No. 1 Alabama football team enters open date before tough stretch

Monday, October 1, 2012 | 9:27 p.m. CDT
Alabama coach Nick Saban on the sidelines last season against Mississippi.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — No. 1 Alabama can enjoy a relaxing Saturday without the stress of trying to pull out a tight game.

OK, the Crimson Tide football team hasn't had to deal with much of that, anyway, going into its open date.

Alabama (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), the unanimous top-ranked team in the AP Top 25 on Sunday, knows that the heart of the schedule awaits upon its return after a string of blowouts and a more competitive 33-14 win over Mississippi on Saturday night.

"I think it's well needed because we're (about to) get into the hard part of our schedule, with the SEC games," Tide cornerback Dee Milliner said. "So I think we all need it to try to focus in on the off week, to regroup on things we've been missing."

The open date might also have come at a good time with some mounting injuries. Wide receiver DeAndrew White, who has two touchdown catches, and tailback Dee Hart both suffered knee injuries. White was carted to the locker room after getting hurt on Alabama's opening drive and returned later on crutches.

"He (White) was really playing well for us on special teams and really playing his position well offensively," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Saban said Monday that both will have to undergo knee surgery and will be lost for the season. That leaves Eddie Lacy and freshmen T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake as the only scholarship backs.

Starting cornerback Deion Belue missed the second half with a shoulder injury that Saban said would likely be OK in a week or two.

Alabama has been able to cope with a few injuries in what turned into an easy opening schedule.

The Tide will return with a treacherous five-week run of SEC games starting with road trips to Missouri and Tennessee, both 3-2. Then No. 20 Mississippi State and Texas A&M visit Bryant-Denny Stadium, sandwiching the much anticipated trip to No. 4 LSU.

Their combined record is 18-5.

The Rebels proved the toughest test yet and still had a glimmer of hope in the fourth quarter with a two-touchdown deficit. Alabama closed it out with two Jeremy Shelley field goals that highlighted one nagging issue: closing drives in the end zone.

That's one area of focus for the open date. Alabama has scored on its first 22 red zone attempts but has settled for seven field goals in the past two games. Tide kickers Jeremy Shelley, who handles the shorter field goals, and strong-legged Cade Foster have combined to outscore opponents 57-35.

Saban said another goal is becoming more explosive in the passing game. AJ McCarron's 22 completions went for 180 yards, an average of 8.2.

Despite the loss of White, the game was most notable offensively for the play of freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper, who had eight catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns.

His 17 catches nearly doubles that of any other Alabama receiver. Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones both have nine receptions.

"We really had high hopes that Amari Cooper would one day sort of find himself and do the things like he does in practice all the time in the game," Saban said. "I think that happened (Saturday). He played very well. That's a guy that can be an explosive player for us and help us out down the road."

The Tide trailed briefly for the first time since last year's Tennessee game, but Christion Jones promptly wiped out that deficit with a 99-yard kick return. Alabama's defense then had three straight interceptions.

Saban had talked all week about how much Ole Miss had improved since last year's 52-7 rout. He couldn't resist a postgame "I told you so."

"We had a lot of respect for their team coming into this, but nobody really listens to me until after the fact, and they say, 'Yeah, you were right,'" Saban said.

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