Alabama special teams need attention to detail
The Alabama Crimson Tide have not gone undefeated since 2009.
For most schools, that would not be much of a statement. For Alabama, even though they’ve won two national championships since that last undefeated season, it means something during this era of success. There appears to be a crack spreading through the foundation of Nick Saban’s process, though. In its last seven games, Alabama is 4-3, and all three of those losses have come against ranked opponents.
There’s a common thread in two of those losses, as well as one a few years back, that will probably stick out to Crimson Tide fans: special teams play.
Saturday’s loss to Mississippi featured no fewer than five special teams gaffes, all but one of which cost the Crimson Tide directly.
- Alabama allowed two long kickoff returns, although only one of them resulted in Ole Miss picking up points.
- Adam Griffith missed two long field goals, although both were at the very edge of his range, longer attempts than any he’d made previously.
- The nail in the coffin came when kick returner Christion Jones brought a kickoff out of the end zone and put the ball on the ground, giving it right back to Ole Miss after they tied the game, allowing them to take the lead.
Last year’s Iron Bowl ended in heartbreaking fashion, when a field goal fell short and Auburn’s Chris Davis returned it 109 yards, catapulting the Tigers to the SEC Championship and sending Alabama to the Sugar Bowl. Bama had a field goal blocked earlier in the fourth quarter as well, and missed two others earlier in the game for an 0-for-4 night kicking the ball.
The loss halted Alabama’s attempt for a third straight national championship, unprecedented in the BCS era. Clearly short of their goal, the Tide fell flat in the Sugar Bowl and Oklahoma beat them soundly.
In 2011, field goal kicking cost Alabama a perfect season, although they made up for it in January. Against LSU, Alabama missed a total of four field goals on their home field, losing 9-6. In the long run, all it cost the Tide was an undefeated season, as they housed LSU in the BCS Championship game two months later.
Eight losses in four-and-a-half years would be a golden era for most schools, but this is Alabama we’re talking about. The fact that three losses can be traced back to the kicking and return games is puzzling.
Saban is notorious for his attention to detail and the “Process,” but somehow these things keep falling through the cracks. While he’s not known as the world’s greatest X’s-and-O’s coach, his strength is supposed to be getting the talent he recruits to play up to their full potential. Yet on Monday after the Ole Miss loss, Saban told reporters that all of the mistakes his team made on special teams are correctable, mental errors by the players.
With the bounty of four- and five-star recruits Saban brings in annually, it’s surprising that he has not recruited a reliable kicker in the last few seasons. Not having a reliable leg there puts him in tough positions when it comes to longer field goals. The issue of kickoff coverage keeps coming up as well. Alabama brings in the stars, but Saban apparently needs to do a better job of getting those players to accept the dirty-but-vital job of cleaning up kick returns. Drilling the fundamentals of special teams into talented players shouldn’t be hard, but it appears Saban hasn’t gotten them into that mindset.
Losing three out of seven games is not the end of the world, or the end of Alabama’s recent run of dominance. They’ve truly lost three of their last 22 games, and it’s taken 46 games for them to pile up five losses, stretching back to that 9-6 debacle against LSU.
The problem is that football is a sport of small sample sizes. In a 12- to 14-game season, any issue that crops up multiple times is amplified, especially due to the win-or-go-home nature of college football. The fact that two of Alabama’s last three losses can be put on special teams errors says something.
Is Saban slipping? Is the talent advantage that Alabama has had, thanks to phenomenal recruiting by Saban, now to the point that even those seemingly small errors can flip a game? The coach doesn’t like to hear this, but the type of athletes Alabama is known for recruiting — big, powerful athletes who will knock your block off — don’t fit into the sped up, faster SEC.
The saying goes that two is a coincidence and three is a trend. If Alabama drops another game or two with multiple special teams head-scratchers, then we’ll know there is a problem.