A look in the mirror: Alabama in 2015 looks like Alabama in 2008
Among the many adjectives that could be used to describe the past eight years of Alabama football — from an outsider’s perspective, anyway — one in particular stands out.
Nick Saban’s Alabama is a monstrous machine with apparently interchangeable parts. It handcuffs and flusters opponents on defense, grinds them into powder with its running game on offense, and turns their every mistake into a soul-crushing play that ultimately swings the game in their favor.
And then in February it will sign another class of hulking monoliths to continue along the same track. Every time one of the faceless destroyers graduates and/or moves on to the NFL draft, the coaches simply plug in another, and the machine continues to roll.
That’s the what the outside observer sees. Those of us who have watched Nick Saban’s Alabama teams up close see each squad as unique, with its own set of strengths and weaknesses — some of them subtle, like the difference between a masterpiece painting and a skillfully crafted fraud — and its own journey along a perilous SEC schedule.
In assessing the 2015 version of Alabama, it might be instructive to compare it to some of the championship teams that have preceded it during the Nick Saban era.
For as strong as this team is defensively — third in the nation in total defense, allowing 272 yards per game and just over 4 yards per play — it seems unlikely that it would breathe the same air as the 2011 Alabama defense. That defense may have been the best in Alabama history, allowing an absurdly low 183 yards per game (3.3 yards per play).
It is worth noting that these 2015 numbers are slightly skewed by the ridiculous game vs. Ole Miss, in which the Rebels completed two of the stupidest touchdown passes (66 and 73 yards) in college football history. It has to be mentioned.
For the sake of fairness — and the risk treading on the sanctity of the ’11 squad, which was excellent in a variety of ways that are unquantifiable — it should be noted that at no point in the 2011 season did Alabama play an offense as potentially explosive as the teams Alabama ’15 has faced. Alabama’s best wins during the 2011 regular season were at Penn State, vs. Arkansas, at Florida and at Auburn. The best quarterback out of that group was Tyler Wilson.
The 2015 version of Bama has gone to Athens and handcuffed Nick Chubb, went to College Station and demoralized poor Kyle Allen, and limited the great Leonard Fournette to 31 yards in a performance that very few people saw coming.
We’ll see what they do this week with Dak Prescott, obviously, but right now this unit is developing a reputation as a Legend Killer.
For offensive numbers, it’s hard to do much better than the 2012 version. That team steamrolled everything in its path to the tune of 440 yards per game (6.9 yards per play) and averaged 39 points per game. It also produced two of the most memorable moments of this era of Alabama football, with a fourth-quarter drive at LSU that saved the season and a memorable second-half performance in the SEC Championship Game vs. Georgia that did the same.
Coincidentally, that’s the same game in which Amari Cooper became … well, you know.
For what it’s worth, this version of Alabama doesn’t look too bad compared with the 2012 team. The Tide currently averages just over 423 yards per game, though only 5.23 yards per play. What Alabama has shown a remarkable knack for performing, however, is the “answer drive,” when the team absolutely has to have it. And the Tide is coming off its best offensive performance — 434 yards (250 on the ground) vs. fourth-ranked LSU.
In fact, this iteration of Alabama may most closely resemble is one that accomplished only a division title – the 2008 team. That ’08 team featured a full-fledged game manager at quarterback — the embattled John Parker Wilson, who Jake Coker closely resembles in mechanical style and running ability
Coker, though a full 5 inches taller, at least wears No. 14 just as an added bonus. It featured a defense just as stingy as this unit (263 yards per game, 4.3 yards per play) and a run game that ground people into submission.
And should this 2015 team keep winning, this team will once again see the Florida Gators waiting for it at the Georgia Dome, with the SEC Championship at stake. The good news: Bama has already slain the league’s biggest monster.