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More to Alabama than meets the eye

The humility in Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's voice was as sincere as his offense was potent, unpredictable and balanced.

"Make no mistake. This is still a defensive team, a team with a defensive mentality," Kiffin said late Friday night as he stood on the AT&T Stadium field amid the falling confetti and the cameras.

He had just watched his offense take apart one of the best defenses in the country in a 38-0 thrashing of Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, but it wasn't the way anybody necessarily expected the Crimson Tide to roll on offense.

At the end of the third quarter, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry had 65 rushing yards and quarterback Jake Coker was 24-of-29 passing for 280 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions … and the Crimson Tide led 31-0.

"Fortunately, we made some plays to make the score look that way, but we shut out a really good team and scored on special teams," Kiffin said. "We're a defensive- and special-teams-minded team that is still evolving on offense."

That might be hard to argue, but it's also hard to argue that Alabama is a much more complete football team than maybe even the Crimson Tide realized earlier this season. They can beat you any number of ways, which should come in handy on Jan. 11, when they take on Clemson and seek their fourth national championship in the past seven years.

 

 

"That's the thing that has been most pleasing to me about this team, and it's not just what we've done in any of the three phases of the game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "It's the way we've gone about it, the way we've complemented each other and the way nobody has looked beyond that particular day or beyond what his job is.

"We've had some good teams around here, some really talented teams, but this one has been as much of a team as any we've ever had."

The book on Alabama for much of the season was to find a way to limit Henry's touches, force Coker to beat you throwing the ball and stretch the field on offense while throwing over the Tide's heads.

Few doubted how stout Alabama was in its defensive front. Before the season, Saban said the defensive line was as deep as it had ever been, and the Tide's depth and talent up front have carried them. But the more you watch this team play, the more obvious it becomes that Alabama is anything but a defensive juggernaut simply trying to ride all those future pros to another national title.

"When the other team doesn't score, they don't win," Alabama junior linebackerRyan Anderson said. "But we lean on each other. We're not going to shut people out every game, and the power of this team is that we've been there for each other when we needed it. There's a lot more to our offense than people see, and you saw that [against Michigan State], but we play as a team, and coach Saban has a way of fitting it all together."

Some might have been surprised that Kiffin would put so much on Coker's shoulders. But Michigan State was determined to take away Henry, so Coker worked the perimeter with some shorter passes early. And then the Tide unleashed freshman receiver Calvin Ridley, who caught a 50-yard bomb to set up Alabama's first touchdown and then put the game away in the third quarter with another 50-yard catch, this one for a touchdown.

In between those two quick strikes, Cyrus Jones took a 57-yard punt return to the house, and Alabama finished the game with more points (38) than Michigan State could muster in yards rushing (29).

"I know everyone says that we're one-dimensional, but [the victory against Michigan State] shows that we're a complete team," Alabama senior receiverRichard Mullaney said.

Or as Ridley put it: "You can't shut everybody down on this offense."

The Crimson Tide even pulled tight end O.J. Howard out of the mothballs. Howard, one of the more athletic tight ends in the country, had caught only two passes in his past four games entering the Cotton Bowl, as Alabama had leaned hard on Henry down the stretch. But the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Howard was a big factor against Michigan State, especially early, and his 41-yard catch led toAdam Griffith's 47-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead in the second quarter.

Howard never blinked about his blocking role during the last month of the regular season, which all goes back to Saban lauding this team's disposition.

"That's the thing about this team. You better be ready when they call your number," Howard said. "Nobody is really keeping count on this team. The only thing we're keeping count of is the wins. We have athletes all over the field, and when we get everybody involved, we can be special."

Coker, who has completed 67.1 percent of his passes this season, conceded that he might have put too much pressure on himself last season after transferring in from Florida State. But the way he hung in there and kept improving, especially with his penchant for taking on defenders, won over his teammates.

"It seems like he's always coming up with huge plays for us," Alabama's Rimington Trophy center Ryan Kelly said. "That's just the kind of guy he is. He doesn't force things and doesn't want the credit. But when somebody calls his name and calls for him to do his job, that's what he's going to do. You can't not get behind a player like that. It just resonates with everybody."

 

Something else that has resonated with this team is the way everybody buried the Tide following their Sept. 19 loss to Ole Miss, in particular the way some suggested that Alabama's best days under Saban might be behind them.

"We know a lot of people didn't think we were legit after the Ole Miss loss, but we just came together as a team," Kelly said. "We knew we had to go 1-0. We knew every game we played the rest of the way was a playoff game. We had some tough away games and some tough opponents and always found a way to win. The exciting part of this team is the way we've fought.

"When we've fallen on offense, the defense or special teams was there to pick us up. We've been there to pick up the defense when they've fallen. It's been that way all year, and we look forward to doing it one more time."

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