Midseason grades: How Alabama has performed so far ...
Alabama is undefeated, receiving every first-place vote in the two major polls and has been largely untested through the first eight games of its season.
Its most difficult stretch begins next week, a matchup with LSU followed by its final two conference games on the road.
Here is where the Tide stands headed into November:
Passing Offense: B+
The numbers are not sexy.
They really haven’t needed to be.
Alabama throws for 201 yards a game, an inflated number given its 332-yard afternoon against Tennessee last week. Before that game, it had not thrown for 250 yards all season.
Though quarterback Jalen Hurts has displayed noticeable improvement in the pocket, a lack of downfield passes is apparent. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s seemed fixated on intermediate, short passes along with some play-action calls that open the middle of the field.
More importantly, Hurts’ efficiency — a 62.9 percent completion rate — remains high and he’s thrown just one interception all season. Playing with a running game that averages nearly 300 yards a game doesn’t require extraordinary production from the passing game.
Still, the team would like development.
“We’ll continue to try to improve our passing game,” Tide coach Nick Saban said Monday. “Our third-down efficiency, play-action, drop-back passes as well as some of the run-pass options that we have. I think all those areas could stand a little tuning up and we certainly want to try to do that.”
Passing Defense: A-
Opponents pass for only 169 yards a game against Alabama’s defense, which is re-discovering its pass rush after two season-ending injuries and enjoying the emergence of a former walk-on.
Life without outside linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller — lost for the season after injuries in the season opener against Florida State — began with difficulty. The Crimson Tide did not affect the quarterback in the next three games, mustering just two sacks.
As Rashaan Evans returned to full strength, though, so did the rush. Alabama has 18 sacks in its last four games after having five in its first four games. Evans and fellow linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton buoy the rush.
A walk-on who moved up the depth chart this season as a senior, Levi Wallace is one of the conference’s best cornerbacks, leading the league with 12 passes defended and tied for the lead with nine pass breakups. Wallace and Mack Wilson are tied for the Tide team lead with three interceptions.
There’s a caveat to this, though: The Tide faced three straight freshman quarterbacks leading into the open week, sacking them a combined 13 times.
“I think that defensively we’re going to get challenged a lot more than we have in the past couple games,” Saban said after the win against Tennessee.
Rushing Offense: A+
The Crimson Tide rushing attack is an unrelenting machine that, through eight games, has not at all been slowed. It ranks eighth nationally. Four of the teams ahead of Alabama run the triple option. Only one — Army — has played as many games (eight) as Alabama.
Alabama averages 298 rushing yards a game. The Tide cycles in three running backs who are averaging more than five yards a carry. A fourth, Bo Scarbrough, has six touchdowns.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts has 10 rushing touchdowns, too, while averaging nearly seven yards a carry. A lighter Damien Harris is enjoying a breakout junior season, leading the conference with 8.60 yards an attempt and leading his team with 697 yards.
Only two SEC running backs — Kerryon Johnson and Derrius Guice — have run for more yards than Harris. Harris has 56 fewer carries than Johnson and 43 less than Guice.
It’s an unbelievable luxury for the Crimson Tide, which was beset by running back injuries last season. Now, it’s able to interchange runners without issue, mitigating any health concerns while keeping all four running backs healthy for its November gauntlet.
Rushing Defense: A+
In what seems like an annual tradition, Alabama’s rushing defense ranks No. 1 in the country. Opponents muster just 2.31 yards a carry and 66.38 yards a game.
Only Colorado State has run for more than 100 yards against the Crimson Tide’s front, and it took them 40 carries to do so.
None of the Tide’s last three opponents ran for more than 75 yards as a team, all of that without Alabama defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, who is still recovering from a sprained MCL he suffered against Ole Miss.
Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs have played admirably in his absence while defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne commands the constant double-teams sent his way with relative ease.
Special Teams: C+
Pitiful punt returns have sullied an otherwise solid special teams effort — especially given the preseason fear surrounding Alabama’s place-kicking.
Andy Pappanastos has soothed it, nailing 13 of his last 14 field goal attempts after missing two in the season opener against Florida State.
Tide coaches are comfortable allowing Pappanastos to kick from 45 yards and in, allowing punter JK Scott to handle anything longer. Scott is just 1-of-3 on field goals — all have been 48 yards or longer — but he’s not allowed a punt return all season.
The Tide’s punt returners are another story. It’s tried three different returners — Trevon Diggs, Henry Ruggs III and Xavian Marks — all of whom have fumbled in the last two weeks.
Alabama averages a paltry 7.33 yards a punt return, good for 11th of 14 SEC teams. Punt returners have five fumbles in the Tide’s last two games.
With a new offensive coordinator who had never called plays in a college game, Alabama possesses the top scoring and rushing offense in the conference. The defense overcame two season-ending injuries in week one that would cripple most teams.
And, of course, Saban introduced “rat poison” to the college football lexicon — his newfound way to guard his team against the complacency so prevalent in the generation of players he coaches.
So far, it’s worked.
Nitpicking the nation’s unanimous No. 1 team is difficult. Saban will do it, though.
It must find a reliable punt returner and would like more balance on offense, especially in the downfield passing game.
Still, the team is undefeated, largely untested and barrelling its way toward an SEC Championship Game appearance.
“I’m not real satisfied with, and I don’t think anybody should be, in terms of where we are and what we’ve done,” Saban maintained. “The most challenging games that we have are ahead of us.”