SEC: Eddie Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playoff impact: Sorry, Missouri, even with an upset win on Saturday it's implausible that you sneak into the playoff. It's not just the two losses that cost you; it's the fact that you lost at home to Indiana, the same team that couldn't beat Bowling Green. So with that said, this game is essentially about whether or not the SEC will be represented in the College Football Playoff and whether or not that team will be Alabama. If the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide win, they're in as the top seed, as which they'll play a semifinal game in nearby New Orleans. If the Tide lose, the SEC is likely to be shut out of the top four entirely.
The stakes in the SEC and postseason races will be huge when Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) visits LSU (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday.

Today we’ll compare how the two teams stack up at each position group on offense and defense.

Defensive line

Alabama

For the first half of the season, the numbers just weren’t there. Despite having arguably the best collection of talent during Nick Saban’s tenure, the D-line wasn’t getting into the backfield any more than in years past.

Then came Arkansas, Texas A&M and Tennessee. In those games, the defense racked up 12 sacks and 24 tackles for loss.

The key against LSU likely won’t be getting to the quarterback, though. Big bodies like A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Brandon Ivory will have to fill the gaps against the Tigers’ vaunted rushing attack.

Against Arkansas, which employs a similar run-heavy offense, Alabama’s D-line helped limit the Razorbacks to 89 yards rushing and 2.3 yards per carry.

Player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson

[+] EnlargeDanielle Hunter
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonDanielle Hunter, No. 94, has proven to be an impact playmaker for LSU's defense.
LSU

As on the offensive side of the ball, LSU had major problems along the line of scrimmage earlier in the season. The Tigers were getting production from ends Danielle Hunter (who is second on the team with 55 tackles and has a team-high 10 tackles for loss) and Jermauria Rasco (42 tackles, team-high three sacks), but now seem to have found a solid combination in the middle with Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, too.

There are entirely different levels of difficulty involved in shutting down Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss and attacking Alabama’s power running game, however. Saturday will be the biggest test of the progress LSU has made up front.

Player to watch: Danielle Hunter

Linebacker

Alabama

The emergence of Reggie Ragland has meant everything to a group that had to replace All-American C.J. Mosley this season.

Finally using his strength and athleticism to his benefit, Ragland has become the team’s leading tackler with 56 total stops, and ranks third with 6.5 tackles for loss.

With he and big Trey DePriest in the middle, Alabama has the bodies to stop the run.

Throw in the likely return of Denzel Devall at Sam linebacker and Xzavier Dickson’s continual improvement at the Jack linebacker position, and the Tide are in good shape.

Player to watch: Denzel Devall

LSU

The two main names to know here are Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith, both players who opted to sign with LSU over offers from Alabama.

Weakside linebacker Alexander, a native of Oxford, Alabama, leads LSU with 57 tackles and ranks second with six tackles for loss. Beckwith has been a force since entering the starting lineup at middle linebacker three games ago. He’s third on the team with 52 stops and will be one of the key players to watch as the Tigers attempt to defend Alabama’s runs between the tackles.

Since Alabama is a bit more traditional on offense than some of the Tigers’ recent opponents, we may see more of strongside linebacker Lamar Louis than we’ve seen in recent games. Louis made three tackles against Ole Miss’ spread offense and didn’t make a stop against Kentucky.

Player to watch: Kendell Beckwith

Defensive back

Alabama

Landon Collins isn’t letting the whole LSU thing go.

“Personally, this game means a lot,” the junior said. “Just want to show them I picked the right team.”

An All-America-caliber safety, Collins has done well for himself at Alabama ever since his infamous public decision to spurn in-state LSU.

But Alabama’s secondary is more than Collins. Cyrus Jones has stepped up in his first full year starting at cornerback and the battle of Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown has produced good results at the other cornerback position. Big-bodied Jarrick Williams is a weapon at the nickel corner position and Nick Perry has held down the second safety spot better than many expected.

Player to watch: Landon Collins

LSU

Thanks largely to Amari Cooper (71 catches, 1,132 yards, nine touchdowns), Alabama has much more than a run-only offense. Keeping Cooper under wraps will be a major test for an LSU secondary that enters as the SEC’s top pass defense (158.4 ypg).

For the most part, LSU cornerbacks Tre’Davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins have been impressive this season. Opponents have beaten them deep a time or two, but they have mostly supplied tight coverage to this point. They will all get their shots covering Cooper on Saturday.

Safety has been a bit more of an adventure at times. Veterans Ronald Martin (48 tackles, two interceptions, team-high seven pass breakups) and Jalen Mills (36 tackles, three tackles for loss) are the starters, but youngsters Rickey Jefferson and Jamal Adams have made some big plays lately.

Keep an eye on Adams in particular, as he is quickly developing into a star in the LSU secondary.

Player to watch: Jamal Adams

Week 6 roundtable: Breakout player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Collins, it’s just motivation.

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

Why Ole Miss can upset Alabama 

September, 30, 2014
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Bo Wallace, Ole MissThomas Graning/AP ImagesBo Wallace's impressive QBR numbers suggest he could lead the Rebels to a win at home.
Ole Miss could be embarking on one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history.

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

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

Anyone with that mindset would do well to reconsider.
Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country, at least according to the latest coaches' poll.

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

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

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

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

But now comes the real fun.

Now comes Ole Miss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 4

September, 24, 2014
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Several true freshmen once again made an impact last week in the SEC -- particularly in Georgia’s rout of Troy, when former high school teammates Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie stole the show. They’re on our list of five SEC freshmen who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) last Saturday.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama

What he did: Against Florida, the former five-star prospect made the first start of his young career at Alabama. Put up against the likes of Demarcus Robinson, he didn't back down. He ended up with three tackles, including one that went for a loss, and helped contribute to a secondary that limited QB Jeff Driskel to just 9 of 28 passing.

What it means: Alabama desperately needed help at cornerback. Bradley Sylve showed in the season opener he can't hold down a starting job, and Eddie Jackson hasn't proven he can stay healthy enough to start either. Though Brown is young, he seems like the man for the job. Growing pains will likely occur, but his ceiling is certainly high. (Alex Scarborough)

WR Malachi Dupre, LSU

What he did: Dupre caught touchdown passes of 31 and 30 yards in the final two minutes of a 34-29 loss to Mississippi State, helping the Tigers close within striking distance after trailing by 24 points early in the quarter. Dupre finished with four catches for 120 yards, notching the first 100-yard outing of his young career.

What it means: Dupre didn’t make much of an impact in LSU’s first three games, and in truth he didn’t make an enormous impact in the first three quarters against Mississippi State. But he was one of the key figures in LSU’s comeback bid, and that might be a sign of things to come for the former No. 1 receiver prospect. (David Ching)

QB Brandon Harris, LSU

What he did: Like Dupre, Harris made his presence felt in the closing minutes against Mississippi State. He first entered the game with 3:43 to play and LSU trailing 34-16 and promptly led touchdown drives of 95 and 30 yards. Harris drove the offense to the Mississippi State 46 on LSU’s final drive and attempted a game-winning heave to the end zone, only to have the pass intercepted at the goal line by Will Redmond.

What it means: Harris nearly led LSU to what would have been one of the most miraculous comeback win in its history. He finished 6-for-9 for 140 yards and two touchdowns in barely more than two series, while Anthony Jennings was 13-for-26 for 157 yards in three-and-a-half quarters. The freshman provided a spark that Jennings did not, and that seems to have reignited the Tigers’ quarterback battle. (David Ching)

RS Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia

What he did: With a zig-zagging 52-yard score against Troy, McKenzie provided Georgia’s first punt return for a touchdown since Brandon Boykin did it against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. McKenzie also ran twice on sweeps and picked up 54 yards, including one that one for a 49-yard gain.

What it means: Opponents had punted 160 times since Boykin’s touchdown and Georgia had not scored once. In fact, the Bulldogs hadn’t broken a return longer than 30 yards since then. But McKenzie and sophomore Reggie Davis (51 yards) both broke long punt returns in the Troy game, so perhaps Georgia’s unproductive return game might actually develop into a weapon like it was several years back. (David Ching)

RB Sony Michel, Georgia

What he did: With Todd Gurley taking a seat on the sideline early and Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall limited by injuries, Michel got a chance to be the star in Georgia’s backfield against Troy. He made good use of the opportunity, rushing 10 times for 155 yards and three touchdowns. His long run of the day, which covered 75 yards, actually didn’t go for a score, but it set up his 8-yard score on the next play.

What it means: Georgia has no shortage of backfield talent, so don’t look for Michel to post enormous numbers this season -- particularly if Gurley remains healthy. But Michel and Chubb have already given Bulldogs fans reason to be excited about the running game even after their Heisman Trophy-contending star leaves campus. The freshmen look like future stars themselves. (David Ching)

Other notables:

QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: Took over for Kenny Hill in a 58-6 rout of SMU and went 8-for-15 for 130 yards and connected with Jeremy Tabuyo on a 50-yard touchdown strike.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Rushed seven times for 38 yards, all in the first half, caught a pass for a 1-yard gain and returned three kickoffs for 60 yards against Mississippi State.

QB Wade Freebeck, Vanderbilt: Replaced injured starter Patton Robinette against South Carolina and went 11-for-20 for 168 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

OT Cam Robinson, Alabama: Started at left tackle for the fourth time in four games and continues to impress at the position. In last Saturday’s win against Florida, the Gators rarely pressured quarterback Blake Sims. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense generated 672 yards of total offense.

S Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Started at safety against SMU and posted five tackles and one stop for a 3-yard loss.

Finally, the game is almost here.

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

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

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

Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.

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

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

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

Frankly, I don't know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Eddie Jackson would tell anyone who'd listen that he was coming back. It didn’t matter that he tore up his knee late in spring practice. It didn’t matter that the five-month, post-surgery timeline he laid out seemed wholly improbable. The lanky cornerback from South Florida was determined to get back on the field early in his sophomore season. The thought of taking a redshirt year was almost out of the question.

According to veteran safety Nick Perry, “He made it his mission to be back for the season.”

Whether anyone involved knew it or not, Alabama needed Eddie Jackson back on the football field sooner rather than later.

What we saw Week 1 against West Virginia showed us as much. The 350 yards Alabama allowed through the air in that game could have been worse if not for so many dropped passes. Bradley Sylve struggled against the Mountaineers’ taller, more physical receivers. Cyrus Jones looked a little better but wasn’t the shutdown corner the Crimson Tide needed.

Watching frustrated on the sidelines was a possible answer.

“It was really tough,” Jackson said of missing the season opener. “I wanted to be out there so bad, but there was nothing I could do except cheer my teammates on.”

Jackson felt ready to go after weeks and weeks of rehabbing twice or even three times a day. Doctors had cleared him, coach Nick Saban said, but the staff erred on the side of caution.

But when Week 2 rolled around and the secondary was reeling, the timing was right. Saban increased Jackson’s reps in practice, liked what he saw and decided to let him start in the home opener against Florida Atlantic.

Reggie Ragland, a junior linebacker, said he expected Jackson to “come out slow” in his first start back from injury. But he said Jackson “came out thudding people up.”

“He caused a fumble I recovered,” Ragland said. “Eddie looked great [Saturday].”

Said Jones: “He’s definitely one of our more physical DBs. [He] definitely doesn’t shy away from contact.”

Jackson's mobility didn’t seem the least bit limited. He racked up four tackles, including one tackle for loss. He barely missed out on an interception, too. Coaches had him on a pitch count of roughly 40 snaps, and even though the game was shortened by lightning, he came close to reaching that benchmark.

The only thing that betrayed Jackson was the ice pack wrapped around his knee after the game. Even so, he said he felt fine.

“Pretty close,” Jackson said of being 100 percent healthy. “I felt great. My knee wasn’t bothering me at all.”

Saban said he didn’t see any kind of drop off from Jackson. In fact, the technology the team employs in practice confirmed as much.

Alabama test drove the Catapult GPS system last season and agreed to use the company full time this year. The technology uses GPS, gyroscopes and magnetometers to measure an athlete’s movement and exertion during competition. Tracking Jackson’s “explosive movement,” Saban said he was able to see Jackson was ready to go.

“All those things are the same standard as before he got hurt,” Saban said.

“He made some good plays out there. I’m sure the more he plays, the better he’ll get.”

That’s good news for Alabama’s still-unproven secondary. If Jackson can become an anchor at corner, it will make fitting the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together easier, especially given safety Jarrick Williams’ injury that has him out three more weeks.

Saturday’s shutout was a move in the right direction, even if it came against Florida Atlantic, which was blown out Week 1 by a Nebraska team that barely escaped McNeese State 31-24 in Week 2.

No matter, said Alabama All-SEC safety Landon Collins. With him leading the charge in the secondary, Trey DePriest back handling the front seven at inside linebacker and Jackson’s return to the fold, Collins liked the way the entire defense came together.

“As a group, we were all focused on our keys and our concepts, and we were all one defense,” Collins said. “As a whole, we had a lot of talking going on and keeping each other on the right page, and that’s the type of defense that we want. Once we do that, we are going to make unbelievable stops.”

SEC morning links

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
8:00
AM ET
1. The biggest concern for Alabama's football team might not be at quarterback. After the Crimson Tide gave up 365 passing yards and 29 completions to West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, many gave the Tide's secondary some nasty looks. Cornerback Bradley Sylve drew most of the ire, as he was consistently beaten all night. Not the biggest defensive back, Sylve had a tough time with West Virginia's bigger, more physical receivers, especially Kevin White, who finished with 11 catches for 143 yards. Well, coach Nick Saban made a change Monday, having Eddie Jackson, who was recovering from a knee injury, run with the first-team defense alongside Cyrus Jones. Sylve ran with the second-team defense with freshman Tony Brown, who could see some time in the next few weeks.

2. Mississippi State's football team was met with tragedy this weekend after wide receiver Jameon Lewis' brother, Tyriunce, was shot and killed Sunday morning in their hometown of Tylertown, Mississippi. Lewis, who is Mississippi State's top returning receiver, returned to campus on Monday, but his availability for Saturday's game against UAB is still uncertain. Coach Dan Mullen made it clear that he wasn't worried about Lewis taking the field Saturday. His concern is with Lewis' emotions. Our thoughts are with Lewis and his family.

3. Last weekend, we saw Saban face West Virginia. Why was that significant? Well, Saban is from West Virginia, so there was a little bit of a storyline there. But for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Saturday's game with Toledo actually means a lot to him. Why, you ask? Well, he coached at Toledo from 1991-2000, becoming the school's all-time leader in wins after going 73-37-3 with the Rockets. Man, three ties? That's so old school. Toledo might hold a special place in Pinkel's heart, but he won't let that get to him this weekend. “Great people, great community. It was a big part of my life, big part of my career,” Pinkel said. “I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket. Not this weekend, but I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin and the quarterbacks were what everyone wanted to see when Alabama took the field against West Virginia on Saturday. The Crimson Tide’s new offensive coordinator would be calling plays from the sideline, mere feet away from head coach Nick Saban. And on top of that, he’d be managing the quarterback situation, which promised to pit Blake Sims, the veteran who had paid his dues, versus Jake Coker, the strong-armed transfer from Florida State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking advantage of those tune-ups will be crucial.

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

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

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

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

Maybe after so much time and energy devoted to Kiffin and the quarterbacks this offseason, it’s worth finally turning our attention to the other side of the football. It’s there where the most things are happening.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some stocks rise during spring practice and some inevitably fall, and that wave of momentum heading into the offseason can be a valuable determinant when it comes to seeing more playing time during the season.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five players emerging on defense for Alabama.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Allen
AP Photo/Dave MartinSophomore defensive end Jonathan Allen could be a big part of the Tide's defense in 2014.
DE Jonathan Allen: You can’t ask for much more as a true freshman than to play in every game. So while Allen might not have grabbed the same headlines as fellow rookie A'Shawn Robinson last season, he did do enough to see the field early and was able to gain some valuable experience. With Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson now off to the NFL, expect Allen to be in the mix to start at defensive end. And judging by his A-Day performance -- one blocked kick, two sacks, four tackles for loss -- it might be safe to call him a frontrunner to run with the ones as a sophomore.

CB Tony Brown: Even with a shoulder harness on and a black no-contact jersey pulled over his head, Brown found a way to make plays at A-Day, hauling in an impressive interception in his first public appearance in front of the Alabama faithful. The former five-star prospect chose to enroll early at Alabama for that very purpose -- a head start. With Alabama lean on experience at cornerback and Eddie Jackson dealing with a torn knee ligament, Brown has every opportunity to compete for a starting job when practice begins again after the summer.

LB Reuben Foster: Someone on campus needs to show Foster the proper way to tackle. He’s always been a reckless head-first linebacker, but after a series of neck stingers, you’d think the staff would have gotten him to change his ways. Well, at A-Day he dove head-first again into a pile and dealt himself a concussion that sent him to the locker room. Even so, with C.J. Mosley gone and a spot at inside linebacker up for grabs, expect Foster to push for more playing time. Injuries are a concern, but his athleticism is too much to keep off the field.

LB Dillon Lee: An arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence clouded an otherwise bright spring for the junior. After getting himself sent home from the BCS National Championship Game as a freshman, it looked like he had turned the corner. Nick Saban even said he was in line to compete for a starting job at outside linebacker. And even though Lee's off-field behavior is a red flag, fans had to be pleased with his response to the situation, coming out at A-Day and leading the Crimson Team with nine total tackles. If he can keep his nose clean this offseason, he should be able to contribute come fall.

DE D.J. Pettway: It was almost as if he never left. Pettway got himself thrown off the team following a season in which he was named to the Freshman All-SEC squad. But after paying his penance at a junior college program, he returned this spring and has re-inserted himself in the mix at defensive end. He even had his own “welcome back” moment at A-Day, intercepting a Blake Sims pass and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown.
Not every prediction we made about Alabama heading into the spring panned out, but we got awfully close. Let’s take a look back:

Prediction No. 1: Kiffin provides a jolt

This one appears to be a work in progress as A-Day was not the most impressive performance for the offense. Outside of a failed flea-flicker attempt, there wasn’t any play or formation called by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that really wowed you. But, as one player told reporters after the game, only about 10 percent of the playbook was available. With that said, the reviews on Kiffin have been overwhelmingly positive. Nick Saban said he expects Kiffin to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands more often this season, specifically to players such as Amari Cooper. That should be music to fans’ ears. And as far as the players themselves, they’ve noticed a difference in Kiffin’s demeanor and play-calling. They’ve said his offense is much more simple and “player-friendly.” So while we never saw major schematic changes or a change in the tempo of the offense publicly, rest assured that Kiffin is working his magic behind the scenes.

Prediction No. 2: Sophomores emerge

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
OK, so this wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering prediction. But we did name names. Reuben Foster, Robert Foster and Maurice Smith were spotlighted as players who missed spring practice last season but would benefit from it as sophomores. And with at least two out of the three, there was some measure of success. Reuben Foster, despite a series of stinger injuries, continued to draw positive praise and should be in the mix for significant reps at middle linebacker this fall. Robert Foster, on the other hand, made some spectacular catches at practice this spring, vaulting himself up the depth chart where he could be one of the first receivers off the bench. Smith, however, remained mostly quiet. Right after Eddie Jackson went down with a torn ACL, Smith missed a scrimmage with a concussion. Tony Brown, a five-star early enrollee, took full advantage of the reps and played well at A-Day, making an impressive interception despite playing in a no-contact jersey.

Prediction No. 3: Frosh challenges at LT

It took some time, but maybe not as much as some might have expected. Cam Robinson skipped his high school graduation and bypassed his prom to enroll at Alabama in January and compete in spring practice. With Cyrus Kouandjio gone at left tackle, he saw an opportunity. And after a few weeks of getting a handle on the offense, Robinson took a step forward, earning reps with the first team at left tackle, where he started A-Day. Robinson still has some growing pains to work out, but given his size, talent and early improvement, he'll be in serious contention to start at left tackle from Day 1. Though Saban called the five-star signee a “work in progress,” he also cautioned that, “You get experience by making mistakes. ... He did some good things, and he’s done some really good things all spring long.”

Prediction No. 4: DePriest steps up game

By the sounds of it, Trey DePriest is doing everything coaches are asking of him this spring. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, he has responded by becoming a more vocal presence on the defense, leading a group that’s as young in spots as it is talented. As DePriest put it, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.” And that means calling the majority of plays on defense, getting his front seven in line and the secondary in tune. Saban praised DePriest’s knowledge of the defense as well as his maturity, saying he has the ability to “affect other players in a positive way.” Judging by the small window of A-Day, he has done just that as the defense didn’t allow a point in the first half.

Prediction No. 5: Ranking Alabama’s QBs

Maybe we were too hard on Blake Sims, ranking him fourth out of five. By Saban’s estimation, he had a great spring, exhibiting control of the offense, improvement as a pocket passer and good production through two scrimmages, reportedly throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But a sour A-Day performance kept him from being our post-A-Day leader in the clubhouse. Whatever momentum he’d gained before Saturday was lost when he threw one touchdown and two interceptions with a 43 percent completion percentage (13 for 30). Cooper Bateman, whom we previously ranked No. 1, looked the part at A-Day, showing the most poise and control of the quarterbacks. Alec Morris, meanwhile, was somewhat of a disappointment with just seven passing attempts and one interception. Parker McLeod and David Cornwell turned out to be the fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the race, attempting only two passes, completing none and throwing one interception. The one quarterback who did look good at A-Day was incoming transfer Jacob Coker, who looked on from the sideline as a spectator.
The injury to Eddie Jackson is still reverberating through Alabama’s roster. The promising young cornerback, who was in position to start as a sophomore, tore his ACL during last weekend’s scrimmage, forcing him to miss the remainder of spring camp. On Tuesday, he was seen in crutches awkwardly stepping into a crimson SUV that carried him away from the football facilities where his teammates were practicing.

With Jackson gone, others have had to step up.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama will miss cornerback Eddie Jackson, who tore his ACL in a scrimmage.
Alabama’s depth at cornerback was already suspect. Deion Belue, a two-year starter, and John Fulton, a top reserve, have both graduated and moved on. The three most veteran options still at the position -- Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington -- have combined for eight starts in their careers. And to make matters worse, one of the talented young corners, Maurice Smith, has been banged up. According to coach Nick Saban, the true sophomore who played in 11 games and made one start last season “got a little bit of a concussion” and didn't participate in Saturday’s scrimmage.

So where does that leave the Crimson Tide?

If it were close to the start of the regular season, it would be called a nightmare. But since it’s the spring, it’s more of a sense of opportunity than apprehension. Thanks to a loosened depth chart, coaches will get a sneak peek at some even younger players.

Sylve, Jones and Washington will undoubtably get more reps, and so will players such as Anthony Averett, who redshirted last season, and Tony Brown, who enrolled early in January with the clear purpose of getting a head start during the spring.

According to Saban, Brown has gotten “a ton of reps.” And when you’re talking about a five-star athlete whom ESPN ranked as the No. 2 cornerback in the 2014 class, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. His talent isn’t in question -- the two-sport star runs track and is one of the more physically impressive corners on the football field -- but his experience has been the biggest hurdle. With more reps, he can close the gap between himself and the more veteran players at his position, clearing the way for a possible run at a starting job this fall.

Landon Collins, who was voted second-team All-SEC at safety last season, said he has seen Brown work hard this spring, “getting it quicker than most people get it.”

Nick Perry agreed. The senior safety was effusive in his praise of Brown earlier this spring, saying that he and fellow freshman safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones were learning the defense “faster than I’ve seen any freshmen pick it up.”

“Tony is a great competitor,” Perry said. “He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner.”

According to Perry, expect to see Brown make a couple of plays this season.

Saturday’s scrimmage was a start for those such as Brown who might not have expected so many reps this spring. There will be ups and downs, Saban said, but overall “it’ll be a good learning experience for them.”

With Jackson gone, the time is now. Smith will be back at practice soon, but there’s no telling who will be next to go down during this final week of spring practice. If someone is sidelined, it might hurt the depth chart as a whole, but it will help certain players in particular.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

“I think we’re going to be a better secondary this year,” Perry told reporters late last week. “The world should be ready to see more of the old UA-style secondary.”

Last fall's results fell short of the typical Alabama standard. Though the numbers were far from horrific in the national rankings -- seventh in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, fourth in touchdowns allowed -- the secondary was nonetheless vulnerable. Perry and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered season-ending injuries, starting cornerback Deion Belue wasn’t always 100 percent, and the cornerback spot opposite him was never truly settled as John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all unsuccessfully tried to lock down the position.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite their youth and inexperience, Nick Perry believes Alabama's secondary is ready for a return to glory.
Alabama’s defense surrendered its highest Raw QBR score (38.1) since 2007 -- by comparison, that number averaged out to 22.5 from 2009-12. The Tide defense was ranked 60th nationally in the percentage of pass completions gaining 10 yards or more (46.2).

Still, Perry is confident this season will be different, even though that flies in the face of some noticeable obstacles. For one, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL. Along with Belue and Sunseri, three-fourths of last season’s secondary is gone. For another, Jackson tore his ACL on Saturday and will be out for several months, removing a promising talent from the equation. Barring an Adrian Peterson-like comeback, it’s hard to envision the sophomore playing this season.

Those moves ultimately leave more questions than answers for Alabama's personnel. But it’s not the personnel that has Perry hopeful. It’s the coaching.

“Having Kirby [Smart] and [Nick] Saban in the same room coaching the same position is a dream come true for any defensive back,” he said.

Perry called the two “geniuses at their position.” He said that Smart is already “putting his new spin on things.”

“It’s tremendous,” said fellow safety Landon Collins. “[Smart] just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position, and he knows what’s going on. It’s his defense. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Saban has long worked with cornerbacks during practice, but this spring, Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, moved from coaching linebackers to safeties in order to clear the way for Kevin Steele’s return.

“I’ve always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary,” Saban explained. “I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I’m really sort of his [graduate assistant]. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down, I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit.

“I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there. We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance.”

As with most springs, the most talked-about players are the true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Tony Brown and four-star safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones have been on campus since January, participating in the offseason conditioning program and spring practice. To Perry’s eye, they haven’t disappointed.

“Those guys have a bright future,” he said. “They’re picking up the defense pretty good, faster than I’ve seen any freshman pick it up. They came in early, and they’re ready to work.”

Perry was kind enough to break down each players’ strengths.

“Tony is a great competitor. He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner,” he said. “Hootie is your prototypical safety, you know. He’s big. He has long arms. He has speed.

“Expect those guys to make a couple of plays this year.”

In order to return to the Alabama secondary of old, they’ll need to.

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.

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