Revisiting three questions for top-ranked Alabama following its 38-7 win over No. 11 Mississippi State on Saturday night.
McCarron's command of the offense makes UA a tough team to beat.
Has the Alabama offense peaked?
TRips Friday: Or is it just getting warmed up?
Even with three skill position contributors lost to knee injuries, the Crimson Tide offense looks to be improving with each passing week. And after last week, the key word there is "passing".
It took some time, but Cooper's emergence as a legitimate No. 1 receiver has taken the unit to a higher level. His five touchdown receptions are two fewer than the combined total for UA wide receivers in 2011.
You know a receiver has his quarterback's trust when the ball goes his way even when he's covered. From that standpoint, it appears as if Cooper and AJ McCarron haven taken the next step in their relationship.
Hollywood had Bennifer. Tuscaloosa has McCooper.
McCarron, riding an interception-free streak that dates back to last year's game with State, has no problem going to Cooper in traffic. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that the pick that ends McCarron's record-run will come on a pass intended for Cooper. And really, given Cooper's ability to go get it, could you blame McCarron?
To offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's credit, he continues to spread the ball around. As good as Cooper has been, UA is home to two running backs -- Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon -- who are each averaging over 90 rushing yards per game in SEC play.
And while guys like Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones haven't been targeted as often as Cooper over the last month, they're making the most of their opportunities. As a trio, they've caught 37 passes for 671 yards (18.1 ypr) and seven touchdowns.
With a complete appreciation for what the passing game means to an offense, it's that kind of offensive balance that goes a long way in making Alabama the most complete team in the country.
TRips Sunday: In more ways than one, Mississippi State thought it was different than the first seven victims on Alabama's 2012 schedule.
The Bulldogs didn't just believe they could knock off the nation's top-ranked team in its own ballpark, their defensive brain trust must have felt their personnel was physically superior to what the Alabama offense had seen in the Crimson Tide's first seven games of the season.
How else do you explain State playing the UA running game straight up early in the contest, offering nothing in the way of stunts, slants and/or blitzes?
With Alabama's offensive line and tight end Michael Williams working against a teed up MSU front seven, the Crimson Tide's opening drive was little more than batting practice, with Lacy and Yeldon combining to average 7.2 yards per carry on a drive that culminated with Yeldon waltzing 11 yards into the end zone.
When it comes to slowing down the UA rushing attack, belief will only get you so far. Teams not named LSU have no choice but to load the box, even when Alabama has three wide receivers on the field, as the Crimson Tide did for much of the night.
State elected not to do that early in the game and was gashed for its troubles.
In working against State's man coverage, McCarron and his receivers gave next week's opponent something to think about. Nussmeier's latest plan yo-yo'd MSU corners Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, with UA's outside receivers running them deep and sitting them down, paving the way for McCarron to hit tight end Michael Williams in the flat; Norwood and Christion Jones on a couple of perfectly-thrown corner routes; and Cooper on a deep crossing route that covered 25 yards.
And just when you thought it was going to be about the perimeter passing game, Bell, working from the slot, blew past Banks on his way to hauling in a McCarron deep ball that covered 57 yards and put the Crimson Tide up, 14-0.
For Bell, the big play took his yards per catch average for the season to 25.75 -- or the approximate distance between Auburn fans during the second half of the Tigers' loss to Texas A&M at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
It also reinforced what McCarron's statistics have been telling us throughout the season: As good as Cooper is, the Alabama passing game is anything but a one-man show.
Can Mississippi State score enough to win?
TRips Friday: Hard to say without knowing for sure how much will be enough but based on the last three meetings between these teams the Bulldogs' magic number will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 points.
History tells us getting there won't be easy for State.
For an offense that has scored a grand total of 20 points on Alabama since 2009, three touchdowns would surpass the Bulldogs' combined output in the last three games in this series.
So, why will this year be any different?
State supporters will tell you this is the season Dan Mullen has been pointing to. With four Mullen recruiting classes in the bank, the Bulldogs still aren't on the same level talent-wise as Western Division titans UA and LSU. But they've obviously improved at the skill positions, both on offense and defense.
For the State offense, the question this week is similar to what the Alabama defense faced a week ago, when some wondered how the Crimson Tide would fare against a Tennessee offense considered to be among the most dangerous in the SEC.
In keeping UT quarterback Tyler Bray and his wide receivers under wraps, the nation's top-ranked defense lived up to its billing. Now we'll find out if Mullen's offense, which averaged 32 points per game against three SEC opponents who have a combined record of 0-14 in league play, is ready for prime time.
The Bulldogs have benefited from a huge advantage in turnover margin, leading all FBS teams at plus-17 for the season. They'll need to come close to their average of plus-2.5 per game to upset an Alabama team that enters the weekend at plus-2 per contest.
TRips Sunday: State entered the weekend ranked first among FBS teams in turnover margin, while Alabama was third. By Sunday morning, the Bulldogs were sixth and the Crimson Tide was second.
The Bulldogs needed to be in the black on the turnover front. They were minus-three, instead.
Factor in Dee Milliner's block of a State field goal attempt in the first quarter and it probably felt like minus-four to Mullen, who channeled his inner Bob Knight in picking up an unsportsmanlike penalty late in the opening stanza.
Even with UA in its nickel package for much of the game, the Crimson Tide had little problem slowing down Perkins and the rest of the MSU running game. We've said it before but it absolutely rings true: teams that can't run against Alabama's six-man box aren't going to have much success.
State couldn't and so they didn't.
As for Russell, consider me impressed by the junior, who probably saw more true blitzes (five or more) from UA than any other quarterback the Crimson Tide has faced this season. His accuracy deteriorated as the hits mounted, but he also showed poise under pressure and made a couple of throws that only Tennessee's Tyler Bray could match.
Unfortunately for State, he also made the same kind of mistake Bray made last week, throwing an interception to Robert Lester in the end zone.
For the Alabama defense, the past two weeks have provided a good run up to next week's meeting with the LSU, with Tennessee, MSU and the Tigers similar in style, especially in the passing game.
The difference is LSU will stick with the run even when it can't.
Has another true freshman class made a bigger impact in the Saban era at Alabama?
TRips Friday Offensively, I'd be tempted to take these guys over the 2008 group.
What Julio Jones and Mark Ingram were to Nick Saban's second Alabama team, Cooper and Yeldon have been to his sixth.
Cooper (28 receptions, 430 yards, five touchdowns) is tracking Jones' numbers from 2008 (58/924/4) and TJ Yeldon (565 rushing yards, six touchdowns) is ahead of Ingram's freshman pace (721/12).
The guy who could put this group over the top is Cyrus Jones. Watching the dynamic newcomer return punts, you're left to wonder how long it will take to get him more involved in the offense.
Keep in mind that if Chris Black doesn't go down with a shoulder injury in the preseason, he's probably in Jones' shoes right now. That's the kind of depth Alabama added to its offensive skill spots in its latest signing class.
Defensively, the 2010 class featured Dee Milliner and CJ Mosley, who were thrown directly into the fire as key members in the Crimson Tide's pass defense.
The concern, as it always is with freshmen, is consistency. Cooper, Yeldon and Jones have impacted the offense and kicking game significantly over the last month.
As Alabama enters a grueling stretch, will the youngsters eventually hit the freshman wall or will they cut through it like they did Alabama's October opponents?
TRips Sunday: Another strong showing for Alabama's newcomers, with Cyrus Jones wasting no time making an impact, returning the game's opening kickoff 41 yards.
As for Yeldon, the situation at running back appears to be nearing fifty-fifty status. While Lacy got a few more series than Yeldon at Tennessee, reps against State were split evenly, with Yeldon reclaiming the season rushing lead after running for 84 yards on 10 carries.
While Lacy continues to be solid, Yeldon looks to have a little more suddenness to him right now. That said, given what's next for UA, don't discount Lacy's experience -- especially in pass protection -- going forward.
Cooper rolled an ankle on the opening series but reentered the game on his way to posting a respectable stat line of of four catches for 47 yards. Other guys are capable of covering for Cooper short-term but his presence will be needed for all four quarters next week.
Most encouraging was the continued development of true freshman jack linebacker Denzel Devall, who posted two tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and a sack of Russell. With Devall stepping forward to join Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard, UA looks to have a legitimate third edge pass rusher.
With college football's game of the season up next, the national stage awaits Alabama's talented group of youngsters. They don't appear frightened by the challenge.
Friday prediction: Alabama 31, Mississippi State 13.
Saturday's score: Alabama 38, Mississippi State 7.
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