Occasionally, TideNation's writers will answer a handful of questions that address a pressing topic regarding the Alabama football program. And with every Roundtable, we'll seek outside opinions. This week's contributor is ESPN SEC blogger Edward Aschoff.
Question: AJ McCarron showed last year he knows how to play winning football. This season, he's shown himself capable of executing the offense with remarkable precision, tossing seven touchdowns and no interceptions en route to an otherworldly 196.6 passer rating. Where does he go from here? Is he ready to take the offense to another level?
Aschoff: I've said time and again that McCarron has all the talent to be an elite player in this league and nationally. He knows it and Nick Saban knows it. The problem that he sometimes has is he presses. He tries to make the perfect play when there isn't a play to be made and mistakes happen. We saw it a few times last year, especially in the first half of the Tennessee game. He can get careless with the ball. So far, we haven't seen that from him this season. Granted, he hasn't been tested by any of the defenses he's played, but you just see a different quarterback out there. He has more to work with at receiver and the running game is stout enough that it makes the offense extremely balanced. I expect him to put up better numbers this year and be able to stretch the field as he continues to mature and take advantage of the weapons he has.
Scarborough: While McCarron has been pitch-perfect under center, we haven't seen a step forward in terms of just taking over the game. And frankly, he hasn't had to this season. When most Saturdays are over by halftime, the necessity for McCarron to take chances down the field hasn't been there. What has to be encouraging to fans is the depth at receiver and their effectiveness downfield.
Ostendorf: McCarron's been accurate. He’s been smart. He’s making the right decisions. But give credit to the receiving corps, too. His top three targets, Christion Jones, Kevin Norwood and DeAndrew White, are all averaging more than 20 yards per catch. That’s explosive. For McCarron to take the offense to the next level, the receivers need to keep making big plays.
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Question: Alabama's defense has pitched two consecutive shutouts after giving up just 14 points to Michigan in the season opener, and trails just Florida State and TCU as the country's best unit in terms of scoring defense. How do you see them comparing to last year's group through the long haul, and who are a few players that have caught your eye thus far?
Aschoff: To think that this year's defense will match what last year's did seems like a bit of a stretch. That unit put up historic numbers all around and had a ton of NFL-ready talent on it. I'm not saying this group isn't talented, but it doesn't have the maturity and experience that last year's defense had. Through the first three games, the defense has been outstanding, but I'm curious to see what happens when it goes up against better running games and against teams that can actually pass. Remember, this secondary got beat a couple of times against Michigan. I've been extremely impressed with Dee Milliner. He looks like he'll challenge Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks as the country's top corner. Also, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is turning into a real player out there. I watched him in high school and thought he was a special player. He's going to be for Alabama very soon.
Scarborough: This year's defense projects to be very, very good, but as good as 2011? Not going to happen. There's a reason defenses like that come along every 20 years. Like Nick Saban said Monday, the Tide still have not been tested by a vertical passing game. Until that happens -- see Missouri, Tennessee, LSU -- we won't know if the 2012 defense will even come close.
Ostendorf: Statistically, the Tide’s 2011 defense was one of the greatest of all time, but there’s one category where this year’s unit has been better -- turnovers. Alabama has already forced 12. The secondary has been opportunistic with contributions from Deion Belue, Clinton-Dix, Milliner and Vinnie Sunseri.
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Question: Through three games, who are your offensive and defensive MVPs?
Aschoff: My offensive MVP would have to be McCarron. He has really turned into the perfect game manager and has shown the ability to pick apart secondaries. I can't wait to see Saban let him loose on a defense this fall. My defensive MVP is Milliner. Saban has always praised him in the past, but we're really seeing how good he really is. He's a tremendous cover guy, and has turned into a true ballhawk as well. He's shown more athleticism than I thought he had. He really helps that relatively green secondary.
Scarborough: Chance Warmack isn't flashy -- no lineman is -- but what he does for the offense cannot be understated. He was a force against Arkansas and gives the running game a huge boost. My No. 2 and 3 guys would be McCarron and Norwood, respectively. On defense, linebacker C.J. Mosley would receive my vote. His tackling and leadership have been superb.
Ostendorf: On offense, I have to go with McCarron. The offensive line has been great. The receivers have overachieved, but McCarron is making everything go right now. On defense, it’s hard to pick an MVP because so many players have stepped up, but linebacker Nico Johnson has been impressive both with his play and leadership.
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Question: A number of rookies have played and contributed already, notably T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper on offense. How do you see their roles expanding? And who are some other first-year players that have impressed you?
Aschoff: I see both having bigger roles going forward, especially Yeldon. I predicted that he'd lead the Tide in all-purpose yards and so far, I'm right on the money, as he's averaging 94 total yards a game. I think you'll see him get more carries and get used more in the receiving game. He's a great complement to Eddie Lacy and will challenge Todd Gurley as the top freshman in the league this year. Cooper has to be used more. He's just too talented. He's shown that he's a tremendous deep threat and that was missing in last year's offense. Saban wants to throw the ball down field more and Cooper gives Alabama the ability to do that. Trey DePriest has been really fun to watch at the Mike linebacker spot. He's going to be a stud at linebacker. Also, Belue has really manned the other corner spot opposite Milliner well.
Scarborough: Given Eddie Lacy's impressive performance against Arkansas, I expect Yeldon to take on more of a complimentary role. However, Yeldon will continue to get around 10 carries per game and have an impact. Cooper could really take a step forward soon. He's progressed well from week to week. As far as rookies, I'll look at the defensive side of the ball and single out Denzel Devall and Geno Smith. Both have played well in backup roles.
Ostendorf: It’s surprising to see true freshman playing for a team as talented as Alabama, but that shows how much the staff thinks of Cooper and Yeldon. Both will continue to become more involved in the offense, and Yeldon has a chance to really take off. I’ve also been impressed with Kenyon Drake, another freshman running back. He’s looked good late in games and could start to see his role expand.
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Question: Is there a game on the schedule that Tide fans should fear most, and what might be this team's biggest weakness?
Aschoff: Right now, I think LSU is the only team standing in Alabama's way. I don't see the Tide losing that No. 1 ranking before that game on Nov. 3. But there are two games to keep an eye on before that. First, the road game at Tennessee isn't a gimme -- not with that passing game. The Vols were shutdown against the Gators in the second half, but if that UT offense line protects Tyler Bray better, you'll see some big numbers put up in that passing game. Tennessee has the receiving weapons to really test this secondary. Also, Mississippi State is no pushover. That defense is solid and the Bulldogs have a very balanced offense. I can't wait to see McCarron go up against Banks and Darius Slay. Should be fun.
Scarborough: A few weeks ago, I would've singled out Missouri. Now it's the other SEC newbie, Texas A&M, that has me intrigued. The Aggies are very strong on the offensive line and Johnny Manziel looks like a playmaker. But the real test, of course, will be Nov. 3 in Baton Rouge. Inconsistency could be a concern for this team. The offensive line has been up and down, as has the secondary. With so much youth on both sides of the ball, only time will tell how they handle adversity.
Ostendorf: I thought Tennessee might be a speed bump for the Tide, but I’m not so sure after watching Saturday’s loss to Florida. The only true test will be the showdown with LSU. A potential matchup with Georgia in the SEC championship game could also be interesting because Aaron Murray has the ability to cause problems for Alabama’s secondary.