Alabama-FAU preview

Crimson Tide don't plan on overlooking this particular Sun Belt opponent

Updated: September 20, 2012, 5:20 PM ET
By Alex Scarborough | TideNation

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Try and kick the hornet's nest all he wants, but Florida Atlantic defensive end Cory Henry can't make the Owls' matchup against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday any less about what the Crimson Tide want to accomplish.

Alabama is rolling into Week 4 undefeated, having outscored opponents 128-14, and are determined to keep their focus on the task at hand, no matter who the opponent might be.

[+] EnlargeKawaun Jakes
AP Photo/Dave MartinXzavier Dickson and the Alabama defense will be looking to get more of a pass rush going on Saturday.
It wasn't but a few weeks ago that Alabama failed to do that, incurring the wrath of coach Nick Saban, who called the Tide' performance against another Sun Belt team in Western Kentucky embarrassing.

"The players kind of feel like we didn't play very well at home the last time, so maybe we'll be able to play a little better this time around," Saban said.

Linebacker Adrian Hubbard said the mood around the team has been different this week.

"We were kind of, eh, I wouldn't say like putting [WKU] down as a team, but we kinda weren't feeling it and we don't want to make the same mistake in not preparing the right way," Hubbard said. "So this week we're preparing for [FAU] like any other team."

Three storylines

1. Edge rushers getting after it: Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson and Co. got a chance to show some of what they can do against Arkansas, the Tide's first game against what should have been a true pocket passer. Alabama left Fayetteville with four sacks. Florida Atlantic has given up five all season, and that number could grow when it travels to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
2. Will a go-to receiver emerge?: It doesn't have to happen for Alabama's offense to be successful, but most quarterbacks develop a go-to target over time. So far, AJ McCarron has not, spreading the ball around to all of his receivers. Kevin Norwood looked like the guy to become the No. 1 option through two games, then along came Christion Jones making plays from the slot. Will one of those two step into the lead dog role among receivers, or will it be someone else?
3. Putting together a perfect game: It may be impossible, but Saban won't rest until the Tide put together a flawless game. Against Michigan, the secondary looked so-so. Against WKU, it was the pass protection that seemed problematic. Against Arkansas, there was a mix of issues troubling the head coach -- penalties, pass protection, mental errors. A perfect game where none of those things happen may be impossible, but the Tide will certainly search it out against Florida Atlantic.

Alabama players to watch

1. RT D.J. Fluker: The junior has been getting beat by more athletic pass-rushers in recent weeks, a disturbing trend for those concerned about the health of McCarron. Cleaning up errors in pass protection could be as easy as a few technical adjustments, at least that's the hope for those who expected Fluker to be a first-round pick this year.
2. CB Dee Milliner: Milliner came back against Arkansas, shut down Cobi Hamilton and made a few big plays in the process, nearly taking an interception off the ground. But this week he's practiced with a light cast on his hand, another in what's becoming a trend of nagging injuries to Alabama's best cornerback.
3.WR Amari Cooper: The true freshman Saban raved about all spring and fall was mostly kept quiet for the first two weeks of these season. Against Arkansas, his game spoke up, catching two passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. Could that be the kickstart Cooper needed?

Florida Atlantic players to watch

1. QB Graham Wilbert: Through two quarters, the FAU offense looked like it could move the ball on Georgia, putting up 14 points in the first half. Wilbert would finish the game with 183 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
2. LB Randell Johnson: The junior is a heavy hitter from the linebacker position. Johnson is athletic and is one of the leaders of the FAU defense. He had five sacks last season and leads the team in quarterback hurries this year.

3. WR Byron Hankerson: The redshirt senior isn't at the top of the charts in receptions, but his numbers are nonetheless impressive. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Florida native leads the team with two touchdowns and averages 16.4 yards per catch.

Key matchup

The battle up front: It will be strength versus strength when the Alabama offense decides to run the ball against Florida Atlantic. The Owls front seven is where they're strongest, led by Johnson and fellow linebacker David Hinds. Given the way Alabama's pass protection looked against WKU, we might see Carl Pelini try to attack the offense by overloading on the rush and daring McCarron to pass.

By the numbers

9: Just how dominant has the Alabama defense been this season? It's been nine quarters since a team has scored on it.
713: There's no doubting Georgia's offensive potential, but 713 yards? That's what Florida Atlantic gave up in Athens, Ga., last weekend in a 56-20 loss.
6: McCarron has been a machine this season, tossing seven touchdowns and no interceptions, bringing his streak of games without an interception to six.

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter