SEC: Alabama

Alabama season review

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
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There were moments where it appeared as if the dynasty was dying. But Alabama wouldn't go down that easily. Thanks to an offensive coordinator no one wanted and a quarterback no one saw coming, the Crimson Tide steadied the ship in the second half of the season, won the SEC Championship and earned a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Best win: Though the game would wind up looking close with a final score of 25-20, which team would win never really felt in doubt. Instead, Alabama imposed its will on Mississippi State from the get-go and controlled the contest throughout. The then-No. 1 ranked Bulldogs couldn't do much of anything offensively. Their ground game, led by bowling ball running back Josh Robinson and Heisman Trophy contender QB Dak Prescott, had nowhere to go. And on the other side of the ball, the defense had no answer for QB Blake Sims, who led a 15-play drive that Saban would later call one of the best in school history.

Worst loss: The first half belonged to Alabama, but after intermission Ole Miss came on strong. Bo Wallace began knifing through the Tide defense, starting with a four-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to start the second half. And to make matters worse for Alabama, Sims and the offense went off the rails, starting with a drive that ended in a missed field goal. From then on, Alabama went field goal, punt, punt and interception. Ole Miss won and carried the goalposts out of the stadium to celebrate.

Player of the year: Only five receivers have ever earned a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Amari Cooper, who led the country in receptions and receiving yards, earned his spot as the sixth. The junior was everything to Alabama's offense this season as he accounted for more than half of Sims' 26 touchdown passes. Whatever the coverage, Cooper found a way to beat it, whether it was yards after the catch against the zone or long bombs over the top against man-to-man.

Breakout player: With all due respect to the superb improvement from cornerback Cyrus Jones, there is no bigger surprise this season than Sims. The former running back/receiver wasn't even supposed to be Alabama's quarterback. That job was supposed to belong to Jake Coker, remember? But Sims beat the Florida State transfer out of fall camp and never relinquished his spot. The redshirt senior made the most of his one opportunity, breaking AJ McCarron's record for passing yards in a single season while also ranking second nationally in Adjusted QBR, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

Play of the year: Alabama's hopes of reaching the playoff might have gone up in flames if not for Landon Collins' game-saving interception in the fourth quarter against Arkansas. If he misjudges the ball and allows Jonathan Williams to come down with it, there would have been no one on the back end of the defense to prevent a touchdown.

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2015 outlook: Prepare for the entire offense to change. Say goodbye to Sims and Cooper. Say so long to T.J. Yeldon, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. Even offensive linemen Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd are moving on. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin worked wonders with that group this season, but he's in for an even bigger challenge in 2015. He'll have to find out one and for all whether Coker can quarterback the Tide. He'll also have to find more weapons at receiver, whether that's Chris Black or Robert Foster. The good news is there's plenty of talent to draw from as Saban and his staff have hauled in the No. 1-ranked recruiting class Insider in each of the past three years.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The golf clap was comical.

Nick Saban, flanked by his football team, watched the selection show Sunday and already knew the result. So when Alabama was identified as the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff, he slowly set down his Styrofoam cup, gave a slight smile and clapped in a manner befitting the opening tee shot at Augusta National Golf Club. His players, trained to be in constant lockstep with their coach, followed suit, showing little to no emotion.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBlake Sims said earning the No. 1 seed for the College Football Playoff won't lead to overconfidence for Alabama.
But in the back of their mind, there had to be some excitement. At least a sense of relief.

“I was very happy,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I was happy for my teammates the most because they had put so much work and time and pain into this. So I felt like they deserved this award we’ve received, and hopefully we’ll take care of business.”

The scene during the selection show felt like all business. It was time to start the second season, as Sims would later say. Next up: Ohio State.

We didn’t get to watch Alabama’s reaction to the Buckeyes being seeded fourth and matched up with the Crimson Tide in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, but to the older players on the team, there is a slight sense of familiarity. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer went up against Alabama a few times while at Florida.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Urban,” Saban said. “And we've done some things, the ESPN games and stuff, together, and I consider him a good friend and certainly have a tremendous amount of personal respect for the kind of professional he is and the kind of coach he is and the kind of programs he's had, the great teams that he's had at Florida.

“I know that we haven't had much of an opportunity to look at Ohio State yet, but we certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for what their team has accomplished this year and know that they'll be a very, very wellcoached team.”

Judging by the whooping Ohio State put on Wisconsin on Saturday, Saban is right. Not only did Meyer lead his team to the Big Ten title, he did so with his third-string quarterback after the backup, the one who replaced an injured Braxton Miller earlier in the year, was lost with a season-ending injury of his own.

In a sense, facing an unknown quarterback puts Alabama behind the eight ball. With only one game of tape to view Cardale Jones, it’s difficult for Saban to know what he’ll be going up against.

“Well, obviously he played very, very well when he played,” Saban said, “and I think that's the key thing that a guy has the capabilities to play.

“Blake started out this season where he hadn't played in any games, and he certainly did a good job of playing and improving, becoming a great leader for his team and making a lot of plays that got his team where they are.

“So I'm not sure that we're going to be able to see him, everything that he's capable of doing, but we certainly have a lot of respect for the way he's played when he's played.”

The onus will be on the defense to prepare for anything with Jones and the rest of the Ohio State offense.

But Sims and the Alabama offense will be on the clock too.

Sims, who said he didn’t know much about Ohio State, will be facing a defense that ranks in the top 25 nationally in points per game, yards per play and sacks. Defensive lineman Joey Bosa leads the Buckeyes with 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Vonn Bell, a former Alabama recruiting target, has 78 tackles and five interceptions.

“We’ve got to get back to the little things,” Sims said. “The weaknesses, we have to make them strengths, and just get treatment and get guys healthy.”

The less-than-enthusiastic response to their bowl selection might say otherwise, but Sims said being the top seed can’t mean a sense of entitlement. He knows the margin for error is thin.

“We have to remember what we have to do,” he said. “We have to stay focused and don’t let this get to our head because any team can be beat at any moment.”
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A pair of employees sat at the edge of a bar here at the intersection of University Boulevard and 20th Avenue on Saturday, just around the corner from an empty Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was more than four hours until the SEC championship game in Atlanta, where No. 1 Alabama would face No. 16 Missouri, so they slumped in their chairs and relaxed before the pregame rush hit and coeds would fill every inch of this place, waving credit cards and cash for another round of drinks or a greasy batch of pub fries.

Four TV screens framed the bar. Three of them were tuned to Cincinnati-Houston. One, almost lost behind a corner, showed TCU-Iowa State. The then-No. 3-ranked Horned Frogs would win going away 55-3, but the potential playoff opponent for Alabama would go largely unnoticed. The audio was instead set on the Bearcats. Maybe it was that former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville could be heard in Tuscaloosa once again.

Or maybe it was that Alabama fans here simply didn’t care.

Spending the afternoon and night watching football in Tuscaloosa is an experience. It starts with the obligatory playing of the classic “Dixieland Delight” 20 minutes before kickoff, followed by -- you guessed it -- “Sweet Home Alabama.” Those opening chords play over the stench of bourbon, and everyone wearing crimson sings, many of them adding profane lyrics about their SEC brethren whenever the moment allows. There are more than a few shouts of “Roll Tide Roll!” And when the game does begin, they’re into every pass, whether it ends in a touchdown or an incompletion. They even cheer the punter, who earns every bit of praise.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAlabama fans have gotten used to celebrating in the SEC title game.
But when it comes to the other team, it doesn’t matter.

Something about being ranked No. 1 so often and winning three national championships in the past decade has made Alabama fans insulated from worry. In the hours before kickoff in Atlanta, there wasn’t an audible utterance concerning Missouri. Maty Mauk, the Tigers’ gunslinger of a quarterback, wasn’t mentioned once. Neither was Shane Ray or Markus Golden, Missouri’s two dominant defensive ends who had the potential to disrupt Alabama’s offense. Instead, a pair of frat brothers went back and forth about about their bowl plans.

“Are you going to the national championship?” one asked. He then added, “I’m trying to get that same suite from last year.”

Their hope, and the hope of all Alabama fans, is that their return trip to New Orleans will be better than this past January, when the Crimson Tide fell flat and lost to Oklahoma. This time the Allstate Sugar Bowl will be a College Football Playoff semifinal for a chance to reach the national championship game to be played in Arlington, Texas -- which also came up in discussion when another patron explained how AT&T Stadium, where Alabama opened the season two years ago, is so much more impressive in person than on TV.

But whom Alabama would play in the playoff was beside the point. So was the matter of seeding. Oregon didn’t scare one patron, who said, “[Marcus] Mariota can ball, but they’re not that impressive." No one, not even the student wearing a replica Nick Saban straw hat, cared about style points. You want to know about game control? At halftime at another bar around the corner, two men closed their tabs and left. Alabama was ahead 21-3 and they’d seen enough.

“Well, it’s not much of a game,” an older gentleman explained. “Maybe a movie is on.”

There was some interest in watching Florida State, another possible playoff pairing, but the entertainment value was less in the Seminoles matchup and more about their quarterback, the Heisman Trophy winner who grew up an hour’s drive away in Hueytown and spurned Alabama on signing day. “I just want to see Jameis [Winston] lose, man,” someone said. A bartender, as the merits of Florida State’s undefeated record were being discussed on TV, said in response, “It’s how you post the W's. Tonight, I’m rolling with the Rambling Wreck of Georgia Tech!”

When Alabama finally did beat Missouri 42-13, there were no crowds pouring onto the streets to celebrate. The Strip was operating at a normal pace. There was someone holding an SEC championship banner on the corner, but the crowd around him was simply waiting for the crosswalk to grant them access to the next bar or restaurant.

Sorry, West Virginia, but there were no couches burned Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. There were no riots in anticipation of the playoff.

On Sunday, when the CFP semifinal pairings were announced and Alabama was officially set to play in the Sugar Bowl, there was very little in the way of excitement. Much like Saban’s golf clap on national television, you couldn’t coax much emotion from a fan base that’s so accustomed to winning that it has become numb to everything but the final hoisting of the trophy.

At Bob’s Victory Grille, where Saban’s weekly show, “Hey Coach,” is recorded, they didn’t switch the audio of Sunday's selection show on until five minutes in. After Alabama was named the No. 1 seed, a middle-aged server looked around in disbelief. “What?” he asked. “No reaction?” There were a few claps, but there were more audible gasps a few moments later when Ohio State was revealed as the No. 4 team and Alabama’s semifinal opponent. Even then it was more surprise than worry.

Again, no one left to pay tribute to Paul “Bear” Bryant’s statue on The Walk of Champions. No one posed with the bronzed 7-foot replica of Saban. There was only an older couple walking University Boulevard with their gray poodle.

Eventually they’ll get excited again. When Christmas rolls around and the Sugar Bowl comes closer into view, this town will grow nervous with anticipation. Tuscaloosa is a place that values football above most everything else, after all.

But in the meantime, it’s plain to see the playoff hasn’t changed much here. People are too confident atop the rankings. Whether it’s four teams moving on or two, fans knew the SEC title was Alabama’s ticket in. So why fret? They weren’t worried about Missouri. The idea of playing TCU hardly registered. In the hours before kickoff Saturday, you couldn’t hear a peep about Ohio State.

When you’ve won three titles in the BCS era, the idea of adding another game and calling it a playoff feels like a new tune with the same old dance.

SEC morning links

December, 5, 2014
Dec 5
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1. In case you missed the discussion on Wednesday's SEC Show, it's worth bringing up again: Missouri, even if it upsets Alabama and wins the SEC Championship, is a long shot to make the College Football Playoff. As Tod Palmer writes, the Tigers are the lowest-ranked team with a chance at winning a Power 5 conference title. While I know that everyone will bring up their inexplicable loss to Indiana and the blowout they suffered at home against Georgia, to me it's less about the two losses than it is their 10 wins. Based on its ranking of Florida State, we know the committee puts an emphasis on the eye test. With that in mind, find me a win in which Missouri looked like one of the best four teams in the country? Can't find it? I'll wait. ... Outside of beating up on a bad Florida team, there isn't one. While it's admirable that the Tigers have found ways to win, I can't get behind a 1-point win over South Carolina or a 10-point win over Vanderbilt. There's no semblance of game control to be found in their last three games in which they beat Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas by one touchdown each.

[+] EnlargeJim McElwain
Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SportsNew Florida coach Jim McElwain took plenty of notes as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator.
2. In light of the news that Jim McElwain will become Florida's next head coach, how about a word from his former boss? Nick Saban, who won two national championships with McElwain as his offensive coordinator, said he'll do a "great job" of leading the Gators. "He's certainly done a fantastic job at Colorado State," Saban said. And much of that success is due to his time with Saban. McElwain, whom I spoke with shortly after he took the job in Fort Collins, said he took stacks of notes while at Alabama. Whether it was themes, routines or coaching habits, he soaked in everything Saban had to offer. Now the understudy must go head-to-head with the master, and it's going to be awfully fun to watch. While Alabama and Florida won't play one another during the regular season until 2021, the two programs are sure to battle over the same recruits regularly. The Crimson Tide currently have eight players from the Sunshine State on their roster and three more on the way in the current recruiting class, including four-stars Clavin Ridley and Shaun Burgess-Becker. The Gators, on the other hand, have just one player from the state of Alabama on their roster and none committed for 2015.

3. In case you missed it during this week's swirl of coaching transactions, Bret Bielema said he isn't going anywhere. Arkansas, which won three of five games to close out the regular season, should breathe a heavy sigh of relief. While it felt unlikely that Bielema would bolt Arkansas for Nebraska after just two years, you never really know. An Iowa native with Big Ten roots, he isn't of the SEC and the West isn't exactly a forgiving division to be a part of. But nonetheless, the SEC is a better place with him in it, and not just because of his chest-out attitude and clever jabs. No, he brings a style of football to the conference that it desperately needs. His hard-nosed, between-the-tackles brand brings balance to a growing sea of spread, uptempo offenses. And more importantly, its starting to yield wins. After going two years without a conference win and knocking at the door against Alabama and Texas A&M, Bielema's Razorbacks have broken through. Already stacked with a strong running game, a big offensive line and a defense that prides itself on physicality, all that's missing is a polished passing game. If Brandon Allen can make strides or another quarterback can come in and lift the offense, Arkansas could be a dangerous team in 2015.

SEC morning links

December, 4, 2014
Dec 4
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1. Derek Mason had to make a move. So he released three coaches yesterday: offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell, wide receivers coach Marc Lubrick and strength coach Bill Hugham. While no one expected Vanderbilt to win many games his first year there, it wasn’t unreasonable to ask for a competitive football team. That didn’t happen as the Dores were blown out and lost every SEC game they played. They even lost to Temple by 30 and struggled to beat lowly Massachusetts and Charleston Southern. The problem goes beyond the coaching staff, though. Finding and settling on a quarterback this offseason is going to be paramount. So will recruiting. After having most of last year’s class hijacked by the departing James Franklin, Mason needs to find a way to infuse more talent into the program -- and quickly.

2. In other "As the Coaching World Turns" news, Tennessee is currently working on a new contract for coach Butch Jones, reports VolQuest.com. Tennessee AD Dave Hart told the site that those conversations are already underway and that, "It will get done in an appropriate fashion" since Jones' focus is on recruiting right now. Jones is already locked into a six-year deal worth in the neighborhood of $18 million, but as we all know by now, that's yesterday's news. Getting Jones under a new, more lucrative and extensive contract will help keep potential suitors at bay. The job he's done getting Tennessee on the right track and into a bowl game this early after the Derek Dooley debacle has not gone unnoticed. Keeping Jones in Knoxville and keeping that program on stable footing would be a wise move. With another stellar recruiting class, the development of last year's class and the maturation of QB Josh Dobbs, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Jones and Tennessee are among the leading contenders in the East next season. Of course, if they win it there will probably have to be a new contract after that.

3. Nick Saban has been calling for more involvement from receivers not named Amari Cooper all season. With good reason, the coach wants Alabama's offense to be more diverse, not just a one-page playbook with No. 9 scribbled in dozens of different languages. Part of that is on coordinator Lane Kiffin, part of it is on QB Blake Sims, but some of the blame rests with the supporting cast. And there's been no more obvious letdown than O.J. Howard. The freakishly athletic tight end was MIA for most of the season. For the first half of the year, you went to the grocery store expecting to see his face on the back of a milk carton. But it appears as if the 6-foot-6 sophomore has hit his stride. He hasn't been great -- seven catches in the past four games -- but it's a start. Howard says now that, "We're on the same page. We're clicking." The problem before? "Probably just not me going to get the ball out of the air," Howard said. "But now I've been doing a pretty good job of it, of going up and getting it and attacking the ball." That's good news for Alabama, which will face more intense scrutiny should it reach the playoff. The more options it has offensively, the better off it will be.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Take away the titles, the rings, the tradition.

Take away the fact that it’s Alabama.

Take away that it has four- and five-star recruits everywhere you turn.

Strip away the trappings of expectations and look for a second at what Nick Saban has done, and not the nearly $7 million he's earning and all that denotes. Instead, look closely at the team he had in the spring, the team he rode hard through the summer and fall, and what’s become of that team now. Look at how far he’s taken them.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Lake Kiffin
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe unorthodox hiring of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator is one of many masterful moves Nick Saban has made this season.
Looking for a coach of the year candidate? You're reading about him.

Regardless of what preseason polls said, Alabama has no business being here today, ranked No. 1 the week of the SEC championship game, a stone’s throw away from the top seed in the College Football Playoff. All those votes cast in June and July were hinged on the arm of a transfer quarterback and a coach who had won four national championships since 2003.

One of those came through, and it wasn’t Jameis Winston's backup at Florida State.

Whether it was molding Blake Sims into a championship-caliber QB, shaping a young defense into one of the country’s best, or wading through the treacherous waters of the SEC West, this has been the best coaching job of Saban’s career.

And to think it started with one of the most off-the-wall hires in recent memory.

When Saban brought in the radioactive Lane Kiffin to run his offense, it was met with a chorus of boos. Those who didn’t shout down the idea were simply too dumbfounded to have an opinion. It was "The Odd Couple," only with higher stakes.

But under the wing of Saban, Kiffin has resurrected his career. Suddenly mute and no longer strapped with the responsibilities of being a head coach, Kiffin has thrived, increasing Alabama’s average yards per game from 454 in 2013 to 489 this season. Center Ryan Kelly called him a “mastermind.” Sims, the same fifth-year senior who once played running back and receiver, is now just shy of 3,000 yards passing.

Oh, and did we mention Kiffin’s implementation of the hurry-up, no-huddle?

It wasn’t what Saban ever wanted football to be, but he’s surely embraced it this season. Without tempo and a more wide-open scheme, Alabama doesn’t score 55 points and beat Auburn on Saturday.

“I can't complain about it,” receiver DeAndrew White said. “It helps out a lot with the weapons we have on offense, not just running backs. We have great running backs and great receivers. We spread the ball around a lot to all the playmakers.”

That’s right, Alabama is more than a good offensive line and stellar running backs. With Saban’s prodding, the offense has shed the image of 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Amari Cooper, the team’s leading receiver, is a Heisman Trophy contender.

“You know, usually Bama is ... defense and run the ball, but now we can play a whole different type of game,” said safety Nick Perry of Alabama’s newfound ability to win shootouts. “We can put up points or we can [shut down on] defense, and I think that’s scary for the opposing team.”

Alabama has found so many different ways to win, it’s hard to keep track. Sometimes it’s been the defense (Arkansas, LSU), sometimes it’s been the offense (Mississippi State, Auburn) and sometimes it’s been both (Florida, Texas A&M, etc.).

When games have gotten tight, as they did against Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, Saban has pulled the right strings.

His defense, which looked so shaky in the opener against West Virginia, has come along nicely, ranking 11th nationally in yards per game. The same unit that lost six players to the NFL draft now ranks ninth in yards per play. And in doing so, it’s bucked a common trend under Saban: If you don't become an impact player in your first few years on campus, you probably never will.

Instead, veterans Perry, Cyrus Jones, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dickson have developed from backups into starters and key cogs in the defense. Jones, who started his career as a receiver, has become the team's most consistent cornerback.

Even the one criticism of Saban -- his defenses' inability to get to the QB -- has been quieted by Alabama’s 28 sacks this season, which is seven more than at this time last year.

All that from a defense and a team that was among the youngest in college football.

According to Phil Steele’s annual combined experience chart, Alabama ranked 107th out of 128 teams in a formula that breaks down the returning experience of every two-deep depth chart in college football.

So Saban changed things up. There’s been less of a business atmosphere around the team this season and more of a collegial vibe. The sideline has grown less serious, as you’ll see players dancing up and down during kickoffs and third downs. Energy has been at an all-time high.

Even Saban said this is one of the most enjoyable teams he’s ever coached.

If the Tide get by Missouri on Saturday and make it into the playoff, he’ll be even happier.

After losing on the road at Ole Miss in early October and then almost stumbling again at Arkansas a week later, Alabama has turned it around. In the process of beating a murderers' row of LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, Saban has transformed his team into a title contender.

You can say that Alabama should be in the mix every season. You can say that because of its endless run of top-ranked recruiting classes, there’s no excuse not to win.

You can even say that Saban’s paycheck demands success.

But none of that should diminish what he’s accomplished with this team. After all, you're a good driver because you drive well, not because you have the fastest car.

With an inexperienced, sometimes inconsistent squad, led by a quarterback no one thought would win the job, Saban has worked miracles to get Alabama to within reach of another title. Given the degree of difficulty, this run might be his most impressive yet.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In the search for the next Heisman Trophy winner, we often look for a Heisman moment, a game we can replay over and over in our minds to justify that this is, in fact, the best and most deserving player in college football.

It’s a simple but challenging task: When everyone is watching, shine brightest.

Doug Flutie launched a Hail Mary against Miami. Charles Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown, intercepted a pass and caught a touchdown against Ohio State. Johnny Manziel danced around Alabama’s defense. Robert Griffin III put up 500 yards against Oklahoma.

So what Amari Cooper has done this season for Alabama should be looked upon with awe.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper tied his season high for receptions (13), yards (224) and touchdowns (3) in the victory over Auburn.
Not only has the junior wide receiver put up monster numbers, he has come through most when it counts -- and on more than one occasion. He has doubled down on his Heisman moment and turned it into a handful of resume-building games.

In six games on network television, Cooper has averaged 122 receiving yards and a touchdown. That includes a 201-yard, three-touchdown game against Florida; a 140-yard, two-touchdown game against Texas A&M; and pivotal late-season wins over LSU and Mississippi State in which he caught eight passes for 80-plus yards and a touchdown both times out.

When CBS couldn’t put Alabama on the air again because of contractual obligations, Cooper took his talents to ESPN in a telecast that set overnight records for viewership. Against Auburn on Saturday, Cooper looked like the best player in college football, racking up 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s pretty good,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s probably one of the better playmakers in college football, and he showed that.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban said Cooper, who has broken school records held by Ozzie Newsome and Julio Jones, has a style all his own.

“He's made a lot of big plays for us this year,” he said. “I think he is probably one of the best wide receivers in the country.”

If you’re looking for overall production, Cooper has that.

He ranks second nationally in receiving yards (1,573) and receiving touchdowns (14), and he is fourth in receptions per game (8.6). Against seven of the country’s top 50 pass efficiency defenses, he has 69 catches for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns.

If you’re looking for explosive plays, Cooper has those, too.

His 26 plays of 20 yards or more trail only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (33) among Power 5 teams. Of Cooper’s 107 total touches, 69 have resulted in a first down or touchdown.

“You never know where he’s at,” said Alabama safety Landon Collins, a potential All-American in his own right.

Because Cooper’s route-running is so precise, you can’t predict where he’s heading, Collins explained. It’s what makes him wonder why anyone would try to defend Cooper one-on-one.

“Once you put one person on him, you’re making a bad mistake,” Collins said. “We don’t even do that in practice.”

It will be interesting to see if Missouri takes that advice on Saturday when it faces Alabama during the SEC championship game.

If the Tigers’ secondary loses track of Cooper like so many have, we could be looking at yet another Heisman moment for the already impressive receiver.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said you have to understand with Copper that, “You’re not going to stop him.”

“He's a great, great player,” he said. “You try to limit the amount of damage they can do.”

The last time Cooper played in Atlanta this late in the season, he was limited to eight catches and 128 yards by Georgia. His game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter catapulted him to Freshman All-American status.

Three years later, could he have another career-defining moment on the national stage? After all, that seems to be business as usual this season.

Though he might not win the Heisman Trophy because so few at his position ever have, what Cooper has accomplished is undeniable.

It should earn him a trip to New York for the award ceremony, at the very least.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The hook was coming.

Blake Sims retreated to the bench and hung his head in frustration. Looking down, searching for answers, he didn't even notice his backup getting loose a few yards away, taking snaps under center and playing catch. He didn't need to. He'd just thrown his third interception, and he knew the game was hanging in the balance.

Internally, Nick Saban asked himself whether to "pull the plug."

But Sims had come this far and had survived moments such as these: at Arkansas, at LSU, home against then-No. 1 Mississippi State. He'd gone into slumps and snapped out of them, but he'd never given the ball away so freely before. He'd never put his team in such a hole.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter pulling himself together, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims was responsible for four scores against Auburn.
To make matters worse, this was Auburn. This was for the Iron Bowl and the right to compete in the College Football Playoff.

If Sims faltered and Alabama lost, it would have meant Armageddon for the SEC. Mississippi State was already out of the playoff race after suffering its second loss earlier in the day. That left Alabama as the only one-loss team remaining and the league's only hope.

When Auburn scored 17 points off Sims' three interceptions and jumped to a double-digit lead, you could practically hear Baylor, Ohio State and TCU licking their chops. The door was open for an SEC-less playoff.

"I was frustrated," Sims said. "I tried to keep my body language up [and] let my team know that my spirit was still up. I felt like, if my body language got down, the team was going to get down, and this wasn't the game for that."

So Sims let go, and by doing so, he let Alabama and the SEC back into the playoff picture.

He let his instincts take over. He let all the apprehension fall by the wayside because, as Saban put it, "When we got behind, what's there to be anxious about?"

Facing a crucial fourth-and-3, Sims kept his cool and fired a pass to DeAndrew White for a first down. He followed that with a 39-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper to make it a one-possession game. On his very next play, Sims found Cooper again for a 75-yard bomb that gave Alabama the lead.

After throwing his third interception, Sims ended the night with 10-of-12 passing. He led five touchdown drives and was responsible for four scores (three passing, one rushing), and Alabama won 55-44.

"We've seen it in practice, and we've seen it in scrimmages," Cooper said of Sims' ability to make the big play. "So when we get to the games, it's nothing."

Their trust was never broken, Cooper explained. They believed they'd find a way.

And that wasn't nothing.

That was more than faith in the system, as Cooper put it. It was confidence. It was resolve. It was a quarterback proving he could handle anything thrown at him, even his worst self.

"It lets us know that when we're down, we can still play," Sims said. "The game is not over until you see zeroes."

Said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd: "He's been here five years. He's been through a lot. You kind of know when to let things go. Coach always tells us to play the next play, and that's what he did."

That's not to say Sims doesn't need to get better. Consistency is going to be the key down the stretch, starting with this weekend's SEC Championship Game against Missouri.

A repeat of the Iron Bowl can't happen in Atlanta. There aren't many games in which the winning team turns the ball over three times, after all. In fact, Saturday was the first time an Alabama QB had thrown that many interceptions in a game since Saban took over in 2007.

AJ McCarron, Sims is not. He's not Greg McElroy, either.

Sims is a quarterback who has his ups and downs, who escapes the pocket and plays with emotion.

It's not always an enjoyable ride for his coaches, but it's who he is, and so far, it's yielded good results.

"Sometimes, it's a big game, and he starts putting a lot pressure on himself, and he gets a little anxious," Saban said. "I don't think he really processes and makes as good of decisions when he gets like that."

He later added, "He's gotten in that mode a little bit sometimes, and it was good to see him snap out of it."

Sims said he'll hear all about it Monday for what will be yet another learning opportunity.

"Every week, they let me know what I did negative. They really don't let me know what I did good," he said. "It sounds bad, but it's good because you want those kind of coaches because they'll keep you on your Ps and Qs and make you the best, and when crunch time comes, you're able to execute the right way."

It sometimes takes pressure on him, but Sims has found a way to deliver time and time again for Alabama.

"To be able to come back and play the way he did certainly says an awful lot about him," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "So you have your problems with a guy like this, athletic as he is. ... I don't think you stop him. I think you contain him the best you can."

He's a bit like wildfire. Sometimes he's out of control, but you have to let him burn.
video TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was the Iron Bowl, so of course it wasn't going to be easy.

It didn't matter that Alabama was ranked No. 1 and on a roll with six straight wins. It didn't matter that Auburn had slipped to No. 15 and dropped its past two SEC games in unceremonious fashion. It didn't matter what it looked like on paper, because rivalry games don't care for appearances.

Instead, Alabama survived a slugfest with Auburn, winning 55-44 in an instant classic filled with big plays, momentum-swinging turnovers and one furious finish.

How the game was won: Give Alabama's defense credit. Though the Tide gave up a number of big plays to Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense, it found a way to hold inside the red zone time and time again. Something about the pressure of being up against the wall gave Nick Saban's defense comfort. If it weren't for the four field goals Alabama forced inside the 20, Auburn might have run away with the game.

Game ball goes to: Amari Cooper. He couldn't be stopped. Though his quarterback, Blake Sims, struggled, Cooper played like a man on a mission. Three times he scored a touchdown, two of which came on plays on which he simply outran and outmaneuvered the coverage to get himself open. By the time it was all said and done, Cooper made his best case for the Heisman Trophy with 13 receptions for 224 yards and three scores.

What it means: Alabama might be ranked No. 1, but it is not a flawless football team. It struggles against spread offenses that can run the football. It has a good, but not elite, quarterback. And when those two things come together at the same time, the Crimson Tide are beatable. Auburn showed us that, as Sims was intercepted three times and Saban's defense yielded the most yards it has all season. Against a better team, possibly in a playoff semifinal, Alabama has to hope that both flaws aren't exposed.

Playoff implication: It wasn't pretty, but who said it had to be? Alabama, ranked No. 1 in the nation, isn't going anywhere, even if it struggled at home against Auburn. With just one loss and in position to win the SEC next weekend against Missouri, the Crimson Tide control their own destiny in the march toward the playoff.

Best play: Alabama needed an answer. Down two scores with all the momentum on Auburn's sideline, Cooper took matters into his own hands. The Tide's star receiver left the defense in the dust for this wide-open touchdown grab.


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What's next: For Alabama, it's on to the SEC championship game in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide get a Missouri team that inexplicably lost to Indiana earlier in the year and was steamrolled by Georgia but has stayed alive and won the East thanks to comeback wins in back-to-back weeks against Arkansas and Tennessee.

At first glance: SEC Week 14

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
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It all comes down to this.

The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.

Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.

Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn

Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?

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Prescott
Player under pressure: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.

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Coach under the microscope: Will Muschamp, Florida

This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?

Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?

There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.

Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read

Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.
It's not about being ranked No. 1.

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

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

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

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

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

With that said, what areas do need to improve?

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

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

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

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

The kicking game: Yes, we're talking about field goals. Though that might sound outrageous since Alabama should have no trouble finding the end zone against Western Carolina, it might do a world of good for Adam Griffith to see a few kicks split the uprights. After all, since starting the season 7-for-7, he has gone 5-for-11, including 1-for-4 on kicks of 40 or more yards.
Every team has its flaws. It’s just that kind of season where no one in the top four is perfect. Florida State, the only undefeated Power 5 team left, is ranked third because there’s so much about the Seminoles that’s concerning. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to No. 1 Alabama. The SEC-leading Crimson Tide have come on strong of late, but that doesn’t mean they’re without a fairly serious problem: The offense, it seems, lets off the gas.

Mapping out the inconsistencies

Alabama has started awfully fast in games.

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

But from the third quarter on, things change.

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

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

Blake Sims is streaky

When Blake Sims is on, he’s on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The running game hasn’t been dominant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama's defense has been great this season, but the offense must do its part for all four quarters.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before the season started, we knew Alabama's defense would be good. There was simply too much talent and a coaching staff too well credentialed for it not to be.

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

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

But to what end?

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

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

But would this be the year that changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Saban recruited all of us," he said. "We all knew that we're great players. When we're out there, you just have to play with confidence and basically play like you belong out there."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Go back six weeks to the first Sunday in October. Back when the AP poll had Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M in its top 15. Back when all five SEC West teams were undefeated and in position to make the College Football Playoff. Back when we knew the division would eventually cannibalize itself, only we didn’t know how.

Go back and think of the possibilities, and then recall the weekend that followed, the first of those handful of unbeaten teams that fell. The one the coaches’ poll had ranked No. 1. It was in Oxford, Mississippi. Afternoon turned to night, Ole Miss came back late, the goal posts were carried out of the stadium and Alabama’s playoff hopes were seemingly extinguished. Nick Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was declared by some to be over.

We have come a long way these past six weeks.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsT.J. Yeldon and Alabama control their destiny again after beating No. 1-ranked Mississippi State.
During that time, Alabama reminded everyone that projections don’t always come true. The fickle nature of college football’s week-to-week evaluation process wouldn’t keep the Crimson Tide down long as they went on winning while the rest of the SEC fell by the wayside. And that one undefeated team remaining, No. 1 Mississippi State? On Saturday, Alabama took care of that matter itself, beating the Bulldogs, 25-20, at home in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Now there are no perfect teams in the SEC. There is only Alabama leading the race to Atlanta.

"Anytime you beat the No. 1 team in the country, that’s a significant accomplishment," Saban said on Saturday. He later added, "This is a really good football team that we played today. They’re really hard to stop."

But stop them they did, and in doing so Alabama looked dominant once again.

After the game, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen seemed disappointed but unsurprised by the outcome. He guessed that Alabama had upward of 35 future NFL players on its roster, and how could you expect to beat that?

Though it’s true that talent has propelled them, the Crimson Tide’s bevy of four- and five-star recruits haven’t blossomed overnight. Like the team’s climb back atop the SEC, it’s been a slow and steady process of getting here.

Quarterback Blake Sims hasn’t always been great throwing the football, but he has consistently come through with clutch drives. The offensive line has gotten progressively better, running back T.J. Yeldon has played through pain, and the defense has gone from shaky to stout over the course of the season.

Does that make Alabama the best team in the country? Who knows.

"We beat No. 1," said safety Landon Collins. "Do we feel like we’re No. 1? Maybe."

Center Ryan Kelly answered the question more directly.

"Absolutely," he said. "That’s what we want to be every year. Every week we’re going to keep fighting to get there."

As Collins said, "It’s all up to us. We control our future."

Alabama rallied back from that devastating loss at Ole Miss in early October. So how will it handle being on top once again?

Saturday’s game against FCS opponent Western Carolina should be a breeze, but a week later it will be the Iron Bowl and Auburn coming to town. After that, there is the possibility of an SEC Championship Game.

Alabama survived that first loss, but it would be risking a lot if it suffered another.

"We got tough games coming up," Saban said. "We’re just like being in the playoffs now. We can’t afford to lose, so every game is a big game."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Mississippi State hung around.

For 60 minutes, the Bulldogs did everything they could to stay in the game against Alabama. It wasn’t until the clock finally struck zeroes that the dream season ended. The undefeated record was wiped out and the loss of that coveted No. 1 ranking would soon follow.

And, in the end, Mississippi State had no one to blame but itself.

No. 5 Alabama was the better team on Saturday night, but the Crimson Tide never really dropped the hammer. The door was always open for the Bulldogs to make a comeback, but missed opportunities and turnovers kept that from happening. The one player they could rely on all season to make plays, quarterback Dak Prescott, ultimately folded in the game’s key moments.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThree Dak Prescott interceptions proved costly for the Bulldogs on Saturday night.
“To win football games, there are simple plans to win,” said State coach Dan Mullen after his team’s 25-20 loss in Tuscaloosa. “You have to play great defense, and I thought we did that. We had almost a hundred more yards of offense than they did tonight. Our guys played really good defense, got off the field when they needed to get off of the field.

“But the MVP of the game is probably Alabama’s punter.”

Yes, a punter. Alabama's lanky specialist JK Scott, who pinned Mississippi State inside the 20-yard line five times.

It was that kind of night.

Mississippi State had more passing yards, rushing yards and first downs than Alabama. But field position and red zone offense ultimately doomed the Bulldogs. Six times their offense got inside Alabama’s 20-yard line and twice it came away with touchdowns. As Mullen said, “That’s potentially 42 points ... it wouldn’t have been a close game.”

“It was very disappointing,” said Prescott, who threw three interceptions and was held to less than three touchdowns for the first time all season. On third down, he had a season-low Total QBR of 3.1. “We squandered a lot of points. We lost focus out in the game. You have to win in the red zone, but we squandered our chances."

Even the defense, which played one of its best games of the season, eventually wore down late. When Prescott threw a touchdown pass to Fred Brown early in the fourth quarter to get the game to within six points, Alabama got the ball back on offense and promptly drove the field. It took 15 plays and three third-down conversions, but the Tide went 76 yards for a touchdown, their only points of the second half.

State responded and marched 54 yards in 3 minutes, but fell apart on the 20-yard line as Prescott threw his third interception of the night.

"Alabama is a great team," he said. "They did a good job (with defensive) scheming. I think it was on us.”

“We just beat ourselves,” said State running back Josh Robinson, who got his team in a hole early as he was tackled in the end zone for a safety. “We made a lot of mental mistakes.”

Looking forward, Robinson said, “We’re going to fix those mistakes and do what we do.”

But even that might not be enough.

Mississippi State is by no means out of the playoff hunt, but it no longer controls its own destiny. Now the Bulldogs’ only hope of reaching the SEC title game is to win out against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, and for Alabama to lose to Auburn on the final day of the regular season.

It could happen, but if it doesn’t it will come back to what happened in Tuscaloosa. The mistakes they made. The chances they didn’t capitalize on.

“Those are two of the best teams in the country out there battling and there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Mullen said.

But as he gave Alabama credit for "making the plays they needed to win,” there was a flip side to that: his team didn’t.

Alabama deserves the credit for winning, but Mississippi State also deserves the blame.

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