It's no secret that not many people are giving Penn State a chance when they travel to Tuscaloosa on September 11. Actually, only the most delusional of Penn State fans is predicting a victory. The Tide are the reigning national champions, and Mark Ingram is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. They are ranked #1 in the nation and everyone is predicting them to repeat. Penn State is breaking in a new quarterback, some new offensive linemen, and three linebackers. It's a recipe for a blowout by normal standards.
When faced with such a daunting challenge, it's easy to look at Alabama and think they are invincible. But pull back the curtain and you can see it's not all lollipops and rainbows in Crimson Tide Paradise this week.
The Tide have a lot of talent to replace on defense this year, somewhere in the neighborhood of nine starters. Normally this would be cause for major concern, but in a day and age when lazy reporters just put together their preseason rankings based on who returns the best quarterback, people casually overlook this fact and gave Alabama the #1 slot because they return Greg McElroy and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
Unfortunately for them, the 11 guys on defense do matter. Alabama held a scrimmage over the weekend, and the results were not pretty from a defensive perspective. The quarterbacks threw nearly 60 passes and completed on 80% of them. Combined they threw for almost 700 yards and 8 touchdowns. In all the offenses scored 13 touchdowns on Nick Saban's heralded defense. After the scrimmage, Saban was not pleased.
"I don't think defensively as a whole we played very well at all," Saban said. "We didn't tackle. We didn't finish. We didn't clean up tackles and knock runners back. We didn't have the eye of the tiger we need to be a good defensive team, and that's all 11 of them."
In their defense, Alabama has suffered a lot of injuries that has made their secondary paper thin. Safety Robert Lester has suffered a concussion. Cornerbacks Demarcus Millinier and DaQuan Menzie are both fighting through leg injuries (ankle and hamstring respectively). And this is of course on top of the loss of junior safety Robby Green who was expected to start but will have to sit out the season due to academics.
But if the entire cause could be traced to a twisted ankle here or a tweaked hammy there I would say this is probably no big deal and Alabama will be ready in time for the season. But apparently it's more than just that. There are indications out there that the players aren't really taking things very seriously.
During the first of two practices on Monday, Nick Saban was cracking the whip.
By about 9:40 a.m., Nick Saban already was worked up.
He was crossing his arms, pacing, only waiting for the next of his defensive backs to grab his attention. They could only hope to not be the one.
"You guys got no sense of urgency!" Saban bellowed, loud enough to be heard throughout the busy practice field. "You play like sticks!"
After practice, the Alabama players held a team meeting to address the lack of effort being shown on the practice field.
Said McElroy: "One of my main focuses during my little talk was just that I want people to care. I think the thing that bothers me more than anything about it, not necessarily from a talent standpoint, but just how much to do you care about the team? What are you willing to give to allow the team to be successful? I think that we all need to take a look in the mirror — offense, defense, special teams, everybody — and see what we're not doing right and notice those problems and be honest with yourself."
If this was all happening halfway through the season during a bye week I would say no big deal. Every team hits the wall at some point in the season. Their bodies hurt, they are mentally exhausted, maybe a weaker opponent is coming up and they just let up on the effort. You have to expect that. But this is the second week of preseason practice. You would think after an entire summer of lifting weights and running drills with football just three weeks away that these guys would be chomping at the bit to strap on the pads and hit each other. Especially with nine slots open on defense that are up for grabs.
But instead we're hearing that Alabama is having problems getting motivated? To me, that's a serious red flag if I'm a Crimson Tide fan. That tells me these guys spent the summer reading the headlines and celebrating their championship instead of finishing hard on that last sprint or fighting through that last bench press when your arms feel like they have nothing left to give. Nobody is going to give you anything just because you're Alabama. Let's hope they learn that the hard way on September 11.