Friday, January 13, 2017

Championship Grades

People were worrying about me. Colleagues and co-workers were tentative, concerned I might not be taking the results of the Clemson game too well. Readers of The Commissioners Blog kept checking the settings on their phones just in case they had missed an email. Even my brother thought I had dropped off the face of the Earth after Monday night.

The truth is much more mundane. Tuesday was a work day. It has been a busy week. Friday night is really the first opportunity I have had to post my thoughts about the end of the 2016 season. That interval, however, proved to be just what I needed to process that game; to make sense of coming so close to making history.

As he is with most things football, Coach Saban was absolutely right in what he told the players in the locker room: One game does not define a team. One game does not define a team's character and competitive spirit or classify the players as winners or not. 

The 2016 Crimson Tide are winners. What the team accomplished this year is remarkable. What the senior class has accomplished in their playing years is nothing short of dynastic: three SEC Championships, three appearances in the CFB Playoffs, two appearances in the championship game, one national title. A three year record of 40-4. And all of this was achieved with a first-time starting quarterback each season. Who does that?

Alabama does.

The Tide's 31 points were enough to win the game, if the offense had been able to generate a few more first downs in the second half. Six tackles for lost yardage and two take-aways by the defense were enough to beat Clemson, if the defense had not had to play a game and a half in the span of four quarters. 

Clemson deserved to win the game......fair and square. DeShawn Watson is the best college football player in America in 2016. It is a laughable farce that the stiff-arm statue was awarded to a quarterback who lost three of his last four games-including one to Kentucky-and became more reliable for turnovers than touchdowns as the season wore on. The Downtown Athletic Club should do one of two things: (i) delay awarding the Heisman until the post-season is over; or (ii) quit making such a big deal about it. I can't recall a bigger fail by the Heisman voters than this year.

As deserving as Clemson clearly was, the fact is Alabama had the lead with 2:07 to play in the season. Watson made throws, and his receivers, especially Renfrow, made catches that were simply perfect. The defense was not laying back. The front rushed, the backs covered. Clemson just made the plays they needed to make. 

If you didn't care who won, it was a fantastic college football game. Everything on the line. Three lead changes in the final four minutes. Two teams loaded with more NFL talent than have taken the field since Alabama beat LSU in the BCS CG. It was a football game even Meryl Streep would love.

For me, the Best College Football Game Ever has been the 1973 Sugar Bowl....New Year's Eve, 1973.....Alabama vs Notre Dame. Coach Bryant vs. Ara Parseghian. I may rethink that after Alabama vs Clemson Part II.

Because I agree with Coach Saban, I do not believe it would be appropriate to award letter grades for this game. Nevertheless, here are what I think are the key statistics:

Offense: Alabama gained 376 total yards [221 rushing] earning 16 first downs, but only converted 2 of 15 third downs. 

Before leaving the game with a lower leg injury, Bo Scarbrough ran over and through the Clemson defense for 93 net yards on 16 carries. Jalen added 63 yards. Ardarius Stewart gained 25, Damien Harris ran for 24 and Josh Jacobs gained 16.

Jalen completed 13 of 31 pass attempts for 131 yards and a TD [OJ Howard]. Stewart completed a pass for 24 yards. Calvin Ridley caught 5 passes for 36 yards. OJ gained 106 yards on 4 receptions. Stewart and Bo each caught 2 passes for 12 and 7 yards respectively. 

Promising drives were cut short with dropped passes and offensive penalties. Favorable field position was wasted. The Tide only generated 4 sustained drives [59, 74, 79, 68] each resulted in a TD. Bama punted 11 times. Seven of those punts came after only three offensive plays. In the second half, Alabama had 8 possessions. Only 1 of those offensive opportunities lasted longer than 1:46 of game time. 

Defense: Clemson gained 511 yards of total offense [91 rushing] earned 31 first downs and converted 7 of 18 third down opportunities. Clemson's 99 offensive plays were 39 more than the 60 averaged by all other Tide opponents this season. 

Reuben Foster made 12 tackles [6 solo]. Rashaan Evans was credited with 11 tackles, and Ronnie Harrison made 10 stops [5 solo]. Watson was sacked 4 times. Ryan Anderson forced a fumble and is credited with 2 fumble recoveries for 14 yards.

Special Teams:

Punting: JK Scott had a punt partially blocked. Otherwise, he averaged 45.8 yards per punt and dropped 5 inside the Tiger 20 yard line. Gehrig Dieter returned one Clemson punt for 9 yards.

Place Kicking: Griff was good from 27 yards and perfect on 4 PATs.

Kickoffs:  Griff averaged only 58.5 yards per kick, none were touchbacks. The coverage team allowed Clemson 130 yards of kick returns, the longest of which was 34 yards.  The Tide return game only gained 57 yards. 

Coaching:   Alabama was penalized 9 times for 82 yards. Clemson was flagged 3 times for 35 yards.  The participation repot lists 49 players who saw action in the game. Clemson played 52.

In the run up to the game, a lot of media time was wasted on the Sark vs. Kiffin non-controversy. In my opinion, the play calling was fine. Communication from the sideline to the field appeared to be just right. With rare exceptions, Jalen had plenty of time on the play clock for each snap. In retrospect, perhaps we ought not to have attempted to play with "tempo." Alabama wins the game with just :08 seconds more time of possession. That, however, is the worst of arm-chair quarterbacking. 

So what happens now?

Nine freshmen recruits are already on campus, including Najee Harris, the consensus number 1 recruit in the nation. If Alabama did not sign another player in the 2017 recruiting class it would rank 7th nationally. In case you were wondering, Alabama does not intend to stop signing new players. Some experts are saying the 2017 recruiting class is shaping up to be the best Coach Saban has signed in his string of top-ranked classes. Let's hope this is true since word out of Tuscaloosa is that Marlon Humphrey, Ardarius Stewart and Cam Robinson are leaving early for the NFL where they will join perhaps as many as eight Tide seniors in the NFL draft. 

Can any program sustain this high level of recruiting? Can any team in the SEC West win a fourth straight SEC Championship? Can Alabama return to the final four? Make the CG a third straight year? Reach the end of the Road To 17?

Only Alabama can.

Coming so close and not finishing is hard, but isn't it great to be from Alabama. 

Roll Tide Y'all

The Commissioner 


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tire Store Report -- Peach Bowl/National Semifinal

Boy, that was a weird game.  

You go to a neutral site, you beat a conference champion by more than two touchdowns, they cross the 50-yard line exactly twice, including once when the game was decided, they never run a play from inside your 15-yard line, you get a pick six, hold the #4 offense in the country to 7 points, keep the nation’s best undefeated streak intact, your defense scores as many as their offense, you have a running back go for 180 yards including a run that should be on next year's pregame highlight reel, and you punch your ticket for the National Championship game and you feel, well, kind of underwhelmed.

Maybe that is because last year’s semifinal game was even more dominating.  Maybe it’s because we didn’t score 30.  Maybe it’s because the offense looked like it was the first game of the season, not the fourteenth -- bad enough to get the offensive coordinator run out of the complex to his new job.  Whatever.  We didn’t have to be the best team in football, just the best team in the stadium.  And we were.

We were lucky enough to get to go to the game.  Not surprisingly, there was a lot more crimson and white than gold and grape Koolaid color in the Georgia Dome for its last college game ever.  Aside from the one touchdown drive, we just never got the impression that Washington was going to score many points.  I don’t know how it looked on TV but Washington’s offensive players seemed frustrated and a little confused.  Unfortunately, so did ours.  The difference being is that what frustrated Washington was the Alabama defense.  What frustrated Alabama was somewhat attributable to Washington’s defense, but also attributable to Alabama itself.  The offense took some extraordinarily stupid and untimely penalties.  I lost count of how many times flags flew and we ended up with third and 20-something.  Early in the game we were snapping the ball with 20 seconds or more on the play clock.  Later in the game, we were taking delay penalties (one of which was completely bogus) because we weren’t getting the play in from the sidelines soon enough.  The offense just looked out of sorts.

For really the first time this year, Hurts looked confused and a bit indecisive.  We don’t know if it was something Washington was doing on defense or what.  On the zone read plays he had several downs where something in the formation told him to keep the ball, when from the stands you could tell that getting the ball to someone else would go for a good gain (once, we think Jacobs was in the game and Hurts kept it for no gain when Jacobs looked like he was standing in the middle of Old Man Kelsey’s empty pasture).   Also, we can think of a number of times where Hurts was just plain trying to do too much.  He would shake and bake and lose yardage instead of just plowing ahead for the two or three yards that were there.  He chose not to throw to safety valve/check down receivers on several occasions.  Neither our offensive line nor wide receivers did a lot to help him out, to be honest.  Most guilty, though, we think was the play calling.  Washington’s defense was constantly having either a LB or a DE crash down from the backside.  It seemed perfectly set up for a screen pass or some misdirection all evening -- plays we have run frequently and successfully this year.  We don’t remember many at all.

In person, it sort of looked like Alabama was playing an old-timey game from the 1940s.  Get a lead, don’t do anything stupid on offense to jeopardize it, punt them deep, and let the defense shut them down.  And it was certainly a winning, and therefore effective, strategy.  I don’t think Washington would have driven the length of the field for a touchdown if that game had lasted three more quarters. Having Hurts throw a pick six against one of the statistically most productive defensive backfields in football would have been pretty stupid in those circumstances.

So the question becomes, are we just spoiled?  Having had Saban as head coach for 10 years now, are we at the point where if we don’t dominate even a very high-caliber opponent in every phase of the game, a 17-point victory is just not enough?  I don’t think so.  Alabama fans tend to measure Alabama against itself -- a standard of excellence.  Saturday was not our most excellent outing and The Grades very much reflect that fact.  I think the apprehension is caused by that failure to meet our own standards combined with an impression (perhaps accurate) that if we play that way on Monday night, especially on offense, we won’t continue our winning streak which is now within two games of the best Alabama has ever done.  There are some other goals besides, of course.

The good news is that the old saying is true: offense wins games; defense wins championships.  Here’s hoping that by late Monday night we have trouble figuring out whether it was the offense or the defense that carried us to victory.

Roll Tide, everyone.  Beat Clemson.