Looming games for Bama “could” present challenges

Lyn Scarbrough

October 23, 2012 at 11:37 am.

AJ McCarron calls a play during Alabama's blowout win over Tennessee. (Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE)

It may still be safe for Alabama fans to make reservations in Atlanta for the first weekend in December. And, they might want to go ahead and book that trip to south Florida for early January.

The Tide took care of struggling Tennessee in Knoxville, looking every bit like the championship contender that they’re supposed to be. But, the results of three other Southeastern Conference games on Saturday give reason to think a minute before taking the final outcome for granted.

Mississippi State massacred Middle Tennessee State, 45-3. The Bulldogs play in Tuscaloosa Saturday.

Before you say, “it was only Middle Tennessee,” consider this: Just three games ago, the Blue Raiders blasted Georgia Tech in Atlanta, 49-28, in a game not nearly as close as the score. Rick Stockstill’s team, after a 2-10 record last season, is 4-3 and a contender in the Sun Belt.

Dan Mullen’s squad sits at 7-0, one of just three undefeated SEC teams and ranked No. 13 in this week’s AP poll. Still, who is talking about State when discussing the big picture? Is there any team east of Corvallis, Ore., getting less respect?

What is the best way to get it? Winning in Tuscaloosa would be a good start.

The following week, Alabama goes to Baton Rouge. Two weeks ago, after a pair of lackluster LSU offensive showings against Auburn and Florida, the grudge match in Tiger Stadium appeared less challenging. But, the last two weeks have changed that perception.

A week ago, the Tigers beat No. 3 South Carolina, which was coming off a 35-7 demolition of undefeated Georgia. On Saturday, LSU went to College Station to play Texas A&M and the nation’s top freshman quarterback, Johnny “Mr. Football” Manziel. Coming into that game, Manziel was leading the SEC in total offense and rushing yards.

LSU intercepted Manziel three times, held him to 27 yards rushing and no touchdown passes, winning 24-19. The previously inconsistent Tigers offense ran for 219 yards and won despite being flagged for 12 penalties. When the Tide comes to Cajun country, you know the home team will remember what happened in New Orleans in January.

The next week, Manziel and the Aggies travel to Tuscaloosa. Watching the A&M signal-caller is worth the price of admission, but if they can’t beat LSU at home, what chance do they have against Alabama on the road?

Bama’s final two games, both played in Bryant-Denny Stadium, aren’t worth mentioning, but there’s still one more before buying those BCS Championship Game tickets … the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, and a likely matchup with Florida.

Heading into the game against South Carolina on Saturday, the Gators’ were undefeated, ranked No. 2 in the BCS poll. That contest in Gainesville did nothing to diminish Florida’s surprising season.

Even though neither team had 200 yards in total offense, the opportunistic home team controlled the game from start to finish. Florida recovered three fumbles, intercepted a pass, and kept the ball for over 35 minutes. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who continues to improve each week, completed 11 of 16 passes, including four for touchdowns.

The Gators’ turnaround season has been impressive. They already have three conference wins on the road, including at Texas A&M, and beat LSU convincingly in Gainesville. If they win the annual rivalry game with Georgia in Jacksonville on Saturday, they will clinch the Eastern Division title and a likely match with Alabama, securing their spot several weeks before the Crimson Tide would clinch the West.

Another positive factor for the Gators is second-year head coach Will Muschamp. The Florida head man has coached on championship teams at LSU and Texas, so he knows what it’s like on the big stage. And, it wouldn’t be the first time for a second-year coach to win it all.

Alabama still has to be considered the favorite.

Quarterback AJ McCarron has also continued to improve, throwing for over 300 yards against Tennessee. He is still without an interception this season. The running game, operating behind a veteran offensive line, remains strong. T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy combined for 208 yards rushing against the Vols, with Yeldon scoring twice.

Defensively, the Tide picked off two Tyler Bray passes in Knoxville, including one in the end zone. Even though Tennessee had almost 300 yards total offense, they only had the ball for 23 minutes. And, as usual, the Bama defense showed up where it counts the most – on the scoreboard.

Based on Alabama’s performance, many people, including a lot of vocal fans, were ready to anoint the Tide just a couple of weeks ago. On second thought, they might want to delay the coronation for a few more weeks, just to be sure.