No. 1 Alabama spreading the wealth early on
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Alabama's best players can't be found anywhere near the top of the Southeastern Conference in rushing, receiving, tackles or sacks.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide is spreading the wealth widely so far, building depth and getting youngsters valuable experience in case they're really needed down the line. The starters consequently are getting plenty of relief but not huge numbers.
"We probably have a team that doesn't have as many defined stars as we've had in the past, and of course you all (media) define them," coach Nick Saban said on Monday. "So that's not my doing. I think that we have a lot of guys that have had a lot of opportunity to play, which is a good thing."
Alabama (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) can afford such luxuries because the team has breezed to four consecutive blowouts. Saban has been able to substitute heavily, getting 11 freshmen and 11 redshirt freshmen into games.
The result is leading rusher freshman T.J. Yeldon is 15th in the SEC. Top receiver Amari Cooper, also a freshman, isn't among the 15 players listed on the league's stats. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is one of the best players on one of the best defenses in the SEC, but he's tied for 18th in tackles and is 19th in sacks while leading the Tide in both categories.
Saban's steady stream of top recruits is paying off well beyond the starters.
The depth eases the effect if backup defensive lineman Brandon Ivory can't play Saturday against Mississippi (3-1, 0-0) with a sprained left ankle. Ivory started against Western Kentucky with nose guard Jesse Williams recovering from a concussion.
"They're deeper than any team we have faced, particularly on the O-line and D-line and obviously other places too," Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said. "Their defensive line, they can go three deep with very, very talented kids. They're able to keep them fresh and that allows them to play with a high motor all the time. I know (Saban) requires that of his kids. When you're able to play that many people and not have a significant drop-off, I think that even helps more. They have tremendous depth and tremendous talent."
It's easier to display that depth and talent when you're winning by an average of 42-5.2 through a third of the season, and to sort out the young players who can and can't help the team this season.
Alabama has had 10 players carry the ball, 15 catch passes, 16 record tackles for loss and 10 credited with at least a share of a sack.
The Tide has even managed to get both backup quarterbacks, Blake Sims and Phillip Ely, into three games apiece. That was a big question mark with no experience behind AJ McCarron coming into the season.
Defensive end Damion Square said worrying about individual statistics can be counterproductive for a team.
"I can't go out there and think about numbers because that would be selfish," said Square, who has 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks. "I'm not thinking about my teammates. Bad things happen when you go out and approach the game like that. I've done things like that before. So I just go out there and play fast, get to the ball and play football the way it's supposed to be played. And the numbers at the end of the night - it is what it is."
The biggest names on Alabama's defense last season are now in the NFL. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick were all first-round picks and linebacker Courtney Upshaw was the 35th player selected.
Now, depth is the key even with players like Mosley, Williams, cornerback Dee Milliner, safety Robert Lester and a bunch of lesser-known guys filling the void.
"It just lets you know that we have a lot of guys playing fast," Square said. "You don't want three guys to stand out above the rest, because I don't think that's a sign of a great defense. Great defenses spread it out across the board. We want everybody to do their assignment and make the plays they're supposed to make. ... If everybody takes care of their assignment then at the end of the year we'll be where we need to be."
Mississippi is coming off a shutout last week, albeit against winless Tulane. For the Rebels, though, the 39-0 victory was much needed after a 66-31 loss to then-No. 14 Texas the previous week.
The Rebels limited the Green Wave to 159 yards - 14 rushing - after getting torched for 676 by the Longhorns. Ole Miss recorded three sacks and three interceptions.
"It was huge," Freeze said. "We needed some confidence there. I thought our confidence was shaken a bit last week and obviously, we're still young at a lot of spots and we're fixing to get into a great stretch of football teams.
"Anytime you can pitch a shutout at this level, you have to gain some confidence from it."
Freeze's team rushed for 304 yards, but repeating that performance may prove very difficult with the Tide allowing 62.3 yards per game on the ground - sixth fewest in the country.
Alabama has taken eight straight in the series, winning the most recent matchup 52-7 at Oxford on Oct. 15. Ole Miss has lost 10 in a row on the road to the Tide, last winning at Tuscaloosa in 1988.