The 1 thing we'll see in the SEC Championship that'll tell us a lot about Alabama's title chances
It wasn’t exactly Murderers’ Row.
The list of quarterbacks that Alabama faced after getting torched by Matt Corral isn’t going to turn any heads. There are no Heisman Trophy contenders. Shoot, there’s not even a decent Power 5 quarterback in that group who lasted a full game.
You be the judge. Here’s every quarterback that Alabama faced after Corral went off for 365 passing yards in a 48-point outburst:
- Stetson Bennett IV, Georgia
- Jarrett Guarantano/Brian Maurer, Tennessee
- KJ Costello (injured)/Will Rogers, MSU
- Terry Wilson/Joey Gatewood, Kentucky
- Bo Nix, Auburn
- TJ Finley/Max Johnson, LSU
- Feleipe Franks (injured)/KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
Kyle Trask, when he faces Alabama in the SEC Championship on Saturday, will be the clear outlier of that post-Ole Miss group. There’s no question he can stretch he field, and with Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, there’s no doubt that the Gators will put some pressure on the Alabama secondary downfield.
Don’t get it twisted. Alabama deserves credit for dominating those quarterbacks (more on that in a bit). However, if we’re trying to figure out what this team’s upside is, Saturday will be a monumental test in that regard. Why? If there’s a Playoff path that involves matchups against Ohio State and Clemson, well, let’s just say that Jarrett Guarantano isn’t being confused for Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence.
In the last 7 games, Alabama did exactly what you would hope a defense would do after getting roasted — it responded. In those 7 second halves, Alabama allowed just 2 touchdowns. Georgia is the only team in that 7-game stretch who completed multiple pass plays of 30-plus yards.
In that stretch, Franks was the only quarterback who had north of 7.0 yards per attempt … and he played 1 quarter. Again, it wasn’t a gauntlet, but these pass defense numbers in the last 7 games are remarkable:
- 4-9 TD-INT
- 5.5 yards per attempt
- 53% passing
- No 300-yard passers
- 5 consecutive games without allowing a passing TD
That’s a credit to the improved Alabama secondary, though it also helps a ton when a healthy Christian Barmore allows the defense to rush 3 and still consistently get to the quarterback.
Yes, it’s true that if Kayshon Boutte doesn’t drop that ball on the goal line in the LSU game, that passing touchdown streak would’ve stopped. But as is, Alabama is riding a streak of 317 minutes and 52 seconds without allowing a passing touchdown. Not a single one of the last 182 passes Alabama faced ended up in the end zone. That dates back to the third quarter of the Tennessee game. I don’t care who you’re playing against. That’s an absurd feat for an SEC team in this era of pass-heavy offenses.
Yes, it’s also true that should change on Saturday. As great as Patrick Surtain, Malachi Moore and Josh Jobe have been — PFF has them all graded in the top 13 among FBS cornerbacks with Surtain as the top graded defensive back in America — this is a Florida passing offense that’s done nothing but hit pay dirt through the air. A whopping 42 times the Gators scored on a passing play, 40 of which came from Trask. It’s unrealistic to think that he won’t add to his total on Saturday night, especially in the event that Pitts returns and is healthy for 60 minutes.
What’s fair is to expect is for Alabama to put Trask in some of the same spots LSU did. Confuse some of the coverages, speed up those reads and jump 1 or 2 of those anticipation throws that Trask makes. He’s been historically prolific, though not perfect.
Eli Ricks picks off Kyle Trask and takes it back 68 yards to give LSU (+23) a 14-7 lead
— Bet The Pigskin (@betthepigskin) December 13, 2020
Alabama can give up a ton of passing yards like LSU did and still pass a major test if Trask makes 2-3 costly mistakes like he did against Eli Ricks. That’s what it’ll take to beat a team like Clemson or Ohio State. It isn’t about banking on holding them to 14 points. They’re going to make plays. That’s all but inevitable. It’s about capitalizing when those opportunities come.
Now if Trask goes for 400 yards, 4 touchdowns and plays virtually mistake-free football in a down-to-the-wire game, I’d wonder about what that 7-game stretch really told us. Was Alabama just teeing off against lesser competition? Possibly.
That still shouldn’t totally take away just how good this group has been in coverage. Since the passing touchdown streak began against Tennessee, Alabama hasn’t allowed a pass to be completed more than 30 yards downfield. In the rare instance that Alabama did allow a downfield pass to be completed, it was usually a mental mistake, not a physical one.
For example, go back to the Iron Bowl. It was a 3rd-and-2 play early in the second half in which Alabama’s entire defense was within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage to stop the run:
Daniel Wright had a miscommunication with Patrick Surtain, who picked up the ever-versatile JJ Pegues out of the backfield. Wright was late recovering, and Bo Nix hit a wide open Shedrick Jackson in the seam about 26 yards downfield for an easy completion.
You know what Alabama will never do against a team with Trask, Fields or Lawrence? Put all 11 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Just a hunch.
We’re no longer seeing Alabama make mistakes like it did against Georgia when linebacker Christian Harris was somehow tasked with guarding James Cook downfield (it didn’t go well).
Of course, that’s the exact type of matchup that Dan Mullen wants to exploit. Mullen to wheel routes is like Saban to Oatmeal Creme Pies; they’re staples that will never get old.
Ask Georgia about those wheel routes. It took Kirby Smart nearly the entire game to finally make that adjustment. Even the stellar Monty Rice didn’t have a chance on this play:
🗣 6HIVE…. pic.twitter.com/mS2NPp6Llp
— JaMarr (@JaMarrr10) November 8, 2020
Lord knows that’s going to be a major part of Alabama’s scouting report thanks to the struggles that Saban’s former defensive coordinator had against them. If Alabama does shut down that part of Florida’s passing attack, that certainly bodes well moving forward, too.
If there’s a weakness of this Alabama team, it’s linebackers covering in space. PFF has Harris and Dylan Moses with sub-60 grades in coverage, which doesn’t even rank among the top 20 SEC inside linebackers, while outside linebackers Christopher Allen and Will Anderson have only averaged roughly 4 coverage snaps per game (Allen does at least have the highest coverage grade of all SEC edge defenders). One would expect that Saban and Pete Golding will try to limit the situations in which linebackers are put on islands, though that’s easier said than done against a team who spreads out defenses with weapons like Florida, Ohio State and Clemson.
Alabama’s test on Saturday is a good one. A darn good one. LSU loss aside, this is still a Florida offense who ranks No. 1 in FBS in passing, and it averages 39 pass attempts per contest. Nobody has had an answer for a healthy Pitts, Toney is the closest thing to Jaylen Waddle in the SEC (and maybe all of college football) while Grimes is as big and physical of a downfield threat that Alabama will face in 2020.
Oh, and again, they can wheel-route good defenses to death.
A Florida team with nothing to lose is sure to bust out the bag of tricks, too. Well, Mullen and a small section of the fanbase might still believe that the Gators are playing for a Playoff spot even if they aren’t.
In reality, though, Florida should be seen as a Playoff pre-test for the Crimson Tide. Regardless of what happens in Atlanta, a Playoff bid seems all but certain after a 1-year hiatus for Saban and Co. If Alabama is going to end its national title drought — it’s been a long 3 years in Tuscaloosa — we’re going to get a key sign on Saturday.
Welcome to Murderers’ Row.