Alabama football: Crimson Tide still have that familiar finishing kick, even in a flawed year
Alabama isn’t quite Alabama in 2022.
This much we already know.
We knew it before the Crimson Tide ventured into Oxford, broke more Ole Miss hearts and swiped a handful of hot dogs and burgers from The Grove.
And we still know it now, with just 2 weeks left in the regular season and nothing separating Bama from an offseason of questions except its annual November Cupcake Game against Austin Peay, an Iron Bowl with no College Football Playoff or even SEC implications and a bowl game that isn’t a CFP semifinal.
But we also know that while Alabama has a litany of issues that it doesn’t normally have to deal with, it’s still very capable of the big-time, high-end plays on both sides of the ball that it displayed on Saturday, particularly in the 2nd half of a game that meant absolutely everything to Ole Miss and slightly (or a lot) less to the Tide.
The Rebels were the ones who still had a shot to go to Atlanta when the game kicked off.
The Tide were the ones officially playing out the November string once LSU escaped at Arkansas.
And yet Bama was the team that made most of the big plays in the 2nd half, when Ole Miss managed only 7 points and 0 in the 4th quarter, at home, on national TV, with a flawed and beatable Tide team there for the taking. Yet Alabama always had the answer, whether it was Dallas Turner slamming really raw Rebels quarterback Jaxson Dart back to reality on a crucial 4th-down stop in the 4th quarter or Byron Young sacking Dart in the final minute with Ole Miss at the Bama 14-yard line and the game in the balance.
This was the savvy, gritty — and clutch — Crimson Tide program that has always been willing to get down and dirty and make that extra play to win games and, yes, break hearts on the road. And while Alabama merely left Vaught-Hemingway Stadium without suffering a 3rd regular-season loss for the 1st time since 2010, it also devoured Ole Miss’ dream season on the way out and served notice to the conference and the country that it still has a backbone, that it can still play with a purpose even when it has nothing grand at stake.
Saturday was absolutely a day when the Tide could’ve easily faded away completely, could’ve suffered that eyesore of a 3rd road SEC loss and their 2nd in 2 weeks, following the overtime setback at LSU that ultimately cost them a trip back to Atlanta. Everything was set up for that to happen, too, especially when Alabama came out lethargically and fell behind 10-0 and then 17-7 late in the 2nd quarter, staring a double-digit halftime deficit in the face.
Then Zach Evans’ fumble deep in Ole Miss territory with just a few minutes left in the 1st half gave Bama life, and the Tide had just enough time to turn that game-turning mistake into 6 points, with Bryce Young finding Cameron Latu for a touchdown with 8 seconds left in the half. The teams jogged to the locker room on a chilly day in Mississippi, and it felt like the team that was losing suddenly had all the momentum.
It felt like the Rebels were trailing even while they were winning 17-14. And that premonition became absolutely true in the 2nd half, when Ole Miss played timidly and Alabama played like it was the one that still had an outside shot at a trip to Atlanta. The Tide outscored the Rebels only 16-7 in the 2nd half, but it felt like more than that because Ole Miss kept slamming into the same Bama brick wall time and again when it needed a score to reestablish control of the game.
After Dart found Jonathan Mingo for a TD pass midway through the 3rd quarter to give the Rebels a 24-17 lead, the Ole Miss offense was never heard from again in the 30-24 Bama win. Sure, there were desperate bursts into Bama territory on its final 2 possessions. But the Crimson Tide defense, led by Turner and Young (2 sacks), by Will Anderson Jr. (1 sack) and Terrion Arnold (9 solo tackles), always had that answer. And it always felt like the Rebels were destined to fall short, like they almost always do in a rivalry where they’ve won only 10 times in 66 games.
The point is — and the point that Alabama made on Saturday — is that it can be Alabama, the old Alabama, when it has its head on straight and is locked in. Even with Jahmyr Gibbs, the Georgia Tech transfer who has been Bama’s offensive rock for most of the season, contributing next to nothing before being sidelined for the entire 2nd half with a left ankle injury, the Tide were OK. They simply turned to veteran Jase McClellan, who had 84 yards on 19 carries to give Bama a ground attack as the defense dealt with Quinshon Judkins on the other side.
As Gibbs (6 carries for 3 yards) was shut down by the Ole Miss defense and then shut down by his ankle injury, Alabama’s much-maligned transfer, Jermaine Burton, finally came to the forefront when the Tide was on their death bed. He caught 5 passes for 50 yards, but it was his electrifying 19-yard touchdown catch across the middle that got Bama rolling after it fell behind 10-0 in the 2nd quarter and had absolutely no juice.
Perhaps — and you could hear this refrain from the Tide faithful back in Tuscaloosa — if Burton had flashed the moxie he displayed on Saturday a few weeks ago, like, say, in Knoxville or even last week at LSU, then Bama would be heading back to Atlanta or even still be in the national title picture.
But he didn’t, and the Tide aren’t.
And that’s the other brutal point, of course. That offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien hasn’t gotten nearly what was expected out of Burton, or this crop of Tide receivers. And that has been reflected in the inconsistent passing game throughout a season when Bama has also had to deal with Young’s shoulder injury and rehab.
Yes, Ja’Corey Brooks had a very nice game on Saturday. He had 4 catches for 61 yards and a huge touchdown catch late in the 3rd quarter that tied the game and ultimately propelled the Tide to victory. But Brooks has only 1 100-yard game this season, and it came in the September blowout of Vanderbilt, not exactly on the most meaningful stage.
Even Latu, the tight end coming off such a huge junior season in 2021, has been a major disappointment this fall, though he has been slowed by a knee injury since preseason camp. He also had a huge touchdown grab in Saturday’s win, but it was only his 3rd TD of 2022 after he had 8 last season.
There have been offensive shortcomings, leaving Young on an island at times. And, of course, there have been defensive lapses on the worst of days, at the worst of times, like in the frantic road losses against Tennessee and LSU that were the breaking point of Alabama’s season. Giving up 52 points in Knoxville was beyond toxic, and then the overtime defensive meltdown in Baton Rouge was realistically the final blow to getting back to Atlanta.
Which brings us back to what Alabama truly is in 2022: a good to very good team that just isn’t great, not with that terrible turnover margin. The Crimson Tide, after 10 games, are right about where they should be, at a solid but not spectacular 8-2 overall record with a 5-2 mark in the SEC. Yes, a Will Reichard made field goal at Tennessee and 1 little stop in overtime at LSU could’ve changed things drastically. But the Tide’s overall body of work hasn’t been good enough for 10-0 or even 9-1.
So they will likely finish up with 2 wins against Austin Peay and Auburn, go 10-2 and fly to a bowl destination to be determined, just not to Atlanta or to a Playoff semifinal, like usual.
That’s the Crimson Tide’s fate this fall.
But on Saturday, in Oxford’s November chill, they showed they can still pull off what those past Alabama teams have. They just haven’t been able to duplicate it every week, not in 2022, not in a year when they haven’t quite been themselves.