Auburn wrap-up: A loss of systemic proportions

At some point, statistical anomalies are no longer that. They become trends.

The one freshest on the mind of Alabama fans (besides maybe the trend of need-to-make field goals bouncing off uprights) is how Nick Saban is now 0-4 against Auburn when Auburn is good.

In the medical world, there are diseases, and those diseases have symptoms. Both can cause pain but the disease also rots. An 0-4 record against good Auburn teams is bad enough; three losses to Gus Malzahn, whose offensive genius has been a thing of the past now for maybe half a decade, is worse.

But those are just symptoms of a program that has developed some systemic, underlying issues: undisciplined, ineffective in crucial moments, and failing to live up to expectations set by some very good work during the recruiting periods of the calendar.

Alabama can complain all it wants about a first-half field goal that Auburn probably shouldn’t have been allowed to kick, but that kick didn’t cost Alabama the game. Neither did two pick-sixes, although those were certainly more harmful and particularly diabolical given where they occurred on the field.

Instead, talk about penalties in key situations, players not carrying out their assignments, and – here’s the big one – a defensive system that may be as past its prime as Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

The lack of discipline, for both assignments and poor play in general, is not new to 2019, however. And that’s perhaps the most disturbing symptom of all. Like that stabbing pain in your left breast that won’t go away, whispers from around the program (some of them even perpetrated by coaches themselves, or at least allowed to perpetuate without objection) pointed to a lack of internal discipline and commitment to doing things the right way. Heart trouble for a program, if you will. Those were appalling revelations for a fan base that had learned to take on the swagger and military bark of its head coach, who believed there was no player who could avoid being either shamed or cowed into compliance.

For it to happen a second year in a row? Maybe that isn’t a symptom anymore; maybe it has developed into its own, free-standing disease.

Alabama seems to be twisting in the wind a bit as a program right now. There is no denying the desire of the leadership at the top of the ladder to do things the right way, the tough way. But now there is a serious question developing of whether that desire, by itself, is enough.

Many have pointed to a similar fork in the road Paul Bryant faced as head coach following the 1969 and 1970 seasons, when Alabama had clearly been passed by other programs. Bryant’s answer was to steal the wishbone offense, install it and to kick off a second act for his Alabama career that rivaled the first.

And perhaps that’s why a lot of Alabama fans are worried at the moment. Bryant’s only marriage was to toughness. Nick Saban, however, is a defensive-minded coach heavily invested in his hand-built 3-4 over/under defensive scheme that is basically the same at heart as the one he used to beat Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game while at LSU.

While Alabama fans are focusing fire on the defensive assistant staff, it has to be asked whether they’re simply teaching what they’re told to teach. And if Saban’s defense – the one he designed himself – no longer has a place in modern college football, will he allow himself to decouple from it the way Bryant did a pass-heavy offensive attack heading into 1971?

If Saban’s defense still has a place, we can’t tell … because it may not being executed with assignment discipline. See symptoms and diseases, page 1.

There are some standalone areas of criticism coming out of this game, but the one above all the others is that big 0-4 record against good Auburn teams. This is the second time in Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure that a loss in this game has cost Alabama a shot at playing for a national title.

National titles, that’s what matters here. Not offensive firepower. Not field goals that can avoid large metal poles. Not the inability to count to 11 on defense. Those things matter in the context of what they bring. While Saban’s process-oriented leadership has allowed Alabama an unprecedented run at or near the top of the college football landscape, “The Process” is finding it harder and harder to produce results.

Yes, Alabama had a lot to deal with in 2019. A fragile quarterback, injuries at inside linebacker, and an almost cosmic setup at placekicker where the savior of position pulled a hip flexor first by kicking a tee and secondly by punting the ball in a game he didn’t need to even be playing in. Those can all be chalked up to bad luck.

A lack of discipline, a lack of ability to adapt to the changing environment – both immediate and long-term – and a lack of a win against a rival that wasn’t as good as you … those are symptoms. To what extent new medicine is needed to treat it … well, that’s we’re all trying to figure out.

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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