First and 10: Just when you thought it couldn't get worse for Alabama, it just might ...
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Lost amid the terrible injury to Tua Tagovailoa is a larger, more pressing matter: the state of the Alabama program.
For the first time since the transition season of 2007 with new coach Nick Saban, there are real, legitimate questions surrounding the direction of the best program in the game and the best coach in the history of the game.
This isn’t the cracks and fissures of the Ole Miss regular-season losses or the Clemson CFP losses or Kick-6. It’s not losing Kirby to Georgia or the mantle (temporarily) to Dabo or Coach O dog-cussing all things Crimson in the visiting locker room.
It’s a combination of all those body blows, some tearing away at the Tide’s invincibility, and other’s tearing away at the core of what made the program and the coach: better players.
How else can you explain the height of Alabama under Saban (the 2017 recruiting class and 2017 team) with such a star-crossed 3-year run? That 2017 recruiting class – one NFL scout told me 12-15 players from that class will play in the NFL, and as many as 6 could be 1st-round picks – has been the foundation of a 36-3 record since the beginning of the 2017 season.
Here’s what they have to show for it: a national title in 2017 (after Georgia couldn’t hold a 10-point lead in the second half), an SEC Championship in 2018 (after Georgia blew another 10-point lead and Jalen Hurts saved everyone), and what looks like a (relatively) meaningless bowl game in 2019.
In between there has been a humiliating loss to Clemson in the 2018 National Championship Game (where there was a clear passing of the mantle with the Tigers’ 2nd CFP title win over Alabama in 3 years), a spotlight on the magnitude of the loss of top lieutenant Kirby Smart (as a defensive coordinator and ace recruiter) and the emergence of a sleeping giant in the SEC West (LSU).
Dabo Swinney, Smart and Orgeron not only have taken chunks out of the once impenetrable Alabama armor on the field, they’ve also done it where it matters most: recruiting.
For years Saban’s national championships were matched only by his ability to win as many recruiting national titles. He’d stack elite 4- and 5-star recruits from various classes on top of each other on the depth chart like game-day traffic on I-459. He’d then grab what he needed off the glimmer pile of stars for whatever position at whatever point in the season, and the transition would be devastatingly smooth.
Then the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes happened, and what looked like elite groups turned out to be something much different. There was only 1 starter from the 2018 class (CB Patrick Surtain II) last weekend vs. Mississippi State (2 if you count PR Jaylen Waddle) and 6 players from the 2018 class on the 2-deep depth chart (backup DT Christian Barmore will be elite).
Five freshmen from the 2019 class started vs. Mississippi State, and all 5 have struggled at various points of the season and haven’t had the impact of freshmen in previous seasons. Those 2 classes, fair or not, simply don’t have the plug-and-play guys of years past.
And that’s a significant regression in elite talent – at least, by Alabama standards.
One NFL scout told me this weekend that Alabama “has missed on some guys in those two classes. There are a handful of guys who might be a year away, but for the most part, it’s not your typical Alabama haul.”
Meanwhile, Georgia, Clemson and LSU have all surged in recruiting, each landing a critical section of this year’s team from the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes. More problematic for Alabama: LSU and Clemson are ahead of the Tide in the composite 2020 recruiting class rankings, according to 247Sports.com.
A byproduct of that has been Alabama’s less than mighty look recently in big games. There was the 12-point loss to Auburn in 2017, the 2nd-and-26 win over Georgia, the save us, Jalen, SEC Championship, the 28-point loss to Clemson and the home loss to LSU that snapped a 31-game home winning streak.
“I would never doubt Nick,” an SEC coach told me this weekend. “That team isn’t far off right now.”
2. Teaching time
No one has dealt with coaching turnover over the past few years like Alabama. The Tide have 7 new assistant coaches this season, after getting 6 new assistants in 2018 (that’s right, some guys lasted 1 season).
First, it’s a demanding job. Saban expects nothing but perfection, and rides coaches to both pursue it and coach it. One former Saban assistant told me, “coaching for Nick is like coaching dog years. You spend a couple of years there, it’s like half of your coaching career is gone.”
Secondly, Saban hasn’t been able to truly replace Smart with one assistant. Jeremy Pruitt did a strong job as defensive coordinator on the field (and was a solid recruiter), and Tosh Lupoi was an ace recruiter but overmatched a defensive coordinator.
Smart was more than just an assistant coach, he was a second head coach on the team. Players respected and feared him, much like Saban.
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Pete Golding isn’t the alpha dog that Smart was, and has had to deal with various issues since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. In 2018, he was brought in to help coordinate the defense, and eventually made a majority of the play calls after it was clear Lupoi wasn’t working out.
This season, the unit has dealt with injuries, including the loss of star LB Dylan Moses. A cerebral player who is like a coach on the field, Moses could have helped the transition of freshmen starters on defense.
Earlier this season, Saban said Golding has “been put in a really, really difficult situation.” And it has shown with the play of the defense over the last two seasons.
3. The biggest change of all, The Epilogue
For those wondering if Alabama can survive the loss of an elite quarterback, we give you these names: John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Blake Sims, Jacob Coker, Jalen Hurts. Of that group, only McCarron lasted more than a cup of coffee in the NFL, but 3 won national titles. Both Hurts and Tagovailoa figure to spend a good amount of time in the NFL.
Translation: Saban has won national titles with game mangers before, he can do it again.
But could he do it this season with Mac Jones and/or Taulia Tagovailoa?
We’re probably not going to get to see it.
The injury to Tua Tagovailoa will likely be viewed the same as a loss to Mississippi State by the College Football Playoff committee until they see otherwise (see: no Tua, no dice). In other words, unless Jones and/or Taulia Tagovailoa can prove they can go into Auburn and win big (and show the CFP they’re the safer choice than a 1-loss Pac-12 champion or a 1-loss Big 12 champion), Alabama’s team is the big loser in the Tua Tagovailoa injury.
The program that looked like it was headed for at least 2 national titles with those stars from the 2017 class, could end up out of the CFP and New Year’s 6 Bowls – and playing in a bowl game in Orlando.
4. November surge
It’s the last month of the regular season, and that can only mean the emergence of Georgia QB Jake Fromm.
Want to know what to expect from Georgia this weekend against Texas A&M, in its last significant obstacle before a CFP play-in game against LSU in the SEC Championship Game? A big game from Fromm.
In 11 career November games, Fromm has thrown 21 TDs and only 2 INTs, and has a 10-1 record (including 4-1 vs. ranked teams). The only loss was in 2017, his freshman season, at Auburn.
Fromm made up for that loss a couple of weeks later with a big performance in the SEC Championship Game win over Auburn.
“November are the games you remember, we all know that,” Fromm said. “I don’t think it’s just me. I think we’re extra zeroed in because those are the games that can make or break your season.”
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread (only 3 games are on the board, but we’ll make up for it in Rivalry Week):
- Texas A&M at Georgia (-15)
- LSU (-44.5) at Arkansas
- Tennessee (+4.5) at Missouri
Last week: 4-0-1
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: an update on Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa:
“The injuries were a concern before this latest terrible hip problem. That’s a tough deal to recover from, and it’s going to take time. The problem is they’re all lower body injuries. Does he have chronic ankle issues? If so, that’s going to be an issue driving the ball. Some guys will tell you chronic ankle injuries lead to knee injuries. Will his hip be completely healed? That’s an accuracy thing, because he’s one of those quarterbacks whose game is built around his ability to move in the pocket and throw, and move outside the pocket and throw on the run.
“He also had that finger problem early on in his career. You start to wonder, is this guy injury-prone? There are so many questions for him now. Used to be his only question was is all that Alabama talent on offense making him look good, or vice-versa. I feel really bad for the guy, but you’re talking about teams spending a high draft pick on him. They’re going to poke and prod from every angle.”
7. Powered up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing).
1. LSU: The defensive lapses haven’t cost the Tigers yet, but don’t think it can’t happen in the SEC Championship Game and/or the CFP.
2. Georgia: The deep ball catch by freshman WR Dominick Blaylock was big for confidence – both Blaylock and Fromm, looking for a big target.
3. Florida: Beat FSU in 2 weeks, and there’s a chance Dan Mullen could win 21 games in his first 2 season – 1 from Urban Meyer’s school record 22.
4. Alabama: The Tide have way too many weapons on offense for backup QB Mac Jones to try and win it himself. Stay focused, make smart throws.
5. Auburn: The season for QB Bo Nix has been way too inconsistent. Makes you wonder why Joey Gatewood didn’t get an opportunity before he left?
6. Texas A&M: The Aggies are this high by default. If Texas A&M and Tennessee played today, I’m not sure A&M wins.
7. Tennessee: Mizzou is reeling; Vols must take care of the ball. Mizzou needs help to score points – specifically, Tennessee turnovers. Protect the ball at all cost.
8. Kentucky: The Wildcats are doing all of this with a one-dimensional offense that absolutely can’t throw with any semblance of efficiency.
9. Missouri: Tigers can’t continue to waste a strong defensive line with an offense that can’t put drives together.
10. South Carolina: If the South Caroline president and AD didn’t come out and support coach Will Muschamp, he’d be the perfect replacement for Saban’s DC.
11. Ole Miss: There’s just so much to like about freshman QB John Rhys Plumlee and it leaves this glaring question: Where does former starter Matt Corral transfer?
12. Mississippi State: Wins over Abilene Christian and Ole Miss salvages a bowl season and gets those critical 15 practices.
13. Vanderbilt: As good an Xs and Os coach as Derek Mason is, this season has underscored a lack of playmakers in Nashville.
14. Arkansas: I thought Bret Bielema would be a perfect fit, and Chad Morris could make it work. Maybe it’s time to go back to Houston Nutt.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’d sure hate to see Alabama not get a Playoff spot because of an injured quarterback. Does the committee take that into consideration? If Alabama beats Auburn, can they still get to the Playoff? We whooped Arkansas with Mac Jones, and I know it’s Arkansas, but Jones proved he could play.
Gil: Alabama could still reach the Playoff (see above), but I believe the SEC’s only chance to get 2 teams in the CFP now looks like this: LSU and Georgia both win out, then Georgia beats LSU in the SEC Championship Game. In that scenario, Georgia would be in as the 12-1 SEC Champion with late victories over Florida, Auburn and LSU. And LSU would be in as a 12-1 runner-up with 4 wins over ranked teams. If that same scenario plays out and LSU beats Georgia, then only LSU is in the Playoff – unless some strange things happen (among them: both Utah and Oregon lose once, Minnesota loses again, Oklahoma loses).
9. Numbers game
51. The one big question with No. 1 LSU: the defense. If the points allowed per game (23.8) isn’t a concern, just remember this number: 51. The Tigers are 51st in the nation in opponent long scrimmage plays, with 133 over 10 games – that’s 13.3 plays of 10-plus yards per game. More disturbing: LSU has given up 47 plays of 20-plus yards (4.7 per game), and a whopping 7 plays of 50 or more.
10. Quote to note
Missouri coach Barry Odom: “Same with my two sons at the house. If they’re not doing the things they need to, there is some sort of consequence for that. There are ways you try to fix those problems. We have to keep doing it.”