TUSCALOOSA — It's hard to get a read on this Alabama team.
Maybe we're setting the bar too high, but the current Crimson Tide looks elite until it doesn't. After Saturday's finger-tip win over Arkansas 42-35, it's still too hard to tell if Alabama in 2021 is a placeholder to better days or a seriously legitimate contender to win it all.
For Alabama, that's always the question, every week.
Then again, was Alabama supposed to be elite this year in the first place? The Tide entered with a painfully young defensive backfield, a rebuilt offensive line and a rookie quarterback. There was lots of talent, sure, but experience matters, too.
Next year was supposed to be Alabama's year, when the young guys grew and the Tide developed into something like what we saw last year.
Still, here we are.
Even with flubs and issues, the Crimson Tide has an elite-looking 10-1 record. Alabama is ranked second in the country and deserves it.
For the most part. Probably. Possibly.
If the Tide beats Auburn in the regular-season finale and beast-like Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, it will enter the College Football Playoff as the No. 1 team in the country.
And will deserve it.
But can Alabama really win out? There are so many reasons for concern, especially when the Crimson Tide faces Georgia, which truly looks elite, especially with college football's best defense since Alabama in 2011:
—The Tide running game is below average. Alabama ranks 10th in the league in rushing offense, and averaged only 3.3 yards a carry against a below-average Arkansas run defense. The only healthy running back is starter Brian Robinson Jr., and Alabama has to be careful not to overuse him, which places a premium on the passing game to carry the load. Trey Sanders, who is still recovering from a serious car accident a year ago, is the only healthy backup, and "healthy" might be a relative term.
—The defense still struggles, especially on the back end. Now matter how unpopular defensive coordinator Pete Golding is with social media fans, this is Nick Saban's defense, and it's a hard one to pick up and run well right away. Arkansas converted third-and-14 on one touchdown drive, third-and-16 on another, and fourth-and-11 on a third.
—The offensive line isn't as strong as past Tide lines, and at times, it hasn't had much luck from allowing opposing defenses to get to Young. We saw it on occasion Saturday.
—Place-kicker Will Reichard is having trouble with consistency, and a year ago, that's a sentence we never thought we'd type.
—Maybe it's just me, but doesn't it seem like Alabama gets caught flat-footed too often this year? Arkansas' fake field goal for a touchdown is another example. Arkansas was down 13, and that would've been a 50-yard kick. Did the thought of a fake never occur to anyone?
Still, there's a lot to like about this Alabama team:
—Young is, well, young, but my goodness he's productive, even though his receiving corps isn't particularly deep. He threw for 561 yards and five touchdowns Saturday. For the season, that's 38 touchdowns to only three interceptions. That's certainly elite, no matter how long you've been starting. He's a Heisman candidate and has a real shot at the award.
—Jameson Williams is a consistent game-breaker. He's so fast, it seems like he's going to take flight and clear the upper deck. He had eight catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, and Alabama may not have won without him. It's interesting to think of him matching up with Georgia. What in the world was Ohio State thinking in his two years there? How was he not playing all the time?
—Robinson isn't Najee Harris or Derrick Henry, but who is? He's still tough and confident, and he's handling his job with maturity.
—Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. had a relatively quiet night — 11 tackles, three stops for loss, and one sack. Hey, that's quiet for him, and if he isn't the best defensive player in the country, he's close. He's good enough to be a difference-maker against a great team.
—Hey, a win is a win, and who can argue with a team that wins? There's something to be said for the confidence a team gains when it keeps winning.