First and 10: All together now ... How can anybody beat this Alabama team with that quarterback?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’ve now moved to that all too familiar and specific point in the college football season, the annual moment of predictable capitulation and resignation.
Who can beat Alabama? And how do they do it?
“You’ve got to be pretty close to perfect,” Arkansas coach Chad Morris said.
Think about that for a moment, but understand the LSU game isn’t the be-all, end-all for the Tide season. I told you last week Alabama would have little problem disposing of LSU, the same team that gave up more than 200 yards rushing in a loss to a one-dimensional Florida offense.
There are bigger tests on the horizon for Alabama, but an uncomfortable reality exists for everyone in the Tide’s way: The rules of engagement have drastically changed.
“It was always the unspoken thing around this league: What happens if (Alabama coach) Nick (Saban) gets an elite quarterback?” one SEC coach told me the morning after Alabama pummeled LSU. “Hope isn’t gone, but she’s in the car and Nick has the keys.”
For the first decade of all things Saban at Alabama, there was a tried and true formula to beat Alabama. It began with balance on offense, and defense that can stop the power run game and force Alabama to throw.
Then there’s the opponent quarterback: Either have a generational player, or a hot quarterback in the middle of a memorable season.
Now, the unfair reality of 2018: Alabama has changed the dynamics of beating Alabama through a player named Tua.
Tua Tagovailoa’s emergence in last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game has changed the way defenses play Alabama. Gone are the days of loading the box and forcing Alabama to win with game managers at quarterback.
Auburn did it last year, Clemson did it the year before, and on and on. Even when Clemson lost to Alabama in the 2015 CFP Championship Game, the Tigers essentially nailed that defensive game plan.
They didn’t let the Alabama run game dictate tempo, but had two blown coverages in the secondary for touchdowns and allowed a kick return for a touchdown. The winning, clearly, is in the execution.
Then Tua happened – and now everything has changed.
LSU pressured Tagovailoa like no one has, and his numbers were off across the board. He completed 59 percent of his passes (he was at 72 percent), had a 7.0 average yards per attempt (was at 13.5) and he threw his first interception of the season.
Of course, Alabama also ran for 281 yards (7.6 yards per carry) to negate any success in slowing down Tagovailoa.
“In the past, if you could stop the run, you had a chance,” another SEC coach said. “Now with (Tagovailoa) back there, shoot, they’re handing you’re the cigarette and asking you to pick which way to die.”
And you wondered why Saban started begging the media in September to write or say something negative about his team? Why he has used the narrative of “Alabama hasn’t played anyone” to keep his team on edge?
Why he’ll do everything in his power to convince his players that this team can’t lose once and still make the College Football Playoff, like it did last year (of course they can)?
When you’ve got everything and everyone covered, when you’re holding a Royal Flush on the flop, you use slight of hand to avert from the real prize.
He’ll proclaim this week’s opponent, Mississippi State, nearly beat Alabama last year, and son-of-a-gun, if they’re not zeroed in, it could happen this time around.
He’ll say the Iron Bowl makes the Auburn game a unique spectacle, and that Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham knows how to beat Alabama.
Don’t believe any of it. There are but a few ways to beat this team, and it’s going to take a whole lot of crazy to make it happen.
With or without the cigarette.
2. The will to win
So how then, does it happen? How does any team avoid capitulation and find real, tangible hope?
There are three ways, and none seem likely.
Turnovers: In the past five years, Alabama in negative-8 in turnover ratio in its six losses. Among those losses, three games stand out:
The Ole Miss losses in 2014-15 included eight Alabama turnovers, and the Tide had five turnovers in the Oklahoma loss in 2013.
Turnovers are the great equalizer. It’s not just defensive touchdowns or short fields for an offense, but the emotion and momentum that fuels confidence.
Ole Miss had no business beating Alabama in either season, but turnovers changed everything. Oklahoma beat Alabama in 2013 with an average quarterback (Trevor Knight) who had a career game.
The problem: Alabama has seven turnovers in nine games this season, and while the Tide defense hasn’t been its typical ball-hawking self of years past (18 turnovers forced), it has cleaned up nearly every mistake made by the Alabama offense.
Of the teams with legitimate chances to reach the CFP, Clemson has forced the most turnovers (16), a number that puts the Tigers at 36th in the nation in that category. The next closest: Georgia, Ohio State and West Virginia (14), and Notre Dame (13).
The passing game: This is the strangest of all weaknesses because the secondary is Saban’s baby. He loves coaching defensive backs.
But there’s little doubt that when Alabama loses, it’s against teams that can either A) spread them out defensively and find holes in coverage, and/or B) throw the deep ball with accuracy and has wide receivers that can high point the ball and win on 50-50 balls.
The CFP contenders are loaded with elite passing games, including West Virginia, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson. All four of those teams can stress the Alabama defense, and all but Clemson (65.4 pct.) are completing 70 percent of their passes.
Pressuring Tagovailoa: LSU gave the blueprint for disrupting the Alabama passing game. Get pressure with multiple blitz looks, and play man under and zone deep behind it.
Clemson is No. 2 in the nation in sacks (32), but the Tigers have struggled in coverage all season: only 7 interceptions and 3.5 passes defended per game.
Of the group chasing Alabama, Michigan has the best combination of pass rush (29 sacks) and pass defense (leads the nation in yards per game, completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating).
Washington State (27), Ohio State (27), Notre Dame (22) can also get pressure, but none of that group have shown the ability to consistently cover.
3. The winner is …
If you’re looking for someone that can beat Alabama, your best bet now is either Clemson or Michigan.
Both can get pressure with their front four and drop seven in coverage, but Michigan is considerably better on the back end in coverage. Winning individual battles in the secondary is Clemson’s biggest weakness.
Both Clemson and Michigan can run the ball, but Michigan isn’t set up offensively to damage Alabama in the passing game. They’re not complex or diverse enough to do so (at least not yet; QB Shea Patterson is dangerous on the perimeter), and they’re not going to stretch the field with speed on the outside.
Clemson, on the other hand, has proven its offense knows how to score on Alabama.
But that was with Deshaun Watson at quarterback, you say.
Freshman Trevor Lawrence, as crazy as it sounds, might a better pure thrower than Watson was in his two championship games against Alabama. The difference is Watson’s ability to hurt Alabama in the quarterback run game.
4. The motivational truth
Minutes after a gut-punch loss to Alabama, LSU coach Ed Orgeron walked to the podium and declared LSU had to get better players to compete with the Tide.
As harsh as that sounds, it’s absolutely true. No area needs more help than quarterback.
Joe Burrow is solid, but he has gotten LSU no further than any of the previous six quarterbacks who were part of the eight-game losing streak. Unless he suddenly improves his accuracy by 20 percent, you’re not winning an SEC championship with Burrow as your quarterback.
Want to know why LSU has lost eight straight to Alabama? The quarterback spot.
Check out this group: Jarrett Lee, Jordan Jefferson, Zach Mettenberger, Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris, Danny Etling and Burrow have taken swings at Alabama during the losing streak.
Only Mettenberger played well enough to win, and only Mettenberger spent time in the NFL. The combined, ugly line of that group: 51.7 completion percentage, 151.1 yards per game, 4 TDs, 6 INTS, 9.1 average points per game.
Without Mettenberg’s two seasons, the numbers are atrocious: 44.8 completion percentage, 111.5 yards per game, 2 TDs, 6 INTs, 6.5 points per game.
The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Auburn (+14.5) at Georgia
- Mississippi State at Alabama (-24)
- South Carolina (+7) at Florida
- Ole Miss at Texas A&M (-12)
- Kentucky (-3.5) at Tennessee
Last week: 3-2
6. Same as it ever was
Here’s the problem with investments: Sometimes you’ve got to take it in the shorts early before it pays off in the end.
Case in point: Texas A&M. The Aggies are careening toward another November meltdown, and there’s nothing that their nearly $90 million investment can do about it.
Just how much different is this Texas A&M team from previous years that got Kevin Sumlin fired with an $11 million parachute? The Aggies still tease early (the near-win over Clemson) and still can’t win important SEC games late.
If you think that’s bad, consider this: It could be much worse. Texas A&M (5-4) could easily have lost to both Kentucky (won in overtime) and South Carolina (Gamecocks gave away a win), and then what would the $75 million investment in coach Jimbo Fisher look like?
The Aggies should beat Ole Miss this week and UAB next week to set up a program-defining game Nov. 24 against LSU. Win two and lose to LSU, and there’s no difference between Fisher’s 7-5 and the 7-5’s Sumlin produced.
Win out and finish 8-4, and have a chance to win 9 games – and land a top-5 recruiting class — and suddenly your investment looks good for the long haul.
7. A November tryout
The season is history at Florida. The last goal of making a New Year’s 6 bowl game ended with last week’s loss to Missouri.
Now it’s time to find a quarterback.
Feleipe Franks’ early season success wasn’t necessarily a mirage as much as it was finally receiving coaching from a staff that understands developing the position. But after last week’s performance against the SEC’s worst pass defense, Franks looks like he has plateaued.
The concern now for Mullen: Who to play, and how any choice will affect the three quarterbacks. Mullen says Franks played too early in his career when he wasn’t ready, and it hurt his development (see: confidence).
He says he has never made a wholesale change at the quarterback spot during the season, and that it might not be smart to play a young quarterback (see: freshman Emory Jones) if he’s not ready.
Understand this: All three Gators quarterbacks will likely get first-team reps this week in practice. And more than anything, Mullen isn’t giving up on the season; he wants to win out.
But finding a quarterback, finding a true north for your team, is the top priority for the remainder of the season.
Don’t be surprised if Franks starts Saturday against South Carolina, but his leash will be considerably shorter than it had been. Mullen won’t wait until the game is out of hand before moving to Trask or Jones.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’m concerned that losing to Georgia might tank this Kentucky season. I think we’re better than everyone we’re going to play, but there has to be a big letdown after that butt-whoopin’ we took.
Jace: There’s still plenty to earn out there, including a New Year’s 6 Bowl, an 11-win season (second in school history) and setting up 2019.
You saw an ugly loss in the biggest football game at UK since Bear Bryant won an SEC championship in 1950. I saw quarterback Terry Wilson play smart and confident and make throws he hadn’t made all season.
That’s what’s important for the near future (games at Tennessee, vs. Middle Tennessee, at Louisville) and reaching a major bowl for the first time since 1951. Tennessee will load up in the box to stop Benny Snell Jr., and Wilson will again have to make plays in the passing game.
After last week’s performance (23-of-29, 226, 1 TD, 0 INT), Wilson’s confidence level is better than it ever has been this season.
9. Numbers game
132.2: Jarrett Stidham’s passer rating is at the lowest point in his 3-year career at Auburn and Baylor (by 20 points), but watch how often Auburn throws this weekend at Georgia.
In two games last season against Georgia, Stidham 4 TDs and 0 INTs and completed more than 60 percent of his passes. He did that against a more dangerous Georgia pass rush, and a better secondary.
Auburn’s best chance at upsetting rival Georgia is with Stidham hitting intermediate and deep throws against a Georgia defense that has had problems rushing the passer and in man coverage.
10. Quote to note
Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead on playing Alabama this weekend: “I’m excited about our progress. I think we’re playing our best football in November, and that’s where you want to be.”