First and 10: How good is Alabama, really? We have absolutely no idea ... and won't for a long time
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
It’s time take a critical assessment of the behemoth that is Alabama. Maybe, just maybe, the Tide isn’t as bulletproof as we think.
We’re halfway through this beauty pageant of a demolition derby we call the race to the College Football Playoff, and it looks a whole lot like one big, bad 18-wheeler rolling through and over 129 Ford Pintos.
It’s Alabama’s world, and every other team out there is simply next to get road grated.
Or is it?
“I can think of about 30 other teams that would be unbeaten against that schedule,” one Power 5 coach told me Sunday. “You’re talking about some truly bad teams and one pretty good team that’s trying to figure it out.”
Truer words – like it or not — could not have been spoken.
What do we really know about Alabama six weeks into the season? It can beat woefully overmatched teams at home, on the road and at a neutral site, and one solid team in Tuscaloosa.
Coach Nick Saban’s best offense has toyed around with these defenses: Louisville (98th in scoring defense), Arkansas State (85), Ole Miss (106), Texas A&M (30), Louisiana (114) and Arkansas (111).
Superstar quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has thrown nearly as many touchdown passes (18) as incompletions (25), and his average yards per attempt is frighteningly bloated.
The NCAA record was set last year by Baker Mayfield (11.7), and Tagovailoa sits at 14.8 – a 3-yard jump that doesn’t look like much, but is astronomically large for a statistic that usually separates players by tenths of a yard.
Those numbers, however, have come at the expense of these pass defenses: (Louisville 110th in pass efficiency defense), Arkansas State (83), Ole Miss (100), Texas A&M (109), Louisiana (127), Arkansas (102). Only one of the five pass defenses Tagovailoa has faced has a pass efficiency defense better than 100 (out of 130 FBS teams).
More revealing: Those six pass defenses have combined to give up a whopping 66 touchdown passes (and god only knows how many chunk plays).
Meanwhile, we have the Alabama defense, which quietly and unnoticeably isn’t as strong as the previous two years when the Tide reached the CFP National Championship Game. Alabama is giving up 16 points (11th in the nation) and 332.2 yards per game (25th).
Alabama led the nation in scoring defense (11.9 in 2017; 13.0 in 2016) and total defense (260.4 in 2017, 261.8 in 2016) the past two seasons. And while it might not look like much of a increase this season, it’s a significant step back for a defense that hasn’t reached the heavy lifting portion of the SEC schedule – much less the SEC Championship Game or CFP semifinals.
The running game has been uneven (per Alabama standards) for the first half of the season, with a mishmash of tailbacks carrying the load. Look, I’m all for using four guys who will all play in the NFL (more on that later), but if the goal is to get the run game revved up, pick a tailback and give it to him 20-25 times a game.
Let him get into a flow, let the line find its identity blocking for him and make the offense more dangerous (if that’s possible). You know, like all those other championship seasons.
“They can beat you so many different ways,” says Arkansas coach Chad Morris.
At least, that’s the way it looks now.
2. A team effort
If the “No one will beat Alabama” narrative isn’t annoying enough, might as well add the “Tua Tagovailoa has already won the Heisman Trophy” shtick to it.
He’s a lock. No one will match his numbers. His team will win a championship.
I don’t want to minimize Tagaovailoa’s talent – one NFL scout told me last week that he has never seen a more accurate college quarterback so early in his career – but he’s getting a ton of help from Alabama’s skill players and an offensive line that pass blocks better than it run blocks.
Consider what’s around Tagovailoa at any point, on any snap:
1. Four running backs who will eventually play in the NFL (Najee Harris, Damien Harris, Brian Robinson Jr., Josh Jacobs). All four who could be 20-25 carry tailbacks for 80 percent of FBS teams.
2. Four wide receivers who will eventually play in the NFL (DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III). All four could be No. 1 receivers for 80 percent of FBS teams.
3. A tight end (Irv Smith Jr.) who will play 10 years in the NFL.
4. A backup quarterback (Jalen Hurts) who has forced Tagovailoa to stay zeroed in practice after practice, game after game (a wildly undervalued factor).
In six short weeks, Alabama has gone from a raging quarterback controversy, to a team that now leans more on the pass than the run, to the greatest offense in Alabama history, to the greatest offense in college football history.
Ain’t hyperbole a hoot?
Ten years ago, Oklahoma had the greatest offense ever assembled and was consistently hanging 60 week after week. Then the Sooners ran into a team that could, you know, play defense.
And scored 14 points in a BCS National Championship Game loss.
3. Judgment Day
The big question: When do we find out what Alabama is really made of?
The answer: next month. Maybe.
Because frankly, after LSU’s revamped offense sputtered all over The Swamp in a loss to Florida and its defense gave up more than 200 yards rushing; after Auburn let Mississippi State run it down the Tigers’ collective throats, what are we to make of the Tide’s regular season schedule?
Two words: it blows.
That’s not criticizing Alabama’s nonconference (Louisville used to once play pretty good football) or conference schedule, it’s reanalyzing it. There’s nothing there.
Oct. 13: Missouri
Oct. 20: at Tennessee
Nov. 3 at LSU
Nov. 10: Mississippi State
Nov. 17: The Citadel
Nov. 24: Auburn
At this point, LSU is the only team that could pose a problem. Because despite what we don’t know about Alabama, we do know that the other five teams remaining have no shot at beating the Tide. That’s right, including Auburn – which is an absolute mess right now.
Alabama’s schedule away from Bryant-Denny Stadium consists of Louisville, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Those five have a combined record of 17-17 – and the Tide doesn’t play a road game after Nov. 3.
What do we really know about Alabama?
We might not find out until the SEC Championship Game.
4. Coaching matters
Here’s why you pay whatever it costs to keep pace in the SEC: Florida, a soft afterthought in Week 2, has transformed into a team playing with confidence, urgency and — most important – toughness after Week 6.
And it was worth every penny of the $7 million buyout of former coach Jim McElwain, and the $35 million deal for Dan Mullen.
Two truths about the McElwain era at Florida:
1. Heavy hitters within the university knew they had made a mistake less than a year after hiring McElwain, who was never a cultural fit in Gainesville.
2. He was on his way out last year with or without refusing to provide information about alleged death threats. That simply allowed Florida to mitigate the financial hit.
This team was a floundering mess last year under McElwain. They were soft, out of shape (see: Week 1, Michigan game) and had zero motivation. They had a poorly-coached quarterback who couldn’t read the field, and a defense that constantly missed tackles and took bad angles.
Six games into Mullen’s tenure, everything has changed. This, everyone, is coaching: Quarterback Feleipe Franks still makes mistakes, but now also makes both smart and impressive throws. He also has a coach who is constantly teaching and tweaking and reassuring – and using every player available to help Franks’ progress.
A prime example: McElwain and his staff had no idea how to use speedy wideout Kadarius Toney. Mullen uses him in Wildcat sets and – get this – brought back and oldie but a goodie from his time as Florida’s offensive coordinator from 2005-08: the Wildcat counter trey (he ran it with Percy Harvin back in the day).
The play has been a terrific changeup to the bruising running of tailbacks Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine, and allows Toney to get behind a wall of blockers, find a crease and use his speed and elusiveness. Two weeks ago, Toney threw a wideout pass for the Gators’ only touchdown in a win over Mississippi State.
Mullen’s play-calling has been phenomenal, and has helped Franks develop from a guy who didn’t look like he belonged on the field, to a someone who still has accuracy issues, but has a solid touchdown to interception ratio (13-to-4) and gets better every week.
Mullen brought gambling defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with him to Gainesville to use speedy, rangy defensive ends (Jabari Zuniga, Jachai Polite) who got lost in the previous staff’s idea of bigger and stronger makes better. The Gators lead the SEC in sacks (20), turnovers forced (17) and turnover margin (+11).
Florida had 23 sacks and forced 17 turnovers all of last season, and had a turnover ratio of negative-3.
Privately, Florida coaches say the injury to middle linebacker David Reese cost the team the Kentucky game – but also stress that loss galvanized a group of players, some of whom still practiced and played with a sense of what worked with the previous staff.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Tennessee (+18) at Auburn
- Florida at Vanderbilt (+8)
- Georgia at LSU (+7)
- Ole Miss at Arkansas (+6.5)
- Missouri at Alabama (-28)
Last week: 1-3-1.
6. The truth on The Plains
Auburn has two losses and is out of any championship race at the midway point of the season. Blame coach Gus Malzahn, he’s the one making $7.5 large to make it all work. The real culprit, though, is the offensive line. It’s, in a word, putrid. Especially in pass protection.
Jarrett Stidham has gone from one of the game’s best quarterbacks at the end of last season to someone desperate to set his feet and square his shoulders and throw it.
He has been sacked 13 times in six games, and has been pressured and knocked down too many other times. His completion percentage has dropped from 66.5 last season to 60.1, and his yards per attempt is off a full yard and a half (8.54 to 7.01).
But it’s more than just a bad offensive line. It’s bad play-calling, and bad schemes.
When Stidham was a freshman at Baylor, he had career-highs in completion percentage (68.8), yards per attempt (11.61) and quarterback rating (199.0). His rating this season: 126.4.
At Baylor, he worked within a similar power run-based offense – but also an offense that spread the field in the passing game and allowed him to use his arm talent with intermediate to deep throws. At Auburn, it’s all short throws mixed in with a few deep balls – and no consistency.
Or as one NFL scout told me Sunday, “If I see him throw one more bubble screen or one more quick … I was getting sick just watching that. College guys are so married to their systems and not to taking advantage of their talent, it’s detrimental to the team’s success. Years from now, that kid will be starting in our league, and it will be one of those, ‘Oh, yeah, he played at Auburn, I remember him.'”
7. The need to protect
The LSU offense was exposed last weekend against Florida. Or more to the point, offensive tackles Saahdiq Charles and Austin Deculus were exposed.
That’s the easy assessment. Dig a little deeper, and there’s blame everywhere – enough to give significant pause heading into a critical game this weekend against Georgia.
Charles and Deculus aren’t the most athletic tackles; they’re big and physical and strong at the point of attack. The road environment, and the inability to make checks at the line, didn’t help. Nor did LSU’s staff refusing to give Charles and Deculus help with chips from running backs or a tight end, and Burrow holding onto the ball too long.
Part of it was also talent on the other side of the ball simply winning individual battles. So where does that leave LSU against Georgia? Two things: the Bulldogs aren’t as quick and athletic on the outside as Florida, and have all of 6 sacks this season. That’s right, six. That’s tied for No. 116 nationally, and one more than Liberty. And Georgia has to blitz to get pressure; it can’t get there with the front four like Florida did.
That means LSU has opportunities for big plays in beating the blitz, especially with Burrow’s ability to stand in the pocket and take a hit to make a successful throw (he has done it all season).
Charles and Deculus will play better at home, and play harder after getting embarrassed at Florida.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Why do coaches always try to outsmart each other instead of just doing what works? How in the world could Kentucky not give the ball to Benny Snell in overtime (against Texas A&M)? Somebody should be fired for that.
Kevin: Sweet Mercy, passion for Kentucky football. I don’t think anyone will deny Snell should’ve gotten the ball at least once. Here’s my bigger issue: he had 13 carries the entire game.
I understand that Kentucky ran only 47 plays in regulation, but if I’m coaching that offense, 60 percent (28 touches) or more are going to Snell. He had 17 touches in the game (13 rushes, 4 catches).
Moving forward, you’re going to see UK lean heavily on Snell. Quarterback Terry Wilson has been a nice find, but he doesn’t make the offense go. Get the ball in Snell’s hands, any way you can: rush, receive, Wildcat, split him out wide and throw the quick game to him.
The more he touches the ball, the more dangerous UK is offensively.
9. Numbers game
3: As in, third down. Attention, LSU: Want to beat Georgia? Get the Bulldogs in third-and-pass situations. That’s how it worked last year (QB Jake Fromm threw 5 of his 7 interceptions on third down), that’s how it works this year (both of his interceptions are on third down).
All quarterback struggle on third down, especially 3rd-and-7 or longer. But Fromm’s numbers are striking compared to first and second down, where he’s absolutely surgical.
Fromm’s quarterback passer rating on first and second down is 210.45, and he’s competing 78 percent of his passes with 10 TDs and 0 INTs. On third down: 56 percent, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 125.87 passer rating. More telling with the UGA offense: 89 of Fromm’s 114 attempts are on first and second down.
10. Quote to note
Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead, on what changed with the idea of QB Nick Fitzgerald running more and throwing less: “I took my coaching pills this week, and I forgot them last week.”