By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 14, 2015
If you want to start a spirited discussion on any Alabama fan board, trot out the modifier “best-ever” and ask people for opinions.
Alabama’s long, storied football history has produced many “best-evers,” from wide receiver Don Hutson in the 1930s to linebacker Lee Roy Jordan in the 1960s (and later Derrick Thomas in the 1980s) to Dwight Stephenson to John Hannah to Mark Ingram and on and on and on.
Beyond individuals, Alabama can lay serious claim to having the best-ever college defense at several points in its history.
And one of those points is now.
Because of the advancements in college football offense, training methods, nutrition, widespread racial integration and a host of other factors, the college football architecture of the 2010s is much different than Alabama’s defensive heyday of the 1960s and 1970s under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant’s wishbone days were marked by offensive linemen who often arrived on campus well under 200 pounds – and sometimes stayed that way. Even well into the 1990s, coach Gene Stallings would sometimes recruit an offensive lineman (usually a center) who weighed 240 or less.
So if you find yourself bored and, specifically, looking for a brawl, try to have a conversation with an Alabama fan – particularly an older one – about whether the defenses of the Nick Saban era are more “best-ever” than those of the Bryant era. Bring a first aid kit just in case.
But if one were to limit itself strictly to a discussion of defensive lines, it’s hard to make an argument that the 2015 Alabama defensive line – which goes nine players deep across – isn’t the best in school history. And maybe in NCAA history, as well.
Playing against Mississippi State Saturday afternoon, the Crimson Tide found itself matched up against another “best-ever,” in this case Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott. To say Mississippi State’s football history is less stellar than Alabama’s is about like saying a Yugo hatchback is less prestigious than a Jaguar XJ. Until the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Jackie Sherrill began to change the dynamic in Starkville, the Bulldog program was in the “worst-ever” discussion, with the only question being whether Mississippi State or Kentucky occupied the space directly above Vanderbilt in the SEC pecking order.
Under Sherrill, and now Dan Mullen, Mississippi State’s fortunes have improved, and Dak Prescott is all but certainly the best player ever to come through Starkville. He is a winner on the field and off, tough beyond measure and uniquely talented. It’s no accident that of Mississippi State’s 87 offensive snaps, Prescott was the primary ball-carrier or ball-controller on 69 of them. Prescott, therefore, was the primary option on 79.3% of Mississippi State’s offense snaps – including some that came once the game was in go-home mode and Prescott wasn’t even on the field.
Alabama’s defensive line sacked Prescott 9 times for a loss of 58 yards on the day. He carried the ball another 17 times for 72 yards, but was stuffed on a goal-line stand once Alabama only had to defend a compressed field. He attempted 43 passes and completed 22 of them for 300 yards, but he never really threatened the end zone and was picked off in the fourth quarter to end MSU’s last legitimate drive.
Alabama has always been tough on defense under Nick Saban, but the second half of the 2014 season found Bama vulnerable to good offenses. There’s a great debate whether that was due to talent, or a couple of assistant coaches not pulling their weight, or clunky substitution patterns. Whatever the problem, it’s gone now, sacked under the weight of a defensive line so flush with talent that guys who don’t even start are talked about as potential early entrants into the NFL Draft.
The only negative coming out of this game was that, for the first time in 2015, Alabama got bitten hard by the injury bug. With regular-season games left against Charleston Southern and a flagging Auburn team, Alabama can manage its personnel long enough to get to Atlanta and face Florida in the SEC Championship Game. As for winning a 16th national title, the Crimson Tide will rely, more and more each game, on the same guys that rendered Dak Prescott a non-factor.
If Alabama can win another five games in a row, thereby capturing the title, the “best-ever” tag will actually fit.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State:
1. Bama’s front seven destroyed the Bulldog running game. Prescott may have picked up 72 yards in forward progress and averaged more than 4 yards per carry, but Alabama kept him from making any big plays and the yardage he did gain was mostly empty. Alabama held the Bulldogs’ three tailbacks to 43 yards on 10 carries, and 19 of those yards came on one sweep by Brandon Holloway. Separate from the obvious – the 9 sacks Alabama recorded against Prescott, plus the other times he was hurried or otherwise affected – the inability to run the ball had as much a hand in doing in the Bulldogs as did the problems in the passing game. With so much speed in the Bama secondary, teams that can’t run the ball against Alabama have almost no chance to get close. When Alabama can turn loose Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Rashaan Evans outside, it’s almost unfair for opposing quarterbacks.
2. Special teams provided the spark that started the ball rolling in Bama’s favor. As we previewed on Wednesday, Mississippi State has had trouble covering punts all year. While Logan Cooke is a decent punter, the Bulldog special teams cover units had struggled to contain good athletes in transition. All it took Saturday was for Cooke to get off one subpar punt and give Cyrus Jones room to move. Once he did, Jones, who has been on the verge of housing a punt return several times this season, finally broke through. But almost as important as Jones’ return was Adam Griffith again hitting a big field goal before the half. Griffith’s 42-yard field goal midway through the second quarter served notice that last week’s 55-yarder wasn’t a fluke. While Alabama did have one hiccup later – Griffith’s second kick was tipped at the line after Reggie Ragland whiffed on a protection block – Alabama had already put the game in hand. Kickoff coverage continues to be superlative, even after Kenyan Drake left with an injury.
3. Derrick Henry continues to march toward a Heisman Trophy. Two weeks ago, Henry was considered a fringe candidate, a solid overall running back but not a game-changer. As both LSU and Mississippi State can attest, those early analyses were off-base. Henry broke two long touchdown runs in this game and also converted multiple first downs on tough, shorter runs. Henry’s pass protection skills are also top-notch. By the time Saturday’s games ended, there was a growing consensus that Henry might actually be the clubhouse leader for the Heisman at this point. If he continues to put up big numbers in Bama’s key games down the stretch (Auburn, Florida), it could actually happen for him. One thing’s for sure: Neither LSU nor Mississippi State will complain if Henry skips his senior season for the NFL.
4. Offensive line, though, regressed somewhat. Not so much in run blocking, given Henry’s numbers, but QB Jake Coker was pressured far too often and far too soon after the snap. Coker took multiple hard shots, too, and hurt his shoulder on what would ultimately be his final pass attempt of the day. Henry benefited more from his own cutback ability than he did help from his offensive line, and at times had to make something out of nothing, particularly when running to the right. The fact Alabama has been so erratic this year has been both infuriating and baffling. The Tide fought through the problem against Mississippi State, but the Tide will need better performances against Florida, in the Final Four and possibly against Auburn as well.
5. Injuries hit the Tide hard. Kenyan Drake was lost for probably a month with a broken arm. Assuming it’s a clean break, he should be back at 100 percent for the Final Four, but he’ll miss the Auburn game and probably the SEC Championship Game as well. Of greater concern, though, is the loss of Minkah Fitzpatrick, particularly if Alabama is matched up against a spread team at any point down the road. Although Tony Brown gets a gold star for his play in Fitzpatrick’s absence, Fitzpatrick is one of the keys to Alabama’s defense this year against spread teams and one of the reasons Alabama has been able to get more coverage sacks. Assuming Alabama drew Ohio State or Oklahoma State in the national championship playoff, it’s imperative that Fitzpatrick is not just available, but also 100 percent. His injury was described as a “lower extremity” injury by the coaches, which is codespeak for some kind of significant knee or ankle ailment. Assuming no surgery is needed, Fitzpatrick could be back for Auburn. Don’t expect to see him anywhere near the field next week when Charleston Southern comes to town.