First and 10: Alabama is more vulnerable than ever. Can anybody take advantage?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
That huge, sucking hole of unavoidable fate is gone. The inevitable is once again debatable.
Alabama, everyone, is beatable.
Welcome to the restart of a new college football season, a sudden rebirth of championship races in both the SEC and College Football Playoff. What we thought we knew no longer means anything.
“A lot of eyes opened wide in this league,” one SEC coach told me this weekend.
These things can both be true:
— Alabama is really good.
— Alabama has a problem on defense it hasn’t had in 14 previous seasons under Nick Saban, and it’s a significant blind spot.
This, of course, leads us to the undeniable: get ready for a wild, tumultuous 10 weeks of college football.
Keep your hands and feet in the car, kids. It’s going to get bumpy.
“For the first time in a long time,” one NFL scout told me, “there’s an opening.”
An opening from the most surprising area of all, and a weakness so potentially debilitating, it opens the door for anyone who can run the ball and play defense to step up and take a big swing at goliath.
Think about that: In this age of pass-happy offense wins games, the potential undoing of Alabama in 2021 could evolve with a blast from the past. Florida’s 2-point loss to Alabama last weekend gave everyone the blueprint to compete with Alabama.
Welcome to old-school SEC football, everyone. Run the ball, stop the run.
It’s so beautifully boring, it just might work.
“What concerns me most is we cannot sustain our intensity,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the Tide’s narrow escape in Gainesville. “Especially on defense.”
There’s your Kryptonite, everyone. There’s the one ironic area where the rest of the SEC can now chip away at the Death Star.
Saban’s defense, his pride over 14 glorious seasons in Tuscaloosa, is driving around with a flat tire and no spare.
Florida rushed for 254 yards against Alabama, the most given up by a Saban defense since Ohio State got 281 in a 2014 CFP semifinal win over the Tide. The Gators had 9 runs of 10-plus yards, and did all of that damage on the ground without a serious threat in the passing game.
Florida wideout Jermaine Copeland, the team’s leading receiver and deep threat, had 1 catch for 10 yards.
One more thing: Florida accomplished all of this with its best player, QB Anthony Richardson, standing on the sideline with an injured hamstring.
“It has been a long time since I watched so many failed arm tackles by Alabama,” another NFL scout told me. “They knew it was coming, and they absolutely couldn’t stop it. The only thing that saved that win is the Florida defense took about 20 minutes to get used to Alabama’s athletes and speed on offense in the first half.”
For so many years and so many championship seasons, defense was always the crutch, always the fallback when Alabama needed it most.
Even last season, when the Tide set an SEC record for points scored in a season, it was defense in the Playoff that sealed the deal. The offense created the highlights, but the defense (after escaping a near loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game) locked down Notre Dame (14 points) and Ohio State (24 points) to win the CFP in blowout fashion.
Now here we are, after a misleading rout of a bad Miami team to begin the season set expectations even higher, wondering how Alabama will survive the schedule unscathed.
The front five (in the 3-4 look) used to go two and three deep, but now there’s no one outside of DE/OLB Will Anderson Jr. who commands double teams or is consistently disruptive.
The secondary doesn’t cover well in man, which forces Alabama to play two high safeties all game to take away intermediate and deep throws – and prevents the Tide from creeping safeties closer to the line of scrimmage in run support.
This was successful against wildly overrated Miami and outmanned FCS Mercer – and will be, for the most part, against the rest of the SEC. But there are a handful of games that could evolve into trouble for Alabama, given the right circumstances.
Because when you can run the ball, you keep the Alabama offense off the field. If you can run the ball and score points, you leave less time for the Alabama offense – and less margin for error.
When the Tide offense does finally get on the field, it must be nearly flawless. Any punt gives the ball back to an offense that can grind with the run game and wear down the Alabama defense – and keep bleeding clock.
Hence, Saban’s disdain for Alabama’s inability to “sustain intensity” against the Gators.
For 3 years now the narrative is how pass-happy offenses force teams to score every series or face the consequences. The same can be said for a team that can run the ball and score and wear down a defense.
Because once that running team gets a stop on defense, they’ve got the upper hand. You know, the exact formula Saban used for his first 3 national championship teams at Alabama.
The irony is delicious.
2. The road to perdition
Alabama is still the most talented team in the SEC. So how in the world could this scenario of Alabama losing once or twice play out, you ask?
Simple: There’s not nearly the same skill in running the ball as there is in throwing it.
Four of the top 10 rushing offenses in the nation are on the Alabama schedule (Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Auburn), and 3 of them play defense well enough to get a couple of stops and give Alabama problems. The Tide already have polished off Florida, but how much longer can it go without a slip?
— Ole Miss is 2 weeks away, and the Rebels have a bye this week and get 2 weeks to prepare. The Rebels’ defense is better than last season (though still not at an elite SEC level), and the offense might be the best in the SEC (7.69 yards per play).
— Texas A&M has as good a trio of running backs as Florida, and a better defense. The Oct. 9 game is in College Station and will be another crazy atmosphere for Alabama to navigate.
— We’ll get a good read on unbeaten Arkansas (more on that later) this weekend against Texas A&M in Jerry World. The Hogs’ offense is eerily similar to Florida’s: an experienced offensive line, deceptively quick running backs with the ability to push the pile and make you miss – and a quarterback who can pick up critical yards/first downs in the QB run game.
— Then there’s Auburn tailback Tank Bigsby, maybe the best runner the Tide will face this regular season. The Tigers are also strong on defense, and the bitter rivalry will be played on The Plains (where Bo Nix is a completely different quarterback).
If Alabama survives that schedule, they’ll get ground and pound Georgia or a rematch with Florida in the SEC Championship Game.
The blueprint has been laid out. The question is, who takes advantage of it?
3. Old School, The Epilogue
This all seems like a solid plan to take down the Tide. Only there’s one teeny-weeny problem: The Alabama defense will get better (marginally or incrementally), and more important, so will the Alabama offense.
In other words, the longer we go in the season, the better the Alabama offensive line becomes. The more chemistry develops between an already near-flawless QB Bryce Young and talented young WR Jameson Williams, the more points opponents will chase.
So that plan to win, as intriguing as it sounds, includes a huge ask (finding a way to stop the growing beast of the Alabama offense) and – here’s that word again – the inevitable improvement of the Alabama defense.
Saban likes to talk about playing to a standard, and how Alabama doesn’t really play an opponent, it plays to a standard set by itself. Alabama, he said, had a lot of “mental errors” against Florida.
That, and it couldn’t get off blocks.
That “standard” talk and the idea of “mental errors” sounds well and good until you realize your defensive line isn’t as talented as all of those All-Americans of the past, and you still have problems covering in the back end.
That doesn’t mean Alabama is dead, or a dynasty is crumbling. It just means there’s an opening.
And a new start to the season.
4. Hog wild
Sam Pittman summed up the first 3 weeks of the season at Arkansas with a humble, yet accurate statement about the team and its potential.
“We don’t have the best players,” the second-year Arkansas coach said, “we just have the best team.”
We saw this building last season, when the Hogs began 2020 by scaring Georgia in the season-opener, and following that a week later by snapping a 20-game SEC losing streak and eventually winning 3 league games – and losing another 3 by a combined 7 points.
The team that was close to a miraculous turnaround in Year 1 under Pittman, is on the verge of something special in Year 2. There are 15 super seniors in critical starting spots throughout the roster, and junior QB KJ Jefferson has given the offense a legit dual-threat.
Now it gets serious for the Hogs, with a 4-game stretch over the next month that will dictate the direction of the season. It begins with Texas A&M this weekend in Arlington, Texas, and includes games at Georgia, at Ole Miss and against Auburn.
That’s as tough a stretch of games as you’ll see in the SEC, but this isn’t your typical Arkansas team. The Hogs are dangerous on offense because of Jefferson’s talent, and because an experienced line is paving the way for a top-10 rushing offense in the nation.
Pittman has changed so much in just 13 games, why not add eliminating futility vs. Texas A&M to the list? The Hogs haven’t beaten the Aggies since they arrived in the SEC in 2012, and have lost the game in every imaginable way: last minute, last play, overtime (3 times), by turnover(s) and blown defensive assignments and inexcusable penalties.
“Those (super seniors) came back because, like all of us, they were tired of losing,” wideout Treylon Burks said. “This team wants to win. Not any specific game, every time we get on the field.”
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread
- Kentucky (-5.5) at South Carolina
- Southern Miss at Alabama (-44.5)
- LSU (-3) at Mississippi State
- Tennessee at Florida (-20)
- Arkansas (+5) vs. Texas A&M
Last week: 3-2
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama RB Brian Robinson Jr.:
“I want to start by saying I like him. He runs hard, one of those run angry type of guys. I’m not sure how much make-you-miss he’s got, and he’s not a top-end speed type guy. People knocked Najee Harris because he’s not a top-end speed type, but he’s plenty quick in the open field, and when he’s near the line to make or the goal line – you see that extra gear. Robinson is like that, but I don’t think he’s at the level of Najee. Those jump cuts that he uses almost exclusively right now aren’t going to be there in our league. He’s going to find out what all of Alabama’s power backs have found out when they get here: the North and South only guys that succeed in this league are rare. Derrick Henry is a freak. There aren’t many 6-3, 240 guys here like Derrick Henry.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: the September surprise.
1. Georgia: We can’t get through one month of the 2021 season without the words “Kirby Smart” and “quarterback” raising the collective agita across the state of Georgia.
2. Alabama: The Tide are 67th in the nation in rush defense, and 43rd in total defense – and have yet to play a game against an elite thrower.
3. Florida: The defense has shaved off more than 100 yards of total defense from 2020 (428 to 324.7) and 9 points per game (30.8 to 21.7).
4. Texas A&M: Could the Aggies be better at QB with the arm talent of backup Zach Calzada?
5. Ole Miss: This is not a misprint: Ole Miss has gone from giving up 38.3 ppg. in 2020 to 20.7 in 2021.
6. Auburn: Demetris Robertson, a broken former 5-star at both Cal and Georgia, is Auburn’s most consistent WR threat.
7. LSU: Tigers had 24 sacks in 10 games last season. They lead the nation with 17 after 3 games in 2021.
8. Arkansas: Rushing yards per carry, 2020 (3.84); per carry in 2021 (6.09).
9. Kentucky: Passing TDs in 2020 (7); passing TDs after 3 games in 2021 (7).
10. Missouri: New DC Steve Wilks’ unit is worse statistically than in 2020 – and still has the heavy lifting portion of the schedule remaining.
11. Mississippi State: Bulldogs were last in the nation in rushing offense in 2020, and still last in the nation in 2021 despite an emphasis on consistent run blocking.
12. South Carolina: In 3 previous seasons, WR Josh Vann’s best average yards per catch was 9.0 in 2019. He’s at 28.2 (10 catches) after 3 games.
13. Tennessee: Michigan transfer QB Joe Milton lasted all of 2 games as the starter, replaced by Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker.
14. Vanderbilt: New coach Clark Lea made his bones by teaching sound defense – and Commodores have 1 sack and 1 INT in 3 games.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: The officiating in the SEC is terrible. If it’s not a bad targeting call, it’s a missed call altogether. How can this improve? Or will it ever? — Lance Frederick, Charlotte.
Lance: The league office had a tough Saturday, with 3 critical blown calls, and a handful of other strange “happenings” – maybe that’s the safest way to put it.
This underscores a couple of often overlooked realities: It’s a brutal job and you can’t see every foul – and that’s the way it is at every level. The hope is any missed call can be overturned by replay, but not everything is reviewable, and sometimes even blown calls are missed by the replay booth.
There are teaching moments with everything, and change comes through education and frankly, through suspension or not retaining officials. Ultimately, it’s no different from the sport itself: it’s a job based on meritocracy.
Good officials stay, officials who consistently miss calls, aren’t rehired. Does that make Mississippi State feel any better about a couple of calls that directly contributed to a loss at Memphis? Not even close.
Everyone knows the rules prior to the start of the game and everyone knows the possibility of being on the short end of a missed call. It’s the human element, and you’ll never be able to fully eliminate it.
5. Not only did Florida have a 99-yard drive against the suddenly vulnerable Alabama defense, the Gators had 5 scoring drives of 75 yards or more. Five. Imagine saying that about a Nick Saban defense.
10. Quote to note
“Right now, we are eager guys that are sporadic and excited to practice, excited to make plays, very easily discouraged, want to feel sorry for ourselves, want to create all kinds of scenarios and contexts in our mind which is just clutter. We have to quit doing that.” – Mississippi State coach Mike Leach.