First and 20: Alabama thriving after adjustments

Anthony Gimino

October 11, 2016 at 11:35 am.

Oct 8, 2016; Fayetteville, AR, USA;  Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) gets ready to throw during the second quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Photo Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 8, 2016; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) gets ready to throw during the second quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Photo Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

It is the calm amid the college football storm.

The No. 3 team in the preseason, Oklahoma, has two losses. So does preseason No. 4 Florida State.

Preseason No. 5 LSU fired its coach.

No. 8 Stanford has lost its past two games by a combined 86-22.

The preseason No. 10 team, Notre Dame, is 2-4.

And then there’s the top-ranked Crimson Tide, riding comfortably above the chaos, tamping down the riff-raff in the usual Nick Saban my-defense-is-better-than-your-defense kind of way. The Tide has nine non-offensive touchdowns, including two on punt returns, in their 6-0 start.

But it’s not fair or accurate to call it the same ol’ Saban, because he’s an old coaching dog who continues to learn new tricks.

After Ohio State upset Alabama 42-35 in a College Football Playoff semifinal in the 2014 season, Saban tweaked his “heavy” defensive approach in favor of more agile hybrid athletes who could play in space to handle the spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks of the world.

The result: One of the best defenses in the country and his fourth national title at Alabama.

Saban has come around much further when it comes to his offense.

Chalk up “Saban playing a true freshman quarterback” at No. 1 on the list of things we never thought we’d see, but he’s gone with Jalen Hurts because Hurts is the kind of dual threat he needs to run a hurry-up, zone-read attack.

An Alabama hurry-up, zone-read attack.

Make that No. 2 on our list of things we’d never thought we’d see.

But it’s working for the coach who once publicly lobbied to slow the pace of college football snaps, claiming — without any evidence — that it endangered the health of the players.

Alabama won 49-30 at Arkansas on Saturday to improve to 3-0 in the SEC.

“I’m pleased with the way our offense started out. Played fantastic in the first half,” Saban said. “I think we had almost 400 yards or something, maybe more, in the first half. I’m not a big stats guy, but really did a great job of moving the ball.”

Hurts has completed 97 of 152 passes (63.8 percent) for 1,242 yards, with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. He averages 49.3 rushing yards per game and leads the Tide with five rushing scores.

“It works well for us,” Saban said of the zone read. “It’s when we play the best. Our quarterback is well-suited for it. I think we’ve done a good job as a staff developing the system.”

Exactly how well is it working?

That will be tested in the next three games — at Tennessee this Saturday, vs. undefeated Texas A&M on Oct. 22, and at LSU on Nov. 5.

“We’re certainly not where we want to be,” Saban said. “We’ve got to be more consistent when we play really good teams.”

10 things we learned in Week 6

1. The Gus Bus has a full tank. Auburn had a 35-0 lead at Mississippi State at halftime and coasted to a 38-14 victory that cools the hot seat on coach Gus Malzahn. The 4-2 Tigers, with ample defensive muscle, have allowed only one opponent to score more than 20-plus points this season — undefeated Texas A&M. This Saturday will be a day of needed rest before a second half of the season that includes roadies at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.

2. The Group of 5 has a new leader. Navy upset Houston, which had been aiming for a spot in the College Football Playoff but will have to battle back — meaning, win at Louisville next month — just to get the Group of Five’s spot in one of the big bowls. Boise State (5-0) and Western Michigan (6-0) are the new front-runners.

3. Brian Kelly has no one left to blame. The Notre Dame head coach axed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder a couple of weekends ago, and he usually has no shortage of criticism for his players, including the long-snapping, which he called “atrocious” Saturday. Maybe so, but the Irish did have to slog through a 10-3 loss at North Carolina State in hurricane-like conditions. Notre Dame is 2-4 and a Michigan recruit trolled Kelly on Twitter after that game with this message: “Brian KeLLLLy.”

4. Vols magic is real. Never mind that Tennessee suffered its first loss of the season, falling 45-38 in double overtime at Texas A&M. The Volunteers, who previously posted four victories after overcoming double-digit deficits, forced overtime after being down 21 to the Aggies. Something special about these guys.

5. USC is the best team in the Pac-12 South. Arizona State, Utah and Colorado lead the division with a 2-1 record. These are solid teams that strike zero fear in opponents. USC is sitting back with a 2-2 record, having won two in a row and cranking things up behind redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold.

6. Yes, Michigan has a Heisman candidate. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, asked to compare linebacker/returner/offensive weapon Jabrill Peppers to someone, carefully considered the question before finally coming up with an answer: “Maybe Jim Thorpe.” Here are the top five Heisman candidates: 1, Louisville QB Lamar Jackson; 2, Peppers; 3, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson; 4, Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett; 5, Washington QB Jake Browning.

7. The Strong can’t survive. When the Texas defense isn’t getting steamrolled on the field these days, it is getting flattened off the field by the SEC success of rival Texas A&M (and, in recent years, by other in-state foes such as Baylor, TCU and Houston). Third-year coach Charlie Strong didn’t suddenly get stupid, but when it’s not working, it’s not working, and it ain’t working at Texas. Even ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, before the Longhorns’ 45-40 loss to Oklahoma, called the whole situation in Austin a “cesspool.”

8. Washington is taking no prisoners. The Huskies, in consecutive weeks, have vanquished the teams that have combined to win the past seven Pac-12 titles, beating Stanford and Oregon by a combined 114-27, including a 70-21 de-frocking of the Ducks at Autzen. Scary thought for the rest of the league: Washington might lose some defenders early to the NFL Draft, but this is one of the youngest teams in the country and has loads of staying power for the first time in, oh, more than a quarter century.

9. Stanford misses QB Kevin Hogan. The Cardinal’s woes are many, and running back Christian McCaffrey left the 42-16 home loss to Washington State with an undisclosed injury. But it also seems obvious now that the underappreciated Hogan did so many little things that the Stanford offense hasn’t been able to replace with Ryan Burns or Keller Chryst.

10. The Week 6 playoff leaders: Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Ohio State/Michigan winner.

5 still-under-the-radar players

1. Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina. The senior has 67 catches. In the past four games.

2. Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU. He has rushed for 618 yards in the past three games, including 163 in a win Saturday at Michigan State. He should easily become BYU’s career leading rusher this week.

3. Ejuan Price, DE, Pitt. Granted a sixth year of eligibility because of injuries earlier in his career, Price has a sack in every game this season and leads the nation with 8.5.

4. Gage Gubrud, QB, Eastern Washington. From the FCS school that recently produced QB Vernon Adams Jr. comes Gubrud, a sophomore who leads the lower division with 2,351 passing yards and 23 passing touchdowns, while also leading the team with 354 rushing yards. Legit? Remember, Eastern Washington opened with a win at Washington State.

5. Zane Gonzalez, K, Arizona State. The senior is the new NCAA leader in career field goals, kicking three in Saturday night’s 23-20 win over UCLA to give him 89, one more than ex-Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins. Gonzalez, 16 of 17 this season, has expanded his range past 50 yards this season and could be a difference-maker in a tight Pac-12 South race.

5 games to watch in Week 7

1. Alabama at Tennessee (3:30 p.m. ET). Prediction: Alabama will score on defense early, be up 17 at halftime and the game will somehow still come down to the final play.

2. Ohio State at Wisconsin (8 p.m. ET). The Badgers don’t have the athletes, right? Yet, they beat LSU, routed Michigan State (OK, that’s been downgraded to a so-so victory) and hung with Michigan. Underestimate these guys at your own peril.

3. Ole Miss at Arkansas (7 p.m. ET). What can we say? It’s not a great week of college football matchups across the country.

4. North Carolina at Miami (3:30 p.m. ET). A bounce-back game for both after the Hurricanes came within a blocked point-after of staying alive versus Florida State, and the Tar Heels were stepped on by Virginia Tech.

5. Stanford at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET). Crane your necks toward this matchup, which is less than the top 10 matchup we thought it would be and much, much more of a train wreck.