Q&A with The Crimson White’s sports editor, Kelly Ward

Ward is picking Alabama to beat Missouri.

With the Southeastern Conference Championship Game this weekend in Atlanta, The Maneater talked to Kelly Ward, the sports editor of the University of Alabama’s student newspaper, The Crimson White.

Another SEC Championship Game appearance under Nick Saban. Do people in Tuscaloosa care about division titles?

I think this season, people are excited to go back to Atlanta. I just remember my freshman year, that was when Alabama played Notre Dame in the national title. The game before was the SEC Championship. I think getting to the SEC Championship after that loss to A&M was something in itself. People were really excited about winning that.

And I think people are excited this year. I mean, Alabama had that early loss to Ole Miss, so it was kinda like, “Wait, the season’s done.” And then you’ve got this team who’s a little bit scrappy, to be honest. They get it done when their backs are against the wall. So with that, I think people are excited. And I think people realize that if Alabama were to get to the Playoff, if they win, they had to go through Atlanta.

What have you thought of the way the team reacted (to the Ole Miss loss)? With the College Football Playoff being new this year, there was kind of this hesitation or this moment of like, ‘Oh my god, we lost a game, we’re finished.’ Did you get a sense that this team ever thought that? Or did the fanbase ever think that?

I think with the College Football Playoff being new, people aren’t really sure what to expect in that area. You look at the last two — of course, at Alabama you talk about national titles — you look at the last two national titles they won, and they lost one game that season — each time. A loss didn’t mean the end of the world (this season), especially when they had LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn coming up.

So I think with that, there was a little bit of a sense of “Wait, what’s going on? What happened to Alabama football?”

We talked about this as a newspaper about what to put on the front page. When they lost to Auburn, it was this spread called “Nightmare in Jordan-Hare” and underneath the fold was: “What would have to happen for Alabama to get back?” It was too early to tell. So I think there was a little bit of “it’s too early to tell” after the (Ole Miss loss). I think the team took that loss and kind of just started a new season and learned from mistakes, really. I mean, the Arkansas win was incredibly scrappy. It was not pretty football. That’s kind of an SEC thing: football really is just gritty. You’re not going to have that finesse to it.

With that, I think the team has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder. They kind of had to maybe prove themselves again. I think because of that loss — you can never tell for sure — you look at the games where they got behind: they got behind against Arkansas, against LSU, against Auburn, you see them come back. You have to wonder if maybe that was because they had lost one, so then it really was: They had to win or their season was done.

What’s been most impressive about this Alabama team?

Besides (receiver) Amari Cooper?

The grit of the team. The offense has been very impressive to watch with (offensive coordinator Lane) Kiffin coming in. And (quarterback Blake) Sims has been impressive to watch. He’s been here five years now. He just is The Guy. It’s really impressive to watch that offense. And honestly, the defense too. Kind of that red zone defense. Everyone compared them to last year’s defense, which was impressive too. Alabama always seems to have a very good defense. And so kind of watching the team form its own identity after last year, and after the disappointment they had last year.

Yeah, what have you thought of Sims in his first year as a starter?

Probably the best first-year starter quarterback Alabama’s ever had. What? Seven interceptions (all season)? He had four going into the last game, and come back from that, as a first-year starter, to come back from a 12-point deficit (against Auburn) and help lead the team? It’s pretty impressive. He’s very well liked on the team, and you can tell that.

What’s been the most surprising thing about the Tide this season?

The ongoing joke, or not even joke: Alabama for a very long time has had a very good punter. The offense doesn’t have to get it done. They can punt the ball. Their special teams has been good with (defending) returns; they’ve been keeping them pretty small.

Most surprising, really, was the Iron Bowl. In the press box I was talking to the people next to me … I was like, I don’t think they’re coming back from this. … That comeback was so surprising. I don’t know if the team in recent past could do it like they’ve done.

It’s pretty obvious that Missouri is going to be a bit overwhelmed here.

I wouldn’t say that.

You wouldn’t say that? You don’t think so?

I wouldn’t say completely overwhelmed. It’s a championship game. Anything can happen.

I agree with you in a respect. Just the talent level is so different.

A little different.

If there’s a matchup in this game Missouri can exploit, what is it?

If they’re going to exploit anything, it’s the secondary. I think Alabama’s secondary can be easily exposed, as you can see. I think it’ll be interesting how they respond to it and whether or not you see the same matchups you saw with Auburn — if you see Eddie Jackson starting again, or Bradley Sylve. Secondary all season has been kind of an issue. Kind of been seen as the weak point.

With Missouri being considered an underdog in the game, how do the Alabama players appear to be approaching this game? Are they already kind of looking forward, beyond Missouri?

Well, they’re pretty well-trained with media to say, “They’ve got the 24-hour rule and they’re focusing on Missouri.” I think they really are. Like I said, they have a chip on their shoulder. They know they have to beat Missouri to have any postseason hopes beyond just a bowl game. … They saw what happened when they don’t do anything past the Auburn game. They had a very similar aspect to them last year with the Iron Bowl last year and then the Sugar Bowl. Two losses. Landon Collins, the safety, said pretty much that they’d run them out the stadium. So, I think they’re taking every team pretty seriously. And I think they also saw what happens when you don’t take a team as seriously as you should, and that was Western Carolina.

Let’s say Mizzou does win, but it’s close — 7 points or less — do you think Alabama still deserves to be in the playoffs?

No, because I think you’re going to see two Big 12 teams. I think Mizzou will somehow have helped the Big 12 after leaving them. I think you’d see TCU and Baylor get in. I don’t think Ohio State can get in. But of course there’s a lot of things that can happen, but I don’t think Alabama losing gets them (the Crimson Tide) in. Unless Florida State loses, which I don’t see happening, actually.

All right. Last thing. What’s your prediction?

I hate doing scores. I do think it’ll be Alabama — go 27-21.

All right. That’s closer than I thought.

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