Stuart McNair

Alabama is a marked team and there are questions about the Tide

Everything is not settled for undefeated No. 1 Alabama

Uneasy is the head that wears the crown. True, Alabama won the 2015 crown and doesn’t have the 2016 version, but the Crimson Tide is still king of college football. The next would-be usurper is a past national champion with reason to blame Alabama – and, specifically, the head coach who abdicated at LSU and resurrected in Tuscaloosa – for Bayou Blues.

Nick Saban will lead his Crimson Tide into Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge Saturday for a meeting of No. 1 Bama (8-0 overall, 5-0 in Southeastern Conference games) and No. 13 LSU (5-2, 3-1). Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. CDT with CBS televising.

LSU has changed coaches this year, dumping longtime Coach Les Miles, who had led the Tigers to one national championship and the brink of another, for Ed Orgeron after just four games.

Orgeron endeared himself to the LSU faithful last week with the curious (and unsubstantiated) claim that his father was either rude enough or stupid enough to bar former Alabama Coach Paul Bryant from recruiting Orgeron as a student-athlete.

That is not a question worth pondering, but that doesn’t mean there are not questions – some specific to Alabama vs. LSU and some germaine to the remainder of the season. Bama is coming off an open date after two-third of regular season play and fairly can be said to be in the home stretch.

Here are five such questions:

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1. A two-parter regarding the season-ending broken leg by Eddie Jackson as to who replaces him at safety and who replaces him as punt return specialist?

Sophomore Xavian Marks might seem to be the obvious man elevated to punt return specialist based primarily on his 75-yard return for a touchdown against Kent State, but Marks also had some problems in allowing some punts to hit the ground and roll. He had, shall we say, a “conversation” with Saban about that just before his long runback.

There are other possibilities, including outstanding all-around athlete Trevon Diggs and all-star wide receiver Calvin Ridley.

As for replacing Jackson at safety, we see three possibilities and certainly acknowledge that Saban might very well have completely different ideas about how to adjust. Minkah Fitzpatrick is in his second year at Star (or nickel back). He could be moved to safety with either Tony Brown, who we have thought of as a cornerback, moving to star. Or Brown might move to safety. The other possibility is Hootie Jones, who is considered a safety and who replaced Jackson after his injury against Texas A&M, taking over.

2. Can Alabama’s defense keep LSU superstar tailback Leonard Fournette in check?

Yes, it happened last year when the Tide held Fournette to only 31 yards on 19 carries, but Fournette is coming off a game in which he set an LSU rushing record against Ole Miss and he’s had another week to get into game shape after having missed a few games with an ankle injury. Alabama does lead the nation in rushing defense (allowing only 70.1 yards per game and 2.2 yards per rushing attempt) with a strong line and linebackers, but it’s not quite as deep and not composed of quite as big men as last year.

And this is important going forward, too, because the Tide can see some very strong runners down the road when Auburn comes to Tuscaloosa.

3. If it somes to it, can freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts make the deep throws that might be necessary to win a football game?

Certainly Hurts has proved his mettle in coming in as a true freshman and winning the job with a sterling performance in Bama’s season-opening game against Southern Cal, when he passed for two touchdowns and ran for two.

Saban said he wants Alabama to be “a little more efficient getting the ball to our explosive guys down the field, which to me is not just about the quarterback. It's about the protection. It's about the route runners. It's about quarterback reads. It's about timing. It's about a lot of things that need to come together.”

Remember, Hurts was quarterbacking Channelview (Texas) High School at this time last year. The game is much faster at this level. Just being able to check all progressions (potential receivers across the secondary) is a function of experience.

Although he has some long passes on his resume, his 63.1 completion percentage has been bolstered by the jet sweeps, Calvin Ridley or ArDarius Stewart running right in front of Hurts and taking a glorified handoff that is technically a pass.

Unquestionably, Hurts is a weapon. He is second in Bama rushing with 95 carries for 521 yards (5.5 per carry, 65.1 per game) and has completed 128 of 203 passes for 1,549 yards with 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

We still don’t know, though, about getting the ball downfield to those explosive guys who right now are running jet sweeps.

4. Can placekicker Adam Griffith be counted on in the clutch?

Adam Griffith is such a great story, from Polish orphan to kicking for the nation’s number one football team and having been a crucial part of one of the most important plays ever in a national championship game, his onside kick to Marlon Humphrey.

But when he misses a 29-yard field goal – as he did in Bama’s last game against Texas A&M – one can’t help but wonder if such a miss might come when it’s needed to win a game.

This year Griffith is 10-15 on field goals with a long of 48 against Kent State. His made field goals have been from 29, 36, 32, 30, 28, 48, 44, 24, 32, and 28. His misses have been from 48, 47, 35, 37, and 29.

For his career, Griffith is good on 46-69 field goal tries and 163-164 extra point kicks.

5. Can Alabama match LSU trash talk?

Just kidding. Nick Saban will be treating the media to an ice cream party before Alabama football players would say anything disrespectful to an opponent, before or after the game.

Redeaux 5. Until last year’s national championship game, when he was Offensive Most Valuable Player with 5 catches for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns, tight end O.J. Howard was known primarily for his catch and run for a 52-yard touchdown against LSU in his freshman season. Will Alabama continue the reprise of Howard – who has 22 catches and 278 yards with 2 touchdowns this year – in Baton Rouge?

It seems as though a team with a strong running game (Alabama is averaging 268.4 yards per game rushing this year) and those aforementioned “explosive guys down the field,” that a tight end like Howard is available almost at any time. At 6-6, 251 he’s a load for defensive backs, and as those linebackers seen chasing him down th field can attest, he’s too fast for linebackers.

But – a question for another day -- who doesn’t want to throw to the tight end?


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