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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Jan. 3, 2014
By the time Oklahoma recovered the final kickoff – a so-bad-it-was-funny moment that served as the perfect capper to the 2014 Sugar Bowl – the time for mulling over what might have been was long gone.
For the second time in six years, Alabama laid an egg in the Sugar Bowl to an inferior team. But in that regard, the 2014 game was at least an improvement over the 2009 Sugar Bowl, since Oklahoma, unlike Utah, was a worthy opponent.
Twice now under Nick Saban, Alabama has lost a title shot after Thanksgiving and ended up in New Orleans playing for pride. Both times, the results left Alabama fans wondering whether anyone on the team seemed to care.
The postmortem on the season will be written later, after all college games are finished and the dust has settled, but for a team looking to three-peat as national champions, the 2013 season couldn’t have gone any worse had it been scripted. And it wasn’t just the loss of safety Vinnie Sunseri to injury – a loss that crippled Alabama’s defense, truth be told – or the distractions surrounding Nick Saban’s contract or his wife’s comments about the fans who pay for that contract. The tallest speed bump in the road might have been the attitude of the players themselves.
Keeping up with the weekly depth chart meant scouring for information on who was suspended, who was in the doghouse or who simply didn’t want to be there. On most good teams, depth chart maneuverings are the result of hungry players moving up and challenging veterans. For Alabama in 2013, it was about talented players underachieving, sulking or running afoul of coaches’ policies. The primary movement was not forward, up the depth chart … it was backward, with names falling off hither and yon.
Unfortunately, Alabama can’t pin everything on bad attitudes, and certainly not the debacle that was the Crimson Tide’s effort against Oklahoma. Alabama’s offensive game plan – while, for the second straight game, proved adept at rolling up big yardage – was clunky. Running back Derrick Henry actually covered up one of the worst playcalling sequences in years when he broke a simple flare pass for a touchdown to draw Alabama within 7 points with 6 minutes left in the game.
But the creeping discomfort – you can feel it from talking to any Alabama fan who understands football – is that in the last two games, teams with tempo offenses made Nick Saban’s defense look very, very average.
This will be the focal point of the future, and the most important takeaway from the 2013 season, because with the advent of tempo offenses in college football, Nick Saban must change. And for a coach whose entire coaching identity is wrapped up in that 3-4 over/under behemoth, changing the very core of the defense might be more than even he can do.
Many Alabama fans point to David Shaw’s Stanford program as the “Alabama of the West Coast,” thanks mostly to Shaw’s no-nonsense attitude, pro-style rushing attack and commitment to a meat-grinder approach to the game. Look closer at Stanford, though, and you’ll see a defense that plays with completely different gap responsibilities up front and significant scheme differences compared to Alabama’s defense.
College defensive coaches have made a point of visiting Tuscaloosa in the offseason for pointers; perhaps this time, Alabama coaches need to ask them to return the favor.
Because Alabama will see nothing but a steady diet of tempo until the Crimson Tide can prove itself able to stop it. Provided the younger players who will return to Tuscaloosa next season have the appropriate level of commitment and hunger, it could very well be that turnover in the depth chart could cure a lot of ills. But it is far more likely that Alabama will need something else – an infusion of new ideas.
Can Nick Saban tolerate it? That remains to be seen. But if he can’t, he might find himself in the position that Monte Kiffin is in now: the purveyor of a once-dominant defense, of which offensive coordinators have chipped away the sharp edges.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Oklahoma:
1. It’s time for open competition at the running back position. Fans want to know why Kenyan Drake was benched during the Auburn game, but he was actually benched at Mississippi State after a late fumble. The fact Drake got one series against Auburn wasn’t so much the point he was benched, as it was a halfhearted attempt on the coaches’ part to convince themselves Drake was still the backup. The fact of the matter is that T.J. Yeldon has just as much of a problem with ball security as does Drake, yet Drake (and, at the very least, Derrick Henry and perhaps Altee Tenpenny and Jalston Fowler as well) hits the hole so much more quickly than Yeldon does. Yeldon has always been somewhat tentative – or “patient,” if you prefer that adjective – prior to getting to the line of scrimmage, but the problem self-amplified over the last five or six games of the year. It will be hard to take away the mantle of starter from Yeldon, particularly as he’s heading into what amounts to a contract year, but both Drake and Henry ran the ball better in 2013. Yeldon’s fumble inside the red zone was a killer against Oklahoma, and shouldn’t have happened no matter the color of the jersey that ultimately knocked the ball loose.
2. Change in defensive scheme could (should) start with the OLBs. One of the hallmarks of Saban’s defensive alignment is having an outside linebacker (the Jack position) that can double as a defensive end. As the seasons have gone on, though, the philosophy has led to a creeping drift in Alabama’s defensive front to the point that Alabama almost runs a 5-2. Adrian Hubbard played OLB at 6’7”, 265 pounds, making him larger than several defensive tackles Alabama faced this year. But the bigger change has come at the strongside linebacker position, where Hubbard played along with Denzel Devall, who was listed at 6’2”, 250, but appeared to be bigger than that. Compare Hubbard or Devall with Nick Saban’s first two strongside linebackers, Eryk Anders and Cory Reamer. Anders went 6’2”, 230 on days the pizza guy visited his house; Reamer was even smaller. And it gets even more dramatic when you compare Anders and Reamer to Xzavier Dickson (6’4”, 268), who was suspended for the Oklahoma game. If Alabama wants to defend tempo offenses, either the ends are going to have to get smaller, or lose some of their coverage assignments. None of Alabama’s outside linebackers ever looked comfortable in coverage in 2013. Against Oklahoma, they were flat-out abused.
3. Gameplan did McCarron no favors. Perhaps the worst thing to happen to Alabama was having early success in the deep passing game, because it seemed to convince Doug Nussmeier that Alabama could get into a track meet with a team designed to play in track meets. Oklahoma’s defense was built for speed, attacking the passing game from the corner and having superior quickness in the back eight of the scheme. Alabama played right into that, as the Tide got away from the running game too quickly. It allowed A.J. McCarron to post career numbers and top the 3,000-yard passing mark for the season, but it might have cost Alabama the game in the end, as the Tide defense spent too much time on the field.
4. Offensive line played its worst game of the year. Despite the success running the football and the high number of total yards, the fact Alabama’s line play swung wildly between extremes meant the coaches never knew what they could count on. Quite frankly, most of Alabama’s success came not because of scheme or calls, but because of tremendous individual efforts by McCarron or Henry. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, thought by many to be a first-round draft pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, looked like a walk-on. Arie Kouandjio played poorly at left guard, to put it lightly. Leon Brown’s debut at right guard went about as well as could be expected, but Alabama needed more than it got. Kouandjio’s meltdown at left tackle was just as bad as what Cade Foster went through at Auburn.
5. Strict adherence to a pro-style depth chart was a factor. Alabama is very NFL-like in that, during Saban’s tenure, there is minimal use of the depth chart, particularly on defense, no matter the circumstance. Saban came under fire in 2010 when he left an injured Mark Barron in the Auburn game instead of pulling him for Will Lowery, and Auburn manipulated Barron mercilessly. For much of 2013, Alabama seemed to be changing course. The rotation of cornerbacks throughout the season suggested a new policy was in place, but against Oklahoma, Alabama reverted to form. Rather than reach down the depth chart at tight end for Malcolm Faciane or Harrison Jones, Alabama played Brian Vogler, who was injured in the first half and appeared no better than 50 percent the rest of the way in. Bradley Sylve never played at cornerback – although, to be fair, Cyrus Jones played his best game at corner so far in relief of Deion Belue. Xzavier Dickson’s suspension would have figured to pave the way for Tim Williams or Ryan Anderson to get more work, particularly with a month of practice time to work out the details, but it didn’t come out that way. Instead, Trey DePriest ended up sliding down to end on occasion – but Alabama’s defense was winded all night.
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