After clearing a huge hurdle in their quest for a third straight national championship, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide play their first home game of the season, as they welcome the Colorado State Rams to Tuscaloosa for a non-conference clash at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide went toe-to-toe with Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies last weekend in College Station and got some revenge for last year's only blemish on their record, topping A&M 49-42 in a classic shootout. With the team's top competition in the SEC West already out of the way, it could help clear the path for Alabama to claim its fourth national title in the last five years.
Saban was pleased with his team's ability to come from behind to earn the win in a hostile environment.
"There's obviously a lot of good things, the most important of which is to win a game in the SEC and our division against a really good team. Very pleased with the competitive character that we showed in the game on the road, getting down 14-0."
Jim McElwain is in his second season in Fort Collins as head coach of the Rams and hopes there is a hangover following Alabama's big game against Texas A&M, as Colorado State is taking a huge step up in competition, on the road no less. CSU dropped its first two games in 2013, with setbacks to Colorado (41-27) and Tulsa (30-27), but finally found its way into the win column with last weekend's 34-17 win over Cal Poly.
While McElwain is no stranger to the environment in Tuscaloosa, having served as offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008 through 2011 and winning two national titles (2009, 2011), the Rams and Crimson Tide have never met on the football field prior to this matchup.
The Rams aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut and will have their hands full with Alabama's defense in this one. Colorado State comes into the contest averaging 29.3 ppg on 367.7 yards of total offense. Where the team has shown consistency is in the red zone, where CSU has scored on 11-of-12 opportunities.
Getting into the red zone against the Tide won't be easy for junior signal caller Garrett Grayson, who has completed 56.1 percent of his passes this season, for 606 yards and four touchdowns. Spreading the ball around as been the norm for the Rams in the first three games, as no receiver has stood out.
The ground game has provided some balance at 165.7 yards per game, as both senior Chris Nwoke (5.0 ypc, one TD) and sophomore Kapri Bibbs (5.7 ypc, three TDs) have had success.
While the offense has been proficient in the red zone, the CSU defense has not. The Rams have allowed opponents to score on 9-of-10 opportunities inside the 20-yard line. Overall, Colorado State has struggled to stop both the run (175.7 ypg) and the pass (258.7 ypg), not a good sign with the explosive Crimson Tide on deck.
Junior linebackers Aaron Davis (26 tackles) and Max Morgan (24 tackles) have been productive in the middle of the defense. Redshirt freshman safety Kevin Pierre-Louis has exceeded expectations in the early going of his career, tied with Morgan in stops (24) through three games. Senior end Shaquil Barrett (21 tackles) has been a force in the backfield, leading the Rams in both TFL (7) and sacks (2).
Manziel may have had a huge game against Alabama statistically, but in the end, it was A.J. McCarron's mistake-free football that led the Tide to victory. Alabama's savvy signal caller has seen and done it all in his career in Tuscaloosa, and is the school's all-time leader in TD passes (54), a number he reached with a career-high 334 yards and four TD strikes against the Aggies.
Despite a shaky offensive performance in the opener against Virginia Tech, Alabama is still averaging 42.0 ppg through two games.
The numbers should start to stabilize considering the talent on the offensive side of the ball. Sophomore tailback T.J. Yeldon is the school's next workhorse. He is responsible for 42 of the team's 75 carries thus far and is averaging 5.3 yards per touch and 112.0 yards per game on the ground.
McCarron's outlets down the field are plentiful as well, headlined by Amari Cooper (six catches, 72 yards) and DeAndrew White (six catches, 96 yards, one TD).
The numbers will always be skewed a little bit when having to play against last year's Heisman Trophy winner, but make no mistake about it, Alabama's defense is still a formidable unit.
The squad has lost a number of defensive All-Americans over the last couple of seasons, but a revolving door of talent has helped assuage the losses. This season, the leader is unquestionably All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley, who is a favorite to earn the Butkus Award in 2013. The 6-foot-2 senior has done little to doubt that in the first two games, posting an impressive 19 stops thus far. Landon Collins (12 tackles), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (12 tackles) and Vinnie Sunseri (eight tackles, two interceptions) highlight the play in a formidable secondary. Sunseri has been clutch in both victories this season, becoming the first Alabama player to return interceptions for touchdowns in back-to-back games since Antonio Langham in 1992.
The euphoria surrounding Alabama's big win over Texas A&M will not dissipate this week. Instead it should only get stronger as the Crimson Tide open up their home slate in front of what is expected to be an appreciative fan base.
McElwain knows Alabama will be prepared.
"Getting ready to play this game, one of the things I know from being there is that there is no letdown. People could point out that they just had that huge win over a nationally-ranked team. One of the things that they do as well as anybody in the country does is that it doesn't matter who you're playing, it's about playing against yourself. It's about how you do every single day, in every single snap to get better. They will use some things from that; I'm sure the numbers there put up by A&M and by that quarterback, they'll use that motivation to come back this week and try to shut us out."