Joe Medley: Despite all, Tide looks to be right on schedule
by Joe Medley
Oct 29, 2013 | 2232 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard (42) and defensive back Landon Collins (26) stop Tennessee running back Rajion Neal. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard (42) and defensive back Landon Collins (26) stop Tennessee running back Rajion Neal. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
TUSCALOOSA -- I watched an Alabama team that has clearly rounded back into championship form dismantle Tennessee on Saturday, and my mind started replaying months of on- and off-field news.

There were injuries, the kind that slowed stars like wide receiver Amari Cooper for the season’s first half and the kind that claimed key players like safety Vinnie Sunseri for the season.

There was major attrition on the offensive line, and former Crimson Tide running back Eddie Lacy has emerged as the Green Bay Packers’ lead back as a rookie.

There have been arrests/dismissals/suspensions, 11 at last count, and they’ve carried deep into the season.

Other potential off-field distractions, like the Yahoo Sports agents report and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix’s suspension for taking an impermissible loan from an assistant strength coach, came along.

Top-ranked and two-time-defending national champion Alabama hit many of the challenges that knock programs down a notch in the era of scholarship-limit parity. Just look at what’s happened to Georgia this season because of injuries.

Yet, here Alabama was, looking every bit the championship team on the fourth Saturday in October.

Those offensive-line woes from early on look largely gone, despite injuries impacting the center position.

The safety tapped into service because of Sunseri’s injury looked awfully good. Two plays after Tennessee receiver Cody Blanc adjusted back on a short-armed deep throw to burn him, sophomore Landon Collins showed the maturity to forget. He stalked the down-field next pass and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown.

That’s the third interception return for a touchdown from the strong safety position this season.

Cooper scored his first two touchdowns of the season over the past two games. He’s beating defenses deep and off the quick screen again, just like he did as a freshman in 2012.

At running back, T.J. Yeldon has stepped into Lacy’s spot as the lead ball carrier. No surprise there, but Kenyan Drake has emerged as the complement back that has become a staple in Nick Saban’s seven years as Alabama’s head coach.

As for off-field matters, some of which led even Saban to acknowledge “entitlement” issues on the roster, it’s hard to see any on-field impact.

A championship team that faced a checklist of challenges before and during this season is playing like a championship team again, and the Tide has no losses to show for its challenges. Alabama looks right on schedule.

We’ll find out how much of that owes to the soft middle of the Tide’s schedule Nov. 9, when the Tide faces an LSU.

But a pattern of success over the past four years, including three national-championship years, shows it’s more about the program Saban has built. He has maximized Alabama’s potential.

It’s another reminder that, in an era where one man down makes a difference for most teams, Saban has Alabama playing next-man-up football.

Challenges like resurgent Auburn loom past LSU, but this Alabama team has faced plenty of its own challenges. At this point, the only noticeable dropoff has been a first-place vote here and there.

Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, On Twitter @jmedley_star.
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