Joe Medley: Take a breath on anointing No. 1 Tide, but smile
by Joe Medley
Sep 21, 2012 | 4354 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama coach Nick Saban leads the Crimson Tide onto the field in the home opener against Western Kentucky. (File photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Alabama coach Nick Saban leads the Crimson Tide onto the field in the home opener against Western Kentucky. (File photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
It took just three games to make minds about Alabama, and minds are making Alabama.

Of 60 Associated Press poll voters, 58 voted Alabama No. 1 this past weekend.

Of 59 USA Today poll voters, 54 picked Alabama No. 1.

Vegas has the Crimson Tide as a 2-1 favorite to repeat as national champions and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit says it will take Jim Harbaugh’s San Franciso 49ers to beat Bama.

NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. calls Alabama “a little overrated” and calls the flock to anoint the Tide an “overreaction,” but there’s always one.

There’s always one annoying realist.

Let’s be honest. Who can really be so certain just three games in?

What can we really know after Alabama proved then-No. 8 Michigan more overrated than anything?

Does hammering a second ex-No. 8 team mean anything, now that Arkansas has gone from motorcycle wreck to train wreck in five months?

Wait! Don’t make like Lane Kiffin and walk out on me here. Smile, or I’m not writing another word.

OK, smile and I’ll stop.

Hah! Got you to smile.

How about we stick to what’s knowable so early in the season, and it’s not that the Tide is about to win another national title.

Could happen, but Alabama still has to play a losable game at No. 2 LSU on Nov. 3. Don’t count on poll voters holding their noses for another Alabama-LSU rematch in the BCS final.

What we can know about Nick Saban’s sixth Alabama team is that it’s overall better than his fifth, which got voters to hold their noses and vote it into the title game after a loss to LSU.

It’s not so much the defense, though this year’s young Tide defense has its finer points.

It still looks hard to move the ball down the field against Alabama without a drive-killing negative play. The Tide has shut out two of three opponents and given up two touchdowns all year, both on long Denard Robinson passes.

The biggest difference on defense? This Alabama team gets turnovers.

The Tide is tied with Mississippi State for the national lead in turnover margin, and State has already had its game against Auburn’s Kiehl Frazier.

Alabama finished 2011 at No. 23 in turnover margin, a full turnover a game behind national leader Oklahoma State and almost a full turnover a game behind LSU.

Saban went to see how the New Orleans Saints coached turnover-oriented defense and implemented it a year ago. It’s paying off more this year, which he attributes to better buy-in.

Imagine the 2011 Alabama defense with one more turnover a game.

But the real difference this year is a more dynamic offense. Alabama doesn’t have to dominate anybody on defense.

You won’t find the evidence in national stats. Alabama ranks just 17th in scoring offense and 69th in total offense, but the Tide has spent the second halves of its three games scrimmaging routed opponents.

Alabama has a quarterback in A.J. McCarron who has been there and done that, having come of age in last season’s title game. He’s playing with confidence, and Alabama ranks third in pass efficiency.

The Tide looks better at wide receiver and doesn’t appear to miss much without departed running back Trent Richardson, thanks to freshman T.J. Yeldon.

It all looks so good largely because Alabama is so good up front. Now that Western Kentucky’s coaches have sufficiently called out D.J. Fluker for tipping plays with his stance, it seems the offensive line has run out of glitches.

It’s no shock, then, that Alabama is tied for first nationally in red zone offense, scoring on all 12 chances, including 10 touchdowns. A year ago, Alabama finished 19th, with 32 touchdowns in 58 chances.

Clinching Alabama’s picture of overall improvement over a year ago, there’s distance kicker Cade Foster.

A year ago, Alabama fans closed their eyes and prayed when he took the field. Three games into the next season, he’s the first Tide kicker since Leigh Tiffin in 2008 to hit two field goals of 50 yards or longer in a season.

Of course, the ultimate measure of this year’s Alabama team against last year’s will be a national title, and the Tide’s prospects need to clear that Nov. 3 hurdle.

Assuming Saban and the Tide do, the breathless anointing can ensue.

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

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