It wasn’t that Texas A&M was some semi-talented journeyman team like South Carolina in 2010 or Utah in 2008 – Texas A&M was predicted by some to the SEC West’s representative in Atlanta this year.
But after an injury to the Aggies’ original starting quarterback, a disappointing offensive line that had used more combinations than a vault at Fort Knox, and a wide receiver corps that had looked anything but game-changing – to say nothing of back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State – there was almost no one who would stand behind any kind of preseason wishcasting nonsense when Alabama finally touched down in College Station this week.
Texas A&M had shown itself not to be just one or two players short of being a contender. The gap in talent was far wider than that. And the Aggie coaching staff’s reputation had lost its luster by more than just a little bit, not just Jimbo Fisher but also some of his assistants.
So beyond the obvious – QB Zach Calzada would have to have a Stephen Garcia-esque game against Alabama, and he did – Alabama would need to give Texas A&M multiple extra possessions, or make multiple bad decisions, or fail to execute multiple plays in order to give the Aggies the opportunity to win this game.
Done, done and done.
What is most confusing about the outcome is that you could turn it into a bar exam exercise: You could make a convincing argument that the lack of player execution caused the loss. You could also argue Alabama got thoroughly outcoached on both sides of the ball.
Either approach would yield a victory for you in front of your arbiters.
The fact that the loss came on the heels of Texas A&M’s two uninspired games against Arkansas and Mississippi State, though, makes it even more curious and particularly more painful. Texas A&M’s offense had all the appeal of boiled phlegm in those games, yet against Alabama, the Aggies marched up and down the field for the entire first half and then again when it mattered in the fourth quarter. Alabama had no answer, either from the braintrust holding the whistles, or from the superior athletes it had assembled in the jerseys.
There’s no world in which Alabama’s defense should have given up 34 points to Texas A&M’s offense (the other 7 came from a kickoff return where Alabama’s coverage team seemed to go to sleep after the kick), but it happened. There should also not be a world in which Alabama could blitz 20-something times against an offensive line starting three freshmen, and fail to record either a sack of a QB hurry. But that happened, too.
It’s going to be an interesting week around the Mal Moore Building in Tuscaloosa this week, because it may be time for some reckoning. Nick Saban’s initial press conference, in a general sense, pointed the finger of blame back at the staff, but he did take the time to mention a few on-field gaffes and make his typical reference to using the sting of defeat as a motivational tool going forward. But the problems appear to go a little deeper than usual. This was not a loss to 2011 LSU team or a recent Georgia team or even a 2013 Auburn team that would go on to play for a national championship. This was a loss to a injury-riddled Texas A&M team with a generally stale offense and a quarterback who came into the game having a hard time completing passes against air.
It’s too late to call the season done – Alabama, for that matter, controls its own destiny in the SEC West, since Texas A&M already has two conference losses – but now everyone probably has a different opinion of a potential Alabama-Georgia matchup in the SEC Championship Game. Georgia’s offense isn’t going to win any awards for ingenuity, but it is better than the Aggies’ unit, and its defense is several steps better.
Alabama’s questions are more nuanced, such as why does a team full of five-star playmakers on its defense find itself so bereft of big plays? And why is an offense with so many playmakers prone to misfiring in critical situations?
Those answers probably won’t come this week, especially if the answers are of the systemic variety. The only thing Alabama can do is what it has done on several occasions in the past, which is use the sting of defeat – and the knowing that its one mulligan has now been spent – to inspire the team not to fail again.
Because that’s what this game was, at the most basic level: an abject failure.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M:
1. Defensive scheme was wrong from the start, didn’t adjust quickly enough and may not be sustainable: Just about everything that comes after this has a fix, or at least can be worked around. But the defensive plan Alabama brought to this game was one of the worst we’ve seen in years. It wasn’t effective – the comment above about Alabama attempting “20-something” unsuccessful middle blitzes was not an exaggeration – and Alabama’s coaches were too stubborn to change or modify it. It took Alabama the better part of a quarter to realize its small “rabbit” front – 2 DL and 2 OLB in a four-man front, with 2 ILB behind it – wasn’t going to work against Texas A&M’s physical running game.
By the time Alabama finally pulled OLB Dallas Turner in favor of defensive ends Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young, a lot of damage had already been done. The worst aspect of the plan, though, may have been the failure to realize that when Alabama blitzed with middle pressure, it turned the flats and the tight end routes into automatic completions for Zach Calzada. Once Alabama went to a more standard front with three DL and kept the inside linebackers in zone or as spies, Texas A&M almost immediately shut down on offense.
So what did Alabama do with a 7-point lead late in the fourth quarter? It brought middle pressure again, left a defensive back one-on-one with WR Ainais Smith (6 rec., 85 yards, 2 TD on the night), and watched the Aggies tie the score. The question going forward now is whether this defense can stop offenses, because against the Aggies it appeared that Alabama didn’t have an answer, even against an offensive line as patchwork as the one Texas A&M started.
2. DL couldn’t get pressure against the OL, even with help; Anderson nullified at OLB. The biggest single shock of the night, bar none, was OLB Will Anderson Jr. more or less being rendered a moot point by an offensive line that was playing three freshmen. Anderson worked mostly against Reuben Fatheree II, who probably made himself a lot of money in 3-4 years based on what tonight’s tape is going to show. Tim Smith and Phidarian Mathis weren’t bad, but they also didn’t change the flow of the game.
Alabama couldn’t collapse the pocket on Zach Calzada, and had trouble stopping the run early on before Alabama let its inside linebackers take a more read-and-react stance before committing to run gaps. We’re rarely this wrong in a pregame analysis point; we had the Alabama DL with a clear advantage over the Texas A&M OL, and that just didn’t happen.
Even though Alabama was more effective on defense in the third quarter and first half of the fourth, some of that was due to A&M being without RB Isaiah Spiller for an extended period. Of all the units that underachieved Saturday, and there were several, probably none underachieved as much as Alabama’s combined front seven.
3. Bryce Young’s accuracy failed him at crucial times, and there were too many dropped passes. The final tally on the night was as many as 8 drops from Bama wide receivers and tight ends, while Bryce Young threw several passes either too low or a step too far for his outside receivers. Young was 28-of-48 (58.3%) for 369 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception on the evening. The overall production was there, but 20 incompletions is a lot in Bama’s offense and many came at the worst moment. Texas A&M’s Calzada had a higher QB rating for the evening (89.6 to 73.1 for Young) despite throwing for fewer yards, and in this case, it’s hard to argue with the math.
4. Kickoff return may have been the hinge point in the game, and it was avoidable. Will Reichard has become nearly automatic with touchbacks on kickoffs, but the one time he tried for one and didn’t get it, Texas A&M made him pay full penalty. What’s maddening is the kick itself was high enough to allow Alabama to get into the proper coverage position, and it simply didn’t do it. Alabama overcommitted to the strong side of the return formation and was lazy to get to the backside; Reichard had the best chance at the tackle himself, and that should absolutely never be the case for a kickoff unit. It was lack of concentration, and it flipped the momentum back in the game at a point where Alabama had snatched it away following a blocked punt for a score.
5. Poor playcalling on multiple fourth-quarter drives kept A&M in it. Bill O’Brien’s offense ran up 522 total yards of offense in the game, but Alabama completely soiled its own armor twice in the fourth quarter, once by calling multiple pass plays from the 3-yard line despite Brian Robinson’s wearing down of the A&M rush defense, and a three-and-out on what would prove to be Alabama’s last possession of the game.
O’Brien is more of a traditional NFL-style playcaller than either of his recent Alabama predecessors, but tradition should only go so far when Robinson was clearly gashing A&M’s tired run defense late in the game. The only carry Robinson got in either sequence – the first-down call on Bama’s final possession – Alabama elected to run right, which it had rarely done up to that point, instead of going behind Evan Neal and Javion Cohen.
We’re more worried about the defense at this point, and any number of dropped passes could have turned the result had they been caught, but it almost seemed like the offense had to overcome the playcalling against A&M rather than be bolstered by it.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN