First and 10: Alabama can't play defense. Why? Because Kirby Smart is at Georgia
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
There’s no real mystery here. Want to know why Alabama doesn’t play defense like it used to?
Blame Kirby Smart.
In the aftermath of Alabama getting exposed again this season in a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M, there are legitimate questions about the state of the Crimson Tide defense over the past 4 seasons – and if it might just keep Nick Saban’s team from the College Football Playoff for the second time in 3 seasons.
All those elite defensive linemen of years past. All those fast and athletic linebackers and rush ends, and quick and active defensive backs. All those All-Americans.
All now on the Georgia roster.
“Kirby is going to finally beat Nick, and win the whole thing, by doing exactly what Nick got away from,” one SEC coach told me.
Like Saban had a choice.
While you’ll hear many point to Lane Kiffin as the reason Saban embraced all things offense, the reality is Saban was forced into the position because Smart, his best recruiter and coach, left Tuscaloosa – and took players and the blueprint with him.
Look at the Georgia defense last weekend in a 34-10 rout of Auburn, the same defense that has given up a measly 33 points in 6 games this fall:
— Linebacker: Nolan Smith (5-star, No. 1 overall player in 2019 recruiting class); Nakobe Dean (5-star, No. 19 overall recruit in 2019); Adam Anderson (5-star, No. 18 overall in 2018); Quay Walker (5-star, No. 31 overall in 2018).
— Defensive line: Travon Walker (5-star, No. 22 overall in 2019); Jalen Carter (5-star, No. 18 overall in 2020); Jordan Davis (3-star, 424 overall in 2018); Devonte Wyatt (No. 4 overall JC transfer in 2018).
— Secondary: Kelee Ringo (5-star, No. 4 overall in 2020); Derion Kendrick (5-star, No. 26 overall in 2018); Lewis Cine (4-star, No. 45 overall in 2018).
If you think that’s impressive, get a load of this:
“Every single one of those guys,” an NFL scout told me this week, “are first- or second-day picks in the draft. As many as 5, first.”
Who, you ask, is a first-round pick on the current Alabama defense? OLB Will Anderson.
“And no one else,” the scout said.
This is what happens when your best recruiter leaves and you replace him with Jeremy Pruitt, Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding.
This is what happens when your best assistant coach – and talent evaluator and developer – leaves, and you replace him with the same group.
You procure pieces to a championship by recruiting. You win championships with player development.
While Alabama spent another weekend against an SEC heavyweight desperately trying (and failing) to get off blocks and cover in the back end, Georgia was punishing another opponent with the best defense in the nation.
Meanwhile, Georgia is what Alabama was in the early years of the Saban dynasty. They’re suffocating on defense, imposing their will on opponents and dictating tempo of the game.
Close your eyes, and you may as well be watching the Saban defenses of 2009-2012. The Georgia defense, which was nearly this good last season but was wasted by offensive inefficiency, currently sits at:
— No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (5.5 ppg.)
— No. 1 in total defense (203.5 ypg.)
— No. 1 in pass defense (137 ypg.)
— No. 2 in opponent first downs (11.3)
— No. 4 in rush defense (66.5 ypg.)
— No. 4 in sacks (22)
“There are no flaws, no holes,” another SEC coach said. “You’re going to need help from them to be successful against them. And they don’t make many mistakes.”
Which, of course, is the exact opposite of the current Alabama defense.
2. Stars matter
For weeks we’ve heard Saban try to sell the idea that Alabama hasn’t been playing “to the standard” on defense. That blown assignments and a lack of focus are the reason the Tide can’t get off blocks and off the field in big games.
While that’s true to a point, it’s not the true reflection of this defense.
The Alabama defense hasn’t played like those great Saban defenses of the past since two freshmen (Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross) did whatever they wanted in the 2018 national championship game rout.
The reason is simple: dudes.
Players win games. No matter how much scheming and preparation you have, it almost always comes down to execution and the better player.
Since the loss to Clemson in the 2018 national title game, Alabama has had one defensive player (Patrick Surtain II) picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Over that same span, the Tide have had 9 offensive players selected in the first round.
“They don’t have the horses,” one Power 5 coach said. “Look at Clemson’s defensive line. Look at Georgia’s and Ohio State’s — 5-star guys everywhere. (Alabama) is not getting those impact guys like they used to. Or not developing them.”
The most disconcerting part for Saban: a majority of the 5-star players Alabama has recruited on the defensive line since Smart left after the 2015 season haven’t panned out. That speaks directly to the staff’s inability to develop the players — something Smart did better than any assistant Saban has had.
Take Anderson out of the equation, and 5-star recruits LaBryan Ray, Chris Braswell, Drew Sanders, Dallas Turner and Damon Payne have combined for 2 tackles for loss this season.
Eyabi Anoma and Antonio Alfano, also 5-star recruits on the defensive line, are no longer with the team.
3. Getting defensive, The Epilogue
This is all leading to a clash of styles in the SEC Championship Game in December.
Alabama should, on offense alone, have enough to win out over the remaining schedule. When the Tide arrive in Atlanta, they’ll have more than just a spot in the CFP on the line.
It will be Saban’s new style vs. Smart’s old-school Saban philosophy.
Smart and Georgia need QB JT Daniels to be healthy for a true clash of styles. If Stetson Bennett is playing quarterback for Georgia, the job for the Alabama defense gets much easier – and winning gets dicey for Georgia.
The only difference between the Alabama teams with stout defenses and caretaker offenses and this Georgia team, is those Alabama teams always had an elite player on offense who could change the game when needed.
Julio Jones. Mark Ingram. Trent Richardson. Derrick Henry. Amari Cooper.
This Georgia team doesn’t have that player. The Bulldogs’ leading rusher (Zamir White) has 354 yards after 6 games; their leading receiver (TE Brock Bowers) has 315 yards.
“It’s the craziest thing,” another SEC coach said. “You look at that offense on tape, and they’re not blowing you away, especially with (Bennett) playing. But they score points. They get short fields, and they run with success and that it sets up play-action. And that’s where they kill you.”
4. Cats on parade
The question of the week in the SEC: How does Kentuckly find enough offense to keep it close this weekend in Athens?
The easy answer is they don’t.
But this UK team might just be different. Even though the Wildcats are 0-8 under coach Mark Stoops vs. Georgia, the UK run game might be a problem for the Bulldogs.
TBs Chris Rodriguez Jr. (759 yards, 5 TD) and Kavosiey Smoke (263 ayrds, 1 TD) are solid and have paved the way this season for an offense that continues to get points when it needs it. Another factor for UK this weekend: QB Will Levis.
While Levis has been solid in the pass game (1,134 yards, 11 TD), he’s a distinct danger to Georgia in the run game. He’s a tough runner, and Georgia’s man under defense typically gives up plays to quarterbacks who can break containment and get hidden yards on scrambles.
“Those are the backbreakers (Kentucky) needs from Levis to change the complexion of the game,” an NFL scout told me. “Those are the plays that suck the life from a defense, and can take a loud crowd out of the game.”
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread.
- Kentucky at Georgia (-23.5)
- Florida at LSU (+10)
- Auburn at Arkansas (-4)
- Alabama (+17.5) at Mississippi State
- Ole Miss at Tennessee (+3.5)
Last week: 2-3.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Texas A&M G Kenyon Green.
“An incredibly versatile athlete, and a strong grown man. He’s just a big guy who can run. The best way to describe just how good he is, is saying he’s a potential top 10 pick as a guard. If you’re picked in the top 10 at that position, you’re rare. He is a punishing blocker, an absolute mauler. An anchor on the line. He’s also really strong in pass protection, and he’s got that nasty attitude that rubs off on other guys on the line. Every team needs one or two of those guys that are just bad dudes, and everyone else follows suit. I don’t’ see many, if any, limitations. I love the way he plays. He’s a Quenton Nelson type pick. He has All-Pro potential.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: the midseason MVP.
1. Georgia: DT Jordan Davis. A huge presence in the middle of the best defense in college football. Everything revolves around his stellar interior play.
2. Alabama: QB Bryce Young. A first-year starter, and already putting up huge numbers. He’s accurate, his football IQ is off the charts and he’s incredibly poised.
3. Kentucky: DE Josh Paschal. A tremendously gifted player who has gotten lost the past couple of seasons at UK. Watch him play – all over the field – and you’re reminded of former UK star Josh Allen.
4. Texas A&M: TB Isaiah Spiller. A step away from a huge play. That’s it, in a nutshell. A legitimate threat in the run or pass game.
5. Florida: DE Zach Carter. Returned for his senior season, and is having a monster year. Can play inside or out, and has 5.5 sacks.
6. Ole Miss: QB Matt Corral. An easy choice. He makes the Ole Miss offense go, and is improving his – and coach Lane Kiffin’s – stock with each start.
7. Arkansas: WR Treylon Burks. The big play waiting to happen on offense. He has 519 yards receiving (17.9 ypc.) and stretches the field for the Arkansas downhill run game.
8. Auburn: RB Jarquez Hunter. The freshman has played so well (465 yards, 9.9 ypc.) he has surpassed preseason All-SEC TB Tank Bigsby as the team’s top tailback.
9. Tennessee: TB Tiyon Evans. A highlight waiting to happen. Wildly undervalued skill player who has accounted for 560 yards and 7 TDs.
10. Mississippi State: QB Will Rogers. Those struggles from 2020 are gone. He’s completing 75.7% of his passes, and has a TD/INT ratio of 14/2.
11. LSU: WR Kayshon Boutte. The best receiver in the SEC (509 yards, 9 TD) might be lost for the season with an ankle injury.
12. Missouri: RB Tyler Badie. The one steady force in an inconsistent and unpredictable season, he has 887 total yards (675 rushing) and 12 TDs.
13. South Carolina: CB Jaylan Foster. Former FCS star at Gardner-Webb, he has proven he belongs in the SEC during his second season at South Carolina: 52 tackles, 4 INT, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles.
14. Vanderbilt: LB Ethan Barr. A tough, smart player in the middle of the defense, his 46 tackles are almost double his nearest teammate.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’m so excited I can’t sleep. Please find a way for my Aggies to make it to Atlanta. Tell me there’s a way. Stephanie Stillman, Houston.
Stephanie: First, and it’s a big step, you need Texas A&M to win out with a difficult schedule — and get another loss from Alabama. Second, and not nearly as difficult, you need both Arkansas and Mississippi State to each lose 3 SEC games.
In that scenario, the Aggies are in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. I’d be shocked if that happened, and not because I don’t think Alabama can lose again.
I don’t think Texas A&M can win out.
It’s a fluid situation with a young team and a wildly inconsistent offensive line. QB Zach Calzada is getting better, and he’s protecting the ball, and the defense — at times — plays at an elite level.
Another in a long line of reasons Nick Saban has been so successful at Alabama is the elite level of play on the offensive line year after year, and a lack of serious injuries at the most important position on the field, the quarterback.
We don’t really know how good the Aggies could be with a healthy Haynes King, but Calzada is improving and played well in the upset of the Tide. He still makes some questionable decisions, but his arm talent is unique.
If coach Jimbo Fisher can continue to develop Calzada and get positive production from him, the Aggies should be favored in every game but one (at Ole Miss) the rest of the season.
107. Tennessee has scored 107 points in its past 2 SEC games against Missouri and South Carolina. The Vols didn’t reach 107 points in SEC games in 2020 until the fourth quarter of game No. 5. That’s Josh Heupel’s impact.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron: “I’m the head coach at LSU. I’m gonna live one day to the fullest. I love being the head coach here. Is it tough? Yeah. But I’m not gonna feel sorry for myself. That never will happen.”