First and 10: Angry Alabama is the scariest, most dangerous Alabama of all
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Doubt is swirling around Alabama these days, and that can mean only one thing. Get ready for Alabama’s best.
“Sometimes our guys get a little complacent with the success they’ve had,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “But when things don’t go well, they usually respond.”
This, everyone, is the specific, critical core of all that is Alabama under Saban. The very essence of the program.
When doubt creeps in, when a loss arrives, how do you respond? If history is any indicator – you better believe it is – Alabama will play its best game of the season against Clemson in Monday’s College Football Playoff semifinal.
— In 2008, Alabama lost back-to-back games to Florida (SEC Championship Game) and Utah (Sugar Bowl) to finish the season, and used that embarrassment to run roughshod over 2009. An unbeaten season, victories over six ranked teams by an average margin of 15 points, giving up 98 points in nine SEC games.
— In 2010, after Saban’s most talented team underachieved all season (see: complacency from 2009), it blew a 24-point lead in Tuscaloosa to bitter rival Auburn and lost the Iron Bowl. A month later, Alabama beat No. 9 Michigan State 49-7, underscoring just how good the team was – and how badly they underachieved.
— In 2011, a 9-6 loss to LSU at home (two turnovers, four missed FGs) kept Alabama from winning its division and playing in the SEC Championship Game. The Tide won out, got a break from the BCS computers and got a rematch against LSU in the BCS national title game – and won 21-0. LSU had 112 total yards.
— In 2012, Johnny Manziel’s uber-performance in Tuscaloosa looked like it would end Alabama’s hopes of playing for the BCS title. The Tide responded with a 49-0 win over Auburn, a last-second win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and a demolition of Notre Dame to win the national title.
— In 2015, a second consecutive loss to Ole Miss – this one after giving up 43 points at home – began a narrative that Alabama had reached maximum success under Saban, and the decline had begun. Twelve wins later – seven over ranked teams by an averaged of 20 points – Alabama won it all again.
Now here we are again, the program that lost last year’s national championship game in the final seconds, that lost to rival Auburn while stumbling all over itself and didn’t win its division or conference, that earned a spot in the CFP despite not winning a conference championship or winning a game of significance, is hearing the doubts again.
The linebackers are a mess; starters are injured, backups aren’t any good.
The quarterback can’t throw when forced to make plays in the passing game.
The offense can’t choose a tailback, and the lack of continuity has disrupted what could be a destructive run game.
They don’t rush the passer like they used to, exposing significant weaknesses in coverage.
And on and on and on.
“We like when everyone sort of writes us off,” Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said last week. “Some people just don’t like us. It definitely helped us as motivation and fuel.”
When the name “Alabama” showed up on the television screen during the CFP selection process last month, it was the last thing any of the three teams that were locks (Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma) wanted to see.
A motivated, healthy Alabama is the most dangerous thing about this Playoff. The Tide will have had nearly five weeks of rest, five weeks to get healthy and get mentally and physically prepared for the most important two-week stretch in the season.
“If we play our best football,” said Tide tailback Damien Harris, “it gives us a good chance to win.”
2. Alabama’s Best, Part II
Let this unthinkable reality marinate in your mind for a moment: If Alabama wins the CFP, Saban will have won his fifth national title in the past nine years.
And it could have been more.
The unbeaten 2008 team lost to Florida in the SEC Championship Game, a game where Gators QB Tim Tebow threw three third-down touchdown passes that, to this very day, Saban still marvels over.
“He threw them where only his receivers could catch them,” Saban said. “They were covered and he made three terrific throws and those (receivers) went and got them.”
The 2013 team lost a chance to play in the SEC Championship Game (against overmatched Missouri) and in the final BCS Championship Game on a fluke Kick-Six touchdown to end the Iron Bowl.
The 2014 team lost to Ohio State in the CFP semifinals, despite holding Ohio State to three-and-out on four of its last five drives – the only drive it didn’t happen, Ezekiel Elliott ran for a game-clinching 85-yard touchdown run.
The 2016 team lost the national championship to Clemson on the Tigers’ last play of the game with one second remaining.
Who knows what could have been had some of those odd events unfolded differently.
3. Alabama’s best, The Epilogue
The best way to describe Saban’s run at Alabama is by doing what no one has dared since he won his first national title in Tuscaloosa: compare him to Bear Bryant.
If Alabama wins this year’s national championship, and Saban reaches five titles in nine years, it will leave little doubt about the best coach in program history.
And that means, there will be no question about the greatest coach in college football history.
Considering what Saban has accomplished (national championships, recruiting dominance, NFL first-round picks) in an era where television money has spurred tremendous growth (and ability to win big) at a majority of Power 5 programs, it’s hard to argue that point. The only question remaining: When does it all end?
I sat down with Saban before the season and asked him about the future, and where and when it ends. He has been part of a team – as a player, assistant coach or head coach – since he was 9 years old. He’s now 66.
Don’t think he’s going to give that up if he’s still healthy (he is) and motivated (he is).
“It just kind of is a little bit scary to think what would it be like without this,” Saban said. “So I try not to think about it.”
What would he do without football, I asked. The answer was revealing.
“Your family is always very important, but I think when you’re a coach, it’s almost a way of life,” Saban said. “Because of the relationships you have with players and your staff, it’s really all about the people that make the team what it is. Being a part of that group for such a long period of time, makes it, when you starting thinking about it, well, what would I really do without it?
“That doesn’t mean that other things aren’t important, like family, children grandchildren. That’s really important. But this becomes a way of life. And the relationships you have with all these folks is what really makes it that way. So take that out, and you go play golf, you visit the lake house, you have your family. But then you have this huge void of where you spent a tremendous amount of time and energy for 50-something years.”
4. The forgotten team
Clemson is the defending national champion. Georgia is the SEC champion, and Alabama is the team that gave college football its first Playoff with two teams from the same conference.
Then there’s Oklahoma, the outlier no one is talking about. And a dangerous matchup for Georgia.
“This will be the biggest test for our defense,” said Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith. “They’re really good at what they do.”
The best way to describe what Georgia will face with the Sooners: think Missouri – with a better quarterback, better receivers, better offensive line, better running backs.
Missouri had 21 points on Georgia less than 20 minutes into the game, and the Bulldogs eventually pulled away for an easy 53-28 win. But if Drew Lock (likely a first-round pick when he decides to enter the NFL Draft) can have success against the Georgia secondary, what will Sooners QB Baker Mayfield do?
Mayfield completed 70 percent of his throws this season, and has a 41-to-5 touchdown to interception ratio from a nearly identical offense (Missouri OC and new UCF coach Josh Heupel was the OC at Oklahoma from 2011-14).
Missouri hit a handful of intermediate and deep throws on the Georgia defense, including two 63-yard touchdown passes. OU likes to stretch the field vertically, and Mayfield averages nearly 12 yards per attempt (more on that later) – and huge number for a quarterback with such a high percentage of completions.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread has expanded to eight for the bowl season.
- Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M (+3)
- Kentucky vs. Northwestern (-7.5)
- Louisville (-5) vs. Mississippi State
- Michigan (-8.5) vs. South Carolina
- UCF (+9.5) vs. Auburn
- Notre Dame (+1) vs. LSU
- Georgia (Pick) vs. Oklahoma
- Alabama (-1.5) vs. Clemson
6. The Kiffin recommendation
Lane Kiffin visited the South Carolina practice in Tampa on Wednesday, and said he gave Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp some advice on offensive coordinators and schemes and systems.
When Muschamp fired his good friend Kurt Roper earlier this month, he said he wanted a new coordinator who mixed power run with up-tempo, spread option pass principles.
In other words, he wants exactly what FAU does under OC Kendal Briles.
Kiffin didn’t say what specific advice he gave Muschamp, but as I wrote earlier this month, Muschamp’s first choice should be Briles – if he can sell it to his athletic director and president.
Briles has not been charged in any way with the sexual assault scandal at Baylor. His only connection is a lawsuit filed in January 2017 from a former Baylor student whose attorney alleged in a filing that Briles allegedly told a Dallas-area recruit, “Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor, and they love football players.”
FAU is sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game (285.3 ypg.), and QB Jason Driskel – who is far from an elite talent – is No. 23 in the nation in pass efficiency rating.
South Carolina has the potential to develop a dangerous offense with QB Jake Bentley, a deep group of tailbacks, star WR Deebo Samuel and other emerging threats.
7. Building a winning staff
Forget about what happens on the field for Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl. The big moves are being made off the field in anticipation of the 2018 season.
New coach Jimbo Fisher has made three critical hires to his staff: Darrell Dickey (offensive coordinator), Dameyune Craig (wide receivers) and Jay Graham (running backs). That’s two of the best recruiters in the southeast (Craig and Graham), and one of the best offensive minds from the Group of 5 (Dickey), who spent time in the state as a head coach at North Texas.
Dickey won’t control the offense (Fisher called plays and coached the quarterbacks at FSU), but he’ll give valuable, unique input. One NFL scout told me earlier this season that part of FSU’s problems the past two years is Fisher had too many “like minds” on his staff – and no one dared to question what he was doing offensively.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: Where do you see Hugh Freeze landing after he has paid his penance?
Shirley Smith, Memphis
Shirley: A handful of SEC programs have reached out to Freeze, a couple this season – but not to hire him as an assistant coach. At least not yet. Freeze has informally spoken with a few coaches he is close to in the league, offering advice on game-planning specific teams.
Make no mistake, Freeze’s problems aren’t with the NCAA. He has a two-game suspension, but only if he’s a head coach. He could, in theory, work today as an offensive coordinator.
Coaches with NCAA issues have been hired again, most recently Chip Kelly by UCLA.
Freeze’s obstacle in returning to the FBS level as a head coach is his systematic ruse of telling Ole Miss recruits that NCAA issues were from the previous staff (Houston Nutt), then telling specific media the same, knowing the media would spread the untruths — all to keep top 10 recruiting class.
That willful deceit to win games – at the cost of another man’s reputation — is where university presidents will hesitate when debating any decision to hire Freeze to lead a program. It will also make those same university presidents look closer at the previous NCAA issues, as a body of work away from the field.
There’s little doubt another school will hire Freeze; just don’t expect a major Power 5 school to be the first to do so.
9. Numbers game
5.6. Here’s how Georgia will slow down Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense: limit the downfield throws, the catch and run chunk plays and keep Mayfield from extending plays by scrambling and buying time.
Georgia’s defense is No.2 in the nation in yards per attempt (5.6) and No. 2 in passing yards allowed per game (158.0). Why? Tackling, plain and simple. Georgia doesn’t miss tackles, and has speed in the back seven to run side to side and close quickly.
The Bulldogs aren’t anywhere near the top of the nation in sacks (56th) or passes defended (66th). It’s all about tackling to limit yards after the catch – the very thing that Oklahoma uses with WRs Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb to pick apart defenses.
10. Quote to note
Alabama CB Levi Wallace: “We’re seen as the villain. A lot of people don’t like Alabama because we’re always so good each and every year. Whatever (the media) say we are, that’s what we are. But we’re definitely the bad guys in college football.”