First and 10: Alabama's offense is killing its defense. Will that kill Tide's title chances?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
OK, stick with me. This might sound way out there, but the numbers tell the story. Alabama’s offense is killing Alabama’s defense.
Don’t believe it? Well, none other Nick Saban does – if you’re adept at really hearing instead of just listening.
“We need to be able not only to control the tempo of the game with offense,” Saban said last week. “We have to control the plays and clock with offense.”
That, everyone, is the key to unraveling the mystery of the disappearing Alabama defense.
Forget about those useless nonconference games and tune-ups against overmatched teams heading into Saturday’s game at Texas A&M. In 2 previous SEC games this season, Alabama’s defense has been exposed by South Carolina and Ole Miss.
That’s right, I said South Carolina and Ole Miss.
It’s easy to blame youth (Alabama is starting as many as 5 freshmen in some sets), or staff changes (more on that later) or elite players not performing to their capabilities. All are safe options when discussing a defense that looks nothing like what Saban typically fields at Alabama.
It’s also impossible to avoid the offense shouldering some blame.
Alabama’s offenses during the BCS years were run first, throw over the top on play-action second. It was as persistent as it was punishing, grinding away and forcibly imposing its will on defenses.
The Alabama offense in the brief College Football Playoff era is exactly what Saban complained about not so long ago. The speed game, with no-huddle sets (that invariably leads to quick scoring drives), was the bane of the game’s existence. At one point, Saban bemoaned that it was bad for football because of “player safety.”
Now it’s driving everything within his program – even his beloved defense. The numbers are striking:
1. Alabama is 35th in the nation in total defense, a long way from those dominant top 10 (even top 3) defenses of the past. If we’re using conference games only, Alabama would be 116th in the nation.
2. The Alabama run defense, the foundation of all things Saban, is a shell of its former self. The Tide is giving up 134.8 yards per game, good for 51st in the nation. That’s an unthinkably embarrassing number considering the history of the unit. If we’re using conference games only, Alabama’s 207 yards per game rush defense is 111th in the nation.
Now, back to the Alabama offense – and the reason the defense can’t seem to find itself this fall.
The offense scores at an impressively (yet maddeningly, to the defense) quick rate. A majority of the team’s scoring drives are fewer than 3 game clock minutes, which translates to anywhere from 5-10 minutes of actual time on the sideline.
That’s not nearly enough time to coach young guys between series, or for the unit to get a blow from a previous drive, or to figure out why in the world they keep missing tackles and taking bad angles. Or why a young secondary still is struggling with combination coverages, or the defensive line can’t hold the point of attack.
The quicker the Alabama offense scores, the more the Tide defense looks like a glorified Big 12 defense. It’s sinfully ironic.
All those years of looking down on the defenses of the Big 12, and now Saban and Alabama are staring at the same thing in their own backyard. Alabama has given up 19 runs of 10 yards or more this season, and the heavy lifting in the SEC hasn’t even begun.
Here’s the key: Just like those Big 12 defenses, there’s not much the Tide can do about it until the talent catches up to the scheme.
Linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris are very good freshmen, but they’re young and have been put in a difficult situation of learning in the job while trying to replace injured All-American Dylan Moses.
D.J. Dale could be one of the best defensive interior linemen in the SEC by the end of the season, but he’s wildly inconsistent right now. DE Justin Eboigbe and S Jordan Battle are high-end prospects who should be playing complementary snaps – but have been forced to play significant minutes.
When you have the potential NFL No. 1 overall pick (QB Tua Tagovailoa) and 3 wide receivers who are 1st-round picks, and a running back and 2 offensive linemen who are likely 1st-round picks, you do what you do best – no matter the consequences.
Right now, those collateral damages are at the feet of Saban’s beloved defense.
2. So much for surprises
An Alabama staffer told me days before the National Championship Game that he was “terrified” about the defense and how it would play against Clemson.
He said the group had played poorly (at least, by Alabama standards) much of the season, and that it was playing the best offense it had seen “by far” in Clemson. We all know what happened there.
Fast forward to this season, and not much as changed, despite changes among the staff.
Tosh Lupoi, last year’s ill-fitted defensive coordinator, left for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in January, and Pete Golding (Saban’s “find” last year from UT-San Antonio) took over as DC.
Golding had to take over play-calling duties during last season because Lupoi was overwhelmed (which more than likely led to Lupoi leaving for the NFL), and the defense at least played more consistently in the second half of the season.
Saban added former FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly from Tennessee as associate DC/safeties, and highly-regarded defensive line coach Brian Baker (Mississippi State, multiple NFL teams) to a staff that over the past 2 seasons has dealt with plenty of turnover.
Then Moses, the best player on the defense, sustained a season-ending knee injury in fall camp. Then freshman DE Antonio Alfano, the highest-rated player on Alabama’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class, simply stopped going to practice and eventually left the team (his family later said on social media it was because of a sickness in the family).
Moses was critical to the entire team’s success, not just the defense. Alfano, who had 2 sacks in the Alabama spring game, was expected to contribute heavily on a unit that needed playmakers on the defensive line.
And from Week 1, Alabama’s offense has been blazing through the schedule, rolling over opponents with quick strike ability and leaving its young and inexperienced defense little time to adjust.
That translates to more plays because the unit can’t get off the field. That leads to a tired unit getting little or no break before going right back on the field.
When Alabama scored 47 points in a rout of South Carolina, the Tide defense was on the field for 86 plays. When Alabama scored 59 against Ole Miss, the defense was on the field for 88 plays.
A perfect storm of problems was created before the first snap of the season, and the Tide simply hasn’t adjusted.
3. In defense of the defense, The Epilogue
With all of these problems, this is still Saban’s defense. He’ll get it fixed.
The difference with previous seasons is Saban had Kirby Smart or Jeremy Pruitt as extensions of himself on the sideline and in meeting rooms. No matter how impressive Golding’s résumé was at UTSA and at other lower-level programs (Southern Miss, Southeastern Louisiana), this is only his 3rd season as DC from the beginning of winter workouts (2 at UTSA).
Don’t expect Alabama to pull back on offense to give the defense a break. They’re full go, pressing the opponent’s defense with every play of every no-huddle series.
They’ve had 2 weeks to teach and learn, and this week face the one thing that has given Saban’s defenses fits during his time at Alabama: a dual-threat quarterback. Kellen Mond isn’t Johnny Manziel, but he’s dangerous enough in the run game (a willing, tough runner) to cause problems for a unit taking bad angles or missing tackles.
Saban has had 2 weeks to prepare for this. But so has Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher, a former Saban protégé who knows as well as anyone what his former boss likes to do defensively.
4. Joe Burrow vs. Florida: A year in waiting
Each week, the Joe Burrow revolution picks up more steam at LSU. This week might be the coming out party.
Despite all of those big numbers against overmatched defense (Texas won’t be mistaken for an elite SEC defense), this is where Burrow makes his mark on the 2019 season.
If Burrow has another big game and a win against the Gators (and their top 5 defense), he immediately becomes the Heisman Trophy leader and sets up a defining game against Alabama in the first month of November.
Before we get ahead of ourselves (and Burrow’s 22-to-3 TD to INT ratio and his completion mark of 78 percent), understand that the Florida game last year was Burrow’s worst of 2018. It wasn’t just the pick-6 to finish the game; he missed numerous throws and was constantly harassed into other poor decisions.
Florida could get star DE Jabari Zuniga back for the game, which would make the Gators’ pass rush (SEC-best 26 sacks) that much more dangerous. The Gators clamped down on Auburn’s white-hot offense last weekend (269 total yards, 61 plays, 4.4 yards per play), and will be far and away the best defense LSU has faced this season.
When I spoke to Burrow this summer, he said most quarterbacks remember the games they don’t play well as motivation. In other words, that average of 4 touchdown passes a game this season doesn’t mean anything unless he can get redemption Saturday night against the Gators.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Florida (+13.5) at LSU
- South Carolina (+24.5) at Georgia
- Mississippi State at Tennessee (+6.5)
- Alabama (-19) at Texas A&M
- Arkansas at Kentucky (-7)
Last week: 3-2.
6. Your tape is your résumé
Each week an NFL scout breaks down an SEC player. This week: RB D’Andre Swift, Georgia.
“The one thing that is really going to make him an appealing pick for someone is the same thing that made (Alabama RB) Josh Jacobs appealing: plenty of tread on the tires. These guys aren’t being overused like they would at other programs. There’s so much talent at their position, they’re afforded the ability to sit some plays.
“Swift has great vision; I think that’s his greatest positive. I like the guys that can run, obviously – and he’s got breakaway speed – but vision is such an overlooked factor for me.
“I like the guys that can see a play develop and cut back if needed. He’s got that cutback ability. So many plays funnel one way in our league. You need a guy that has the patience and vision to cut back – and then the speed to turn it into a big play. He runs hard, and he’s a three-down back. He can absolutely be a threat out of the backfield.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing).
1. LSU: Time to see if the LSU offense and QB Joe Burrow can continue their prolific season against an elite defense.
2. Georgia: Three straight gimme putts (at Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky) while waiting for the Gators in Jacksonville.
3. Alabama: The Tide has had 2 weeks to find what ails the defense. Bottom line: Nothing that a great offense can’t overcome.
4. Florida: Kyle Trask sees the field, Feleipe Franks did not. That’s the critical breakdown of the Florida offense under Trask.
5. Auburn: Bo Nix has 3 weeks (bye week, at Arkansas, game week) to prepare for the next test at LSU.
6. Texas A&M: Aggies held Clemson to 24 points on the road. They hold Alabama to 24 in College Station, they might get a huge upset.
7. Missouri: Tigers playing terrific defense (but now without injured Cale Garrett), just need to keep QB Kelly Bryant healthy.
8. South Carolina: A dangerous spot in a brutal schedule for a team that already has lost 2 of its past 4: back-to-back games at Georgia and against Florida.
9. Mississippi State: The bye week came at the perfect time: They got to watch (and now get to game plan) a new Tennessee quarterback.
10. Ole Miss: Who is John Rhys Plumlee, you ask? A perfect fit for what Ole Miss OC Rich Rodriguez wants from his quarterback.
11. Kentucky: If Mark Stoops wants to keep his bowl streak intact, Wildcats must win games they should (see: Arkansas).
12. Tennessee: This is what it has come to at Tennessee: moral victories from a 29-point loss.
13. Vanderbilt: I don’t see 6 wins and bowl eligibility on this schedule, which makes this weekend’s home game against UNLV a must if there’s any hope.
14. Arkansas: If the Hogs can’t win this week against Kentucky, there might be 1 win left on the schedule (Western Kentucky).
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: So you go all of one week before you jinx Auburn. Heck, I should’ve known we weren’t at the same level as the rest of the big boys in the SEC. I believe if the quarterbacks were switched in that game, Auburn would’ve won. Did the loss to Florida change the way you think about Auburn?
Traci: First, understand that 5 SEC teams can lose 1 game and win out, and still make it to the CFP: Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Florida. I wouldn’t fold a tent on Auburn just yet.
The concern I have is Auburn QB Bo Nix took a step back against an elite defense – and there are more on the way. LSU and Georgia will get after the Tigers’ offense, and by the end of the season, Alabama could have things figured out, too.
Auburn never got into a rhythm against the Gators, and that impacted the way Tigers coach Guz Malzahn called the game. They couldn’t run the ball, which then placed an inordinate amount of pressure on Nix to make near perfect throws. That’s not going to happen this season – at least not consistently. He’s young, and he’s going to make mistakes.
Auburn needs to block better on the offensive line so it can pick up chunk plays in the run game and set up Nix in the passing game. Don’t give up on the young QB just yet.
9. Numbers game
259: The total number of passing yards for Tennessee freshman QB Brian Maurer. Think the Vols found their quarterback of the future against Georgia? In 3 previous seasons and the first quarter of this season, former starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for more than 259 yards twice in 22 career starts.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Dan Mullen summing up the nature of the SEC race, and Florida’s place in it after the Auburn win: “It’s was a big win, but it won’t mean anything tomorrow morning.”