1. Blake Sims wasn't really supposed to be the guy for Alabama this year after all the offseason Jacob Coker hype, but he's had an outstanding season to date. What's he doing well and what has been the difference for him?
Sims has a few things in his favor that Coker was simply never going to have. First, he is literally the most well-loved guy in the locker room, and the team's play shows. "Trust" is a nebulous concept in any sport, but there is no doubt that when Sims is in the game, the small things add up: wide receivers block better, the line gets off the ball faster, the backs run harder, communication is better. The team simply trusts him. That is one hell of an intangible. As far as scheme and tangibles are concerned, he has exceptional (if occasionally myopic) communication with Amari Cooper, the nation's best (and finally healthy) wide receiver. His footwork is very nice too. He does not get happy feet, but is able to move in the pocket to make the throws, which, in this offense, rarely involve Nussmeier's homerun verticals. Finally, it gives Lane Kiffin a new toy in a loaded backfield. With Alabama rolling five-deep at running back, and three of those guys with great hands, teams must respect the shifts from and passes to the backs...but, when you think you have that snuffed out, Sims has designed running packages and can improv on the ground as well. His game speed is outstanding as a ball carrier, and he is a much better player when the pace is fast. Expect a lot of no-huddle.
2. As good as he's been, Sims has had some relative struggles on the road. Is there anything to that or is it just a case of seeing the better defenses in those games?
It is probably a function of three things:
1. The road defenses have been better than the home opponents (save Florida) and they have come in some fluky environments: Ole Miss at night, with College Gameday, and fully loaded and healthy. West Virginia, despite the "DUR HURR" meme, with its top-25 defense in most categories (and his first start). Arkansas, in Fayetteville, in the worst kind of rains I've seen in a long time, and, already being a tough out and a weird place to play. LSU, sadly, will be just as weird. I fully expect Sims to struggle on the road this week, but (as noted above), this is why Alabama will probably move fast...minimize his thinking and rely on his instincts.
2. Inexperience: Sure, the kid is a fifth-year senior, but this is his third offensive coordinator in that time and he is making just his ninth start.
3. Wildcard Offensive Line: The line has been all over the place, and it begins at center. Too many times the guards (Arie and Shank) are having to disguise erratic play from Ryan Kelly. As good as Shepherd and CamRob have been on the outside, the interior is getting bullied and can this can cause him problems with straight-line rushes. There are no answers either, as Kelly's backups are true freshmen.
3. How significant is the Cameron Robinson injury for the Alabama offensive line?
There is no way to soften the loss of CamRob. He has been an absolute rock on the left side with Arie. If you've watched Alabama this season, you'll notice that his name may be called once every two or three games. For a left tackle, in an uptempo balanced offense, there is simply no higher praise. He is rarely flagged, his run blocking has improved every game, and he has done an excellent job in pass protection. I say this with no hyperbole: At this point in his development, CamRob is well above the developmental pace of similar All-American Alabama true-freshmen starters Andre Smith and Chris Samuels. In fact, given his wing span, athleticism, awareness, and all-around talent, Samuels may be the best comparison. This kid screams "first pick of the draft" material in 2017. There are noises about him actually starting nine days after incurring a high ankle sprain, but I'd put better money on you guys buying boxed pastalaya than that happening.
4. On the other side of the ball, the Crimson Tide defensive backs have given up some plays down the field at times. LSU hasn't been very consistent in the air but has shown the ability to strike deep. How much of a concern is that?
We have entered a new (and, I argue, crappier) era of football, alas. One where the shutdown corner simply doesn't exist. With offenses routinely hitting 80+ plays per game, platooning DBs, playing between 20s, and minimizing the home-run ball has become a priority. It took a few years, but Saban and Smart finally got the bend-don't-break memo. With that in mind, the Alabama secondary's biggest issue has not been giving up the deep ball, so much as giving up the immediate routes. There is far less jamming at the line, much less press, than you would expect from a Saban defense. And, given Alabama's injuries, youth, or inexperience (and sometimes just awful play) at the corner position, LSU should be able to make hay with a conservative, controlled passing game. Landon Collins (and we say hello to his mom, by the way) simply isn't going to get toasted deep often.
5. Most of Alabama's schedule has featured spread offenses. Any concerns of the change-up of seeing more of a pure power team like LSU?
I am not giving short shrift to the LSU power running game. I'm really not. But, Arkansas does it just as well and just as consistently. That game was competitive not because the biggest line in football had its way, but because of Alabama special teams mistakes and a bad game by the secondary. This is the deepest, most talented defensive line Saban has had at Alabama, and certainly the best one LSU will see all year, on a player-by-player basis. Running come at a premium for both teams. What terrifies me most is if LSU has success with intermediate routes (as our linebackers still aren't particularly good coverage guys), and the safeties have to bail them out. Then, the stage is set for a more reactive Alabama front seven, and the LSU front can start to take advantage of a pass-rush mentality. I do not, however, expect either team to dominate the ground. Alabama has too many injuries and inconsistencies to do so on offense, and Alabama is frankly too good up front on defense to be exploited thusly. The winner takes this one through the air, which has to make both of our long-time fan bases shake their heads at this modern SEC.