TUSCALOOSA — Six weeks into the season and Alabama is back in familiar territory, including regaining the No. 1 ranking it held almost all of last season.
As the top-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) closes out the first of two off weeks this season, it has spent the last several days fine-tuning and performing a “quality control” self-evaluation, as coaches sat down with each player individually and reviewed specific areas in need of improvement.
For junior receiver DeVonta Smith, who is coming off a record-breaking 274-yard, five-touchdown performance against Ole Miss, those areas included refining his blocking and not taking plays off if he knows ahead of time the ball isn’t coming his way.
“For me personally, getting my hands inside on blocks — I got two holding penalties this year, so that's my biggest concern,” Smith said this week. “And sometimes, just not being too smart. … Just knowing that even when I do know what's going, still do my job.”
And with the meat of its SEC schedule still ahead, things only get more difficult, including three Top 25 matchups among its remaining seven games — the first of which is Saturday at No. 21 Texas A&M (3-2, 1-1 SEC).
With that in mind, here are five areas the Tide still needs to improve upon moving forward:
1. Bring balance and ball control to its high-powered offense
Nick Saban has long been a proponent of a ground-and-pound approach on offense. But given Alabama’s high-powered personnel at both quarterback and receiver, the Crimson Tide offense has been much more explosive the past two seasons. That has been especially evident this season with 10 total plays of 40-plus yards already, including a nation’s-leading five that went for 74 or more yards and ended in touchdowns.
That offensive firepower has produced five straight games with 500 or more yards, and helped Alabama rank fourth nationally averaging 554.6 yards and 51.8 points per game. But much of that has come by way of its potent passing attack, with the Tide ranking second nationally with 1,903 passing yards and tied for first with 24 passing touchdowns this season. Meanwhile, its rushing attack has taken awhile to get going, ranking seventh in the SEC averaging 174 rushing yards and just two rushing touchdowns per game this season.
Not that anyone at Alabama is apologizing for its aerial success this season.
“I think you’ve got to play to your team’s strengths,” Saban said. “I don’t really think that by trying to protect some other part of the team that you take away from the team’s strengths. I don’t really know how that benefits us.”
Still, with such a quick-strike offense, it can put a lot of pressure on Alabama’s defense, which has already surrendered an average of 467.5 total yards and 27 points on 87 plays across its two SEC games so far this season.
“We have to keep the running game balanced,” junior tailback Brian Robinson Jr. said this week. “We have a lot of play-makers on offense. On the opportunities we get, we have to make the most of it.”
2. Perimeter tackling and third down defense
Saban said it best Saturday: Alabama got exposed a little on defense as Ole Miss and dual-threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee racked up 279 rushing yards, including 109 by Plumlee, most of which came on designed quarterback runs around the edge.
“Well, a lot of it is just mental errors,” Saban said Wednesday. “I mean, you got to get off the field when you get opportunities to get off the field, especially on third down.”
That’s been especially difficult against SEC competition as Alabama has allowed conference opponents to convert 42 percent on third downs (16-of-38), while its three non-conference foes have converted a combined 9-of-38 third downs.
Some of those third down struggles have come in the second halves of games against a mostly inexperienced second-team defense. Still, better perimeter tackling can help on some of those third-down opportunities, especially against the more athletic teams still ahead on the schedule.
3. Shore up the kicking issues
This could arguably be the single most important area of concern for Alabama moving forward. As Saban will tell you, special teams is a vital part of a team’s success and a mistake in that area could prove quite costly when games get tougher later on in the season. That is why the Crimson Tide need to address its continued kicking woes as soon as possible, both from a kicking and punting perspective.
Alabama’s 35.45 average yards per punt ranks 128th out of 130 Division I programs, with only Coastal Carolina (35.15) and Buffalo (33.71) below it according to cfbstats.com. True freshman kicker/punter Will Reichard averaged just under 40 yards on three punts through the first two games but hasn’t punted since, while sophomore Skyler DeLong has averaged less than 30 yards (29.6) on his last five punts.
“It’s not been what we’d like for it to be. We need to develop a little bit more consistency at (punter),” Saban said Wednesday. “There has been competition at the position. These guys are very capable. I just think they’ve got to be able to execute when it’s game time and go out there and do a little bit better job for us.”
The Crimson Tide also ranks second-to-last in the SEC with a 55.6 field goal percentage having made just 5 of 9 nine field goal attempts. Reichard, who missed the first two field goals of his career and is 4 of 7 on the season, sat out much of the last two games with a hip flexor injury but is expected to be back at Texas A&M. While somewhat inconsistent, Reichard has shown the most potential at both kicker and punter and will need to be completely healthy if he’s going to shoulder even more responsibility in the kicking game moving forward.
4. Expedite the learning curve for freshmen defenders
Injuries have decimated the defense, forcing the Crimson Tide to start four true freshmen on the front seven for the first time under Saban. It’s been a trial by fire at times, especially for Will inside linebacker Christian Harris, whose struggles against South Carolina forced coaches to take him off the field and reduce his individual responsibilities.
The work done at practice could go a long way in helping Harris, fellow freshman inside linebacker Shane Lee, freshman nose guard D.J. Dale and freshman defensive end Justin Eboigbe to continue to develop and grow, especially when it comes to their understanding of what wrinkles opponents could throw their way moving forward.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that the more repetitions that they get, the more opportunities they get to learn, the more exposure they get to things other teams are going to do to them, … I think will help these guys, help their knowledge,” Saban said.
5. Cut out the silly penalties
Through five games, Alabama current leads the SEC — or trails, depending on how you look at it — with 306 total penalty yards, ranking 12th in the conference averaging 61.2 penalty yards per game this season. Some of that could be credited to the team’s youth. Several of those head-scratching mistakes have been from freshmen, including multiple substitution infractions/12-men on the field and things like encroachment, false starts or illegal shifts on offense.
What makes matters worse is the fact that more than 60 percent of its 34 penalties have come against SEC competition, with Alabama combining on 21 penalties for 168 yards against South Carolina and Ole Miss alone. Given that six of the Tide’s final seven games will be against conference foes, including likely Top 10 matchups against LSU and Auburn in November, it will be important to turn that trend around, and quickly.