By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 9, 2018
In the college football world, success on the national stage brings with it many perks. A raise. Additional years on one’s contract. The freedom to veer a bit from established norms, and to take alternative paths to repeat an earlier success.
If coaches are granted that kind of freedom after just one title, imagine the length of leash there is for Nick Saban, now winner of six titles. For the second time in his coaching career, he now finds himself in the rarefied air once inhabited by Paul “Bear” Bryant, the first time of course being when he took the job in Tuscaloosa in the first place.
After five titles and a 2017 season that could only be described as chaotic, few people were going to fault Saban if Georgia had won this game going away, if for no other reason than that Alabama could not shake the injury bug. Just when it appeared Alabama was on the cusp of getting healthy in the lead-up to the final four, the Crimson Tide lost offensive guard Lester Cotton and linebacker Anfernee Jennings in a win over Clemson last week, then lost another offensive lineman in this game. Georgia, meanwhile, suffered very few injuries over the course of its season and entered the national championship game relatively unscathed.
Besides Alabama’s well-known fight with the medical tent this year, the actual makeup of this team had been a source of contention and disagreement among analysts. Coming into this game, Alabama led the nation in four of the five major defensive statistical categories, but yet, the defense never seemed to get its due. Perhaps it was because of Alabama’s forever-rotating cast of players at linebacker, where injuries had hit the worst, or that the cornerback duo of Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace weren’t deemed up to usual Alabama standards. Whatever the reason, Alabama’s defense was seen more as a smoke-and-mirrors show that rode on the backs of an impressive defensive line.
Perhaps it was instead an overreaction to the performance against Auburn in late November. The Alabama team that lost to the Tigers was so unlike Alabama’s usual profile that many wondered if the team bus had diverted to Jacksonville State along the way and the two teams decided to celebrate Exchange Day to see how the other half lives.
Whatever the reason, the loss at Auburn took what was shaping up to be a vintage season for Alabama and turned it on its head. Had the college football playoff committee not had more faith in Alabama than most media members – or maybe even Alabama fans – Alabama’s season could very well have ended in a forgettable bowl game with weird sponsors and a ticket no one wanted to buy.
With the way Auburn’s season would subsequently end, the public was then left to wonder how much of Alabama’s loss was just a plain old fluke. But one substantive criticism to arise from that game was of quarterback play.
Jalen Hurts was just two weeks removed, at the time, from his best performance of the year, a win over Mississippi State that saw him lead two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and a third potential scoring drive that ended in a missed field goal attempt. For those who had watched his true freshman season end with a stack of subpar performances, the MSU victory provided hope that Hurts was capable of playing better football against top defenses.
The Auburn loss, though, undid much of that goodwill. Hurts’ performance was not the only thing wrong with Alabama that day, not by a longshot. But the degree to which Hurts was overmatched that day was clear, the effect on his visible confidence even more so, and didn’t bode well for Alabama’s playoff chances.
Against Clemson, it wouldn’t matter as much. Hurts played well against Clemson, and more importantly, Alabama’s defense controlled the game from start to finish. Alabama got 14 points in the third quarter off turnovers, and the gameplan simply asked Hurts to manage possessions.
Georgia, though, would prove to be a much tougher nut to crack.
Where Alabama was able to find some success running the ball against Clemson, Georgia clogged up running lanes and cut into the Tide’s effectiveness on the ground. Alabama finished with more rushing yards in this game than against Clemson, but numbers can lie and in this case, they were doing just that. Starting tailback Damien Harris had probably his worst game of his starting career in terms of running the ball, but was effective as a receiving target. Until Alabama worked Najee Harris into the game late, Alabama’s most effective runner, by far, was Hurts on designed quarterback runs.
The problem with that, of course, is these aren’t the wishbone days anymore and Hurts wasn’t making plays downfield with his arm. And so Nick Saban decided to test the length of his leash.
It’s not like anyone would say anything to him had he inserted Tua Tagovailoa into the game and Tagovailoa had proven to not be up to the challenge. Five titles on the trophy shelf had long since bought him freedom from anyone demanding justification for his coaching moves. Regardless, the amount of brass it takes to bench an established starter like Jalen Hurts – whose previous national championship game appearance ended with him walking off the field after scoring what he thought was probably going to prove to be the game-winning touchdown – and bringing a true freshman on in his place is the kind of decision one makes only when he knows he has full control of his own employment.
If fortune favors the bold, it’s easy to see why Nick Saban has a lot of followers. Saban’s aggressiveness in title games has always been present, but it never gets the attention it probably deserves. A fake punt attempt against Texas, the onside kick against Clemson, now this. Of all Saban’s impressive abilities, the ability to know when to call his shot may be his most underrated.
Without Tagovailoa quarterbacking Alabama in the second half of this game, Alabama probably would have lost it. The margin might have even gotten ugly. Instead, Saban ties Bryant, and Alabama likely enters the 2018 season with an unexpected battle for the starting quarterback position.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Georgia:
1. Tua’s presence lifted not just the offense, but the defense too. While the defense was doing its best to hold serve against Georgia’s offense, it was doing so knowing it had no room for error. And the more Alabama’s offense struggled to make first downs and extend drives, the more fatigue was to become part of the equation.
Inserting Tagovailoa gave a boost not just to the underserved areas of Alabama’s offensive gameplan, but took some of the pressure off the defense as well. With their backs not planted quite as firmly against the wall as in the first half, Alabama mostly shut down Georgia in the third and fourth quarters. One long play, an 80-yard touchdown bomb to Mecole Hardman, was the only hiccup in what was otherwise a divine half for the Bama defense. Knowing the offense was capable of bailing them out, the defense seemed to loosen up and play more downhill.
2. Alabama dominated the Georgia interior OL in the second half; affected Fromm late. We profiled that Alabama’s DL would have the edge over Georgia’s OL but the degree to which Alabama won this matchup was surprising. Alabama’s interior rush package absolutely abused center Lamont Gaillard and right guard Ben Cleveland, especially in passing situations. Georgia ran for 133 yards but on 45 carries – an average of just 3.0 yards per carry. Nick Chubb was completely shut down.
Alabama recorded 4 sacks and a staggering 12 tackles for loss. Were it not for a pretty spectacular individual performance from Sony Michel, Alabama may not have even found itself trailing at the half. Once the second half got rolling and Alabama’s defense really caught its rhythm, Georgia QB Jake Fromm began to look less and less comfortable dealing with the Tide onslaught. By the time the game reached its end, Fromm’s downfield vision had begun to mimic Hurts’: one look, then look to escape.
3. Alabama exposed Georgia’s weakness at MLB, and found matchups it could exploit in the UGA secondary. Georgia has had a bit of a mess on its hands all year at middle linebacker thanks to some off-field issues with Natrez Patrick. Reggie Carter got the start there for Monday’s game and recorded just 3 unassisted tackles and assisted on 2 others. Meanwhile, Alabama’s middle linebacker, Mack Wilson, recorded 12 stops and was all over the field.
Georgia seemed to have better luck in alternative defensive alignments where Roquan Smith was left in the middle, but the strength of Alabama’s running backs and especially the emergence of Najee Harris in the second half of this game made it more difficult for Georgia to downsize to cover up that spot. We profiled that issue in our preview; what we didn’t expect was how Alabama also targeted cornerback Malkom Parrish and had consistent success against him all night long.
Parrish was abused by Alabama’s receivers on virtually every matchup, and he was the primary cover man on the game-winning pass to DeVonta Smith, although the greater fault on that play lay with safety Dominick Sanders’ mishandling of a Sink 2 coverage assignment. Georgia came into this game not far off Alabama’s rankings for pass defense, so Parrish had to have been a well-hid problem that Alabama was able to pull out of film study. Kudos to whatever staffer first picked up on it.
4. Tua wasn’t the only true freshman playing a key role. The easiest other freshman to note was DeVonta Smith, but Smith had already been a last-minute hero of another key game, the win over Mississippi State. Some players just seem to be in the middle of everything when the moment is biggest, so hopefully this bodes well for his future Alabama career. Henry Ruggs III continues to develop as an all-around receiver, and he, too, caught a touchdown pass. Najee Harris showed why some people believe he’s the most talented running back on campus, even including Damien Harris.
But one of the most overlooked performances of the day was probably that of LT Alex Leatherwood, who had to step in to replace an injured Jonah Williams. Williams had not been enjoying his finest outing even before the injury, so the bar had already been lowered somewhat when Leatherwood came in. Anyone expecting Leatherwood to struggle, though, is still waiting. He played a phenomenal second half, all things considered, and may have helped set up a scenario in which Williams – who didn’t look as comfortable this year at left tackle as he did last year at right tackle – moves to a guard spot or even center in the spring.
Under Saban, Alabama has always been a place where youth is served as soon as it’s ready, but to have so many key contributors to this win coming from the 2017 signing class is rare even for Saban. And as much as Alabama’s rivals don’t want to hear it, it means Alabama is well-positioned for more success in the immediate future.
5. All together, this may have been Nick Saban’s best effort of his coaching career. It’s criminal how Nick Saban never seems to be considered for coach of the year honors, as the award has really morphed into the “Coach of the Team that Exceeded Expectations the Most” award. There’s also the issue of an Auburn loss that is, when viewed through the lens of what the rest of the season was
like, basically unacceptable. Still, how do penalize the guy during a championship year? Especially one in which half the team seemed to cycle on and off the disabled list? Every team faces some degree of turmoil and adversity over the course of a season, but it seems like this team got more than its fair share. Couple that with the ongoing questions about quarterback play and schematic development, ongoing staff shakeups and the pure march of time relative to Saban’s age, and it’s a good bet Saban never had to work as hard for a title as he did for this one.
When Saban won his first Alabama title at the end of the 2009 season, giving him two overall at that point, Alabama fans sort of half-jokingly asked whether he would ever tie Bryant’s record of six. Well, he did it. It was a season that put a lot of mileage on the tires, for sure, but Saban managed to pull it off. Does he have a No. 7 in him? Would that next title possibly come in 2018-19? It’s impossible to say, but after watching how this team looked adversity in the face and then buried it under the heels of its shoes, anything is possible.
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