TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Will this University of Alabama football team be satisfied at some point this season?
The players and coaches say no. But the way things have progressed over the first eight weeks of play, with numerous upsets and top-notch teams like Florida State having fallen by the wayside, it may be the deciding factor in eventually determining the national champion.
The Crimson Tide know they have the necessary talent. The team isn’t just all alone atop the SEC, but is the unanimous No. 1 in all the national polls, as well. It would be a complete shock if Alabama doesn’t end up part of the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive year.
It’s no wonder that Nick Saban talked about favorable media attention being like “rat poison” to the players because he knows the team has to keep improving if it wants to earn some rings.
“You want everybody to show improvement,” Saban said. “You want everybody to get better.
“I think it’s probably different with different guys. Some guys improved a little bit more as time goes on. Other guys struggle a little bit more and it takes them a little bit longer. I don’t think there’s necessarily a formula that says everybody progresses as the same pace.”
What Saban has learned over the years, often the hard way, is that the moment the players feel like they’ve arrived is when they’ll be most vulnerable. Ideally, it won’t happen until after the season is over.
Yet consider all the team statistical categories in which Alabama leads the SEC:
- Rushing offense
- Total offense
- Total defense
- Scoring offense
- Scoring defense
- Rushing defense
- Pass efficiency defense
- First downs
- Third-down conversions defense
- Fourth-down conversions
- Turnover margin
- Kickoff coverage
- Red-zone defense
Technically, the midway point of the regular season was two weeks ago, but this is Alabama, which has its sights set on playing the maximum 15 games — which would mean a third consecutive appearance in the National Championship Game.
There’s still a lot of football to be played, and the Crimson Tide don’t feel like they’ve come close to peaking yet in terms of execution and performance.
“The coach’s answer is that we’re still far from where we want to be, and I agree with that,” Alabama sophomore left tackle Jonah Williams said. “When I watch film, I’m very critical. There’s so much that we can better at on every play. But even when you do a great job, like on [the Damien Harris] 75-yard touchdown run [against Arkansas], I saw some things where it’s like we could have done a better job at that.
“So I think there’s a lot we can improve on. That’s why we come to practice every day and why we try to get better in meetings and in games, and stuff like that. There’s so much to get better at.”
With all that in mind, here’s SEC Country’s midseason report card:
Fans may be disappointed that sophomore Jalen Hurts hadn’t thrown more downfield, but some of that was due to Alabama blowing out so many opponents and coaches keeping things under wraps until necessary. Nevertheless, his development as a passer has been obvious. Even Tennessee coach Butch Jones said that he’s clearly more confident in the pocket, plus he’s only had one turnover. There’s been no regression while working with a different offensive coordinator, and becoming more of a pro-style quarterback bodes well for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, freshman Tua Tagovailoa is off to a great start as his backup.
“I don’t think things have expanded, I just think we’ve been in situations where we’ve kind of had to do certain things,” Hurts said. “You look at Vanderbilt, we ran the ball a lot because we had success running the ball. [Against Ole Miss] we maybe took a few shots because we had success doing it. When you have a lot of playmakers like [we do], you can kind of choose what you’re going to do and how you want to attack a team, because you can depend on all of your playmakers to make plays.”
And as he noted last week, Hurts has only played two full games this season.
Running backs (A)
We’ll just cut to the chase on this one — they’ve been terrific and figure to only get better as everyone gains more experience.
“I definitely think it helps having a lot of guys that can come in and make plays at any given moment in the game,” Harris said. “That’s kind of what we take pride in, in whoever’s number is called being able to make the play. We don’t care who makes it, as long as the play is made when it needs to be. It’s good to have all those guys out there, have a lot of guys able to have that chance to make a play.”
Wide receivers/tight ends (A-minus)
As a unit, they obviously could have better numbers, but the grade gets a bump due to the downfield blocking. Junior Calvin Ridley has been stellar. Look for senior Robert Foster to be more of a factor down the stretch and don’t forget about tight end Irv Smith Jr., who could be more of a matchup play against teams like LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. As the timing gets better with freshmen Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith, all three will only get better.
“We’re pleased with how they’ve developed and they’ve done a good job and been productive,” Saban said. “We have confidence in them and they have confidence in what we’re doing. They’re not going out there and making a lot of mental errors. They’re actually improving their ability to be better players without the ball, which means they’re blocking better and making less mental errors on the perimeter in terms of what they should do and how they should do it.”
Calvin Ridley. Whew. pic.twitter.com/9ROeICQZR8
— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) October 21, 2017
Offensive line (A-minus)
Three players have landed SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors — Williams, left guard Ross Pierschbacher and sophomore right tackle Matt Womack. Senior center Bradley Bozeman got a little beat up during the first half of the season, but he remains the leader of the unit and the rock in the middle. Williams and maybe one or two others will be in the running for All-American consideration. The line’s had some trouble with delayed blitzes and is often seeing seven or eight defenders in the box but you can’t argue with the numbers.
As for who’s been a tougher critic on Williams, the coaches or the player himself, he said: “A clash of the titans right there. I don’t know. I think that I am pretty harsh on myself, so the coaches have probably more constructive criticism and I am a little harsh on myself, going through and nitpicking on every single play what I can do better. But I think that’s a key for a lot of people in all aspects of sports and life who are successful, that they are usually their biggest critics.”
Defensive line (A-minus)
Junior Da’Ron Payne is having an outstanding season and should receive All-American consideration. The unit has done a very good job avoiding a letdown following senior Da’Shawn Hand’s MCL injury. His possible return for the LSU game on Nov. 4 could be huge for the stretch run. Junior Isaiah Buggs has a terrific motor and is getting better at containment. The only knock on sophomore Raekwon Davis is he freelances too much and doesn’t always stay with his assignment. The surprise of the unit has been freshman LaBryan Ray, who was expected to redshirt but is already showing flashes of brilliance.
“He was real athletic,” Payne said about his first impressive of Ray when he arrived. “I thought he was an outside linebacker, that’s how good he moved.”
This group will get an unfair grade because Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis both suffered major injuries during the season opener against Florida State, while senior Rashaan Evans and sophomore Anfernee Jennings have both sidelined, as well. It left senior Shaun Dion Hamilton on sort of an island for a bit, while junior Keith Holcombe and others filled in. Evans and Jennings have returned and both have made a huge difference, with Evans poised to have a monster second half.
“He’s definitely progressing, doing a lot better, getting even more and more comfortable,” Hamilton said. “I’m just glad he’s back on the field, that leadership and that passion. He’s always bringing that.”
Defensive backs (A)
Junior Minkah Fitzpatrick has become a strong blitzing threat to complement the rest of his game, while cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace have turned what was considered a question mark into a major strength. Their strong play has forced offenses to primarily attack under the coverage and more in the middle of the field, which is leading to more interceptions. The veteran unit is going to be very hard to replace next year, but that’s a problem for another day.
“I think we’ve been playing well, very consistent,” Averett said. “Haven’t really given up too many big plays. I feel like we’ve done well.”
— Jim Thorpe Award (@jimthorpeaward) October 23, 2017
Special teams (B)
JK Scott has been terrific on kickoffs and has the leg to make 50-yard plus field goals. A couple of shanks have hurt his punting numbers, but the key stat is opponents have just 1 return for 3 yards. They’re also only averaging 18.2 yards on kickoff returns. Punt returns have been a recent issue, with numerous fumbles, and Alabama had a blocked punt. Senior kicker Andy Pappanastos may be the surprise of the season. He leads the SEC in scoring in kicking, and is second overall by averaging 10.1 points per game. He’s 13-for-16 on field goal attempts.
“With the A-Day Game, I felt pretty bad,” Pappanastos said about missing two field goals in the spring game. “It was honestly very small, little mechanical issues that I had that game that the next day I kicked and I fixed it. It was kind of an interesting deal, but I didn’t want that feeling to happen again, so I really worked hard and put in a lot of work, me and JK both.
“I kind of got with him and got in his program, and he’s really committed to being great. And he’s done an awesome job since he’s been here, so I figured if I hopped in with him — we went into this year with the idea of leaving no stone unturned, so we really just hit it as hard as we could.”