Thanks for this edition of the Grades, Commissioner. An excellent job of summarizing. As the great Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips once said after a particularly nasty defeat -- “The film looked suspiciously like the game itself.”
Offense: Clemson had an outstanding game plan and executed it very well. Alabama helped by not calling or executing very well on offense. It seemed to us, frankly, that Alabama tended to go away from plays that were working pretty well to try to succeed at plays that didn’t go so well. One critical factor that we noticed was that Clemson had the football IQ and the players to change their defensive formations at or just before the snap. Tua has done a really, really outstanding job this season of knowing where to go with the football. On passing downs, at least, he is an excellent reader of the opposing defense. This dictates where the pass should be thrown. Simplistically, if the defense lines up in their “Apple” formation, he knows that means his receiver on the far right should have the best match up. Wherever he looks first, that is where he is going. If the defense is in “Banana” he is throwing it to the left. If they are in “Cherries” then he throws to the tight end or the running back.
Clemson was changing from Apple to Cherries right at the snap (or perhaps actually being in the Cherries defense but making it look like Apple). It sounds simple, but is very difficult for a defense to do. The players have to all know their assignments, not run into each other, get to where they are going, all in a split second. Furthermore, while this will work for a little bit, a good quarterback will figure this out and pretty soon wait for his patterns to develop and pick on the guy who has not adjusted quickly enough. Clemson was able to counter this by getting a solid pass rush from their defensive line of future NFL players. Alabama was not able to adjust, most especially near the goal line.
The good news is that there are very very few defenses in college football that can successfully emulate what Clemson was able to do. Even next year’s edition of Clemson might not be able to. The bad news is that the defenses we think can manage it, at least sometimes, (Clemson, Georgia, probably LSU, maybe Texas A&M or Ohio State), are all teams Alabama may see this year. Can our coaching staff and quarterback adjust? We expect they will.
Defense: Alabama’s offense did not help its defense very much, but there were long stretches of the game where the defense looked undermanned. It’s sort of like when we are trying to bust loose a rusty or cross-threaded lug nut. Sometimes the air gun won’t do it and we end up the old-fashioned way -- a 4-way with a cheater bar and a series of steady pulls. This works mostly (though one time we saw Big Willie twist a perfectly good steel 4-way lug wrench around as pretty as you please -- looked like some weird little piece of wrought iron fence). Anyway, the point is that it is not that last push that really broke things loose and got the lug nut off -- it was the cumulative effect of all those efforts. We think that is sort of what happened to Alabama’s defense -- the accumulation of very good athletes hobbled by injury eventually became too much to overcome against a great opponent with great athletes and things broke loose. Christian Miller having a hamstring injury was just sort of the last pull on the lug wrench. Buggs, Diggs, Lewis, Miller, Smith -- eventually it is not just “next man up” no matter how hard they try. Alabama struggled to get any pressure on the quarterback at any time in the game. Their receivers made some outstanding catches. Does a completely healthy defense change the outcome? We honestly don’t know, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Special Teams: Well, mostly they weren’t so special, with a poorly designed and more poorly executed fake field goal and a kick off out of bounds when momentum seemed to be changing for the good guys. We’d be remiss, however, not to tip our cap to gallant walk-on Mike Bernier, who came in to have steadying (if not exactly record-setting) influence on a punting game that had begun to exhibit junior high level inconsistency. He had his best performance on the biggest stage. We are glad he chose to wear Crimson. Good luck to him in the future.
Coaching: The team did not seem to be well-prepared for this game. Certainly, the in-game adjustments did not seem that good. To be honest, things had seemed a little out of synch ever since the Mississippi State game. We are not sure just what to do about all the coaches moving in and out of the program. Sometimes coordinators taking a new job before the season end seemed to work out just fine -- e.g. Pruitt and McElwain; sometimes not so much -- e.g. Kiffin. We get that the whole idea of being an assistant college coach is to someday run your own show. But we are going to trust Coach Saban to come up with a solution here. We just don’t think that having our coaches interviewing for and transitioning to new jobs at the same time we are in the heart of the new recruiting signing period and preparing for our hardest games of the year is fair to them or their players.
Alabama lost at the end of a magical season. The world didn’t end. The sun came up and everything, though we admit to peeking out the blinds a little early on Tuesday morning just to make sure.
The Commissioner’s chronicle of the game being so complete and so compelling, and the fact that continuing to dwell on the game might upset our dinner plans, we hope you will indulge us in a personal note.
The original owner of the Tire Store was Glenn Williams, referred to as Pop. He was a two-way player at Sidney Lanier back in the day, as he liked to tell it, when the coaches said that weight lifting made you muscle bound, drinking water in practice caused cramps, and facemasks had taken all the fear out of the game. He had a scholarship offer to play football at Maryland, but instead he married his high school sweetheart, settled down, and pretty soon bought the Tire Store franchise. Pop was as old school as things got. He carried customers on the books for months and never charged a dime of interest. From time to time customers paid him in tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini they grew in their own gardens. He retired a few years ago, and the Tire Store was never really the same.
He raised his kids right. In particular, he taught his daughter the finer points of football. You know you are on the right track when you are watching the game with your girlfriend and she says something like, “If the ball wasn’t in the air that’s just holding, not pass interference, you bonehead referee”. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to marry her. And I talked her into it.
Pop passed away last week from complications related to COPD. He was a devoted father, husband, and grandfather. More than that, he was a Christian, a gentleman, and a lifelong Alabama fan. We don’t have any higher compliments that we can give. Like the Tire Store itself, for us things will never really be the same.
Rest in Peace, Pop.
A failure should never be wasted, according to the Head Coach, and we doubt this one will. There are various coaching staff vacancies to fill and reassignments to be made. National signing day is next month and recruiting for the last few spots is in full swing. Spring practice will start in March and the A-Day game will be held in April. On August 31, the reigning SEC Champions will kick the football off again in Bryant Denny Stadium. We hope to see you there.
Roll Tide. Beat Duke.
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