BamaMag.com's Kirk McNair answered five pertinent questions on the Crimson Tide, updating the latest on Alabama's offense, defense and injury situation. See his responses below.
1. A lot was made of all the changes along Alabama's offensive line prior to this season. Eight games in, how would you grade them out? Which player has taken the mantle as leader? And where, if anywhere, is there still uncertainty?
Answer: Understandably, many attributed Alabama's 2012 success to one of the most talented offensive lines in college football. Three starters from last year were NFL draft picks – two of them first round selections. Center Barrett Jones, who was not a first round selection (taken in the third round), was probably the most difficult to replace from a leadership standpoint. The returning starters are left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen, both projected as high draft choices next spring and both have been leaders on the line. Cyrus's brother, Arie Kouandjio, moved into Chance Warmack's position at left guard and has developed into an outstanding player. Austin Shepherd has been a little slower developing as D.J. Fluker's replacement at right tackle. Ryan Kelly came into the season with great expectations at center, but missed four games with a knee injury. Although Chad Lindsay was a strong replacement, Kelly returned to his starting job in Bama's last game. The line has not given up a sack in four games, only seven on the season (four in the first game).
2. Defensively, do you expect Alabama to first try to take away Jeremy Hill and the running game or Zach Mettenberger and the passing attack? In other words, which way would the Tide prefer to make LSU try and beat them?
Answer: This does, indeed, appear to be a "pick your poison" quandary for the Alabama defense. Bama Coach Nick Saban made much of LSU being balanced and strong in both offensive phases. Knee-jerk reaction is to say that the Tide always wants to stop the run first. Historically, if a team can run, it can't be stopped. Alabama, though, usually defends first against the pass, or so it seems. Look for Bama, which bills itself as a 3-4 defense, to be more 3-3 with an extra safety-type at nickel. The safeties in the Alabama scheme are charged with having run responsibility, but the look LSU will get is a pass defense. It should be noted that the Tide is once again very good on defense, leading the SEC in rushing defense, pass defense, total defense, and scoring defense.
3. How have you seen A.J. McCarron grow or expand his game in his senior season following two straight national title runs?
Answer: We hypothesized prior to the start of the season that AJ McCarron was the best quarterback ever at Alabama. Better than two-time Super Bowl Champion and MVP Bart Starr. Better than Super Bowl Champion and MVP Joe Namath. Better than Super Bowl Champion Kenny Stabler. Take the best year each of those three had at Alabama in passing for touchdowns and they combined for 30. McCarron had 30 last year. And only three interceptions. Although he has the reputation of "game manager" as if he didn't have real quarterback skills, McCarron has been outstanding in making the big throws in clutch situations and in not making mistakes. He is the unquestioned leader of the offense. The most important thing to know about McCarron is that his record as a starting quarterback at Alabama is 33-2, which is best in SEC history and fourth in NCAA history.
4. Many around the SEC point to the LSU-Georgia and Alabama-Texas A&M games as reasons why this contest Saturday will probably follow suit and turn into a shootout. What's the feel around the team on this subject? And, on that train of thought, would Alabama prefer a low-scoring game or one where the points fly versus LSU?
Answer: When Saban met Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin following Alabama's 49-42 win over the Aggies in College Station earlier this year, Saban said, "You took 10 years off my life." The Tide probably does not want a game where the first team to punt loses. But, as it proved against Johnny Manziel and company, Bama can play that game, too. Alabama's rushing and passing numbers may not be spectacular, but the Tide is second in the SEC in scoring offense at 41.2 points per game – a point a game more than LSU! No one around the Alabama camp thinks that Saturday's game will resemble 2011, when LSU won 9-6 in overtime. But no one expects the game to blow out lights in the scoreboard, either. So somewhere between 9-6 and 49-42, but just where between? Both Alabama and LSU have impressive offensive weapons, but it's hard to imagine any Tide-Tigers game not being heavily influenced, if not decided, by defensive play.
5. Any noteworthy injury updates on players who would have an effect in a ballgame like this?
Answer: After a bye week, Alabama seems to be as healthy as could be expected. Although Bama has been relatively injury free all year, there have been a curiously high number of turf toe injuries – and they occurred on natural, Les Miles-chomping type grass, not on artificial turf. All of those "nicked," though, are expected to be full speed on Saturday. An exception and tough loss for the Bama defense is strong safety Vinnie Sunseri, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Tide's seventh game of the season. Sunseri was the most veteran of a rebuilding secondary and the man who called defensive alignments.
What stands out most about LSU-Alabama matchup?