1. So the Tide look, for the most part, pretty invincible. Is that the feeling among the fan base at the moment?
I'd certainly hope not. Alabama's schedule under Nick Saban has tended to start with a bang, slow down for almost a month, and then grow increasingly difficult as the season progresses, with mid-October through January upping the ante each time the team steps on the field. Compounding this objectively tougher degree of difficulty is that the Tide also plays its three traditional rivals in the final five games: Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn.
In September if you asked me where the meat of the schedule lay, I'd have told you the first eight games. However, with a resurgent LSU, and with Auburn finally putting it all together, Alabama could go from a team that the media has proclaimed to be the best Tide team ever, to a 10-2, third-place West finisher.
2. Most don't expect a program like Alabama to play a true freshman quarterback. What's made things work so well with Jalen Hurts?
The first is his talent. There's no one better on the roster right now. Departed Blake Barnett was the better pure thrower to be sure, but he never won the team over (on the field or in the locker room, and the latter was an issue.) He simply was not consistent enough to win the start and was too impatient to develop under one of the best QB coaches in the nation in Lane Kiffin. The second is Hurts' leadership. Nick Saban has said throughout the season that he does not practice like a freshman, he does not lead like one, he does not study like one, and he does not take criticism or coaching like one. Part of that is his make-up: He's a coach's kid and a very smart guy from an academically-inclined family (think Josh Dobbs, but, you know, good.) Lastly, his growth was really accelerated by having to prep the starters by emulating Deshaun Watson -- after he had been on campus a total of two days. Saban credits the latter as a tangible step towards kickstarting his growth. The team also singled him out for praise after that game as helping them achieve the victory. It's rare a true freshman early enrollee on the scout team gets that kind of praise or makes that kind of impact. There's also the "it" factor. You could tell in the Spring game that he was something special, and his implacable demeanor, ability to bounce back from and not repeat mistakes have borne that out. If anything, the offense is underperforming to some degree relative to its talent because of his youth and inexperience. And that is a terrifying or exciting thought, depending on your vantage point.
3. Is there any concern that his inexperience will show at some point?
Jalen has already had his freshman yips. On the road in Arkansas, an inconsistent performance on the road versus the Vols, and at home versus the Aggies, he had his worst days in Crimson -- particularly the first half of the A&M game, where he was underthrowing, overthrowing, making the wrong reads, even making some bad decisions on the option, and making bad decisions at the LOS. Fortunately, Alabama was able to lean on the defense and a deep running back corps until Hurts settled down some in the second half (and even he did most of his damage .) That said, he's not had a "freshman game" for an entire game, which has been the difference. Nor, in this offense, which is a HUNHS option attack, is he going to be asked to win the game with his arm. However, when he was called upon to help lead the charge down 24 points to Ole Miss, he was stellar. Still, this physically, though not schematically, is an OSU- or Auburn-type spread, which fits with Alabama's historical MO: Run first, run often, run hard and we hope to not see another contest where the outcome is reliant on his arm -- this season, at least.
4. Overall, it appears that Bama has been using a number of different backs without one true bell cow a la Derrick Henry, Trent Richardson, etc... What are the strengths and weaknesses of these different backs?
When healthy, second-year running back Damien Harris is your feature back by a decent margin. Last year Harris was tentative, didn't get north-south very quickly, didn't really show any burst, was not particularly good in the passing game, and played like a freshman lacking confidence and understanding. But, after a year in the system, his blocking improved, he reads the hole better, and he showed the burst and power that made him the No. 1 running back in the 2015 class. His vision and footwork have also improved, and those are really what separates him from the rest of the group. He is your standard all-utility Saban back.
Hot on his heels is the guy who Saban compared to Mark Ingram, the little-regarded Joshua Jacobs. If you recall, Jacobs was an ignored three-star all of last year, when suddenly word came down the pipe to elite programs about this little-marketed kid in Tulsa. Nick Saban, Bob Stoops and many others were making redeye jet trips to Oklahoma to see Jacobs and schedule 11th hour official visits. That was confidence well-invested: he has been a revelation. Jacobs is incredibly powerful for his size, gets to and through the second level very quickly, has elite speed in the open field, and has soft hands to boot. He combines some of the better parts of Yeldon's and Ingram's game.
Bo Scarbrough, you already know, at least by reputation: For whatever reason, despite freakish physical tools, it has taken him a while to get used to the system. And, he has made at least two critical fumbles, which doesn't get you in the Big Man's good graces. With his slow development, turnover propensity, but big-play potential and physical skills, he reminds you of Eddie Lacy in Derrick Henry's body. He is better now than in September, and will be better next August than he is today.
BJ Emmons will be a very nice back, but, for the moment the freshman very much looks like one: from pad level, to upright bearing, to hesitation at the line of scrimmage. He will continue to get carries, but, like Harris and Scarbrough before him, he needs seasoning and maturation to be an elite SEC back.
Finally, Derrick Gore is big-body reserve. He's very physical but not very fast, and is buried at the bottom of the depth chart. If LSU fans see him in Death Valley, then I would wager you left very angrily and early in the third quarter.
5. On defense, what's different about this army of darkness as opposed to past Bama units?
Speed. Speed. Speed. This is by a wide margin Nick Saban's fastest defense, slowly built over the past three classes to counter the spread that creeped into and has overtaken the SEC (including Alabama.) Even the interior defensive linemen aren't built like Terrance Cody or Marcel Dareus. For instance, NT Daron Payne is no longer a one-gap run-stuffer; he has the speed, strength and size to two-gap, stop the run, and to pressure the passer. You see that speed and versatility really show in the LB corps. There are pass rush specialists like Tim Williams, sound every-down stars like Ryan Anderson, and interior 'backers like Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton that hit like a traditional MLB, stuff the run, yet still have the speed and chops to effectively play the pass.
Another major difference is that Nick Saban's well-worn mantra of "affecting the quarterback" has turned into "destroy the quarterback." Alabama led the nation last season with 53 sacks, and third in sacks per game. This season, as last, Alabama again leads the nation in sacks, but has also vaulted to first in sacks per game, with 32 (tallying 4.0 per game.) If anything, the pass rush on this team is even better than last season, despite a lack of depth in the front seven.
Finally, it is a more aggressive scheme. DC Jeremy Pruitt will come at you at lot more than Kirby Smart did. Rather than play between the 35s, Alabama contests every possession and will pressure the QB on any down. That has resulted in generating more turnovers, and in turn, defensive touchdowns. Alabama is riding a streak of 11 games where its defense or special teams have scored. It is apparent in the nine touchdowns scored this season, that the defense's speed and aggression is yielding huge dividends.
6. Finally, what, if any, weaknesses are there on this team that concern you?
The Crimson Tide still haven't put it all together in the passing game. Jalen Hurts is erratic on his vertical throws, which a run-first team greatly needs to keep nine men out of the box. As a passer, he's still very raw and that most shows when he's going through his possessions. He doesn't make many bad reads, which is a credit to his film study and Lane Kiffin's coaching, but he has to improve in finding that 2nd and 3rd receiver. He will particularly need to so in this game, as LSU has one of the most talented secondaries in the SEC.
The other major (or at least potential) weakness will be replacing Eddie Jackson. It is very hard to lose your defensive captain, the nation's leading punt returner, and a senior All-American safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick is an excellent player and a slightly better athlete than Jackson, and he already calls some of the defense, so I don't believe there will be much of a drop off in terms of execution or Xs and Os on the field. However, how do you replace a sure-handed explosive punt returner, much less the guy who keeps everything running smoothly on the field and keeps the younger guys disciplined? That defensive quarterback now is one of the younger guys. In special teams, in intangibles, and in terms of exhausting Alabama's already-thin secondary depth, Jackson's loss looms large.