By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 18, 2018
We’ve seen this movie before.
Alabama schedules a triple-option team in the Week 12 slot, gives up a bunch of rushing yards, gets the TV talking heads all atwitter about sudden vulnerability against the run, and then Nick Saban has what he needs to motivate his defense for the Auburn game the following week.
Unfortunately, Alabama also suffers significant injury to a starter – or multiple starters – in a game that ultimately means nothing.
We, the college football world, have been trying to crack this nut for years. Short of having an actual off-week prior to a season-closing rivalry game, the only thing schools can do to take some of the pressure off is schedule a FCS team in this slot. But you can’t just ask those teams to roll over and lose. That may be what you think is going to happen, anyway, but you can’t go in expecting it to happen. There has to be at least the illusion of suspense; a chance for a “Hoosiers”-style ending where the Little Heroes come away victorious against the Big Bad Villain School.
First of all, kudos to The Citadel Bulldogs for realizing how long their odds were. They got some good social media publicity of the deal, and when halftime ended in a 10-10 score – due almost completely to Alabama’s sleepiness rather than The Citadel being a legitimate opponent – Bulldog coaches didn’t change their approach. When Bama’s inevitable offensive outburst occurred in the third quarter, the Bulldogs stayed true to their identity as a team. It will undoubtedly help them more going forward than Alabama will be helped by anything that occurred on Bryant-Denny Stadium’s turf Saturday.
So let’s see if we can figure out a way to never see this kind of storyline happen again in the future, shall we?
Alabama probably lost RB Damien Harris for the Auburn game after he suffered a concussion on a tackle. RG Alex Leatherwood sprained an ankle and might also miss the Auburn game. Safety Deionte Thompson suffered a bruised knee, but given the dropoff in ability from Thompson back to the reserve safeties, he’ll play Saturday even if Bama has to get Dr. Frankenstein involved to make it happen.
Alabama almost lost NT Quinnen Williams, who took a late, cheap hit from behind that should have been flagged.
This is supposed to be one of the advantages of playing an FCS opponent, correct? They don’t hit as hard, they’re not as fast, they’re not as good, right? If nothing else, Bama should at least be able to come out of these games unscathed, even if the games are boring.
But that’s just not how things work. Slower, less-skilled players don’t tackle with the ideal form. Blockers who are at an extreme disadvantage take shortcuts. Defenders tired of getting beaten look for alternative means to get past the blocker across from them.
On the other hand, no team can be expected to schedule 12 challenging games over 13 weeks and expect to play for a title. As much as the media likes to put down Alabama (and many of its peers) for scheduling soft games at key intervals during the season, if Alabama was 10-2 at year’s end, no matter how tough its schedule was, the Crimson Tide would be sitting home while some other “great story” – think UCF here – would be taking its place in the Final Four.
Instead, let’s rearrange the schedule a bit, where a team like Louisiana or Arkansas State – teams Alabama played in Weeks 5 and 2, respectively – come later in the year. No, it won’t guarantee player safety, but it will provide a better matchup without imperiling Alabama’s championship chances. Or the SEC could just step in and stack its conference games at the end of the schedule and take the problem out of the individual schools’ hands.
Nothing was going to be gained by Alabama in this game, aside from Nick Saban being able to embarrass his defense in practice this week by harping on the 275 rushing yards Alabama allowed. But we think Alabama’s players are probably smart enough to realize most of those yards came because of an offensive system they weren’t familiar with and won’t see the rest of the year.
In the end, it was more about what Alabama lost, and almost lost, rather than what it won.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-The Citadel:
1. We’ve established Saivion Smith is not the best triple-option defending cornerback in football. Both of The Citadel’s long touchdown runs were busts. On the first, Smith alone caused the gap when he crashed inside rather than maintain outside leverage. On the second, Smith again got too far inside, but neither Keaton Anderson nor Jamey Mosley did him any favors in support, especially Anderson, who was slow to peel back. Basically, that was The Citadel’s day: get a couple of turnovers, and get two touchdowns off bust plays. Fortunately for Alabama (and Smith), the offenses Bama will see the rest of the way in play a different brand of football.
2. Special teams were disastrous. It’s Peak Alabama that, in the year the limit on assistant coaches expanded and Alabama finally hired a special teams coordinator, this would turn out to be one of the worst special teams years of recent memory. Alabama still ranks highly in the return game based on some early successes, but Jaylen Waddle has been mostly hemmed up for the second half of the season. The Citadel turned kickoffs into a three-ring circus, isolating Alabama’s upbacks, who for some reason eschewed taking a fair catch. Alabama missed two PATs in the game, and Austin Jones replaced Joseph Bulovas for the last attempt. Whether that sticks going forward is anyone’s guess, but Bulovas has not done badly on field goal attempts as a whole, and Jones has missed 3 PATs of his own. It’s eerily disquieting that, on the week leading up to the Auburn game, that Alabama’s kicking situation is in a state of flux once more.
3. Alabama can manage Leatherwood’s injury, but Brown’s return is needed. Deonte Brown ascending to the starting left guard position seemed to be the missing piece in Alabama’s rushing offense, as it wasn’t just a case of Brown outperforming Lester Cotton, but also the effect he had on the other starters. The unit just seems to work better as a group when Brown is in. Leatherwood’s exit from Saturday’s game put Josh Casher into the lineup at right guard, and Alabama didn’t really miss a beat. But Brown’s absence is still being felt. If Alabama intends to attack Auburn primarily through the air, having Cotton in isn’t the worst thing in the world except for his penchant for drawing holding flags. He has better pass-blocking footwork than Brown, but if the gameplan calls for establishing the run, it will be difficult without Brown in the game. Turf toe injuries are tough to overcome, though, so Brown missing the Auburn game wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
4. Najee Harris peaking at the right time, especially with Damien Harris hurt. Damien Harris entered concussion protocol after an awkward fall while being tackled late in Saturday’s game. Ordinarily that would be cause for great concern from a team chasing a championship, but Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris are more than ready to pick up the slack. Najee Harris, in particular, has recently seemed to take a big step up, as if the game is starting to come to him more easily now. There are a lot of little things Damien Harris does well – blitz pickup being chief among those – that Najee Harris still needs to work on, but Alabama can easily maintain a RB rotation of Jacobs and Najee Harris in the interim. Najee Harris has, potentially, the most raw ability of any running back to play at Alabama, which is saying a lot given that Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were stars here. Watching Harris go off on Auburn wouldn’t be a bad deal for most Bama fans, we’d bet.
5. Saban got the motivational moment he needed. In 2011, Alabama was involved in the infamous “(Expletive) Through A Tin Horn” game against Georgia Southern, before going out the next week and dusting Auburn 42-14. Several players mentioned, in the aftermath of that Auburn game, how they felt the need to make up for their poor performance a week prior. Could Saban get the same benefit in 2018 from The Citadel’s output on the ground? One would hope Alabama doesn’t need extra motivation to get up for its annual game against Auburn, but Auburn has been the one opponent to consistently punch above its weight in games against the Crimson Tide.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN