable and confident.

"Geno hasn't played safety as long, so that will continue to be a work in progress. But Geno's got a great attitude and wants to do well and works hard. "

Smith and Collins did inspire some confidence in their opening auditions, but it's still unclear whether they'll be ready when the main event arrives in the form of LSU on Nov. 9. While it's expected that Clinton-Dix will return to the starting lineup by then, without official word from UA the future remains somewhat in doubt.

Saban and Alabama can take heart, though, as there will be plenty more opportunities for Smith and Collins to prepare in the meantime with three more unranked teams (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before LSU.

Games like Saturday's against Georgia State might not be inspiring in the grand scheme of things, but the opponent doesn't matter. The experience, for players like Smith and Collins, is what does.

"It's a mental thing," Collins said. "We always say we play against ourselves."
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. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban slipped into another soap-box moment this week when he took to the podium to describe how his secondary had played so poorly against Texas A&M.

"The players have to do what the coaches do, and that's the point," he said before launching into a narrative about civil disobedience, wrapped around what's becoming a borderline obsession with dog owners failing to keep their pets on a leash (he used the same "Nobody wants to be obedient now" rant the week before the game as well).

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/David J. PhillipNick Saban is hoping his players got the message after Alabama's defense struggled to stop Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M last Saturday.
What Saban's argument boiled down to was a four-word sentence nobody wants to hear: I told you so.

“No matter how many times you tell someone, ‘Look, son. Don’t touch the stove. It’s hot,’ ” he said, lamenting the fact that they always have to see for themselves. “Once they touch it and get burned, then they start saying, ‘Huh, maybe I’ll listen to this guy. Maybe Dad knows what he’s talking about.’ So, I think a lot of lessons were learned in this game.

"So now, when you say, 'Don't drop your hands when you're playing bump and run,' and the guy does it 15 times in a game against me, now you'll see why you were telling him. If you've told a guy 100 times to get in the middle of the field and he doesn't get there, now you can see what happens when he doesn't get there. No different than touching the stove. Same old thing."

Alabama ought to have learned its lesson against Texas A&M. The memory should be seared into every player's skull by now. If the game didn't do it, then surely the film review did.

Though Johnny Manziel and the Aggies are certainly one of the best offenses in the country, that does little to explain the staggering inefficiency of the defense as whole. The same defense that allowed the fewest plays of 10 or more yards per game (8.42) and the fewest passing touchdowns (eight) a season ago was gashed for five passing touchdowns and 20 plays of 10 or more yards as Texas A&M racked up the most total yards allowed by an Alabama defense in school history (628).

The Manziel-to-Mike Evans combination couldn't be stopped. "It's a combination of both guys' strengths that make a difficult matchup," Saban tried to explain, citing Manziel's speed and Evans' overwhelming size. Saban used at least three different defensive backs on Evans, not counting the double coverage over the top, and still, the 6-foot-5 sophomore racked up a career high 279 yards receiving. Manziel was Manziel again, evading the grasp of pass-rushers left and right while exploiting every hole in the secondary to throw for a career-high 464 yards.

And that was supposed to be the game Alabama's defense had figured out, aided by an offseason of study and an extra bye week to prepare.

Instead, the Crimson Tide were torched on national television and sent back to the drawing board in search of answers.

"We've tried to play the more experienced guys," Saban said, "especially in these first two games, because they're tough games. Everybody's had an opportunity.

"Now, we're just going to ... need to compete better. And it's not just the corners now, the safeties weren't where they were supposed to be in the game some, too."

With starting cornerback Deion Belue questionable to play against Colorado State this weekend, the competition is wide open. Saban said two freshmen are in position to see the field more, and based on practice, it looks like Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson are the two in line for an early opportunity. Bradley Sylve, a redshirt sophomore, has been mentioned as another possible replacement in the cornerback rotation as well.

Geno Smith, who started at nickel as a freshman late last season, was supposed to be a part of that mix, but after being arrested for a DUI during the preseason, suspended for a game and sent to the bottom of the depth chart, even he's fighting to get back into the mix. For now, veteran Jarrick Williams is holding down his spot just fine.

"Geno's got to beat somebody out. He lost his job," Saban said. "Jarrick's played really well. So, I mean, nobody has a rite of passage here just because you played in two games last year, 'I'm guaranteed my job.' If you do the right things and you play well, nobody gets your job."

In fact, Williams might be the only bright spot in the Alabama secondary after last week's game. He held down the slot receiver well and had it not been for his tipped pass, Vinnie Sunseri's interception return for a touchdown never would have happened.

"He's been unbelievable," Sunseri said. "Jarrick has done exactly what we've asked him to do. He's had great coverage, been really physical at the point of attack and just been a real sound defensive player at that star position. I can't express how happy I am for him to get the opportunity and take advantage of it like he's been able to."

Williams, for his part, tried to stay positive about the game, saying that the mental errors and mistakes against Texas A&M were "nothing we can't fix." Asked whether the game was a letdown, he said simply, "No, sir."

"I think we're just going to get on there and keep on fighting."

Saban may still be fuming over the coverage breakdowns and big plays, but the players seemed to have moved on.

CSU coach Jim McElwain has, too. The former Alabama offensive coordinator went up against Saban's defense in practice from 2008-11, and he's not buying any theory of a downward trend. In his mind, Texas A&M was merely an outlier.

"People are going to say whatever about the Texas A&M yardage, but there's going to be a lot of people who give yardage up to that guy," he said, citing the one they call Johnny Football. "Yet, they were in position numerous times, right? So I truly believe that was simply a little blip on the radar."

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 3

September, 16, 2013
The temperature is heating up in some locales in the SEC and cooling down in others:


[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel is one of the reasons SEC offenses are humming and its defenses are suffering.
SEC offenses: We’ve played three weeks of football, and half the SEC teams are ranked in the top 38 nationally in total offense. No, that’s not a typo. We’re talking offense here, not defense. Not only that, but 10 of the 14 teams are averaging more than 30 points per game. They’re not all rolling up these numbers against lesser competition, either. Alabama and Texas A&M combined for 91 points, 1,196 yards and 62 first downs in their 49-42 classic on Saturday in College Station. In the season opener, we saw Ole Miss defeat Vanderbilt in a wild 39-35 game. Georgia lost 38-35 to Clemson in its opener and came back the next week and beat South Carolina 41-30 in a game that featured 990 yards of total offense. Even LSU is getting into the act. Yep, the same LSU that didn't finish better than ninth in the SEC in passing offense the last four years. The Tigers have thrown it only 70 times in their first three games but are fifth in the league in passing offense (269.3 yards per game). More importantly, they’re making big plays downfield. They’re averaging 11.5 yards per attempt, which is second in the league behind only Georgia. Of course, with all this offense, the SEC’s defensive numbers have taken a hit. Only four teams are in the top 40 nationally in total defense -- Florida (No. 3), Arkansas (No. 6), LSU (No. 10) and Ole Miss (No. 35).


Arkansas running back Alex Collins: Not even Herschel Walker rushed for 100 yards in each of his first three games, so Collins is in rarefied air. He rushed for 115 yards in the win over Southern Miss on Saturday, becoming the first freshman in SEC history to rush for 100 yards in each of his first three games. The last freshman to do it nationally was Adrian Peterson in 2004. Collins’ backfield mate, sophomore Jonathan Williams, has also gained 100 yards each of the first three weeks.


Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon's eardrums: After scoring on a 4-yard touchdown run right before the half, Yeldon was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he gave the old double throat slash and went all Manziel on us with the “money fingers.” Alabama coach Nick Saban then proceeded to go off on Yeldon, who’s probably still having a hard time hearing out of that ear.


LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger: He leads the SEC in passing efficiency and has thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions through the Tigers’ first three games. His nine touchdown passes through three games are the most in school history. What’s more, at this point a year ago, Mettenberger had four touchdown passes and two interceptions.


Butch Jones’ road debut: At least Tennessee won’t have to face Oregon again anytime soon. Jones’ first road game as the Vols’ coach produced their worst beating in modern history. The 59-14 drubbing could have been worse, but the Ducks mercifully took their foot off the gas pedal late in the third quarter. It was a reminder that Oregon is off-the-charts good and Tennessee still has a long way to go before being ready to swim in those waters.


[+] EnlargeOdell Beckham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsOdell Beckham (3) and Jarvis Landry have been the SEC's best receiving tandem so far.
Big-time receivers: It’s hard to beat the lineup of receivers in the SEC. Take your pick. Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Alabama’s Amari Cooper are as good as it gets. But what about Ole Miss’ Donte Moncrief? And something says Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham is just getting started. But in terms of combos, LSU’s Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry have combined for 10 touchdowns this season.


Targeting penalties: Thankfully, the ejection of Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on Saturday was overturned by replay, but the 15-yard penalty stuck. It shouldn't have been a penalty; Clinton-Dix was clearly trying to make a play on the ball and there just happened to be some helmet-to-helmet contact. No wonder the coaches hate the rule given how subjective it is.


Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri: There was some concern about Sunseri's ability to cover, and that’s still not his forte. But the guy is a football player. He has played in two games this season and has two interception returns for touchdowns. There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time, and Sunseri always seems to be in the right places at the right times.


South Carolina’s special teams: The Gamecocks almost made enough special-teams gaffes to let Vanderbilt really make things interesting there at the end last weekend. They’re getting nothing out of their kickoff return game, and Shon Carson fumbled two (losing one) against the Commodores. South Carolina also had a punt go off a player’s heel that set up one of Vanderbilt’s late touchdowns and helped the Commodores rally.


Texas A&M’s defense: Technically, Johnny Manziel is correct. Texas A&M isn't out of the SEC or national championship race. The Aggies will need some help, but Alabama has proven the last two years that a one-loss SEC team (not even a one-loss SEC champion) can rebound to win it all. So with some help, the Aggies can still work their way back onto the guest list for the Vizio BCS National Championship. But where they’re really going to need help is on defense. They’ve got to get better -- and get better in a hurry -- on that side of the ball, or it’s not going to matter how many mesmerizing plays Manziel makes on offense. Having to score 40-plus points every week to win has a way of catching up to you. The Aggies got all their players back on defense against Alabama except for safety Floyd Raven, and while it’s true that playing with different combinations can torment a defense, the Aggies’ problem so far has been that they don’t do anything particularly well on defense and have looked unsound at times through the first three games. We’ll see what kinds of strides the Aggies can make on D, but they’re clearly missing some of the playmakers who helped them play extremely well down the stretch last year.

A different kind of win for Alabama

September, 16, 2013
Nick Saban smiled. And that was the first clue that there was something different about this game. Alabama's enigmatic, hypercritical head coach nodded and smiled and even laughed on camera Saturday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban certainly is happy to see Johnny Manziel in his rearview mirror.
If you were one of the few college football fans who missed the epic showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M, you might have tuned in for the postgame action, saw Saban and wondered what on earth was going on. Was he running a fever in that notorious Texas heat? Was he delirious and in need of medical attention? Surely it had to be, because only a force of nature could crack Saban's impervious funny bone.

The same man who scolded a room full of reporters earlier in the week, stalking off stage while sarcastically thanking them for their interest in the game, was suddenly warm and personable. He even made a joke, pointing out that the media had tried to make the game about a "61-year-old guy against that good quarterback," the one they call Johnny Football. In that context, "We didn't have much of a chance," Saban said, drawing laughter from many of the same reporters who sat in stunned silence only days earlier.

Everything about the game at Kyle Field was stunning. It was a shock to the senses in that it was so unlike everything we've come to expect from Alabama. It wasn't anything like the roughcast days of Paul "Bear" Bryant, who also coached the "Junction Boys" at Texas A&M. Rather, The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser gave the 49-42 Alabama win the all-too-fitting headline, "The Gumption Boys." Old-school Alabama turned to new-school tactics to beat A&M, showing a plucky, creative and even entertaining side never seen before.

It was nothing like Alabama and yet the Crimson Tide survived, which is probably why Saban looked so relieved. He was forced into a game he hoped to avoid, a high-scoring shootout against an opponent that ought to be labeled his team's kryptonite. Still, he won. When it was suggested that he ought be happy to never see Johnny Manziel again, Saban couldn't help but let a wild grin cross his face. He knew it was true.

"I wish we played better," he said. "I'll be the first one to say that."

David Hasselhoff should have been in East Texas to see a different kind of iron curtain fall. Alabama's vaunted defense, Saban's crimson-cloaked unit that has famously oppressed offenses with its overwhelming speed and strength for years now, was all but decimated by the upstart Aggies, who only a year earlier entered the SEC fray. The front seven was a step slow and the secondary was grossly outmanned. Defenders dropped like flies, lurching toward the sideline in search of an IV.

Texas A&M rolled up Alabama for the most total yards allowed in school history (626). And all Saban could do was tip his cap -- to Manziel, who accounted for 562 yards on his own, and to Mike Evans, who manhandled Alabama's cornerbacks to the tune of 279 yards and a touchdown. After the game, Saban met Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at midfield and shouted, "You took 10 years off my life." If not for AJ McCarron & Co. answering the bell on offense, the Tide would have been upset and their championship hopes diminished.

"Even though it got ugly at times, they were all in and they competed," Saban said of his team's effort.

"It was a great win," Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "It was a little sloppy, but at the end of the day we came out with the win, and that's what matters."

Mosley, like many of his teammates on defense, was matter-of-fact about the whole thing, acknowledging the unfamiliar position of needing the offense to bail them out. When Manziel scrambled, escaped a defensive lineman's grasp and heaved the most improbable of 12-yard receptions in the second quarter, Mosley threw up his hands and accepted his fate. He was OK with looking bad, as long as the result was the same and his team was still undefeated.

"@JManziel2 and @MikeEvans13_ [y'all] balled out today," Mosley tweeted after the game, "couldn't find u after the game so I'm giving [you] a [shout out] #respect"

Alabama couldn't be anything but complimentary of Manziel and Texas A&M's performance. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said, "He's a great quarterback, if you ask me," marveling at Manziel's ability to throw the ball 50 yards on the run. Fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri said, "As much as everyone talks about him off the field, I think he's a great guy."

Manziel's high-wire tactics and outsized persona wouldn't work in Alabama's borderline Marxist model, but even Saban had to appreciate what one athlete was capable of doing with the football in his hands.

"Johnny Manziel is a great competitor," Saban said. "He's a great player out there on the field. He makes a lot of plays with his feet and his arm."

Saban conceded credit to the Texas A&M coaching staff as well, saying, "Our hat's off to them."

It was a battle of wills, and though Alabama clearly won the heated contest, Saban looked fried. Smiling, almost dazed, Saban was relieved to escape College Station with a win. It didn't happen the way he wanted, but he could live with the outcome.

"We improved as a team," he said. "Obviously, we haven't put it all together yet."

And with that, the aura of happiness seemed to fade from Saban's face. Work was ahead, and that required his complete focus. He survived one challenge in Texas A&M, but plenty of others await, namely Ole Miss in two weeks and LSU in November.

Maybe then we'll see Saban's smile return, but don't count on it. This game was different.

Manziel, Aggies good but flawed

September, 14, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — There was no plan for Johnny Manziel to speak to the media on Saturday.

In fact, win or lose, Texas A&M officials made it clear before the game that the Heisman Trophy winner would not be available for postgame interviews. Earlier this week, coach Kevin Sumlin noted that Manziel's family and attorneys advised him not to speak publicly this week.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel produced more than 500 yards but admitted there were a couple of throws he wished he could take back.
But Manziel wasn't going to be told no. He approached Sumlin and Texas A&M associate athletic director for media relations Alan Cannon and said he was going to speak. When Cannon mentioned the objections from Manziel's parents and lawyers, Manziel said, according to Cannon, "My team didn't quit on me, so I'm not quitting on them."

The No. 6 Aggies showed no quit in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field in one of the most highly anticipated games in school history. What they did show is that they're a good team with a lot of flaws that still need ironing out.

The message from Manziel, who played brilliantly for much of the day but had a couple of throws he'd like to have back, was that the Aggies had to keep playing -- both on Saturday and moving forward.

"My initial reaction is that I'm just proud of these guys," said Manziel, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 98 yards. "I kept telling them that no matter what point in the game it was, we were never out of it. Didn't matter what [Alabama] did. I told the offense that going into it, that no matter what happened on the defensive side of the ball, no matter what happened on special teams, we felt like we could come out and score points. So I was proud initially more than anything else, proud of the way they kept fighting until the very end. I mean, we're a young team. That's impressive to me."

The Aggies (2-1) were down by as many as 21 points in the third quarter after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Alabama roared back with 35 unanswered points and used its power running game and efficient passing attack behind AJ McCarron to eat up yardage and extend drives to score points while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline.

The biggest flaw seen on Saturday was on defense. The Aggies' front seven was hammered by the Alabama offensive line -- a unit that struggled in its season opener against Virginia Tech -- to the tune of 234 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry, led by T.J. Yeldon's 149-yard effort. McCarron was rarely pressured in the passing game and wasn't sacked a single time; only one player on the Aggies defense, Kirby Ennis, recorded a quarterback hurry. There were big plays given up in the passing game as well, as the Tide threw for 334 yards.

"We've got to get some things shored up in our front defensively," Sumlin said. "We're playing a lot of young guys in there. [Gavin] Stansbury was back and [Steven] Jenkins was back [from suspensions], so they were a little rusty. We didn't have Isaiah Golden today because of the tragedy [involving the death of a family member] earlier this week. That put a lot of pressure on Hardreck [Walker] to handle that type of stuff with Kirby. We just have to get those guys in a routine, a steady routine and a rotation and shore some things up up front."

Mike Evans, who already was considered one of the country's better receivers, made his case to be considered among the best after catching seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a touchdown. He beat man-to-man coverage consistently, ran good routes and was an asset for Manziel when scrambling.

"I couldn't be prouder of him," Manziel said. "Last night in the hotel, me and him, we're roommates, and we were just talking about how the game was going to play out. I knew he was going to come out and play really well."

Manziel wasn't perfect. A fade pass to Ja'Quay Williams in the end zone was intercepted by Cyrus Jones in the second quarter ("We probably could have run a better route," Sumlin said). He tried to squeeze a pass in to Travis Labhart early in the third quarter but it was tipped by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams and intercepted by Vinnie Sunseri, who returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMike Evans set a school record with 279 receiving yards, including this 95-yard touchdown.
"I had a couple throws that I want to have back, two in particular," Manziel said. "Coach Sumlin always says there's no regrets. Leave it all out on the field. I think that's what we all did. I know I did."

But he was, like the Aggies, still very good. He set the single-game school record for passing yards and put up the second-most total offensive yards in a game (562), second only to his own total (576) against Louisiana Tech last year.

He made what many would call an ill-advised throw in the second quarter after magically evading a sack while in the grasp of Alabama defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, heaving a jump ball 40 yards downfield while falling backward. The ball wound up in the hands of a leaping Edward Pope for a first down that sent the crowd into a frenzy. The gain was only 12 yards; Manziel retreated back far to evade pressure.

At some point, it seems it might just be worth chalking it up to a little Manziel magic, since he has seemingly found an uncanny ability to make jaw-dropping plays of the sort each week. It's part of what captivated the college football world en route to his Heisman Trophy last year.

For those who said Manziel's eventful and sometimes tumultuous offseason would come back to haunt him when the games started this year, none of that seemed to be a factor. Though there were some mistakes made on the field, Manziel's play is hard to criticize, especially against the team that was No. 1 in the country last season in total defense. Manziel said afterward that it wasn't a factor.

But for all the flash, the bottom line was that Manziel and the Aggies fell short of their goal on Saturday. They were beaten by a better team.

The disappointment could be heard in the voices of the players afterward; they wanted Saturday's win badly. But with nine games to go in their season, they feel that what they want -- an SEC West title, SEC title and BCS title game berth -- is still within reach; it's just more difficult to obtain now that they're 0-1 in SEC play.

But if the Aggies are still serious about pursuing those goals, there's still much work to do.

"Just got to go game by game," Manziel said. "Just like last year, continue to get better, week by week, and the result was what happened in the Cotton Bowl. For us this wasn't the end of our season. This wasn't the Super Bowl. This wasn't the last game of the season.

"Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win a national championship. They lost to LSU the year before and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn't over. Anything can happen. This is college football. Some of the craziest things happen every week. So you never know. All we can do is take care of ourselves, take care of what's in this locker room and continue to get better as a team."

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- One of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent memory was a show of dominance by Alabama in the final three quarters, as the Crimson Tide defeated Texas A&M 49-42 before 87,596 on Saturday at Kyle Field. Let's take a look at how it went down.

It was over when: Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron connected with Jalston Fowler for a 5-yard touchdown with 2:28 remaining in the game. That score gave the Crimson Tide a lead they wouldn't relinquish. It came at the end of a methodical nine-play, 65-yard drive that ate up 5 minutes, 36 seconds.

Game ball goes to: The Alabama offensive line. Once the Crimson Tide responded to the Aggies' early 14-0 onslaught, the Tide's big guys up front got the job done. There was so much talk coming into the week about the line play in the opener against Virginia Tech, but that unit paved the way for 236 Alabama rushing yards. The line allowed the Tide to control the clock and control the pace of the game in the second half. It seemed like whenever the Aggies had a big score, the Tide answered. After falling behind 14-0, the Crimson Tide rattled off 35 unanswered points.

Stat of the game: Texas A&M finished with two turnovers to Alabama's one. Turnovers also played a big role in last season's battle, as the Crimson Tide turned it over three times in a 29-24 loss. A&M had zero turnovers that day. On Saturday in the rematch, A&M turned it over twice, including a 73-yard interception return by Vinnie Sunseri early in the third quarter that gave Alabama a three-touchdown lead. Texas A&M was able to narrow the gap late because of a fumble by T.J. Yeldon in the fourth quarter, but that was the only turnover the Tide had.

What it means for Alabama: The Crimson Tide get some redemption from last season's home loss to the Aggies but, more importantly, are 1-0 in SEC play. They answered a lot of questions about their offensive line, and McCarron looked strong. There might be some questions about the defense after it yielded 42 points and 628 offensive yards, but it's worth noting it was playing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, and one of the best offenses in the country. Are the Tide good enough to win a BCS title with what we saw on defense Saturday?

What it means for Texas A&M: The Aggies have a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of work to do on defense. That was a question mark coming in, especially the run defense, and it remains that way even though the Aggies finally got almost their full complement of defensive players back from suspensions. They allowed 568 total yards and 234 rushing yards. Are they good enough defensively to still contend for an SEC West title? This loss puts them behind the eight ball in that regard. The Aggies need Alabama to lose twice down the road (perhaps once if there's a three-way tie for the top of the division at the end of the season).

Game ball, Part 2: Give one to Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. He set the school record with 279 receiving yards on seven catches. He had a 95-yard touchdown grab that got the Aggies back to within a score and gave them hope in the fourth quarter. He has the look of an NFL receiver, whenever he chooses to enter the draft (he'll be eligible after this season). He is big and physical, has great hands, is a great blocker in the running game, and can beat one-on-one coverage.

Johnny watch: Manziel had two interceptions, which hurt, but overall played well. He set the school record for passing yards with 464 on 28-of-39 passing. He had five touchdown tosses and 98 rushing yards. He had some throws he'd like to take back, but he played pretty well against one of the best defenses in the country.
When asked about the performance of his defense following Alabama's 35-10 win over Virginia Tech in Atlanta Saturday night, Nick Saban had a hint of surprise in his answer.

He was so used to seeing historically good (or close to it) defenses lining up on his side, but with questions surrounding this one entering the 2013 season, he wasn't quite sure what to expect in Week 1.

[+] EnlargeAlabama defenders
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's defense didn't allow Logan Thomas and the Virginia Tech offense to get comfortable on Saturday night.
What he got was a dominating performance from a group that faced new schemes with a few new parts of its own.

"I thought we did a really good job defensively," Saban said. "They didn't do anything on offense that we practiced against, all right? We didn't know how they would use their personnel.

"Our players on defense did a fantastic job of adjusting in the game."

All the talk about Alabama's ugly offensive line play has overshadowed a superb defensive outing.

The Hokies, who registered just 212 total yards and averaged 3.6 yards per play, threw some unexpected option at the Crimson Tide defense, but it didn't really faze Saban's players. Outside of a nice 77-yard touchdown run by Trey Edmunds in which guys got out of position and Saban said the secondary "didn't squeeze the ball properly," it was hard for the Hokies to do much of anything against Alabama's defense.

Virginia Tech was 3-of-17 on third down, had just seven first downs and finished with nine three-and-outs on 12 total drives. Future NFL draft pick Logan Thomas was rendered ineffective, too.

While Thomas dealt with sloppy drops from his receivers, Alabama's defense helped him look very pedestrian under the Georgia Dome lights. He completed just 5-of-26 passes for 59 yards and one interception that was returned for a touchdown by safety Vinnie Sunseri. He completed consecutive pass attempts just twice and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Thomas left the game with a QBR of 1.9, the lowest in the FBS.

Alabama's extremely fast and very aggressive defense flew around the ball and delivered a handful of bone-ratting hits for dramatic effect. With key players to replace and unknowns to account for, Alabama's defense dominated for the most of Saturday night's 25-point win. Take away Edmunds' 77-yard touchdown run, and it's hard to imagine the Hokies seeing the end zone.

What really had to make Saban happy was the pressure Alabama was able to generate up front. This was an area he wanted to see improve from last season, and even though Alabama had just one sack, it was very obvious that Thomas was uncomfortable all night. Defensive lineman Ed Stinson even led the team with eight tackles.

Fellow lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said he felt the defense wanted to put the game on its back from the start. With the offense sputtering most of the time, the defense got that exact opportunity and didn't disappoint.

"Somebody's got to [step up]," Pagan said. "If it's not the offense, then it's the defense, and if it's not defense, it has to be special teams. They came up with two touchdowns, and the defense came up with one. That's a game-changer."

This group was by no means perfect, but it was a solid start to a very long season. The stats were impressive, but it was the on-field execution that was so striking. Even with inexperience taking the field at various positions, the defense was still able to adjust and adapt. The foreign schemes Virginia Tech thew at this crew didn't startle it, which had Saban gushing as only he knows how to gush over his defense.

"I think our players on defense understand the system, they kind of believe in it," he said. "They have enough experience out there that they can adapt to things that we haven't played or practiced against."