FIU wrap-up: Alabama doesn’t seem to like small-school ball
By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 13, 2009
The argument for scheduling cupcakes like Florida International is that it gives teams like Alabama a break from the typically rigorous regular-season schedules such as the ones cooked up by the SEC.
Unfortunately for Alabama, these games rarely turn out the way they were intended.
In 2006, Alabama beat Florida International in one of two out-of-conference games (the other one was against ACC doormat Duke) that pretty much exposed every weakness of the Mike Shula coaching regime. At least that was better than 2007, when Alabama played Louisiana-Monroe … and lost.
Alabama has played Western Carolina twice. Alabama smoked the Catamounts to open the 2007 season – a game that, unless Alabama’s appeal of the "Bookgate"-related NCAA sanctions is successful, won’t count in the school’s record books (nor would the 2006 FIU and Duke games, for that matter). At least that was better than Alabama’s 2004 game against Western Carolina, in which the Crimson Tide lost starting quarterback Brodie Croyle to a torn ACL.
The 2009 win over FIU may prove just as costly. Alabama lost reserve defensive lineman Damion Square – who was proving to be a weapon, lining up anywhere from Jack linebacker to noseguard – with a knee injury the coaches fear is “severe.” Running back Roy Upchurch spent the second half in street clothes and a walking boot after spraining an ankle. And all-everything receiver Julio Jones bruised a knee on an end-around and could miss next week’s game with North Texas. Upchurch could miss several weeks.
To make matters worse, Alabama didn’t really impress in its game. Individually, several Tiders did, whether it was the defensive efforts of linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Marcell Dareus or the quarterbacking of Greg McElroy. But as far as a team effort goes, this one fell a little flat.
For the second straight week, Alabama gave up a touchdown on a kick return. Receiver/return specialist T.Y. Hilton will play in the NFL one day, but that’s not the point. Alabama has special teams stocked with four- and five-star athletes, and to give up kickoff returns for touchdowns on consecutive weeks is inexcusable.
Alabama’s return coverage units haven’t been the same since Ron Middleton left the coaching staff after the 2007 season. After a spotty performance in 2008 and an atrocious start to the 2009 season, it’s worth asking whether Alabama might shuffle its current coaching assignments to get a fresh pair of eyes on the situation. Giving up an eventually meaningless kickoff return to FIU is one thing; when it’s Florida and not Florida International, that’s another.
There was some good that came from this win. Alabama chalked up 500-plus yards of total offense, Greg McElroy set a new school record for consecutive completions, and several players stepped up when injured teammates went down, notably running back Trent Richardson and wide receiver Mike McCoy.
But this team has plenty of areas where improvement could be found. Safety play would be a good place to start. Kickoff return coverage has already been mentioned. Better blocking on third-and-short is needed before the SEC schedule starts. And if it’s possible, Alabama needs to find a way to tie right guard Barrett Jones down with guy-wires until the ball is snapped.
The way Alabama won this game? The same way it beat Virginia Tech: superior depth that allowed the team to overcome a shaky start and a special teams breakdown. Once Alabama got the touchdown to go up two scores, 26-14, FIU was done for and the Golden Panther players looked as if they knew it.
That same gameplan will work next week against North Texas. It probably won’t work the week afterwards against Arkansas.
Alabama is on the cusp of being a national title contender. But there is still some distance left to travel. To borrow one of former coach Bill Curry’s favorite words, Alabama needs more focus. It would behoove Alabama to find some before the meat of the schedule kicks in.