Joe Medley:Tide exits 2012 with another title in sight, mystery man in a boot
by Joe Medley
TUSCALOOSA — The last public vision of Nick Saban in 2012 involves the Alabama coach walking away from a podium with a sheepish grin.

That’s how he left his post-practice meeting with reporters Saturday, after wishing all in the room a Happy New Year. He issued his holiday wish a couple of days early because Alabama won’t practice again until New Year’s Day, and he might not see reporters again in 2012.

“You know how sad I’ll be if I don’t,” he said, as he made his way out of the Naylor Stone Media Suite.

Saban has a lot to grin about as the second-ranked Crimson Tide eyes its final two practices before departing for Miami, where a Jan. 7 showdown with No. 1 Notre Dame for the Tide’s third Bowl Championship Series title in four years awaits.

He might also have something to worry about, depending on the left foot of senior center Barrett Jones.

Jones, who sustained what he called a sprain in the SEC Championship, enters 2013 as a mystery man, and a key mystery man, at that. His clash with Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix means a lot for the run-based Tide’s ability to move against the nation’s fourth-ranked run defense.

If Jones can keep Nix from occupying guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen, then they can get after linebacker Manti Te’o, the 2012 Heisman runner-up.

Alabama tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker will stay plenty busy with Notre Dame ends Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore, so it comes down to the Rimington Award winner as the nation’s top center to keep Nix from occupying his guards.

“I call it my money game,” Nix told Yahoo! Sports. “This is where I prove myself. (Jones) is the type of guy I want to go up against, and this is the kind of team I want to go up against.”

It’s a money game for Jones, as well, and the biggest mystery for the Tide going into the new year surrounds whether Jones will play, and at what strength.

That’s the public mystery, at least. Outsiders see only a limited media viewing period of Alabama’s practices. So far, Jones has spent those brief minutes on stationary exercise equipment.

As of Saturday, he was wearing a heavy protective boot and a black, non-contact jersey. That’s an improvement from the cast he wore when the Tide started practice on Dec. 18 for the BCS final.

Saban offered no new news on injuries Saturday. At last word, the coach prefers that Jones get at least five practices. Alabama has five practices and a walkthrough left.

The team next practices Tuesday and departs for Miami after Wednesday morning’s practice. There’s a media viewing period for Tuesday’s practice but no interviews until a news conference upon the team’s arrival in Miami.

For now, one can only guess what will happen with Jones, so here’s guessing he will play.

Jones said he injured his left foot in the first quarter of Alabama’s 32-28 victory over Georgia on Dec. 1. He played the final three quarters, and Alabama rushed for a game-record 350 yards.

Jones is a four-year starter. He has won a national title at right guard. He won another title and an Outland Trophy at left tackle. He can win a third national title at center, and he’s the unquestioned leader of the best unit on Alabama’s team and, arguably, the best offensive line in the country.

Even if he doesn’t practice before the Tide takes the field Jan. 7, it’s hard to see Saban saying no, if Jones says he can play.

The question becomes how effectively Jones can play against the 326-pound Nix, a junior widely regarded as a bona fide NFL prospect. Come Jan. 7, will Jones be able push off his left foot well enough?

If the answer is no, Alabama must turn to redshirt freshman Ryan Kelly. How much faith does Alabama’s coaching staff have in Kelly?

Let’s just say the coaches prefer Jones in big games. SEC coaches voted Kelly onto the league’s all-freshman team, but Alabama’s coaches kept him on the bench in four games this season, including the Tide’s three most challenging games — LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia.

Notre Dame’s front seven, keyed by Te’o and Nix keeping blockers off of him, will be quite challenging.

Alabama clearly needs a 100 percent Jones. How close he is to 100 percent is the big mystery as Alabama rounds out 2012 and the Tuscaloosa portion of its BCS preparations.

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.

© 2012