Special Teams: The Tide's 'X' Factor

The Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Florida International Panthers 40-14 in front of a sellout crowd in the home opener at Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night. No. 4 Alabama racked up more than 500 yards of total offense, and Greg McElroy completed a school-record 14 straight passes. As for special teams, former Tide kicker Jamie Christensen recaps the players who make a difference.


The storied Alabama football program captured the program's 800th win in Atlanta with a 34-24 victory over No. 7 Virginia Tech. Becoming only the seventh school in the Football Bowl Subdivision to reach the 800-win plateau. The Alabama coaching staff recognized P.J. Fitzgerald and Brian Selman as special teams players of the week.

Brian Selman was again perfect on 13 snapping opportunities in the Virginia Tech game, recovered a fumble after hustling down on punt coverage and down another punt inside the Virginia Tech 5-yard line. Fitzgerald averaged 44.8 yards on five punts with a long of 53 yards while pinning the Hokies inside the 20-yard line three times.

Tide vs. FIU:

Return specialist Javier Arenas was electrifying with four punt returns for 101 yards in Tuscaloosa. P.J. Fitzgerald and Brian Selman recorded strong performances for consecutive weeks. Kicker Leigh Tiffin was a solid two of three in field goal attempts. With Saturday nights' performance Tiffin tied his father, Van Tiffin, for third place on the career field goals list at Alabama with 59.

Individually, Alabama has some of the top specialists in the country. They will prove to be Crimson Tide's 'X' factor in a number of big games this season.

However, as in the game last week, the kickoff coverage was horrible.

After taking a 10-0 lead, FIU's T.Y. Hilton proved he's as good as anybody in the country. He led the country in all-purpose yards in 2008. On Saturday night he did what he does best, taking the ensuing kickoff 96 yards virtually untouched into the end zone, to give FIU its first score.

When the elusive Hilton reached Alabama's end zone it confirmed my biggest concern of Alabama's special teams, the kickoff cover unit. It's uncharacteristic of one of the nation's top teams to give up a kickoff return for a touchdown for the second week in a row.

When they have resorted to alternative kicks they sacrifice valuable field position. Overall, Alabama has become predictable on punt and kick off coverage. It is not execution that has caused the poor coverage.

The opposing team knows what to expect when given a certain scenario. This must be corrected. Special teams can equalize a large talent differential quickly if going against a predictable opponent.

Spotting the opposition one or two touchdowns and 200 yards of field position every game may prove to be costly to the Tide. If Alabama wishes to return to Atlanta they must become flawless on special teams.

Although Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal never faced Alabama during his coaching career, he did encounter the Crimson Tide on two occasions as a starting offensive lineman for the Miami Hurricanes from 1989-92.

As a freshman, Cristobal played on a Miami team that beat Alabama 33-25 in the Sugar Bowl and clinch the national championship. As a senior, he was a starting offensive lineman for a Miami squad that was beaten 34-13 by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl as the Crimson Tide clinched its 12th national championship.

Saturday night when coach Cristobal and the Florida International Panthers took on Alabama he was handed the same result as the 1992 national championship game, a defeat.

The most important statistic of the night is the Crimson Tide prevailed victorious. It may not have been the blowout performance Tide fans expected, but it's a win and the Alabama is off to a 2-0 start.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Alabama has one of the most difficult schedules in the nation with three games against teams ranked in the USA Today Coaches' Poll top 10. The first one is behind us.

The Tide proved its worth against No. 7 Virginia Tech in the season opener. They travel to Oxford to face the Ole Miss Rebels on Oct. 10. The final preseason top-10 foe is LSU, who will visit Tuscaloosa on Nov 7.

Jamie Christensen is the only player in Crimson Tide history to kick consecutive game winning field goals, as well as three last second, game winning field goals in one season: vs. Ole Miss on October 15, 2005, vs. Tennessee on October 22, 2005, and The Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech on January 2, 2006.

Christensen was in Tuscaloosa from 2003-2007 and played under coach Mike Shula (4 years) and coach Nick Saban (1 year).

He is a graduate of the Culverhouse College of Commerce with a B.S. in Business Management, B.S. in Marketing and a minor in Finance.

Christensen is a Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch in Atlanta [click here].

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