‘Bama passes final pre-conference test

Published 3:43 pm Sunday, September 14, 2008

TUSCALOOSA – An attention-getting rout, a survival game and a mismatch that turned out as expected.

No. 9 Alabama worked a pretty nice mix of lessons into its first three games leading up to Southeastern Conference play, including Saturday night’s mostly expected 41-7 blowout of Western Kentucky.

“Everything we’ve done to this point is to get ready to play in the SEC,” coach Nick Saban said. “If we don’t learn our lessons and improve each game, then it will show up when we start playing the kind of competition we’re going to be playing in the future.”

That starts with two road trips. The Tide (3-0) visits Arkansas and then No. 3 Georgia in a less than cozy start to the SEC season.

The Western Kentucky game amounted to little more than a tuneup, though it did help Alabama jump rival Auburn in the rankings. Before that a surprisingly easy win over Clemson and a surprisingly difficult victory over 30-point underdog Tulane gave Alabama different kinds of experience.

The defense has looked SEC-ready all along and is yielding a nation’s best 42.7 rushing yards a game. The offense reached that point against Western Kentucky (1-2) with 577 yards and a nice balance of running, passing, big plays and clock-eating drives.

Lesson learned?

“It was good to see the team bounce back like we did,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “This is all to learn the lessons to get ready to play in the SEC. We dominated our opponent. We played the entire 60 minutes. We never let up.”

Alabama also has already learned that a fast start doesn’t necessarily mean a strong season.

The Tide started out 3-0 last season as well, but followed that with back-to-back losses to Georgia and Florida State en route to a 7-6 season.

Saban said he was disappointed in ‘Bama’s lack of “competitive maturity” after the Clemson win.

“I think that’s the one thing that we have to learn to do better is not get so satisfied when something good happens, be able to put it aside, move on and go play to our capacity for our next game,” he said.

The Tide also used the pre-conference games to identify some playmakers and groom freshmen like receiver Julio Jones, tailback Mark Ingram and linebackers Don’ta Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.

Ingram has a team-high three rushing touchdowns and his 210 yards ranks behind only Glen Coffee. Jones leads the Tide with 107 receiving yards.

The return of two veterans helped also. Linebacker Prince Hall came back from a suspension that has sidelined him since the spring for violating team rules, shoring up the least experienced part of the Tide’s defense.

The offense benefited from the return of left tackle Andre Smith. He had missed the Tulane game with a sprained right knee.

“It’s great to have him back,” said Coffee, who piled up 97 yards, all in the first half. “He’s one of the best players in the nation. Having him back is key.”

Receiver Earl Alexander, who had been bothered by a sore ankle returned with three catches for 50 yards. He was one of five players to catch passes of 20-plus yards, big-play capabilities that had been noticeably absent against Tulane.

“This is a confidence booster,” Alexander sad. “It proves we can make plays downfield.”