On one hand, Alabama has frequently had a case of the yips under Nick Saban in the second or third game of the season, which Saturday’s game against Ole Miss was. On the other, this is an all-SEC schedule in 2020, without many breaks, so if giving up 48 points and 600-plus total yards of offense to the Rebels qualifies as the “yips,” then Alabama might be in for real trouble in the coming weeks.
The Alabama offense played so well against Ole Miss that it would not do those players justice to spend an entire wrap-up article harping on the shortcomings on defense. But at a school where championships are the measuring stick, the Alabama “D” in 2020 is beginning to look like the Alabama “d,” lowercase.
There is a legitimate debate over what “good” defense looks like in 2020. Rule changes meant to benefit offenses have done just what was intended. Quarterbacks are more dynamic, offensive coordinators more adept at using running backs as hybrid receivers, tight ends as fullbacks or flankers, and advancements in off-field conditioning programs have turned even offensive linemen into near-ballerina athletes.
For those who believe the defenses of the Paul “Bear” Bryant era, or even the Gene Stallings era, or maybe even the early Nick Saban era are suddenly going to come back in vogue, they aren’t, absent some specific, targeted changes in the rules to benefit defenses – which isn’t happening so long as television networks and their audiences want to see shootouts in every game, on every channel.
But defense doesn’t have to look like this, either.
This may have been the worst performance by an Alabama linebacker group since TideFans.com has been in existence, which dates back to late 1996. That it would happen even with Alabama having four potential future NFL draftees as starters is mind-blowing. That it would happen in a win, absolutely shocking. Were it not for the two stops Alabama got in the fourth quarter, this article wouldn’t be published right now because the game would still be going in overtime. So credit to Alabama for getting those stops, because the linebackers were certainly a part of them, but it shouldn’t have taken 45-plus minutes to make the adjustments that led to those stops.
Whether this portends anything for the career of Pete Golding remains to be seen. To be gentle about it, Golding hasn’t been a fan favorite since his arrival. He was seen as too inexperienced, and the hire (for a coordinator-level job) seemed to be too tilted toward recruiting. The first problem with evaluating his performance as a coordinator is, referring to the discussion just above, partly due to figuring out what the expectations should be.
Georgia is widely regarded as having the best defense in the conference, but it still gave up more than 200 yards against a mid-level college quarterback and two offensive scores. Go back and count the times during the Stallings era, for instance, when Alabama gave up 21 points or more. In the 1992, 1994 and 1996 seasons, all of which yielded SEC Championship Game appearances, it happened twice in ’92 and three times each in the other two seasons. Looking at the offenses Georgia has left to face in 2020, we’re betting on a higher number.
However, what isn’t era-dependent are things like getting the defensive calls onto the field too late, and veteran players not being able to self-diagnose when things go a bit awry. Alabama simply looked lost for three quarters against Ole Miss, and it became clear in the third quarter that Alabama was going to have to rely on a turnover or some kind of significant, self-inflicted gaffe on the part of the Rebels to get more than one score ahead. Alabama finally got that when C Ben Brown snapped the ball basically sideways on a key 3rd-and-long, and after Corral fell on it for a loss, the Rebels had to accept a field goal attempt.
Remarkably, Georgia probably can’t put as much pressure on Alabama’s offense due to its style of play, and lack of a quarterback nearly as good as Matt Corral is. But the Bulldog defense will be much stronger, and Alabama can’t just trade score-for-score and hope for a key stop. The bigger question, though, is whether the Alabama defense is fixable. Is this a talent issue? Is Golding really the problem? Or – and here’s something Alabama fans don’t want to consider – is the problem in the scheme Nick Saban runs, and if Golding is only teaching what his boss wants taught, what then?
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss:
1. Linebacker play was so dismal, we don’t know where to start. Was it the poor tackling? The continued lack of edge discipline? The inability to cover backs out of the backfield for what feels like the 99th consecutive week? Not knowing the tight end is an eligible receiver?
The answer: Yes. But as the late Billy Mays would say when trying to sell you something you didn’t need, “But wait, there’s more.” The general confusion may have been the worst part of it all. Alabama linebackers looked like straight-off-the-farm freshmen, even though just one who played significant snaps (Will Anderson) actually is one. Dylan Moses is a veteran, but played maybe his worst game in a Bama uniform.
We have talked before how fans have glossed over Moses’ liabilities in coverage, but we were hoping that his struggles in getting the group positioned had become a thing of the past. Too often, sophomore Christian Harris could be seen telling Moses and the others where they should have been, despite Harris being the deputy and not the sheriff. Christopher Allen’s first half was poor as well, but he improved toward the end, particularly in run containment. Will Anderson Jr. didn’t have the same kind of impact he’d had in the first two weeks and whiffed on several tackles.
Tackling from the linebacker group was somewhere between poor and unacceptable, to the point the defensive line was having to peel back into the second level to make tackles. Christian Barmore had to come into the play from behind on several occasions to stop the action. Had it not been for him and D.J. Dale, who actually had a relatively good game despite the Ole Miss offensive stats getting out of hand, Alabama probably doesn’t win this game.
2. Offensive playcalling was pitch-perfect, and QB Mac Jones had a night to match. Jones made one bad throw all night, a mid-depth out to John Metchie that came within an inch or two of being picked off. Outside of that play, he played the game of his career so far, and one can argue it was the most efficient game – maybe one of the five best games overall, ever – in Alabama history. Final line: 28-of-32 (87.5%), 417 yards, 2 touchdowns, no picks.
Steve Sarkisian dialed up all the right plays in all the right situations. Alabama punted once and didn’t have to attempt a field goal. The Crimson Tide scored touchdowns in its final 8 drives of the night. And the dagger to it all, a long bomb to Jaylen Waddle when everyone in the stadium expected Alabama to be trying to run out the clock, was Sarkisian toying with the Ole Miss defense like a cat playing with a stuffed mouse.
It’s not yet clear whether those who like to try to steer such things allow Mac Jones to be thought of as a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2020, but you can bet NFL teams are watching. Who would have thought prior to the season that Jones would look like a lock to skip his final season of eligibility and declare for the NFL Draft?
3. The tandem of Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. were the difference-makers on offense. For all of Jones’ numbers and Sarkisian’s prowess calling plays, the win doesn’t happen if Alabama doesn’t run the football like it did. Najee Harris had five touchdowns (and would have had a shot at a sixth, had be been blown down at the 1-yard line like as he should have been and not been called, dubiously so, for fumbling), but it was his ability to always get 5 and 6 yards even on his “worst” carries that really cinched it.
Running backs who put up gaudy stats will often do so off the backs of a couple of big runs, but Harris churned for his yardage, averaging 9.0 yards per carry with a long of just 39. Brian Robinson was able to run the way he prefers to: into a hole, make one cut and go. Robinson can’t shuffle behind the line like Harris can, but when he is able to go downhill on the handoff, he’s a big guy who can be hard to stop. Alabama put up 723 yards of total offense, 306 of that on the ground. It was a dominating performance.
4. Offensive line and tight ends are having a superb 2020; conditioning has improved. Before getting into the play of the players themselves, potentially the most important upgrade Alabama got over the offseason was in hiring Matt Rhea and David Ballou to oversee the strength and conditioning program. Alabama never looked gassed in this game, and the superior conditioning of linemen – oddly enough, perhaps the DL – made the biggest difference in shutting Ole Miss down late in the game.
Alabama’s offensive line proved to be a major benefactor of the program, keeping Mac Jones clean almost all night (1 sack allowed) and keeping the pile moving forward on running plays.
As solid as the offensive line played, the tight end group has gone from perhaps the biggest question mark on the team to one of its strengths. Miller Forristall is having a fantastic senior season, and his effort against Ole Miss was probably a career-best, when blocking and receiving are both taken to factor. Alabama has built a good group around him with North Carolina transfer Carl Tucker, converted offensive lineman Kendall Randolph and converted defensive end Cameron Latu.
For this game, Alabama added converted linebacker Josh McMillon as an H-back/fullback. It’s a motley crew to be sure, but aside from a false start penalty out of Latu, every time this unit was on the field, it did its job. McMillon, one of the lunchpail guys on this team who has been robbed of opportunities at linebacker in the past due to injury, made the key block that sprung Najee Harris on Harris’ fifth touchdown on the night.
5. DB group is struggling – but so is the scheme, and the fundamentals. First things first, there was a battlefield promotion Saturday as DeMarcco Hellams replaced Daniel Wright at free safety mid-game after Wright gave up a long touchdown pass on a play that can only be described as “boneheaded.” Hellams wasn’t fantastically better by any stretch, but he plays his assignments better. They’ll both still start next week, thanks to Jordan Battle missing the first half of the game due to a targeting call in the second half, but the larger problem here is that Alabama’s safety play has been rough, to say the least.
Corners Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain held their own against Ole Miss’ outside receivers, but the safeties – including true freshman Malachi Moore, who came back to earth, hard, after last week’s breakout performance at Star – could not have played a worse game.
And that leads into a myriad of questions, especially when the play of the linebackers is added in: What’s going on here? Is it just a function of inexperience, is it a problem with defensive coordinator Pete Golding, or does the problem run deeper – is it Nick Saban’s very scheme itself? Alabama’s defense has been in retrograde now for several years, and aside from the first half of Alabama’s opener against Missouri, the signs are there that things continue to be on the downswing.
Most of the damage done to Alabama by Ole Miss were the same things that have been done to Alabama for years: backs running free out of the backfield on passing routes, and tight ends and slots running down the middle of the field.
Every defensive scheme has its weak spots, and Tampa-derived coverage schemes (of which Alabama makes liberal use) are frequently soft in the middle of the field over the top of the linebackers unless the MLB has the coverage skills of a safety. It’s been an issue for Alabama many times since 2007, but has also been covered up many times by players simply making plays when they had to.
Assuming the quality of the talent hasn’t fallen off – and if the NFL Draft is any indication, it hasn’t – then the problem goes deeper. Is it simply a function of modern offenses? If so, then no one should be having defensive success, but many teams are. Is it a function of Pete Golding’s inability to put the players in the proper positions and schemes? If so, that can’t be addressed until after the year.
But what if it goes deeper – what if it’s a schematic issue at its very heart? If that’s the case, some true soul-searching will be required by the staff over the 2020-2021 offseason. Nick Saban realized the offense he ran in the early part of his Alabama career was growing outdated, and made changes, bring in Lane Kiffin first, then Steve Sarkisian, and Mike Locksley, and Sarkisian a second time. Will he change his defensive philosophy, maybe hand it over to a different coordinator with a different perspective? Those are all questions for another day. For now, Alabama simply cannot say it has a championship defense – and here comes Georgia to town.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN