First and 10: Alabama fans, here's the brutal truth: This Tide team has serious issues
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
I’ve got some bad news for Alabama faithful looking for an answer to why what used to look so easy, is now so ugly.
And it begins and ends with the same guy who spent much of the offseason complaining about NIL and its impact on recruiting.
Want to blame someone for the wildly un-Alabama performance against a Texas team that will struggle to gain bowl eligibility this season? Look no further than the king himself, Nick Saban.
Players win games, and right now, Alabama doesn’t have talent of the past on the offensive line and wide receiver — because it has missed in recruiting both position rooms over the past 5 years.
“Texas is better than people give them credit for,” Saban said after a disturbingly dysfunctional win over the Longhorns. “If they were in the SEC, they’d probably be in the top half of the league.”
OK, let’s stop right here and begin eliminating the excuses, shall we? Because this is the Alabama modus operandi under Saban: lose a game, or win a game and play poorly, and the fault never lies from within.
It’s beginning to rot from within, and it has nothing to do with Texas — which will struggle to reach bowl eligibility this season. If Texas is in the top half of the SEC, the SEC has problems, everyone.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of every program, and Alabama is no exception. Saban has built this monster — which still could find itself and right itself, and advance to the Playoff — by recruiting the best high school players and developing them into the elite of college football and future NFL Draft picks.
In Saban’s 15 seasons prior to 2022, he has had 19 offensive linemen drafted — including 9 in the first round and 14 in the first 3 rounds.
In those same 15 seasons, Alabama has had 11 wide receivers drafted, including 8 in the first round and 10 in the first 3 rounds.
It’s not a stretch to say offensive line and wide receiver have been the foundational core of the Alabama offense under Saban. Quarterbacks come and go — game managers and stars who have won national titles — but the offense has gone from a successful complement to the defense to the reason Alabama wins games.
We should’ve seen this coming last season, when the offensive line gave up 40 — 40! — sacks and led the SEC by giving up more than 100 tackles for loss. But because quarterback Bryce Young was so masterful, and because no one could cover wideout Jameson Williams (more on him later), the problems flew under the radar.
So, too, did the problems at wide receiver. Had Saban not landed Williams from the transfer portal prior to the 2021 season, and had Williams not developed into the most dangerous player in the game, the problems at wide receiver that are glaringly evident now would’ve shown last season.
The problem, again: recruiting.
And the Tide can no longer kick the can down the road and hope the portal saves them.
2. Falling down up front
The offensive line is a mess. Again, it’s not like Alabama was trading blows with Georgia last weekend.
That same Texas defense — with a few exceptions — was 99th in the nation in scoring defense (31.1 ppg), and 114th in rush defense (201.5 ypg).
But for an 81-yard TD run by Jase McClellan, Alabama rushed for 80 yards on 23 carries. Texas had 2 sacks and 7 hurries, and Young was constantly under duress.
Now, the Alabama offensive line: A Vanderbilt transfer at the most important position (LT Tyler Steen), a former tight end (LG Kendall Randolph), a late bloomer (C Darrian Dalcourt), a former 5-star recruit (RT JC Latham) and a 5th-year senior Emil Ekiyor.
For a program that recruits better than any other in the game.
In the past 5 recruiting classes, Alabama has produced a top-10 NFL Draft pick (Evan Neal), and 3 starters and 5 backups on the 2-deep depth chart vs. Texas — from 18 recruits. A more damning way to look at it: 4 of the 18 recruits have developed into starters. In 5 classes.
That’s how, outside of an 81-yard run, you average 3.5 yards per carry. How your quarterback is harassed all game. How, but for a magical drive by the best offensive player in the game late in the fourth quarter, Alabama nearly lost to another unranked team from the state of Texas.
Against an average defense.
3. Ignoring the signs, The Epilogue
As the third quarter of the Texas game wound down, a disturbing reality had surfaced: who does Alabama have at wide receiver that can stress any defense?
The receivers had 3 catches for 14 yards at that time; they caught 10 in the fourth quarter when Young willed the offense to points and eventually the game-winning drive.
Much like the offensive line, we should’ve seen this in 2021, when Alabama got Williams from the transfer portal and he immediately — from the moment Young hit him in stride with a deep ball against Miami in the season-opener — became the most important player on the offense not named Young.
And like the offensive line, the problems at wide receiver can be traced to recruiting. In the past 5 recruiting classes, Alabama has landed 15 receivers, and the Tide goes 3-deep on the depth chart in its 3 wide receiver set.
Four of the 9 players on the 3-deep are true freshmen and 2 are transfers. The past 5 classes are littered with recruiting misses, and guys who haven’t developed or left the team: Agiye Hall, Javon Baker, Xavier Williams, Thaiu Jones-Bell.
Even 5-star Ja’Corey Brooks, who made a couple of big catches late last season (see: Auburn game), still hasn’t won a starting job.
There’s no receiver on the roster who stresses the defense, and the transition for the 2 from the transfer portal who were expected to bring deep speed hasn’t gone well. Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton has 7 catches and is averaging 6.4 yards per catch, and Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell (foot) hasn’t played.
Burton caught 2 passes for 10 yards against Texas, when Young was desperate for a consistent threat.
“We didn’t block them very well up front, didn’t protect very well, got pressure in the pocket,” Saban said. “Wasn’t very effective throwing the ball. Didn’t get people open.”
That about sums up the crucial process of recruiting, developing, and playing at a high level.
Something that’s not happening right now at Alabama on the offensive line and at wide receiver.
4. The switch
So I’m going to keep banging this drum until change happens.
Texas A&M has a third-year quarterback on its roster who has a career TD/INT ratio of 35/7 in 2 seasons in the SEC. Yet for some reason, Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher is fascinated by the dual-threat ability of Haynes King, who has a career ratio of 6/6.
In 2 games this season against inferior opponents — FCS Sam Houston State and Appalachian State — King has 14 carries for 58 yards. I refuse to believe that you’ve placed the offense and the passing game into the hands of a dual-threat quarterback averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
This experiment has to end. Fisher’s offenses — as an OC at LSU and FSU, and as a head coach at FSU and Texas A&M — are better with a quarterback who can stress a defense by throwing on time and with anticipation. That’s Max Johnson, who may not be a dual threat, who may not be the most athletic guy, but throws a catchable ball and has been through the SEC gauntlet.
Stop fooling around, Jimbo. Time to play Johnson — before the season gets more out of hand than a home loss to App State.
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread, brought to you by our friends at FanDuel:
- Georgia at South Carolina (+23.5)
- Ole Miss at Georgia Tech (+14.5)
- Penn State (-3.5) at Auburn
- Miami at Texas A&M (-4.5)
- Mississippi State (-1.5) at LSU
Last week: 2-3.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: LSU Edge Ali Gaye.
“A really athletic guy, a long guy (6-6, 265). He has shown some bend, and has a quick first step. I definitely have concerns about a lack of creativity off the edge. He’s a 1-move guy right now, and that’ll get eaten up quickly at this level. He has good hands, and he’s physical. He’s a development guy, but I’ve seen guys with those frames and that athletic ability play differently when they get here.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Week 2 reality check.
1. Georgia: Weren’t impressed by the walk-thru against Samford? Wait until this weekend in Columbia.
2. Alabama: The offensive line is no better than last season, and might be worse in run blocking.
3. Arkansas: Hogs’ offense will be a big problem for every defense on the schedule. Every single one.
4. Kentucky: Dane Key will be the best freshman receiver in the SEC by the end of the season.
5. Mississippi State: The defense, and its ability to rush and cover, will be the difference between 7 wins and 9 or 10.
6. Tennessee: Still concerned about the ability to stop the run, and more specifically, a downhill, power run game.
7. Texas A&M: Aggies better zero in on running the ball, and throwing off play-action with Johnson before it’s too late.
8. Florida: Don’t overthink it: Run QB Anthony Richardson. If he gets injured, at least you’re giving yourself every chance to win games.
9. South Carolina: The front seven will struggle against teams that can line up and run.
10. LSU: There’s more rhythm and consistency on offense, but does it happen against the SEC’s best defenses (including this week vs. Mississippi State)?
11. Ole Miss: I’m not buying QBs Jaxson Dart and Luke Altmyer just yet, but I’m buying coach Lane Kiffin and OC Charlie Weis Jr.’s ability to make one work.
12. Auburn: So QB Zach Calzada is “behind” in his knowledge of what Auburn wants to do? How could it possibly be further behind than TJ Finley?
13. Missouri: Tigers still can’t stop the run and aren’t consistent enough offensively to trade scores.
14. Vanderbilt: This is a better team, a smarter team. Is it a bowl team? No.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I was really disappointed with my Gamecocks. If we’re ever going to be any good, we have to beat teams like Arkansas. You can’t lose that game and pretend you’re moving in the right direction. — Chase Ford, Columbia, S.C.
We’re 2 games in, and it’s way too early to panic. I actually thought QB Spencer Rattler played well. The ball got vertical (9.6 yards per attempt), and he showed the arm talent and ability South Carolina hasn’t had in years.
His percentage rate (62) must increase, and that will come with better protection and a fully healthy offense (TB Christian Beal-Smith and WR Corey Rucker will make the Gamecocks better).
Then there’s WR Antwane Wells, who has shown an ability to get deep and make plays — and take short drags and run after the catch. He’s a star, already one of the best receivers in the SEC. That was a tough environment in Fayetteville, but I expect South Carolina to play much better this weekend against Georgia.
It’s Game 3 for Rattler, and he could have a completely healthy set of skill players around him. They’ll protect better, and he’ll play better. They’ll give you a reason to not give up so soon.
28.1. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel spoke all offseason about the Vols’ ability to improve on 3rd-down defense. Tennessee gave up more than 50 percent of 3rd-down conversions in SEC games in 2021, and is at 28.1 percent after 2 games this season.
The Vols have a gimme putt this weekend against Akron, before a 3-game stretch that will define the early season: Florida, at LSU, Alabama. All 3 of those teams can run the ball with power (see: Pittsburgh), and the ability to gash the Vols’ defense and convert short 3rd downs.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Billy Napier: “Anthony (Richardson) can do things better, and that starts with me. Part of coaching is putting your players in position where they can have success. We can coach better, and we can play better.”