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Texas wrap-up: How deep do Alabama’s problems run?

About three hours before kickoff, a family of Texas fans paused under the green street sign at the intersection of Paul “Bear” Bryant Drive and Gene Stallings Avenue just west of Bryant-Denny Stadium and snapped a few photos and a selfie or two, cataloging their trip to one of college football’s holy sites. And for a while, it appeared that Alabama might have a chance to win this game by way of tactics very familiar to former coaches Bryant and Stallings.

But college football is not what it was in the heyday of either of those men, and Texas’ offense exploded late in the third and early in the fourth quarter, pulling away from an Alabama team that couldn’t keep up, and giving Nick Saban one of the worst home losses in his Alabama career by a score of 34-24. Now Saban, his assistants and fans and analysts at large get to sift through the rubble and try to figure out how this bomb went off – and whether Alabama has any answers going forward.

Alabama fans have become spoiled, there is no doubt. Ten-point losses here are considered blowouts, a major national sports news event. In most other places, they are annual occurrences. But that’s the difference between the Alabama program and the programs of other universities: In Tuscaloosa, football isn’t simply an extracurricular activity and a hallmark of student life. It’s the activity and the focus of student life for many. The school funds it and prioritizes it accordingly.

Which makes the product Alabama put on the field Saturday night so frustrating, and ultimately, so unacceptable.

Texas didn’t beat Alabama because of any one thing or one person or one matchup. It beat Alabama because of a lot of things and a lot of people and a lot of matchups. This is one of those losses that felt systemic. Not since Alabama lost to Clemson 44-16 in the 2019 College Football Championship has there been such a weight dropped on the program, almost begging it to do some real soul-searching.

Against Texas, Alabama didn’t look like it knew what kind of team it wanted to be. If Alabama wants to ram the ball down the opponent’s throat, it needs to make a commitment in that direction. If it wants to be a pro-style passing offense, it needs to go that way instead. If it wants the merge the two somehow, returning to an offense marked heavily by zone-read and RPO elements, it should take that path.

Instead, Alabama spent Saturday sticking its finger in half-baked pies, sampling what was cooking but never consuming a finished product. It doesn’t appear to have the running back stable necessary to pound the ground, it doesn’t appear to have the quarterback necessary to direct a precision air strike, and it doesn’t appear to have the gumption to commit to a true system-based offensive gameplan. Perhaps the coaches just don’t truly know what personnel they have at the ready, and hopefully that’s it, because the alternative is that they believe they have the players to do any of the three at any given time – and if the latter describes the coaches’ mindset, this loss certainly proved otherwise.

Defensively, Alabama is (supposedly) in the process of a reset on two fronts. Kevin Steele was brought in to both help simplify a defensive system that had gotten too complex and too time-consuming to learn, and also to reintroduce a more blue-collar, tough-guy attitude that was present throughout Saban’s early Alabama teams. While the defensive design belongs 100 percent to the mind of Nick Saban, under the supervision of former coordinator Pete Golding, the criticisms that stuck the most were that Alabama had lost its aggressive edge and had become simultaneously a bit too passive and also less precise. Whether Steele can right the ship remains to be seen; against MTSU, Alabama looked to be well on its way, but it slipped back into old habits against Texas and lost its composure.

This is one of those losses that demands introspection and self-evaluation, because the balance of the season hangs on the approach Saban and Alabama take in the coming weeks. Saban addressed it in his postgame press conference, “Never waste a failing.” The implication was clear. This was a failure. It was not just a bump in the road or an unfortunate occurrence. It was a failure, a capital-F, a big red “X” scrawled across the summary page of Alabama’s work. It simply wasn’t good enough – not here, where the measuring stick is the national championship and anything short of the College Football Playoff is seen as a disappointment on a historic scale.

Alabama won’t learn much next week other than how to get on and off buses and planes. South Florida is 1-1, losing its opener 41-24 to Western Kentucky, hardly a powerhouse, and then failing to put up a big number against FCS Florida A&M, winning just 38-24. Even if Alabama did nothing more than repeat its Texas performance, it will win, and win big.

That isn’t what people are going to be watching for. The margin of expected victory almost won’t matter. What matters will be the small details, the footnotes at the bottom of Bama’s research paper, delivered on the topic of “What Went Wrong Against Texas and Why We Won’t Let It Happen Again.”

If Alabama can bounce back – if it can avoid wasting a failing, as Saban put it – then the season is not lost. So far, no team has clearly moved to the head of the national pack. Even Georgia and Ohio State have sputtered at times in their early games. The college football field is wide open, conference play has yet to begin, and Alabama can still achieve its goals.

But it has to discover itself first, evaluate itself second, and make the necessary changes third. Otherwise, the next set of questions for this program will center on a discussion of whether the Tide is in a slide.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas:

1. Bad QB play finally cost Alabama, and the job should be considered open again. It’s been some time since Alabama lost a game and a big chunk of the “why” could be laid in the quarterback’s lap, but it happened against Texas. Jalen Milroe had his moments – the touchdown pass to Jermaine Burton in the second half was pitch-perfect – but Milroe threw two ugly interceptions that eventually led to 10 Texas points, which not coincidentally was the margin of defeat. And here’s where we go back to style of play and whether Milroe can be made to fit in this offense: If Alabama is going to play Jalen Milroe at quarterback, it absolutely must put him in a zone-read, RPO-heavy attack and run him 10-15 times a game by specific playcall. It’s time to stop pecking around at the edges of the band-aid and rip it off. The current offense does not fit his skills, so either the offense has to change, or the personnel has to change. If Alabama isn’t going to make specific use of his skills – it appears the coaches want Milroe to run “the Alabama offense” (whatever that is, since the offense has changed here and there several times over the years) while using his running skills simply to escape trouble – then Alabama isn’t doing itself or Milroe any favors. If Alabama is determined to stay with a pro-style passing attack with multi-read distribution, it’s going to have to hope Tyler Buchner, Ty Simpson or even true freshman Dylan Lonergan can be that guy, because Milroe probably can’t be. Saban said he considered pulling Milroe from this game, and he almost certainly would have had Milroe not directed a go-ahead drive late in the third quarter. The problem going into the South Florida game is that Alabama can likely sail through that contest no matter who is under center, so this debate might go to Sept. 23 against Ole Miss to reach any kind of finality. The quarterback battle in general has been somewhat surreal anyway, with a new, younger offensive coordinator trying to implement a multi-tight-end offense while also picking a quarterback from a list that includes one of his former players from his last job. It’s time to pick an identity and commit to it.

2. OL played poorly overall and has issues at C and RG. Suddenly, each snap is an adventure – literally. Seth McLaughlin has had more bad snaps in two weeks than the entire team had either of the last two years. Jalen Milroe’s most impressive accomplishment through the first two weeks may be a pair of touchdowns that Alabama got off plays that started with bad snaps. McLaughlin’s primary backup is technically starting RG Darrian Dalcourt, and if Dalcourt continues to struggle as he has the first couple of weeks, he may be back in the battle at center after losing a starting job. Whatever happens at right guard, McLaughlin has to get the snaps under control, or Dalcourt or James Brockermeyer will have to get a look. Overall, Texas dive-bombed the middle of the Alabama offensive line all night and had particular success coming over Dalcourt on the right side, and ended the night recording 5 sacks against Milroe, 4 QB hurries and 9 tackles for loss. There aren’t words to adequately describe how poor Bama’s OL metrics were after this game, yet Alabama played the same five linemen every snap.

3. The RB group hasn’t been able to shoulder enough of the load, whether due to OL struggles or something else. Alabama’s running backs finished this game with 20 carries for 63 yards, an average of 3.15 yards per carry. That’s not going to cut it against any opponent. Jase McClellan started the night strongly, but Texas adjusted to Alabama’s early success on the ground and after the first quarter, the only chunk running plays came from scrambles by Jalen Milroe. Roydell Williams was completely shut down, Jamarion Miller got just two touches and Justice Haynes didn’t get any work. We’re not totally sure whether Alabama’s running backs were simply overrated in the preseason, or whether their struggles have been the fault of an underachieving offensive line, but Alabama is going to have to get more creative in play design to open up running lanes. And that goes back to a discussion of who the Tide has under center; it all interconnects.

4. Defensive line got no pressure and struggled to get key stops. Let’s give credit where it’s due, first: Alabama held Texas to 105 yards on 37 carries, a 2.8-yard average. That will play, against anyone in any situation. But Texas was able to convert a handful of key third-down conversions and was 2-of-3 on fourth down. The much bigger issue was in regard to creating negative plays. Alabama recorded no sacks, only 2 tackles for loss – one of them by a cornerback, Terrion Arnold, on a pass to the sideline – and 4 QB hurries. Texas QB Quinn Ewers never seemed to take a square hit and rarely had to even move within the pocket. We’ll address the secondary in our next point, but no secondary is going to look fantastic when it’s getting no help from the players up front. Unfortunately, Alabama has a clearer picture of what its DL rotation looks like than what the situation at quarterback is, and the likelihood that there is a Christian Barmore or Marcell Dareus sitting down the depth chart is about on par with the chances of partaking in a successful unicorn hunt. Alabama will have to solve this issue with a better and more creative blitz package from the second and third levels, if it can be solved at all.

5. Texas coaches outschemed Saban and the defensive assistants in the passing game. Having Ewers pulling the trigger didn’t hurt, but the bigger issue is that Texas was able to consistently put Alabama defensive backs in uncomfortable positions. Steve Sarkisian is considered perhaps the best Alabama offensive coordinator ever for a reason, and it stems directly from his ability to put schematic pressure on every defense he faces. He torched true freshman safety Caleb Downs several times in the first half, then turned his attention to cornerbacks Terrion Arnold and Ga’Quincy McKinstry later in the game. No one in the secondary got anywhere close to making a play against a Ewers-thrown ball, and the pressure led to a couple of pass interference flags at critical moments. Other teams with creative offensive staffs now have a road map to success and it will be critical that Saban and defensive staff come up with a few detours.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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