In a way, Alabama’s overtime loss to LSU put a bow on a season that has been the Christmas-gift equivalent of getting socks from your grandmother: useful to a point, but ultimately disappointing.
On top of the loss to Tennessee, Alabama had threatened to suffer this same result multiple times already in other games. Now, the question is whether Nick Saban is prepared to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Bryce Young will finish his Alabama career without quarterbacking a national championship team. Certainly, there are ways for Alabama to still find a way into the College Football Playoff, but they involve things like meteors spinning out of control, the emergence of Godzilla from somewhere in the northern Pacific Rim, and Saban discovering the ability to reverse the flow of time. For all practical purposes, Alabama’s season now shrinks to one game, and that’s the one Nov. 26 when Auburn comes to town. Lose that one, and the season goes from disaster to unmitigated disaster.
The postmortem on this game reads like the loss to Tennessee and the almost-losses to Texas A&M and Texas: Alabama kept pace, but couldn’t pull away. When it did have a lead late, the defense couldn’t hold it. When there were opportunities earlier in the game for the offense to build a cushion, it couldn’t do it.
The worst part of this new normal, is that, with the exception of the wide receiver corps, there was enough experienced talent on this team to win a championship. Many analysts posited that this may have been Nick Saban’s most talented team in the preseason. Sure, injuries affected the team’s composition – the loss of DL Justin Eboigbe to a neck injury chief among those, and WR Tyler Harrell never getting healthy enough to play may have been just as big. But what was left behind had more than enough ability to cover up the holes.
Instead, Alabama fans were left watching the same thing happen on multiple weeks: passes dropped at the most inopportune times, pass interference penalties at critical moments, and a mobile quarterback running as free as a Kentucky Derby stallion down the middle of the field while no defenders could be found in the TV wide shot.
Like the loss to Tennessee, take a look at the stats and tell us who you thought won: Alabama once again outgained its opponent. Bryce Young passed for more than 300 yards. Jahmyr Gibbs ran for 99. But not all the stats went Alabama’s way; yet again, the defense couldn’t find a way to force a turnover when it needed it.
And then there was Brian Kelly’s hell-bent-for-leather game management, which reflected again the fact that he has all the characteristics of an elite coach. What couldn’t be done at Notre Dame, due largely to academic restrictions and a program that puts far too much focus on nostalgia, Kelly has done in less than a season at mega-talented LSU: He has combined his skills as a technical coach with the ability to motivate, enforce accountability and make his team believe.
And that leads us back to Saban. After the 2010 season, and again after the 2013 season, Saban took a critical look at the teams that were giving Alabama the most problems. They were the teams that played with tempo and used speed to create mismatches, on many occasions sacrificing size to do so. So Saban sacrificed size, too, especially in his defensive front seven, and tweaked things here and there to ensure more favorable matchups.
The result was a resurgence of the Alabama program for the duration of the 2010s, and it took Saban from being just a coach that had won a national title at two different SEC schools – still an accomplishment, to be sure – to the greatest college football coach of all time, eclipsing even Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Now – presuming he wants to take the time to oversee another transformation – he needs to do the same things again.
Championship programs have few holes, and especially have few holes as it pertains to entire position groups. Yes, a team can win a title with a key player out with injury here or there, or a “glue guy” starting ahead of a more talented younger player. But an entire group can’t be a liability. And unfortunately for Alabama, right now there’s a whole lot of that going on. The most consistency shown by any group of players on this team has either been from the quarterback spot – due in no small part to Bryce Young simply being special – or, oddly enough, at cornerback, where there have already been two changes in the starting lineup.
In comparison to other contenders, Alabama is average on offensive line, average suddenly at linebacker and safety, and is below average at wide receiver and defensive line. At running back, there is Jahmyr Gibbs, and then there is a gap the size of a canyon back to whoever is running second team in a given week. The question is, why is this so?
It’s not really a talent issue, if you place any manner of credence in the opinions of recruiting analysts. It’s somewhere between mindset of the player, and the coaching those players are receiving. And that’s what makes the fix so hard to come by, and such a delicate issue to discuss.
Presuming Alabama finishes the season with no more losses, it’s possible that fans will look back on these two last-second disappointments as a turning point for the program writ large. “Alabama lost two games on the final plays, then bounced back to win 10 games and build optimism for the 2023 season,” fans might say. But right now, Ole Miss looks like anything but a guaranteed win. Auburn finally played hard against a better team in an overtime loss to Mississippi State, and Carnell Williams may feel like he’s coaching for a full-time gig when Auburn visits at the end of November. Then there’s the bowl game.
So what happens if Bama falls short of a 10-win season? Or if it slogs its way to another closer-than-it-should-be win over a spiraling Auburn program?
Nick Saban has, if nothing else, clearly earned the right to fix what is broken. No one will pressure him to make changes, and there will be no ultimatums set in regard to firing certain assistants or adjusting his preferred style of play. He will be free to make his own decisions on his own pace, and if he feels like he’s given all he has to give to the sport, he’ll call his own shot in regard to when it’s time to step out.
Having said that, if he chooses to stick around, especially for multiple years, whatever rot that has established a foothold within this team needs to be excised. Saban needs to approach this offseason with the tools of a surgeon and the urgency of a firefighter. Prior to the start of the 2021 season, there was no scenario in which anyone really thought LSU would even make this game a close one, let alone win and end Alabama’s national championship hopes in the process. If you didn’t know who was who going into this game, you would swear LSU was the team on more solid footing coming out of it.
This upset happened because fundamentally, this Alabama team has changed from what it once was. There have been areas that actively flipped from strength to weakness, and other areas that have simply failed to grow and improve. Whether due to anxiety, a sense of entitlement, or a lack of either talent or development, it’s clear now that change is needed. Change from within.
Nick Saban has earned the right to make those changes, and the credibility to make certain ones while not making certain other ones, and the fans need to accept his choices.
But one thing absolutely cannot be done: The call for change cannot go unheeded, lest an unfortunate season be allowed to metastasize and become a new, endemic culture.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN