How to beat 'Bama: Hit, think, pray

Associated Press
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron passes during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
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They say no team is unbeatable. They apparently haven't seen Alabama play recently.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide has been startlingly good this season, outscoring Michigan, Western Kentucky and Arkansas 128-14. Each of Alabama's games has essentially been over at halftime.

And, oh by the way, did we mention Alabama is the defending national champion.

So what's the game plan? Where do you start looking for a way to beat the Tide?

"You've got to say a little prayer the night before," Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart said.

Uh-oh.

Taggart likes to kid. Before his Hilltoppers played Alabama he joked the Tide was the next NFL expansion team.

If he found a weakness on the game tape, he wouldn't share it Monday, but he did say, as you might expect, the No. 1 priority when beating Alabama is to not beat yourself. Limit turnovers, penalties and mistakes.

Former Arkansas and Mississippi coach Houston Nutt said: "You've got to play error-free football."

The same can be said about beating any very talented team: LSU, Florida State, Oregon, etc. With Alabama, the margin for error is thinner.

Former NFL quarterback Gary Danielson, who has been the lead analyst for CBS' Southeastern Conference coverage for seven years, uses a hockey analogy to describe what it's like to play against Alabama.

"If you're going to go against Alabama you have to win the one-one-one battles against the boards," he said. "It's a rough, tough game. And there's 11 battles going on on the field right now and you can't get pushed around on the boards."

It's not just about avoiding the careless turnover or silly penalty, it's about matching Alabama's attention to detail — which is unsurpassed.

"When you have outside leverage as a defensive end you can't get hooked (inside)," Danielson said. "You have to do your basic job. If you're a corner and you have inside technique, you can't get beat inside. If you're a safety and you have the responsibility of not giving up the deep touchdown, you can't come up and try to make a tackle 3 yards from the line of scrimmage and get beat for a touchdown.

"On offense, if you're a running back and you have blitz pick up, you have to pick it up. If you're a wide receiver and you have to make the easy catch, you have to make the easy catch. They're too good to give them stuff."

In a world of spread offenses and multitalented quarterbacks, zone-options and air raids, Alabama's offense is relatively old-school. The quarterbacks throw. The running backs run. The receivers catch. The Tide plays tight ends and even lines up a fullback at times.

To beat Alabama, you've got to stop the run, Nutt said.

To do that, you've got to get through a line that is so good last season's All-American tackle, Barrett Jones, is now playing center to make room for the future All-American tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio.

To beat Alabama, you've got to win the turnover battle, said Nutt, who is now working for CBS Sports Network.

Then he adds: "But the thing they do best, is they don't turn it over."

To beat Alabama's ferocious and fast defense, you have to have a high-quality quarterback and offensive balance, Danielson said.

"If you let them use all of their plays on defense, and not force them to play right- and left-handed, they'll pound most college teams," he said.

Even with all his high praise, Danielson doesn't believe Alabama is unbeatable. However, the list of teams talented enough to have a shot is pretty short.

"I would say this: Eight games, if the bus shows up they're going to win. The other four games or five, you have a chance to beat them but you have to do a lot of sound fundamental things."

___

SUN BELTED

The punching bag is starting to hit back.

The Sun Belt Conference followed up the biggest upset of the season, Louisiana-Monroe's overtime victory against Arkansas, with another strong weekend against the SEC.

ULM nearly made it two straight over the SEC by taking Auburn to the wire and Troy played toe-to-toe with Mississippi State. But the high point was Western Kentucky winning 32-31 at Kentucky in overtime on what will easily go down as one of the plays of the year.

Instead of kicking an extra point to tie the game, coach Willie Taggart went for a winning 2-point conversion and got it on a trick play. Running back Antonio Andrews threw back to quarterback Kawaun Jakes, who scampered into the end zone for the Hilltoppers' first victory against an SEC opponent.

"I don't call it gutsy," Taggart said of the decision. "I call it cool. That's pretty cool. That was sweet."

___

ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOW

The Pac-12 might want to return Colorado to the Big 12.

The Buffaloes, in their second season in the Pac-12, are a wreck. Saturday's 69-14 loss at Fresno State dropped Colorado to 0-3. A winless season seems not only realistic, but likely. The Buffs' best chance may be Saturday at Washington State, but they have lost 25 of their last 26 games outside Colorado.

Many fans have already turned on second-year coach Jon Embree. He shut down his Twitter account last week after a loss to Sacramento State because of all the nasty messages he was getting.

Colorado has only three senior starters and a depth chart stuffed with underclassmen. Embree was hired to replace Dan Hawkins in part because the school needed an affordable option. Embree is in the second season of a five-year deal that pays $720,00 annually, making him the lowest paid coach in the Pac-12.

"I'm a competitor. I'm a fighter. I don't read the papers. Because if you're going to believe what they say about you when they talk about all the good stuff, you've got to believe the bad," Embree said Tuesday during the Pac-12 coaches teleconference. "There's always somewhere in between."

On Monday, University President Bruce Benson told The Denver Post he was standing behind Embree and the man who hired him, athletic director Michael Bohn.

"We're going to rebuild and be positive and move forward," Benson told the newspaper.

___

HEISMAN WATCH

Teddy Bridgewater deserves some early season Heisman hype. The Louisville quarterback has completed 81 percent of his passes, leading the Cardinals to victories against Kentucky, Missouri State and North Carolina.

___

LAST WORD

"I'm as healthy as can be. You guys are going to be stuck with me for a while," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told reporters Monday. Pelini was taken to the hospital at halftime of the Cornhuskers' game Saturday with what he said turned out to be nothing more than a severe case of heartburn.

____

AP Sports Writer Eric Olson in Lincoln, Neb., contributed.

____

Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoAP

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