By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 20, 2015
For a moment, put aside the 17 points off turnovers in the first half, or the choice to start Cooper Bateman over Jake Coker, or questionable playcalling early in Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss Saturday night. It’s hard, but try anyway.
One of college football’s greatest attractions is that anything can (and does) happen each week to teams, good and bad. Unfortunately for Alabama, this includes a 66-yard Three Stooges act of a touchdown pass to Quincy Adeboyejo that the Tide will be seeing on a loop on ESPN SportsCenter for the next ten years. Those kinds of plays (think “Kick Six,” Johnny Manziel’s fumble TD pass, etc.) have certainly affected Alabama more than others in recent years, but they are only anomalies.
What we’re hunting are trends.
That’s because trends portend predictable results down the road, whether predictably good or predictably bad. Trends, even those in their infancy, are what coaches look for when they self-evaluate, because they have a systemic connection. You can’t bet on Chad Kelly’s pass to Adeboyejo working every time. Or even part of the time. To be honest, it was a stupid throw in the first place. Not ill-advised. Stupid. Kelly should have been taught better than that.
If two Alabama defensive backs don’t interfere with each other on the play, at worst, Alabama would have ended up the ball around the 40-yard line or, if they had dropped it, pinned deep off a punt. Instead, Moe poked Curly in the eye and Larry batted the ball to Adeboyejo, who took it 66 yards for a touchdown. The kooky music, complete with coconuts for drums, played in the background, someone blew on a kazoo and the credits ran as Ole Miss celebrated in the end zone.
Throw that pass 100 times, and 99 times, someone in crimson is running it back the other way. So that play is almost background noise rather than a story in itself.
What we’re looking for here is an explanation for Alabama’s systemic struggles against good spread teams. Not all spread teams, mind you. Just the good ones. There are bad spread teams just like there are bad pro-style teams and bad option teams.
Against Ole Miss, Alabama gave up 433 yards, including 341 through the air. Alabama held Ole Miss to fewer than 100 yards rushing, which is a good thing. But that means as much as a good conduct badge to a Cub Scout when the end result is an Ole Miss team that, at one point, held a 43-24 lead in this game and was threatening to blow Alabama out of its own stadium.
Ole Miss, of course, is a good spread team. Here are some other good spread teams: Ohio State, Auburn, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Missouri. Including Ole Miss, Alabama is an aggregate 4-6 against those teams over the last 10 games.
Here is the yardage allowed against those teams: Ohio State (537), Auburn (630 and 393), Mississippi State (428), Texas A&M (177 and 628) and Ole Miss (433 and 327), Oklahoma (429) and Missouri (313).
The outlier here is Texas A&M in 2014, which was one of the best defensive performances in recent Alabama history, to be sure. But it was not the norm.
Points? Try an average of 30.6, and that includes the 2014 shutout over Texas A&M.
The reason this is relevant is, aside from Oklahoma, Ohio State and maybe Missouri, since the Tigers backdoored their way into the SEC Championship Game in 2014, these are all teams Alabama sees on a regular basis as Western Division rivals. And they are teams Alabama must learn to put away.
So why the struggle?
Alabama has changed much about its offense over the Nick Saban era. The 2007 and 2008 offenses were more conservative than a Tea Party symposium. After Jim McElwain came on board, Alabama began to get more dynamic. Doug Nussmeier wasn’t a step up in that regard, but he wasn’t much of a step back, either. The addition of Lane Kiffin has taken the offense to new heights in terms of points and yardage.
The defense, however, is the same 3-4 over/under that it was on day one in 2007. The only thing that changes is the personnel, and one specific change in personnel made Alabama’s defense the best it’s been under Saban – when C.J. Mosley became a starter at inside linebacker. Mosley’s presence gave Alabama a good spread defender in the middle of the field, a linebacker who was comfortable in coverage but still had the ability to stuff the run.
Without Mosley in the middle, the proliferation of spread offenses has been the Kryptonite that has brought down the mighty Crimson Tide defense. What Alabama runs is fantastic at stopping pro-style offenses – witness the struggle of LSU, Florida and Arkansas to get traction in games against the Tide. But the SEC, and college football in general, is moving away from the pro-set attack as the default setting. Alabama’s secondary was toast for much of 2014, and at the time, injuries and a general lack of speed were to blame. That’s not the case in 2015 – inexperience has replaced injuries as the chief complaint in the back end of the defense. Whatever the cause, the difficulty Alabama has in stopping the pass only grows.
The fair, yet difficult question to ask is whether Alabama can play modern football with its current defensive alignment, or whether there even exists an optimal defensive alignment to defend the spread. If there is, and it’s something Alabama currently doesn’t employ, the question then becomes whether Saban will agree to the changes. Alabama appears to have made modest changes in philosophy in the way it shapes the bodies of its defensive linemen, and the results have been favorable, albeit not overwhelmingly so. Could Alabama start to look for speedier, smaller linebackers, perhaps taking high school safeties and growing them, rather than taking traditional NFL-style linebackers and trying to teach them how to defend the spread? Maybe so, but Saban has been reticent to make major adjustments to defensive philosophy.
It needs to be pointed out here that Alabama had held Ole Miss to less than 100 yards of offense in the first half, which means that most of the damage was done in the second half (approximately 340 yards) when most of the damage from turnovers had already occurred (17 points off turnovers in the first half, 7 in the second). In short, Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze — Hugh Freeze, folks — out-adjusted Nick Saban and Alabama at halftime.
Alabama has done a fabulous job of recruiting players and preparing them for NFL teams to defend NFL offenses. But Ole Miss and other teams are playing a game with which Alabama doesn’t appear to be familiar.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Ole Miss:
1. Defense still being victimized by third and fourth downs. Overall, Alabama actually outperformed Ole Miss in third- and fourth-down conversions. Alabama was 12-of-24 (50.0%) in the category while Ole Miss was 5-of-16 (31.3%). But a closer look at Ole Miss’ scoring drives tells a different story. Ole Miss scored both its first-half touchdowns on either third or fourth down. It then scored its first touchdown of the second half on third down. So out of the 5 converted third or fourth downs, 3 of those conversions directly resulted in 21 points. In addition to blowing Alabama’s efficiency stats out of the water, what it shows is that when Alabama has a breakdown, it’s a critical breakdown. To wit: Ole Miss’ other two third-down conversions were on to-go yardages of 8 and 10 yards, respectively.
2. Decision to start Bateman proves to be ill-advised. Alabama is dangerously courting another Watts-Zow era, with Cooper Bateman playing the Tyler Watts role (mobile, weak but accurate arm, stats that belie effectiveness) and Jake Coker the Andrew Zow role (strong arm, tendency to spray the ball, streaky). For whatever reason, Alabama started Bateman in this game. There were two explanations being kicked around before the game: One, that Coker had been ill during this week of practice and was replaced by Bateman because he’d missed too much work; two, that the coaches wanted to introduce more athleticism at the position. Whatever the reason, it backfired. Bateman was 11-of-14 when he was pulled, but one of those incompletions was a back-breaking interception. If Coker had missed too much work this week, he didn’t show it when he finally came into the game. The longer the game went on, the more comfortable he looked. At this point, if Alabama is simply looking for reasons to start someone other than Coker, perhaps Alec Morris or one of the younger players should get a look. The offense with Bateman under center lacks the pop needed to make plays downfield.
3. Early playcalling didn’t help matters any, nor did late personnel decisions. Lane Kiffin, like Jake Coker, got better as the game went along, but the offense with Bateman calling the shots was too predictable. Alabama seemed determined to run at the thinned-by-injury defensive front of the Rebels, but it did so from zone-read looks and finesse plays. And, Alabama was too predictable on first down. Cooper Bateman received the snap on 10 first down plays; Alabama ran the ball on 9 of those snaps. Ole Miss frequently stacked the box, knowing Alabama either wouldn’t or couldn’t stretch the field. It wasn’t until Coker went in that the playbook opened up and Alabama actually started moving forward with regularity. On the other hand, Saban’s insistence at restricting the number of players who rotate at certain positions is sometimes baffling. After WR Robert Foster left with a shoulder injury, Alabama briefly tried Chris Black at the position before changing to Cameron Sims, who is still suffering from the effects of a major knee injury and clearly wasn’t 100 percent. Alabama has taken a very NFL approach to personnel rotations under Saban, and it bit them Saturday night. By the end of the game, Alabama was only using Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney, and they were clearly gassed at the end. Daylon Charlot, for instance, got his redshirt burned against MTSU for a handful of snaps, but never got in this game. Neither did Derek Kief. Who’s better, a green Kief or Charlot, or an exhausted Ridley or Stewart? Alabama has chosen the latter option. If the coaches want to talk about Kief or Charlot not being ready, it’s their job to get them ready.
4. Five turnovers were too tough to overcome. This is the obvious one, so we’re not going to spend a lot of time on it, but Alabama yielded 24 points off turnovers. Regardless of what else was going on, Alabama couldn’t dig out from under a 24-point hole. It didn’t help matters any that the Crimson Tide defense has, for whatever reason, stopped being able to create turnovers against good teams. The secondary just doesn’t intercept many passes in these situations and stripping the ball doesn’t seem to happen at all. And then there’s Point No. 5.
5. Special teams – and the lack of accountability in fixing them – defy explanation. In the spirit of fairness, let’s first point out the three things that went well here Saturday. The first bright spot was the performance of senior walk-on Alex Harrelson, who replaced Cole Mazza at long-snapper for the game and, quite frankly, did a better job than Mazza has done so far this year, especially on field goal and PAT snaps. There’s no telling how hard it was for him to make his debut against a tough SEC West team, but he did it and did it well. Also, for whatever struggles PK Adam Griffith has had this year, he executed the best onside kick since Daniel Pope against LSU in 1998. This was especially critical, and praise-worthy, since changes to the onside kick rules recently have tilted the advantage strongly toward the receiving team. Also, punter J.K. Scott looked to be back on track. But the turnovers: While Kenyan Drake and ArDarius Stewart have to be more careful with the ball, neither player should have been receiving unabated contact inside their own 25, either. Blocking for the returners has been thin as rice paper. Alabama’s kick return unit has been woefully bad in 2015. But there has been little accountability for poor results in the special teams units. It’s been consistently the Achilles heel of Saban’s Alabama teams and the last time Alabama used special teams as a weapon was the day before Ron Middleton left the staff.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN