Opinion: Tide has tougher tests ahead

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron (10) threw three touchdown passes Saturday. (AP photo by Butch Dill)

This is my “Inside Alabama” column for today’s editions:

TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s football players are early in the fall semester and their big tests won’t come until later.

In class and on the field.

The Crimson Tide hasn’t been pushed in the first one-third of the regular season as anticipated.

The opening opponent, Michigan, was No. 8 in the preseason Associated Press poll, but has fallen out of the rankings. So has the third opponent of the season, Arkansas, which was No. 10 in the preseason, but is now 1-3 with losses to Lousiana-Monroe and Rutgers.

If you look at the Sagarin computer rankings put together for USA Today, Alabama is ranked No. 1, but the Tide’s strength of schedule is No. 78. Michigan is the highest rated opponent so far at No. 37, which is five spots behind Mississippi State.

This will change. According to the Sagarin ratings, Alabama will play seven of the nation’s top 50 teams in the remaining eight regular-season contests: LSU (3), Texas A&M (11), Missouri (24), Mississippi State (32), Auburn (44), Tennessee (46) and Ole Miss (50).

If the Tide makes the SEC Championship Game, the opponent could be South Carolina (5), Florida (6) or Georgia (10).

“We have got a lot of good conference games coming up, so we need to still focus on improving and doing things that we need to do to make our team better,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after his Tide beat Florida Atlantic 40-7 on Saturday.

Ole Miss is next. The Rebels (3-1) will visit Tuscaloosa on Saturday in a game either ESPN or ESPN2 will televise. Their only loss has come to Texas, although the three wins are hardly impressive: Tulane, Central Arkansas and Texas-El Paso.

After that comes a bye week before Alabama must visit Missouri and Tennessee, host Mississippi State, visit LSU in perhaps the biggest game of the year nationally and then host Texas A&M.

After facing Western Carolina at home, Alabama will play Auburn in Tuscaloosa.

With this part of the schedule coming up, Saban wanted to get as many players into Saturday’s game as possible.

Saban didn’t want to have this one go like the 35-0 win over Western Kentucky two weeks earlier. In that one, Saban never felt comfortable substituting liberaly until the final minutes.

On Saturday, the Tide began sprinkling in deep reserves in the third quarter.

“I was much more pleased with the way we competed in the game today, just the way we approached the game, the way we competed in the game, and we got to play a lot of players today,” Saban said. “I think those things are going to benefit us down the road.”

There are three places in particular in which Alabama got a chance to play backups in situations that Saban like — with the first team. That always could happen if someone goes down in a tight situation in a tough game.

At quarterback, Blake Sims got time behind the first-team line for the second straight week.

Arie Kouandjio played guard for several snaps with the first-team line when Anthony Steen went out briefly with an arm injury. Also, all the running backs worked behind the starting line with the first-team quarterback, AJ McCarron.

At running back, Eddie Lacy rebounded from toe, ankle and knee injuries to run for 106 yards, while true freshman T.J. Yeldon had 63, true freshman Kenyan Drake 35 and redshirt frehsman Dee Hart 29.

“None of those (freshmen) have a significant amount of experience or any experience at all, other than what they’ve gotten this year,” Saban said. “For all of those guys to have an opportunity to play when the game is still on the line and have to go out there and execute and do things the right way and compete, I think they all ran with authority today and ran hard.”

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