TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s a familiar storyline by now, Alabama attempting to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle.
You know, Nick Saban’s supposed Achilles' heel?
Texas A&M started the talk with Johnny Manziel running laps around the Tide. Then Auburn got on board, punctuated by its last-second miracle on the Plains. Finally, Oklahoma pushed the tempo and won last season's Sugar Bowl, racking up 429 yards of offense. And if you thought it would get better with another offseason to prepare, then the season-opener wasn’t for you. All West Virginia did was march up and down the field in Atlanta, barely missing out on 400 yards of offense thanks to a handful of untimely drops.
Saban has defended himself against the less-than-flattering narrative, albeit with mixed results. Because until we see Alabama’s defense actually stop an above-average offense that employs the HUNH (sorry, Florida), we can’t say with any certainty that the riddle has been solved.
That’s what makes this week so important. Against Ole Miss, Alabama will either put the talk to bed or add further fuel to the fire.
The No. 11-ranked Rebels are an up-tempo program, through and through. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn are buddies, former high school coaches who both believe time spent is time wasted. Bo Wallace, Freeze’s senior quarterback, is in his third year running the HUNH system. With so much familiarity, he can throttle the offense high and low at will. And with the talent surrounding him, there’s no question that Ole Miss’ offense is as dynamic as any Alabama will face this season.
Running back Jaylen Walton is tough to get a hand on, as evidenced by his 6.9 yards per carry coming into this weekend.
Tight end Evan Engram is a matchup nightmare with the size to overpower defensive backs and the speed to run past linebackers.
All wide receiver Cody Core seems to do is catch touchdowns.
Then there’s Laquon Treadwell, arguably one of the top-five receivers in the country. He alone can wreck a secondary.
“He’s, obviously to me, an outstanding player,” Saban said of the much-heralded sophomore on Monday. “He’s got really good size. He’s a really good athlete. He’s got a big catch radius. He can get in and out of breaks. He plays with a lot of toughness, very physical blocker. So he’s the complete package.”
Said Alabama safety Landon Collins: “He's a very quick receiver, explosive. You get the ball in his hands and he can do basically anything with it. We have a lot of respect for him and we're definitely going to look to him and not turn our backs to him because he can be a game-changer.”
But does Alabama have anyone who can actually cover him? That’s the real question.
Cyrus Jones might be up for the task, but he gives up four inches and 25 pounds. Eddie Jackson is the more physical option, but his health is a concern. Then there’s Tony Brown, who is a five-star talent but lacks experience as a true freshman.
To make matters worse, given the way Ole Miss goes without huddling, Alabama doesn’t have the option to put one man on him.
“We went through this last year in a couple of games when we tried to put a guy on a guy in a game of no-huddle and it really is difficult for the corners to get lined up, so you really can’t,” Saban explained. “I think whoever is on him is going to have to study him and play him and play him well and keep him cut off. ... He’s an outstanding player and that’s a difficult task.”
Whether it’s the unenviable job of stopping Treadwell or the much-talked-about issues with the hurry-up, no-huddle, Alabama is used to a challenge. After so many wins and so many national titles, doubters come with the territory.
According to Collins, it’s just motivation.
“Everybody is going to doubt how we play or how we come out or any aspect of our game,” he said. “We're always going to have that. That's Alabama. We just take that into consideration and use that to push us and motivate us moving forward.”