KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — No. 1 Alabama seems to have few flaws, at least few that have been exposed by anyone other than Johnny Manziel.
Gribble previously covered Tennessee for the News Sentinel. Since he started on the Alabama beat, the Tide is 20-1.
1. Does the injury to Vinnie Sunseri leave the Tide’s secondary vulnerable in any way, or is it just on to the next one?
The biggest loss that comes from Sunseri’s injury is the leadership void it creates on the back end of Alabama’s defense. Sunseri had really emerged as the commander of Alabama’s secondary and was in charge of putting players in their proper positions. This aspect of his game was incredibly valuable during a stretch in which CB Deion Belue dealt (and continues to deal) with a nagging injury, S HaHa Clinton-Dix was suspended and a rotating crew of underclassmen was filling the other CB spot.
Sophomore Landon Collins will replace Sunseri in most formations. Collins is incredibly talented and has been playing his butt off wherever Alabama has asked. He’s an absolute monster on special teams. So from that standpoint, Alabama has other positions with a greater drop-off in talent than the one they’re testing at strong safety. That said, a team never gets better when a player like Sunseri goes down.
2. There’s been a lot of talk about the relevance of this rivalry. There have been streaks in the series before, but the margin of Alabama’s recent wins have been very large. How do fans, players and coaches view this series?
I think this rivalry had understandably grown a bit stale with Alabama fans and players over the past couple of years, but Tennessee’s big win against South Carolina seems to have rekindled some of the back-and-forth that makes it one of the best in the SEC. Alabama’s administrators are just as serious as Dave Hart when it pertains to making sure this rivalry game remains in place on future SEC schedules.
With the way Alabama’s 2013 schedule has played out, I think Crimson Tide fans and players have been looking for something to get excited about other than the LSU game, and this seems like the perfect time heading into a bye week.
3. Texas A&M is the only Alabama opponent that has kept the game close. Is there anything that a team without Johnny Manziel on its roster can learn from that game?
That’s tough because Manziel really appears to be this defense’s only version of kryptonite. Perhaps because of what Manziel has done to Alabama over the past two years, there’s a misguided perception that it struggles to stop mobile quarterbacks. That’s not true at all. This defense struggles to stop quarterbacks who can run as well as a running back, scramble for seven or eight seconds and then find a super talented receiver open down the field with accurate passes.
If anything, I suppose this year’s Texas A&M game highlighted Alabama’s need for a cornerback other than Belue to step up and hold his own against man coverage. Belue isn’t at 100 percent and likely won’t be during the rest of the season because of a toe injury. Alabama has started three different players at the opposite cornerback spot and drawn mixed results. No team since Texas A&M has been able to take advantage of it.
4. How does this team compare to past Alabama national championship teams?
When Alabama appeared to be struggling early in the season, many folks started making comparisons to 2010, when Alabama had a loaded roster but ultimately never lived up to expectations and lost three times. Those comparisons have stopped because of what the Crimson Tide has done over the past three weeks. While the 2010 team never seemed to improve, this Alabama team — other than its letdown stinker against Colorado State — has gotten better with each game.
The offense is a bit behind last year’s pace because of the season opener against Virginia Tech and the defense is just off the pace set by the 2011 team because of Texas A&M. This season’s special teams is probably the best Nick Saban has ever had at Alabama. It probably wasn’t until last week when Alabama was able to get all three facets clicking at the same time. When it does, games like Saturday’s 52-0 rout of Arkansas happen.
5. What is the biggest hurdle in Alabama’s path to another title?
From an on-field perspective, LSU and Auburn remain the two toughest challenges. On paper, Alabama has the clear advantage over LSU, but only one game between the teams has been separated by fewer than 10 points since Saban was hired. Auburn has been playing incredibly well, but the Tigers’ strength (running the ball) plays into one of Alabama’s top strengths (stopping the run.) This team has the depth to survive a few more injuries, but there are key spots such as quarterback, left tackle, cornerback and now safety where Alabama’s title run would really be jeopardized if something happened to the starters at those positions.
This year’s Crimson Tide has seemingly dealt with more off-the-field issues than any of Saban’s previous teams. The “clutter” hasn’t seemed to affect the players much, as Alabama scored its biggest win of the season just days after the Yahoo! D.J. Fluker story dropped. The only one that truly affected the on-field product, though, was Clinton-Dix’s suspension. Alabama outscored the competition 93-10 during his absence, so it clearly came at an ideal time on the schedule.