Occasionally, TideNation's writers will answer a handful of questions that address a pressing topic regarding the Alabama football program. And with every roundtable, we'll seek out the opinions of a guest. This week's contributor is ESPN College Football Insider Travis Haney.
Through nine games, what have we learned about Alabama's title chances? How much of that was gleaned from a nail-biter in Baton Rouge?
Scarborough: The biggest thing I've taken away from this season's team is how little a lack of experience on both sides of the football has an impact on the way they play. LSU revealed some youth in fumbles from freshmen Cyrus Jones and T.J. Yeldon, but on the whole, the rookies are playing like anything but. That's the positive. The negative takeaway comes largely from what happened in Baton Rouge. You can't overlook the poor execution on both sides of the football. It was the defense's first game going up against a physical offense, and it did not go well. Zach Mettenberger was made out to be a pro prospect and the Tigers' receivers much the same. AJ McCarron's game-winning drive did a lot to quell concerns over the offense, but it's hard to forget the litany of three-and-outs.
Haney: I learned in the first game that they're better than I suspected in August. I thought it would take some time for the new guys to come together, but I neglected to recognize the fact that a bunch of them had played snaps last season. Still, it's impressive that this group got glued together so tightly, so fast. I don't think any differently of Alabama this week than I did last. It won at Death Valley -- and no one's done that since 2009. So, some of the hiccups and missteps get chalked up to dealing with that environment. I don't expect there to be much carryover with many of those mistakes. I don't consider Alabama any more vulnerable as a result. It did what it had to do to win; that's all that counts. This is still the head-and-shoulders favorite to play for and win the national title.
Ostendorf: I think Alabama just passed its toughest test of the season. There could be a speed bump this weekend with Texas A&M and again in the SEC title game, presumably against Georgia, but this team is too good to slip up now. Everybody thought next year was going to be the year, but it looks like the Tide is ahead of schedule.
Has there been an area of play or a player that's been particularly surprising to you?
Scarborough: It's not that Yeldon's talent has been a surprise. We've known how skilled a back he is since before he signed with Alabama. But the way he's vaulted out to the team lead in rushing yards has been a shock. He's playing right now as if he were the co-No. 1 back with Eddie Lacy. His patience running the football and burst when he finds a lane is impressive. On the defensive side of the ball, C.J. Mosley has been a revelation. Not having him on the field (he's mostly in on nickel and dime) hurt Alabama against LSU. He's the best sideline-to-sideline defender on the field at all times.
Haney: No, not really. I guess just the fact that there wasn't even a little bit of a letdown against teams earlier in the season. Maybe a little one against Ole Miss, but that's a stretch. The Mississippi State win was so thorough, so dominant. Then again, A&M did the same -- and in Starkville, at that. But I don't necessarily put stock into correlating results against the same team. There are always different variables. Both teams were impressive; I think that can easily be agreed upon.
Ostendorf: Alabama is still a run-first football team, but I've been surprised with how new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has taken the leash off AJ McCarron this year. The offense has opened up more, and McCarron has made throws I didn't know he could make. With that, it's even more surprising and impressive that he's yet to throw an interception.
Up next for Alabama is Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel. Are the Aggies a threat to the Crimson Tide this week? If so, why?
Scarborough: They absolutely are. It took watching their season-opening loss to Florida to realize just how big a threat they are in this league. They are a spread team with a physical attitude. They're nonstop on offense and strong enough on defense to keep them in games. Alabama's defense will have its hands full on Saturday afternoon. Think the missed tackles and errors in execution that plagued the Tide in Baton Rouge were bad? Try seeing what the Aggies will do if Alabama whiffs on a few open-field tackles.
Haney: Alex can attest that this is the one, all along -- going back to August or September -- that I thought would at least be intriguing for the Tide. Sumlin's attacking style isn't one seen in the league, at least not how it's presently set up. And he has a lot better players than I think most in the SEC seemed to realize before the season started. And, of course, we didn't know what sort of player Manziel would be. Heck, we thought Jameill Showers would be the team's QB. I had someone tell me as the season was starting that Showers must have gotten into some sort of trouble for Manziel to even get the chance to play. Guess not.
The Aggies are a threat because of the whole letdown factor, because LSU inherently is a team that forces a physical 60 minutes and leaves you more beaten up than you'd care to admit. A&M is better on both lines than given credit for, and Manziel can keep plays alive to get it to his better-than-average receivers.
Where I don't like the Ags' chances: Manziel has shown against elite defenses, Florida and LSU, that he'll take too many chances, not take care of the ball and, well, look like a freshman. It's hard to believe he'll go to Bama and not display at least some of that over the course of a game. The Tide is obviously quick enough to contain him on the outside, so that eliminates some of his game. I can't imagine A&M hanging in for four quarters, but I think the contrast of styles -- in a mini-preview of what Oregon would be like, emphasis on mini -- is fascinating and enough to make Saban and Kirby Smart have to think their way through this way and the game Saturday. I'm looking forward to it; that's why I'm going, my first time to see both teams.
Ostendorf: There's no doubt Texas A&M is a threat. Manziel is one of the most exciting players in college football, and Alabama is coming off an emotional victory over LSU, its most physical game of the season. I don't think the Aggies have enough to win on the road, but Manziel will make plays and the score could be closer than people are predicting.
Scarborough: Give me Florida and a month to prepare for the game. Yes, the Gators have obvious flaws, particularly a lack of firepower on offense. But their offense is flexible. With Trey Burton and their athletes, I'm confident Brent Pease could devise a game plan with several weeks to implement it. The Gators defense speaks for itself. I'd argue that they play faster on that side of the ball than Alabama. And with several weeks to get some key players healthy, I like Will Muschamp's chances.
Haney: I think they'd shut down both Kansas State and Notre Dame and find enough offense to beat those teams. The challenge there isn't unlike LSU -- and the Tigers would have been smoked on the road or in a neutral-site game, I'm convinced. So it's got to be Oregon. There are enough playmakers for which to account, and Marcus Mariota provides the Ducks more talent than they've have previously at that position. The defense is underrated, though it is injury-riddled right now. If it can stay undefeated and get healthy, Oregon could finally be the team to knock off an SEC school in the title game. Will that actually happen? Who knows, because the Ducks do have the most difficult road to get there, having to play Stanford, Oregon State and either USC or UCLA in the league title game.
Ostendorf: I hate to say it, but it's LSU. The Tigers are the only team in the country that can match Alabama up front, and they proved it last weekend. We all know that there won't be another rematch this year, so of the remaining unbeaten teams, I think Notre Dame might give the Tide the most trouble. I don't know whether it's destiny or Manti Te'o, but the Fighting Irish know how to win.