Here are three questions for the Alabama Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) heading into Saturday's game (6 p.m. CT/ESPNU) against Vanderbilt (3-1, 1-1) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. We'll check back on Sunday with three answers.
Marquis Maze is on a pace similar to that of Julio Jones in 2009.
1.] What area of this Alabama team will continue to be a concern after the Vanderbilt game?
Based on the first five weeks of the season, the passing game would be a good bet. Specifically, the lack of production from the Crimson Tide's wide receiver corps.
Obviously, Nick Saban would love to get more explosive plays from the guys on the outside. But are they really a BCS Championship maker or breaker?
Yes and no.
Other than the touchdown department, Maze is on pace to exceed Jones' 2009 reception and yardage totals. Much like the 2009 offense, this group leans heavily on the running back and tight end positions in the passing game, so those areas will likely prove to be a wash.
What the 2009 team did have, though, was a collection of dependable performers behind Jones. It also had the threat of the deep ball going to more than just one guy, something we've yet to see from the 2011 passing game.
Jones' 73-yard catch and run for a touchdown against LSU that season was a signature play for a championship team, but it was Maze who was on the receiving end of that season's longest pass play, an 80-yarder against Arkansas.
Maze, Darius Hanks and Mike McCoy combined to make 58 catches for 944 yards (16.2 ypc) and six touchdowns two seasons ago. Through five games this season Hanks (who missed the first two games of the season), Kenny Bell and Brandon Gibson have combined to make 19 catches for 192 yards (10.0 ypc) and zero touchdowns.
So in terms of production, it isn't as much about replacing Jones' numbers as it is getting the rest of the unit up to 2009 speed behind Maze. And explosive plays are obviously a part of that.
2.] Is there any reason to think this week won't bring more of the same for the Alabama running game?
This Vanderbilt defense has plenty of fours and fives, just not four and five star recruits. We're talking fourth- and fifth-year juniors and seniors. Eight of them in the starting 11, to be exact.
Granted, the Commodores haven't faced the Green Bay Packers, but their early-season accomplishments are impressive nonetheless.
Vandy ranks fourth in the SEC and 25th nationally in rushing defense; first nationally in interceptions with 14; 11th in total defense (279.3 ypg) and 15th in scoring defense (15.8 ppg).
Starting cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Trey Wilson have combined to make seven interceptions in four games this season. Wilson returned two of his three interceptions for scores, while Hayward has a pick six of his own.The duo were among seven different Vanderbilt defensive backs who picked off passes in September.
Meanwhile, concerns about the Alabama passing game have been silenced by a relentless running game that has beaten down opposing SEC defenses the past two weeks. From the running of Earl Campbell-Maurice Jones Drew hybrid Trent Richardson to the blocking of the offensive line, tight ends and wide receivers, it's been a collective effort for a rushing attack that is averaging 211 yards per game in conference play.
On Saturday, Richardson will attempt to do something Connecticut running back Lyle McCombs (118 yards) was able to do but South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore (77 yards) wasn't: eclipse the 100-yard mark against the Vanderbilt defense.
3.] As we approach the midway point of the season, how much gas does the Crimson Tide have in the tank?
Scheduling goes a long way in determining a team's national title chances. Alabama fans need look no further than last year for proof of that.
A year ago at this time, UA was coming off emotional wins over Arkansas and Florida, with a trip to South Carolina set to cap a trying three-game stretch. The team charter departed Tuscaloosa bound for Columbia. The team itself, however, apparently traveled by mule.
A year later, the Gamecocks have been replaced by Vanderbilt in the Eastern Division rotation. While the defense has improved, this is the same Commodores offense that had 30 total yards and two first downs in the second half of a 21-3 loss to South Carolina its last time out. A repeat of that performance will lead to another big game for Richardson and a running game that spares no feelings.
From a talent standpoint, this shouldn't be much of a contest. A disinterested performance from UA, though, could lead to homecoming feeling a little less festive.
Prediction: Alabama 38, Vanderbilt 7.
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