Sadly, Commissioner, that set of The Grades was dead on target, though in some cases you might have needed some grade lower than F.
The worst cliché is that you win some and you lose some. But why did it have to be this one?
It is another cliché that you lose as a team and win as a team. The fact it is trite doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Football has always seemed to us to be the ultimate team game. We don’t know of another team sport where everyone on the field must handle their assignments in order for the team to achieve success in just the same way that football requires. (We think an argument can be made for its older cousin, rugby.) Frankly, the intense team nature of the sport is one of its attractions. Yes, just occasionally one player’s miscue can be said to have led to a loss -- if the placekicker misses a last-second field goal that means the difference between a win and a loss it is easy to point at that individual player. On the other hand, the rest of the team had 59 minutes and some seconds to keep that kick from being necessary -- if the defense had prevented a couple of first downs, if the offense had scored once more or gotten the kicker a little closer to the goal posts at the end, blah, blah, blah. In short, typically the blame for a loss in a football game can be spread widely.
Unfortunately, the failures that led to Alabama’s loss on Saturday night were spread through every phase of the game. The offense did not convert crucial third downs and missed scoring opportunities. The defense allowed third down conversions and occasionally tackled like it was new innovation that they had been working on only since Wednesday. The kicking game was the high point of the effort and earned an F by missing the snap on a chip shot field goal. The coaching staff had done a poor job of getting the team ready to play and did a poorer job of making in-game adjustments.
At the simplest level, Auburn performed much better as a team than Alabama did on Saturday night and the final score pretty accurately reflected that.
In addition to the team failures you so accurately documented, Commissioner, we were quite surprised by what we identified as coaching failures in this game. It is always hard to gauge, especially over a television broadcast as opposed to in person, but Alabama just did not seem ready to play. There was a missing level of excitement and urgency. How can this happen? These are not junior high school students. At this level the players should be able to be depended on to have themselves emotionally ready for the game. However, we also think inducing that sense of urgency is a coaching responsibility, though obviously there are limits.
However, neither individual responsibility nor inspiration by the coaches seems to have gotten the point home on Saturday. Sadly, we wonder, if you as an individual player were unable to motivate yourself for this game, and the coaches were similarly unable to persuade you to be motivated for it, what can you get excited about? This was the premier game in college football Saturday -- national television, a #1 ranking, a chance to play for conference and national championships, the opponent was your cross-state rival coached by a character that looks like a reject from The Muppet Show, and you come out flat? It is just very difficult to comprehend.
It is another cliché that you have to limit Monday morning quarterbacking / Hindsight / Second-guessing. We agree with that sentiment to a large extent. It’s just too easy to have a different idea about whether the team should have gone for the touchdown or the field goal on the last play of the game when you know the outcome of that particular play. We think a different rule applies, though, when you are instead considering overall game strategy and tactics. Alabama’s plans on both sides of the ball were insufficient.
The thinking down here at the Tire Store was that with our offense, holding the opponent to 26 points should regularly produce a win. Despite the scoreboard, however, the defensive scheme was not sufficient to put the ball in the hands of the offense nearly enough. The sellout blitzes left numerous passing lanes open as well as scrambling avenues for the quarterback. Nevertheless, we continued to pursue that tactic all game long, managing exactly one sack.
Worse, the offensive production was, shall we say, spotty. The first drive of the game was quite efficient, until such time as we decided not to attempt a fourth and less than a yard in the middle of the field. That was puzzling and may have led the offense to question itself. The play calling and execution in the first drive of the second half was a thing of beauty. And it disappeared. Either the opponent adjusted to it and we had no answer or we abandoned what was working. Our offensive line was clearly having trouble with the pass rush, but we continued to call slow developing pass plays down the field. Our quarterback appeared to be struggling and the remedy for that appeared to be to put more responsibility on his shoulders. Enough, we’ve just sent Moses across the road to pick up Krystals for lunch and we are losing our appetite.
Regular readers know that we do not usually call out particular players in this space. However, we hope that Damien Harris is suffering from some undisclosed condition which leads to him only getting a few carries a game. He is the acknowledged starter, runs hard, averages 8.2 yards a carry, and often disappears from the offense for entire quarters or halves. Against Auburn he carried the ball just six times, down from eight against Mississippi State, and nine against LSU. In contrast, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson left with an injury and still had 30 carries, which is to say more than Harris had against LSU, MSU and AU combined. I will regret it very much if Harris decides to turn pro after this season (he is a junior and has played three years) if any part of his decision is based on how little he gets the ball.
Another football cliché is that some teams play better at home or on the road. We think really excellent teams are not much affected by where they play. The 2016 edition of the Crimson Tide has not performed well in hostile environments, of which there were just three this year. At Texas A&M (7-4, 4-4, and rumored to be firing their head coach) Alabama needed to recover an on-side kick to assure a victory in a game that should have been settled in the third quarter. In Starkville, against a Bulldog team somewhat better than Texas A&M, things were cut even more closely, with the game tied with under a minute left. Against an even more talented Auburn team, well, you can see where that is going. At least whatever else this team does will be on a neutral field.
We are not just sure what all contributed to Saturday’s poor performance. This is a very talented football team. The team leaders are easy to identify and effective. We have the best coaching staff in the nation and not by a little bit. Injuries have certainly played a part. The SEC’s usual sorry officiating didn’t help (though it didn’t decide the game). Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that being the #1 team for too long leads to pressure that eventually hinders a team. Maybe Alabama was just due to turn in a poor performance. Whatever, at some point it will be possible to look back on the season and decide that an 11-1 record and major blowouts of many opponents was pretty dadgum good. For now, though, it is hard to see the silver lining of an objectively great season through the dark clouds of the chances that have been squandered.
So, the punditry has been desperately trying to sort out whether Alabama can make it into the college football playoff. We understand the reasoning that says there is a possibility, after all, Alabama ranks fifth with all of the teams above them facing challenging opponents. We think a return to the CFP is relatively unlikely, though enough chaos in the games of the teams ranked ahead of Alabama may do the trick.
Four things are working against Alabama. First, Alabama Fatigue is a real thing elsewhere in the country and there is a collective smug smile around college football that the Crimson Tide has put itself in danger of being out of contention. Second, unfortunately when you lose in the season has become critical. Auburn’s opening week loss to Clemson has all but been forgotten. Alabama lost in its last game. Third, the establishment of the playoff committee got its last boost of momentum from people who objected to the All SEC Alabama/LSU championship game in New Orleans. Whether they ever admit it or not, the playoff committee is going to bend over backwards to try to make sure there is “fair” regional representation in the seeded teams. If that means taking a two-loss team over a one-loss team with some sort of justification about “better” losses or “tougher schedule” or “peaking at the right time” or “playing an extra game” or “being conference champion” or just “passing the eye test” then that is what they will rely upon. Fourth, sitting home this weekend while the other contenders are all involved in championships will hurt Alabama’s position with the committee – the Committee was quick to say there was very little difference in teams 5-8. Let us hope we are wrong.
If not, then this edition of the Crimson Tide has one last game to play together as a team. Will this team go to a bowl game fighting for pride and honor and destroy someone the way their predecessors did Michigan State in Orlando in 2011 or will they show up, pick up their “swag bags” and otherwise enjoy a nice vacation trip with the game as an afterthought, as they did against Utah in 2009? I would like to tell you that we had the answer to that question. As big a cliché as it is, after Saturday, we’d have to say we just don’t have a clue.
Roll Tide, everyone.
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