UA offensive identity a question mark

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For months, the message from Alabama players and coaches has been about finding a new identity this season, separating 2011 from 2012. It's been a work in progress, they've said.

But on offense, what are the Tide if not familiar?

Sure, there have been flashes of big-play capability, capitalizing on the tandem of a proficient quarterback and an athletic, speedy set of receivers. Alabama can flash its vertical passing game one minute, then dissect the defense with short passes and screens. Alabama has run the ball inside, outside and everywhere in between, but halfway through the season, is there a clear identity for what first-year coordinator Doug Nussmeier is doing on offense?

Yes, it's working, but is the offense different than it looked a year ago?

Early on it looked like the offense would be entrusted to AJ McCarron. Alabama's junior quarterback racked up 10 touchdowns and no interceptions through the first four games, averaging 204.7 passing yards per game. Heading into the Sept. 29 game against Ole Miss, Alabama averaged no fewer than 15 yards per completion. Since then, McCarron has thrown two touchdowns and averaged 25 fewer yards per game through the air. The Tide's average yards per completion fell below 9.3 yards for its games against Ole Miss and Missouri.

With a seemingly healthy Eddie Lacy toting the ball nearly 20 times per game the last two contests, the Alabama offense seems to have fallen back into the hands of its tailbacks. UA ran the ball 47 times for a season-high 362 yards against Missouri on Saturday afternoon. The physical, ground 'em down style has been effective -- Alabama is 25th in the country in rushing offense. Freshman T.J. Yeldon has been a nice compliment to Lacy, going for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries at Missouri.

Even sophomore receiver Christion Jones got a chance to carry the ball, taking an end-around two yards. It was the first such play of the season for the Tide, leaving the question again whether the entirety of Nussmeier's playbook has been revealed and the balance Saban seeks in his offense has been realized.

The middle ground of passing versus rushing, the vertical passing game versus the horizontal, hasn't yet been achieved.

"The big thing is balance on offense," Saban said during ESPN's BCS Countdown program on Sunday night. "When we're able to run the ball on people and throw the ball effectively, we're really a pretty good offensive team."

Alabama ranks 17th in the country in scoring offense with 40.5 points per game and trails only Georgia's 41.3 in the SEC. McCarron ranks fifth in the country in passing efficiency. Every ball he throws further widens his lead as the school record holder for most consecutive pass attempts without throwing an interception.

As the Tide enter the second half of the regular season, the question is where the offense will go: Is it McCarron's to guide? Of is it the running backs' to carry? Or will it continue to thrive on a similar, varied approach?