By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - The formerly guns-blazing Alabama offense has fired some blanks in the last few weeks.
The seventh-ranked Crimson Tide hope to snap out of that funk Saturday night at Tennessee. They have averaged 314.3 yards in their last three games after averaging 511.8 in the first four. The competition improved, but only Florida among the last three opponents ranks in the top half of the SEC in total defense.
The offense was the reason so many experts picked Alabama to repeat as national champion. But the issues it's having don't sound like those troubling most experienced and accomplished units.
So what gives?
Coach Nick Saban isn't placing the blame on quarterback Greg McElroy or giving too much credit to the opposition.
"When we watch the film, most of the time it is about what we did and in some cases what we didn't do," Saban said. "We need to execute better. We need to do things better. We need to get better play at every position. We need to play together better. We need to stay positive in what we try to do and get some trust and belief in each other, in that if everybody does the right things, we're going to have a chance to be successful."
Among SEC offenses, the Tide rank fourth overall (427.1 yards per game) and fifth in both passing (243.6 ypg) and rushing (183.6 ypg).
Opposing defenses are focusing on the outstanding running combination of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. That places more strain on the passing game and puts more pressure on McElroy, who has been sacked 11 times in the past two games.
"I'm playing with a lot of confidence right now," McElroy said. "I think we all just need to play with a lot of confidence. I think that starts with me, and I've got to try to get those guys to feel confident in me. If we can just get everybody to have confidence in me and have confidence in our offensive line and me having confidence in our wide receivers.
"I think we just lack the trust in each other right now. We just need to get that back."
For a veteran group that returned almost every skilled position player from last year, trust isn't typically a culprit for a midseason slump. But it's not as simple as that.
The mounting sack total - Alabama is 11th in the SEC in that category - is not just a protection issue. Though Ole Miss found open lanes to McElroy on Saturday, defenses have disguised coverage. Receiver Marquis Maze said the last few opponents have jammed Alabama players at the line and left roving safeties over the top daring McElroy to force a deep pass.
Because the Tide quarterback hasn't taken the bait, he's taken more sacks, but he has not thrown an interception in the past three games. Fewer explosive plays of 15 yards or more also trailed off to 15 in the three most recent games compared to 47 in the first four.
"We're just capable of more," McElroy said. "We demand a lot more of ourselves as an offense, and I know we're capable of a lot more. Out of sync might not be the right word. We just need to have a better week of preparation leading into the games on Saturday. We have to have better focus, better determination, better effort in practice. That should lead to better outcomes. Our timing's a little off in the passing game."
The Tide still average 33.3 points a game, good for third best in the SEC, and have the third-lowest turnover total. And they will face a Tennessee defense that ranks in the bottom third of every major category and is last in the league in total defense (381 ypg). Vols coach Derek Dooley is more concerned with finding solutions to his defensive issues first.
"I know this: We haven't stopped the run very well or the pass," Dooley told reporters in Knoxville. "That's something we're going to have our work cut out for us, as we do every week."