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Rue's Rant on College Sports in Alabama


November 3, 2009 5:04 PM

McElroy Holds Key to Tide's Title Hopes

Greg McElroy throws pass against Tennessee

Before the 2009 college football season kicked off, I posed five questions concerning Alabama and Auburn, and I offered answers for my queries.

Now that we have reached the final month of the season, I want to revisit those questions and answers and see if I had a clue as to what I was talking about as well as give my updated thoughts.

Let’s begin with …

ALABAMA

1. How will Greg McElroy perform at QB?

Then: McElroy, a junior, replaces John Parker Wilson, a three-year starter. He has played in only eight games in his college career, but has completed 16-of-20 passes (80 percent) for 196 yards and two touchdowns in a reserve role the past two seasons. And he did star in his one season as a starter for national high school power Southlake Carroll High School in Texas after taking over for Chase Daniel, the 2004 National High School Player of the Year who went on to star at Missouri. McElroy’s numbers were an eye-popping: 4,687 yards passing with 56 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. I don’t think the Crimson Tide will miss Wilson at all. McElroy is going to be sensational.

Now: Through the first five games of the season, McElroy looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate, but in the Tide’s past three games he has looked like a first-year starter. He did not throw a touchdown pass in any of those games and averaged only 119.7 yards passing per game. It’s a good thing for him that sophomore running back Mark Ingram (1,004 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns, including eight rushing) has emerged as a Heisman candidate and the Tide’s defense has been rock solid. McElroy’s overall passing numbers aren’t bad (1,445 yards, nine TDs, 59.9 percent completion rate, only three interceptions), but if he can’t regain his early season form, Alabama’s hopes for a national title might vanish like its passing attack.

2. How long before the revamped offensive line jells?

Then:
Tackle Andre Smith (Cincinnati Bengals) and center Antoine Caldwell (Houston Texans) have taken their acts to the NFL, although Smith, the No. 6 overall pick, is sidelined with a broken foot after a long contract holdout. Senior left guard Mike Johnson and senior right tackle Drew Davis are back, but it will take some time for the line to play as a unit. Expect Virginia Tech to exploit some of the Tide’s weaknesses on the offensive front, but after two exhibition games against Florida International and North Texas (OK, they are regular season games, but they just amount to paid wins for the Tide), the line should be together for the SEC opener against Arkansas on Sept. 26.

Now: Alabama’s offensive line has been solid. The 6-foot-6, 303-pound Johnson and 6-7, 300-pound Davis are All-SEC candidates. Sophomore William Vlachos has played remarkably well as Caldwell’s replacement at center and 6-5, 300-pound junior James Carpenter has been more than adequate as Smith’s replacement at left tackle. They have allowed the fewest sacks (eight) in the SEC and cleared the way for the Tide to average 410.0 yards total offense per game.

3. Who will be the Tide’s other go-to receiver?
Then: The Tide needs somebody to step up, so defensive backs don’t gang up on sophomore sensation Julio Jones. Mike McCoy and Marquis Maze have great speed, but can they make the tough catch in a clutch situation? Perhaps, the Tide will have to rely more on 6-foot-6 senior tight end Colin Peek in the passing game.

Now: None of the Tide’s receivers is having a particularly great season, including Jones. He leads the team with 20 receptions for 229 yards, but has caught only one TD pass. Peek has 19 catches for 213 yards with one TD reception, but missed the Tennessee game two weeks ago after injuring his leg during pregame warmups. None of the other receivers have more than 15 catches. Ingram has been a good receiver out of the backfield with 19 catches for 186 yards and a team-leading three TD receptions. You can trace the receivers’ production to the lack of production from McElroy in recent weeks.

4. Will the defense allow more than two touchdowns in any game?

Then: There’s talk that this Tide team will rival the 1992 group that completely shut down opponents and paved the way for the Tide’s last national championship. Junior Rolando McClain and sophomore Dont'a Hightower could be two of the best linebackers to ever play at Alabama before they are finished. Senior nose guard Terrence Cody and senior cornerback Javier Arenas (also a dangerous punt returner) are as good at their positions as anyone in the nation. In other words, the Tide’s defense will have to take the field in the shadows of their end zone a few times a game for anybody to cross the goal line more than twice in any game. And even if opponents do take over in the red zone, they will have to settle for field goals more often than not.


Now: The Tide’s defense has been even better than advertised, giving up only eight touchdowns, ranking first in the SEC in rushing defense (64.6 yards per game) and second in overall defense (240.6 yards per game). Senior linebacker Cory Reamer has done an admirable job, replacing Hightower, who went down with a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas. Sophomore lineman Marcell Dareus (pictured right sacking Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton) has emerged as a dominant force, leading the team with 4.5 sacks.

5. Will Coach Nick Saban have back-to-back 10-win seasons?

Then:
Saban is the only current Football Bowl Subdivision coach to coach for at least 10 years and not suffer a losing season, but he has never had consecutive 10-win seasons. After guiding LSU to the national championship with a 13-1 record in 2003, the following season the Tigers finished 9-3. Last year, in his second season at Alabama, Saban led the Tide to a 12-2 record (the two losses coming in the Tide’s final two games against Florida in the SEC Championship Game and against Utah in the Sugar Bowl). After beating Virginia Tech – I predict 20-10 – to open the season, the Tide will roll through the regular season 11-1 (the only blemish coming Oct. 10 at Ole Miss), giving Saban back-to-back 10-win seasons. Also look for the Tide to win the SEC West, but lose to Florida (again) in the SEC Championship Game.

Now: The only thing that will keep Saban from winning 10 games is a total collapse and that’s not going to happen. The third-ranked Tide (8-0) even won at Ole Miss and now I look for them to run the table, including a victory over Florida in the SEC Championship Game and over Texas in the BCS Championship Game.

AUBURN

(AP Photo/Todd J. Van Emst)


1. Will Gene Chizik prove he’s the right man for the job?

Then:
Chizik distinguished himself as Auburn’s defensive coordinator from 2002-04, including the Tigers’ 13-0 season, but he was a surprising choice to replace Tommy Tuberville, considering he was 5-19 in two seasons as head coach at Iowa State. He had a 10-game losing streak when Auburn handed him the head coaching reins on the Plains. The expectations are low at Auburn this year, so Chizik might get a pass on this season. But if the Tigers get blown out regularly by the top SEC teams on their schedule, then one of those ridiculous www.firecoach(fill in the blank).com websites might show up on the Internet.

Now: Chizik has proven a capable head coach and last week righted the ship with an upset of Ole Miss after a three-game losing streak threatened to wreck the Tigers’ season. At 6-3, he already has won more games at Auburn than he did at Iowa State. The real test will come in recruiting. Will he be able to attract the players who will make Auburn a contender in the SEC West and a contender for the SEC Championship?

2. Can the Tigers rediscover the pass?

Then:
New offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was brought in to restore some balance – i.e., a passing game – to the Tigers’ offense. The Tigers finished 10th in the SEC in passing yards per game (165.4 yards) in 2008 and had the fewest touchdown passes (7) in the league. Senior Chris Todd won the quarterback battle over Kodi Burns in preseason camp, but he has a largely untested receiving corps to work with, especially with senior Montez Billings suspended for the first four games for academic reasons. So the Tigers will have to rely heavily on the run again. At least that should make running backs Ben Tate, Eric Smith and Onterio McCalebb happy.

Now: Todd put up big numbers early against lesser competition, but went three games without throwing a touchdown pass and had some (including me) clamoring for him to be benched in favor of backup Neil Caudle. He played well against Ole Miss last week, completing 12-of-22 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown, but he still ranks sixth in the SEC in passing efficiency. In other words, the running game, led by Tate (1,067 yards, six TDs rushing), is carrying the Tigers again.

3. How will Kodi Burns adjust to wide receiver?

Then:
Burns was the Tigers’ starting quarterback for most of last season, but after losing out to Todd for the job in preseason camp, he was switched to wide receiver. Chances are Burns will see more time in the backfield in the “Wildcat” formation, running the ball out of the shotgun than he will catching passes.

Now: Burns has been a non-factor most of the season, including in the “Wildcat” formation. He has only three receptions for 18 yards and has rushed for only 144 yards and four TDs. He has thrown for 75 yards and two TDs.

4. Will Antonio Coleman wish he had jumped to the NFL?

Then:
Coleman, a defensive end, passed up a chance to go the NFL to return to Auburn for his senior season. A wise move the scouts said. Another season in college will help him develop physically and improve his overall game, thereby improving his stock. He might have been a late-round choice in the 2009 draft, but could go in the first three rounds with a solid senior season. Plus, Coleman has 14.5 career sacks and needs one more to move into the top 10 in Auburn history.

Now: Coleman had a sluggish start and a few weeks ago had a meeting with Chizik after he went back-to-back games without any tackles or sacks. But he regained his form the past two games. He recorded five tackles against Ole Miss, tying career highs with four tackles for loss (minus 15 yards) including two sacks (minus 11 yards). He also had four quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and blocked a PAT that was returned for a defensive two-point conversion. He leads the SEC with 11 tackles for losses and ranks third with 5.5 sacks. If he continues his stellar play against Georgia and Alabama, in Auburn’s bowl game, in a likely Senior Bowl appearance and in the NFL combine, his draft stock undoubtedly will rise.

5. Will Auburn win enough games to qualify for a bowl game?

Then: After finishing 5-7 last year, leading to Tuberville’s departure, the Tigers open this season with four consecutive home games – against Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Ball State. If they can sweep those, then yes the Tigers will go bowling. But if they split those, then Auburn will be hard-pressed to win four more games on its schedule, especially on the road at Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia and even at home against Ole Miss and Alabama. Figure another 5-7 finish.

Now: A 5-0 start and the victory over Ole Miss mean the Tigers are bowl eligible, and at 6-3 have exceeded my expectations. Now let’s see if they can add a few more wins to their resume to make Chizik’s first season even more successful.

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