The early stretch was brutal at times. Sure, Alabama looked like the best team in the country and got through the first four games undefeated, but there were certainly some blemishes revealed along the way. Each week and each win was a struggle.
Virginia Tech opened the season by stifling Alabama's offense in Atlanta, getting into the face of quarterback AJ McCarron by applying constant pressure on the backfield. The offensive line, a group that featured three new starters, looked nothing if not inexperienced.
Even Colorado State, the $1.5 million cupcake courtesy of the Mountain West Conference, gave Alabama trouble. The Tide defense made too many mistakes and the offense was terribly inconsistent, failing to convert on a single third-down attempt in the first three quarters.
Then came No. 24 Ole Miss, an undefeated team playing with house money against Alabama. But this time, mercifully, the Tide put together a complete game and won, ending a four-game streak that tested the mettle of the championship contenders.
Now it's time to exhale. Alabama survived the early onslaught and can now take a breath to regroup with Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee up next. None of the four is ranked, and only the Razorbacks and the Vols are above .500, albeit at just one game over each. The four teams' combined record (7-11) is noticeably worse than the combined record of the first four teams Alabama faced (13-6) and the last four teams Alabama will face to end the season (11-6).
To make matters even more favorable for the Tide, Alabama will get a bye to start the month of November before hosting LSU on Nov. 9.
No team in the SEC has an easier next five weeks than Alabama. South Carolina is a close second and the only other school in the conference that won't face a ranked team over that time, but at least the Gamecocks don't have a cupcake like Georgia State to snack on. Instead, Steve Spurier's team will be tested somewhat by Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi State and undefeated Missouri. In fact, if one-loss South Carolina plays like it did against unranked UCF this past weekend, it might not be much of a championship contender come November.
The rest of the league's title contenders don't have it so easy. Georgia has rival Florida to contend with, LSU has Florida and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks, and Texas A&M has to deal with the same explosive Rebels on Oct. 12.
Ole Miss is one of seven SEC schools to play two ranked opponents over the next five weeks. Only Tennessee and Missouri have it worse with three ranked opponents each in the month of October.
While Nick Saban might not be fond of focusing on records, it's hard to ignore the obvious -- if Alabama doesn't make it to November undefeated, it would be a shock. The Crimson Tide's coach isn't one to admit those things and he won't ever say an opponent is overmatched, but he and his staff do have the luxury of not stressing over serious competition the next few weeks.
Instead, they can budget their time wisely, resting banged up starters such as Ryan Kelly and T.J. Yeldon while working out the kinks with some younger guys for the stretch run, especially those on defense such as rookie cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith.
"I'm looking more at the standard, not the record," Saban said following his team's shutout of No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday night. "And I think it's important that our players do the same so we can continue to improve."
Improvement, though, might be the best Saban can hope for. Making another statement like his team did by thumping Ole Miss doesn't appear to be possible against the forthcoming carousel of unranked, overmatched opponents. Rather, building up some level of consistency over the next few weeks will be the challenge as the scoreboard certainly doesn't figure to be.
"We have high expectations for the standard of how we play," Saban said. "And I think more than what the record is, I think and our team thinks, what do we need to do so we can continue to improve so we can play the the standard on a more consistent basis.
"I would say if there's any criticism of myself, our staff and our team, it would be the fact that we have not been as consistent as we'd like to be."
Saban got through a rough, inconsistent start to the season intact and in the driver's seat for another run to the national championship. For the next month, he'll be in the enviable position of fine-tuning his team's mistakes against lesser competition.
While the rest of the SEC slogs through the ghoulish month of October, Alabama will be playing trick or treat each Saturday. All that remains now is reaching LSU on Nov. 9 without slipping on the proverbial banana peel.
The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).
And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.
Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.
Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.
Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker
Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.
Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.
Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson
LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger
Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley
Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson
Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford
South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton
Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone
Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews
Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews
Eifert, this season’s John Mackey Award winner, given annually to the nation’s top tight end, is the latest and possibly the best in a long line of great players Notre Dame has produced at that position.
Notre Dame’s last three starting tight ends –- Anthony Fasano (2003-05), John Carlson (2004-07) and Kyle Rudolph (2008-10) –- are all playing in the NFL, yet no tight end has caught more passes for more yards in Irish history than Eifert.
A major reason Eifert could be the player who gives the Crimson Tide defense more fits than anyone else is that Alabama has had issues when its linebackers are forced into pass coverage.
When opposing offenses have lined up in four-or-five-receiver sets against the Tide, they’ve been more effective than in sets with three or fewer receivers.
The numbers are even more telling when you take a look at the five games in which Alabama faced ranked opponents (Michigan, Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia).
No team was more successful than the Aggies, a natural spread-offense team with a mobile, redshirt freshman quarterback; eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel completed 19 of 23 passes for 184 yards and 2 TD when A&M operated out of a four-or-five-receiver set in a 29-24 upset in Tuscaloosa, the Tide’s only loss of the season.
In comes Notre Dame, also a natural spread-offense team with a mobile, redshirt freshman quarterback. As a unit, the Irish passing attack is better when operating out of a four-or-five-receiver set.
However, when it comes to Eifert, the senior has been more effective when working out of a set with three or fewer receivers (including him), a formation that usually dictates opposing defenses cover him with a linebacker.
When the Irish had three or fewer receivers on the field and Eifert was the targeted receiver, they completed 25 of 42 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns.
He was most lethal when Notre Dame operated out of what’s known as “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and he was the targeted receiver.
In those situations, the Irish were 15-of-23 for 208 yards and a touchdown. But when operating out of a four-or-five-receiver set and Eifert was targeted, Notre Dame was 19-of-33 for 261 yards and no touchdowns.
In other words, Eifert’s presence opened things up for the other receivers.
Therein lies the conundrum for Alabama. What should the Tide do with Eifert?
No one’s had success covering him with a linebacker when the Irish are operating out of “21” (two backs, one tight end) or “11” personnel and rolling the coverage over toward him when they’ve operated from four-or-empty (five-receiver) sets only opened things up for Notre Dame’s other capable pass catchers like TJ Jones, Robby Toma and Theo Riddick when they move him from running back spot and into the slot-receiver position.
It’s a sure bet that Nick Saban is glad to have had the extra time to prepare for this problem.
It's LSU week in the football offices and Smart has his work cut out for him. His young defense has been the best in the country this season, coming in first in all four major defensive categories, but on Saturday it will face a top-5 team that knows its strength: power football.
"They really run the ball well," Smart told ESPN's Samantha Steele. "You have to stop them."
Even when they do get bogged down, the Tigers don't give up.
"They're stubborn with the run and that's toughest to defend," Smart continued.
Alabama has the bodies to match up with LSU up front. Smart said that despite losing three-quarters of his starters from a year ago, he feels UA has more depth on the line, and possibly less in the secondary. When you're going up against a team with a sometimes shaky starter in Zach Mettenberger and a consistently bruising rushing attack, that's a good thing. Not that Smart is sleeping on the passing game.
"Zach throws a good deep ball," Smart explained. The lanky quarterback who transferred to LSU from Georgia has thrown for 1,419 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions this season.
Starting cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Deion Belue will be tasked with defending LSU's weapons on the outside. Milliner leads the country in passes defended, a stat that combines pass breakups with interceptions. Belue hasn't been much easier to throw on either. The junior college transfer stepped in as the starter opposite Milliner right away.
LSU coach Les Miles told ESPN on Tuesday that his team will have to throw the ball against Alabama, something the secondary is prepared for.
“We know they are going to run the ball and take shots down the field," UA safety Robert Lester said. The senior from southern Alabama has gone back-to-back weeks with an interception, his last coming in the end zone against then-undefeated Mississippi State. "As long as we’re prepared for it and we know at least something that is coming, I think we’ll be good.”
Lester is one of the few returning starters from a year ago. Smart and head coach Nick Saban had to rebuild Alabama's defense this offseason, incorporating first-time starters such as Milliner and Belue, as well as sophomores such as Trey DePriest and Vinnie Sunseri who starred on special teams last season.
Smart said he's seen a more hungry, more coachable group of players this season. The latter might contribute to the scruffy beard.
"There's a lot of work, a lot of effort," Smart explained.
In Baton Rouge, the Crimson Tide will need all the effort they can muster. Only one team will leave Death Valley on the fast track to the SEC Championship Game, and the defense is likely to be the difference in who comes out on top.
"All we heard all summer is we wouldn't be good enough," UA linebacker Nico Johnson told ESPN's Samantha Steele.
Johnson said he didn't feel like the defense got the respect they deserved after losing seven starters to the NFL over the offseason. Those who returned came back during spring and fall practice ready to work hard to prove the doubters wrong, incorporating rookies like Deion Belue at cornerback, Xzavier Dickson at Jack linebacker and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix at safety.
The transition, by all accounts, has been seamless. UA is No. 1 in the country in all four major defensive categories, giving up less than 9 points per game. In fact, the defense has actually gotten better at creating more big plays, coming in this week on pace to surpass last year's number of interceptions, fumble recoveries and sacks.
But there's a standard Alabama's defense is living up to, said fellow linebacker C.J. Mosley. The standard isn't about statistics or standings. It's about blocking out the hype and getting better every week. With LSU on tap Saturday, the challenge is bigger than ever. The Tigers have a physical running game unlike anything the Tide has seen this season.
"We know what kind of game it's going to be," Mosley told Steele.
Johnson said the defense is preparing as it does for every game: "Like it's our last."
Two years ago, LSU beat Alabama with a late touchdown in Baton Rouge. That season, Alabama fell to South Carolina and Auburn in dramatic fashion as well. Johnson said he felt like the defense let them down then and he's not ready for a repeat this season.
"We feel like this year we can't let that happen," Johnson said.
On the LSU side? Not so much.
At various points during a second straight subpar performance by LSU, following last week's 12-10 win over Auburn, the home-standing Tigers got all they wanted from an FCS team that, while ranked No. 12 in its division, should not have been able to compete with LSU like it did.
The LSU fans sometimes let them know.
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AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLSU QB Zach Mettenberger will look to turn around a passing attack that struggled last season.
A major reason for the high expectations is at quarterback, where LSU fans believe it’s a matter of addition by subtraction. Redshirt junior Zach Mettenberger replaces Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, who shared the starting job last season. Who would’ve guessed that would be the case for a school replacing two players with a combined 50 career starts (32 for Jefferson, 18 for Lee) since 2008 with one who has never started an NCAA game?
With Jefferson and Lee as the primary starters over the last four seasons, the Tigers’ passing attack has struggled mightily. They finished in the bottom half of the SEC in four key passing statistical categories during that span.
In 2011, LSU nearly became the second team to beat four AP top-3 opponents in one season (Notre Dame did it in 1943) since the poll came into existence in 1936. The Tigers beat No. 3 Oregon, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Arkansas before losing to the second-ranked Crimson Tide in their rematch in the BCS National Championship Game. In four of its key games – the season opener against the Ducks, both Alabama matchups and the SEC Championship Game against Georgia – LSU got almost nothing from its passing attack yet managed to win three of those contests.
Enter Mettenberger, a strong-armed, pure pocket passer and the most highly touted quarterback to arrive on the LSU campus since JaMarcus Russell (ranked sixth), the first pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, signed in 2003. Mettenberger, the ninth-ranked quarterback in the 2009 signing class, first signed with Georgia but was dismissed from the team in 2010 before ever playing a down for the Bulldogs after getting into legal trouble.
Mettenberger then transferred to Butler (Kan.) Community College, where he led his team to the national title game in his lone season there and was the top-ranked quarterback in the junior college ranks before signing with LSU in 2011. Last season, Mettenberger completed 8-of-11 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown in five games.
LSU already possesses arguably the best set of running backs in the country and one of the nation’s most ferocious defenses. If Mettenberger can improve LSU’s oft-anemic passing attack, it’s easy to envision the Tigers in South Florida playing for the national championship for the second straight season.
Seemingly everyone wants a piece of it, which is why so many people at so many major events hawk items of all shapes, types and sizes -- whether the items are legitimately made and licensed or counterfeit.
Last year, more than 60,000 pieces of counterfeit merchandise valued at more than $1 million overall were seized by Collegiate Licensing Company. While CLC represents nearly 200 colleges, universities, bowl games, athletic conferences, the Heisman Trophy and the NCAA, it’s not the only licensing agency around; Learfield Sports, Licensing Resource Group, and Silver Star Merchandising represent collegiate properties in their licensing efforts as well.
At the 2011 SEC championship Game, CLC took possession of 1,012 pieces of unlicensed product with an estimated retail value of more than $15,000. That’s up from 2010, when 541 pieces of unlicensed produced were seized or voluntarily surrendered by vendors. More than twice that many products were seized last January at the Rose Bowl by CLC.
CLC officials said that on average, nearly 5,000 counterfeit items, from T-shirts to hats to bracelets, are seized outside the host stadium of the BCS title game each year.
Some of the items are obvious: In December in Atlanta, a roaming vendor on Mangum Street south of the Georgia Dome peddled T-shirts, gold letters emblazoned on purple reading: “BATON [expletive] ROUGE.” The back of the shirt warned: “IF YOU DON’T BLEED PURPLE AND GOLD TAKE YOUR [double expletive] HOME!”
Most people wouldn’t consider such a shirt an officially licensed product of Louisiana State University because of the vulgar language. But another vendor sold shirts proclaiming a “2011 SEC Championship Showdown” and featured the trademarked logos for LSU and Georgia. Few buyers would be able to determine the shirts were counterfeit.
CLC investigators team with local police at major events and seize such material, give citations to the vendors or arrest them. Companies like CLC conduct such enforcement activities because federal law requires trademark owners to “police” their mark. Trademark law is largely enforced through private lawsuits, although there are also criminal penalties for counterfeiting goods. Failure to police a mark by attempting to prevent infringing uses can result in a loss of protection for a trademark.
In addition to registered trademarks at the state or federal level, universities can also claim common law rights to marks or wording typically associated with the university.
In 2008, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by a Louisiana federal district court against Smack Apparel for intentional trademark infringement based on its use of school colors in combination with other designs and words that made it apparent the references were designed to associate with a particular school. For example, one shirt featured the following: “Got Seven?” “We do! 7 Time National Champs.” The shirt included a depiction of the state of Ohio and a marker noting Columbus, Ohio, on the back. The court decided the shirt referred to the seven college football national titles claimed by Ohio State University.
The court ruled that the schools involved in the suit owned trademark rights in their color schemes and that combined with other indicia on the various shirts, such as the reference to Ohio State’s location in Columbus and national titles in the example above, trademark infringement had occurred, even without use of the school name or logo.
So, who are these vendors?
One of them cited in Atlanta was the man selling the shirts with the expletives. He said he planned to keep $8 of the $20 shirt cost, with $12 going to his boss. He expected to make $1,500 to $2,000 that day before he was stopped by CLC investigators and Atlanta police for vending without a permit.
The man said he was based out of Cleveland but traveled nearly every weekend for major sporting events. He said he worked for a company named Street Talk Tees, which is registered as a business in Ohio for “novelty tees and apparel.” The vendor said his company employs about 30 people who travel to events -- two others also worked the SEC game.
Requests for comment from Street Talk were not answered.
• Look for an “Officially Licensed Collegiate Products” hologram on the product or hangtag.
• Consider taste of the product, as distasteful designs are not approved by trademark holders.
• A torn or missing tag usually is evidence of a second-hand garment.
• The name of the manufacturer will be on the product somewhere, either in the form of a hangtag, a neck label, or screen-printed directly.
• All merchandise should have appropriate trademark designations next to a specific name or design.
Why be so conscientious when you buy collegiate merchandise? Each year, universities depend on millions of dollars in royalties to fund athletic programs and other university initiatives. For example, the University of Florida showed more than $6 million in licensing revenue on its audited financial statement for 2010-11, with just $40,000 of that going to CLC in marketing fees.
Ohio State budgeted for $3.5 million in licensing revenue for 2011-12 and projects $1.58 million of that will move from the athletic department to the university, to be used for academic programming and scholarships.
The average ticket price of $402 prior to the season is starting to look like a bargain, as fans are now looking at an average of $508 -- a 28% increase.
The cost is even more impressive when compared with ticket prices to the SEC Championship Game, annually college football’s most financially successful conference championship game. A ticket to last year’s game between Auburn and South Carolina went for an average of $460 on StubHub. Games in 2009 and 2008, which pitted Alabama against Florida, went for an average price of $573 and $488.
Glenn Lehrman of StubHub said this week’s matchup has become the highest-demand ticket his company has seen for an Alabama home game. It’s on pace to be the highest-selling college football game of the season and is only trailing the LSU-Oregon season opener. The highest-priced ticket Thursday morning was selling for about $5,000.
The hotel industry in Tuscaloosa is benefitting as well, although surprisingly there were still rooms available as of last week. A search last Thursday on Hotels.com indicated 22 hotels in Tuscaloosa ranging from $40 to $200 for the night of the game, and a search on Travelocity.com showed 20 hotels ranging from $40 to $215. Didn’t buy then? You’re out of luck -- the closest you’ll get now is Birmingham, about 55 miles away.
Media members aren’t faring much better in terms of trying to cover the game. Alabama expects approximately 600 credentialed media members. For an average game, roughly 350 credentials are granted.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Wow, a new concept for Alabama's football team.
The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide are behind, and not only are they behind, but they were completely out of character in the first quarter.
LSU took a 14-7 lead into the second quarter thanks in large part to two costly turnovers by the Crimson Tide and an offensive line that has clearly come to play in this game.
Now we get to see what everybody has been wondering all season about this Alabama team: Can the Crimson Tide come from behind to win a football game?
Alabama trailed for the final 5:57 of the first quarter after LSU's Charles Scott ripped through a huge hole to the right side and sprinted 30 yards for a touchdown. Previously, Alabama had trailed for only 1 minute and 15 seconds all season.
LSU took over on the Alabama 30 after Javier Arenas lost a fumble on a punt return while trying to get something extra on the return when there was nothing there.
Alabama came into this game with the reputation of being one of most physical teams in the country, but LSU is the one setting the tone right now as far as laying the crunching licks. The LSU defense has also been able to get some good pressure on Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson and force him out of the pocket a couple of times.