The Other Side: Alabama

The Sugar Bowl is less than a week away now, so before the teams arrive in New Orleans tomorrow, we figured we'd check in with our Alabama site for this edition of The Other Side. and its Alabama colleague,, have cooperated in bringing special coverage of this year’s Sugar Bowl – which is also a semifinal game in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Editors of the sites are answering questions from the other.

Ohio State and the Crimson Tide play at 8:30 ET Thursday, Jan. 1, in the Superdome in New Orleans.

Here are the questions about Alabama football as asked by and the answers provided by editor Kirk McNair.

1. How surprising has Blake Sims' play been this season and what are his strong suits and weaknesses?

How surprising? On a scale of 1-10, about a 35. He is a fifth-year senior who at one time had been a running back and who for the rest of his career had been a mop-up duty quarterback. His performance in Alabama’s spring game did nothing to inspire confidence.

Almost everyone expected Jacob Coker, a transfer from Florida State, to be Bama’s starting quarterback. FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said Nick Saban would have his best quarterback ever at Alabama.

Fisher may have been correct, but he had the wrong quarterback.

Sims’s strong suits are multiple, including being the inspirational leader of this team. He is also very, very good as a passer, both long and quick, and he is an adept runner, primarily as a scrambler.

His main weakness, a lack of experience, is mostly covered up by a strong supporting cast.

2. How has Lane Kiffin changed up the Tide offense this year?

Kiffin’s strong suit throughout his career has been his ability to design an offense to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Kiffin’s charge from Saban was to have more offense that attacked downfield.

Kiffin did not so much change the Alabama offense as he did make very good use of playmakers, notably junior wide receiver Amari Cooper, who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting. Cooper set Southeastern Conference records for receptions (115) and yards (1,656) this year.

Kiffin also was responsible for developing Sims into one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.

Alabama has already set a program record for total offense with 6,376 yards, 6.7 yards per play and 490.5 yards per game.

As for Saban’s edict to attack downfield, Bama has had 67 offensive plays of over 20 yards.

3. Alabama's run defense has put up some excellent numbers, keeping all but one team below four yards per carry. Where has the Tide excelled here and are the numbers legit?

The Tide defense under Saban ordinarily has ranked among the best in the nation and this year is no exception, particularly in rushing defense. Bama has allowed only 88.6 yards per game and only 2.8 yards per rush and has surrendered only three rushing touchdowns.

Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have used the same schemes in the past eight years, which is a big defensive line that occupies offensive linemen and allows inside linebackers and safeties to make most of the tackles. Outside rush plays are usually run down by very fast outside linebackers.

The rushing defense this year may have been a little stronger because of the tackles made by defensive linemen Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, and Jonathan Allen.

4. Some people have said Alabama's pass defense is a weakness. Is this true, and how so?

Weakness might be a little strong, but certainly less efficient than run defense. Only two Bama opponents had more rushing yards than passing yards. Florida passed for only 93 yards and LSU for only 76. The Tide has given up almost three times as many yards passing (2,909) as rushing (1,152) and surrendered 17 passing touchdowns to only three rushing.

One reason is because Saban recruits too well. Over the past three years the Tide has lost no fewer than four junior cornerbacks and safeties to the NFL draft, including three in the first round. Another is because Bama opponents usually have more pass attempts than rush attempts. This year there have been 457 passes compared to 410 rushes against the Alabama defense.

The numbers are a little skewed by the Tide defense turning in 29 sacks. Alabama has 10 interceptions.

5. Is there a feeling about how this team compares to some past Nick Saban Alabama teams, especially those who have won national championships?

There are some comparisons. For example, the 2009 and 2011 national championship teams had first-year quarterbacks, as does this year’s team. This team has a strong running game as did the teams that won national championships with the likes of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Eddie Lacy. It has a big, athletic offensive line and a defense loaded with likely future NFL draft choices. Finally, the kicking game is solid overall, spectacular in some areas.

Most, however, believe that there is a difference in this team in that Saban has done his best job. Before the midpoint of the season Alabama had a loss at Ole Miss and a close call at Arkansas. It rebounded with impressive victories over four ranked teams – Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State (which was ranked No. 1), and Auburn.

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