Monday Down South: A classic Iron Bowl, and a fitting end for Alabama's cursed season
One of the few constants in the SEC over the past decade is that when Alabama loses, the Earth shakes. Just a little bit, once or (at most) twice a year. But the tremors can usually be felt across the country.
Partly that’s because it happens so rarely — only 17 times in the past 12 years, easily the fewest Ls of any outfit in big-time college football or any other major sport in that span. But it’s also because those losses tend to reverberate outward: Under Nick Saban, almost all of Bama’s setbacks have come with the Crimson Tide at or near the top of the polls, nearly always at the hands of another contender; in the Playoff era literally every loss has had a direct impact on the SEC and/or national championship, if it hasn’t decided the national championship. All of them, to some extent or another, have come as a shock.
So it was worth noting that while Saturday’s 48-45 heartbreaker at Auburn was a lot of things — a shootout, a marathon lasting nearly 4 hours in regulation, an instant classic in a rivalry that has seen more than its fair share — including, technically, an upset. (The Tide were 3.5-point favorites, the narrowest spread in a Bama game in nearly 2 years.) But one thing it certainly was not was a shock. By the end, in fact, it was more like the opposite: For the first time in ages, Alabama losing a football game felt almost … predictable. Almost fitting.
That is to say, it made sense in the context of the rest of the season in a way few other recent Bama losses have. Right from the beginning, the evidence had been slowly accumulating that 2019 was not going to be the Tide’s year. Injuries struck down multiple veteran starters on defense before the season even began, forcing true freshmen into the lineup in their place; by the end of September, the front-7 depth chart consisted mainly of first-year players. The 2 highest-rated prospects in the incoming recruiting class were sidelined by injury and academics, respectively, before playing a single down. (The latter, 5-star DE Antonio Alfano, has already announced his transfer.) The first 2/3 of the schedule was perfunctory, featuring one just 1 ranked opponent (then-No. 24 Texas A&M) and nothing remotely resembling a challenge heading into the season-defining collision with LSU.
When the day of reckoning arrived, face-of-the-program quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was clearly hobbled by a sprained ankle and the defense was overwhelmed by an LSU attack that had deliberately mirrored Alabama’s evolution into a spread-passing juggernaut and quickly surpassed it. A week later, Tua’s college career ended at Mississippi State in the cruelest fashion imaginable.
In hindsight, Tagovailoa’s untimely exit due to a freak injury that’s more common in violent car crashes than in football will probably be remembered as the moment the 2019 team’s championship hopes — their realistic hopes, anyway — went down with him. The reality is not quite that simple. In fact, the Tide still had at least a fighting chance of limping into the 4-team Playoff field at 11-1 with a compelling win in the Iron Bowl, and largely played well enough to deliver one: Behind Tua’s understudy, the marginally talented but very game Mac Jones, Bama’s offense outgained Auburn’s by 161 total yards, on a healthy 6.7 yards per play to the Tigers’ 5.4. The Tide had more points at halftime (31) with Tua watching from the bench than Auburn has allowed in any other game this season. Two plays in particular, though, canceled those advantages in essentially random fashion and instantly entered Iron Bowl lore as emblems of Alabama’s cursed season.
The first came midway through the 3rd quarter, with Alabama on the verge of extending a 31-30 lead at the end of an 11-play, 74-yard drive to the Auburn 2-yard line. Instead, Jones’ desperate 1st-and-goal heave in the face of immediate pressure took on a life of its own, caromed aimlessly off Najee Harris’ back, and went on a game-changing journey courtesy of Tigers LB Zakoby McClain:
THE BACK-PICK SIX pic.twitter.com/QuwSnjS6ho
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
The second came in the do-or-die phase of the 4th, after a methodical, 54-yard Bama drive that drained more than 6 minutes off the clock stalled out at the Auburn 12-yard line, at which point kicker Joseph Bulovas came on to supply the most iconic entry yet in the Tide’s decade-long saga of crunch-time misses:
OFF THE IRON! NO GOOD. pic.twitter.com/kkfxgchwLV
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 1, 2019
Those 2 deflections, along with the extra second restored to the clock that allowed Auburn to tack on a field goal just before halftime, represented effectively a 20-point swing in the Tigers’ favor. If there was a break to be had with the season on the line, the 2019 Crimson Tide were doomed to watch it go against them.
The upshot is that, for once, the tremors didn’t register as acutely outside of Tuscaloosa. In what amounted to a 2-game season against the only nationally relevant opponents on the schedule, the Tide went 0-2 by an astonishingly un-Bama-like margin of 94 to 86. (LSU’s 46 points were the most the Tigers had ever scored vs. Alabama; with 48, Auburn came up 1 point shy of its series-high total set in 1969.) They’ve suffered 2 losses in the same season for the first time since 2014; 2 SEC losses for the first time since 2010. Their 5-year Playoff streak is finished, leaving Bama on the outside looking in for the first time in the brief history of the format.
The temptation at this point is to gesture in the general direction of the possibility that the Saban dynasty might soon be finished, too, some version of which has appeared after just about every Alabama loss of the past decade, right on schedule. One of these days it will turn out to be true. There are legitimate question marks about the immediate future of the offense in 2020 with Tagovailoa and up to 8 other starters on that side of the ball scheduled for a mass exodus for the NFL after the bowl game. (Or, just as likely these days for a team that lives in Playoff-or-bust mode, before the bowl game.)
There’s the annual attrition from the coaching staff to account for, as well, and the even more fundamental issue of the offense’s identity in the transition to a new quarterback, be it Mac Jones, Taulia Tagovailoa, or incoming freshman Bryce Young, a 5-star Kyler Murray-type from California.
Of course, the vast majority of teams in America wish they could be so cursed. The fact that this season goes in the books as a missed opportunity doesn’t mean plenty more opportunities aren’t on the way for a roster as loaded as ever with blue-chip depth at every position. If anything has changed over the past year, beginning with the eye-opening beatdown at the hands of Clemson in January’s National Championship Game, it’s that Alabama can no longer stake a solo claim as the sport’s gold-standard program, which the travails of the past month have only reinforced. But it has also reinforced that even when everything that can go wrong seemingly does, the Tide are still going to be right there in the end.
Around the conference.
LSU 50, Texas A&M 7
LSU’s weekend was the exact opposite of Bama’s in pretty much every way, continuing their divergent paths since LSU’s changing-of-the-guard win in Tuscaloosa. As the Tide continue to lick their wounds, the Tigers are looking more golden by the week.
All of the big, looming questions since it became clear LSU’s offense would be setting fire to the record books on a regular basis have concerned whether the defense could continue to hold up its end of the bargain: At various points the Tigers have found themselves in outright shootouts not only against the Crimson Tide, but also in wins over Texas (which rang up 38 points and 530 total yards), Florida (28 points, 457 yards), and Ole Miss (37 points, 614 yards in one of the most prolific performances ever vs. an LSU defense), forcing Joe Burrow and Co. to keep their foot on the gas for all 60 minutes in those games to stay ahead of a potential comeback.
Against A&M they took their biggest step yet toward to putting those questions to bed:
That’s a certified beatdown right from the opening kick. While A&M’s offense played dead, LSU’s scored touchdowns on its first 4 possessions; by halftime, Burrow had accounted twice as many yards on one throw, a 79-yard TD bomb to Ja’Marr Chase, as the Aggies had managed in the entire half. By the time they finally managed to cross midfield in the 3rd quarter, LSU led 34-0 and had Georgia on its mind.
Not that Texas A&M came with a reputation for lighting it up on offense, especially against competent defenses, which LSU’s has been despite proving occasionally flammable. But the final tallies were a disaster by any standard: 7 points marked the Aggies’ lowest-scoring game since 2015, and their worst in terms of both total yards (169) and yards per play (2.8) since the infamous 77-0 debacle at Oklahoma in 2003. The 43-point margin of defeat is the 2nd-worst they’ve endured since joining the SEC, coming in only behind a 59-0 massacre at Alabama in 2014.
Needless to say Jimbo Fisher is not banking an obscene salary to have his team run off the field in historic fashion at the end of Year 2. By itself, A&M’s 7-5 record isn’t necessarily as disappointing as it looks — the Aggies are the first team to face 3 different AP No. 1 teams in the same season (Clemson, Alabama and LSU), in addition to 2 others (Auburn and Georgia) ranked in the top 10. But only one of those games was decided by single digits, and none of the 7 wins were against a team currently boasting a winning record.
After last week’s close-ish loss at Georgia, Fisher said he was “encouraged” by his team’s effort against a top opponent but remained frustrated that they lacked the “last 2 percent” to get over the hump in those types of games. After Saturday night, the last 2 percent sounds more like all the Aggies have left in the tank going into what promises to be a very long nine months.
Georgia 52, Georgia Tech 7
The main takeaway from an otherwise routine blowout: D’Andre Swift is expected to play this weekend vs. LSU after going down in the 3rd quarter Saturday with what Kirby Smart described as a “shoulder contusion,” which Swift has reportedly been dealing with all season. The injury initially looked much more frightening than that, both for Swift and for the Bulldogs’ offense, which has struggled to generate big plays even with its most dynamic player in the lineup. Swift hasn’t had the breakthrough, All-America-level campaign UGA fans might have been hoping for at the start of the season, but he has been arguably the league’s most consistent back, accounting for an SEC-best 9 games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage.
Then there’s freshman WR George Pickens, the team leader in receiving yards and touchdowns, who appeared briefly against the Yellow Jackets after serving a 1st-half suspension and promptly got himself suspended again.
George Pickens just got ejected and will miss the first half of the SEC Championship as a result.
Here’s why: pic.twitter.com/SCi0fO8gtT
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) November 30, 2019
Pickens will miss at least the first half against LSU as mandated by SEC rules following an ejection, although Smart indicated Pickens is still likely to play once he’s available. Frankly, Smart might feel like he has no choice: The Bulldogs are already resigned to playing without Jake Fromm’s favorite target, Lawrence Cager, who’s done for the year due to an ankle injury that’s cost him the past 2 games, and whose absence has coincided with a notable decline in Fromm’s production. Keeping pace with LSU’s prolific passing game is difficult enough at full strength; with the top 2 receivers both on the shelf, Swift might well be conscripted into workhorse duty whether he’s comfortable lowering his shoulder or not.
Florida 40, Florida State 17
The Gators ended the regular season the same way they started it: By sacking an in-state rival into oblivion.
In August it was 10 sacks and 5 QB hurries in a come-from-behind win over Miami; this time around, it was 8 sacks and 5 QB hurries at the expense of a patchwork FSU offensive line that looked like it had already packed it in for the season. Eight different Gators got in on at least a share of a takedown, improving the team total to 46 sacks on the season — more than a full sack per game better than any other SEC defense.
Unlike the season opener, in which then-starter Feleipe Franks struggled throughout, Florida also got a career night against the Noles from QB Kyle Trask (30-for-41, 343 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), which combined with the sweltering performance by the defense felt like the most convincing example yet of what the best-case version of Dan Mullen’s Gators looks like as expectations continue to rise going into Year 3. (Trask will almost certainly be back behind center in 2020; Franks confirmed on Sunday that he will not.) They haven’t added to the trophy case yet, but they were highly competitive in their losses to the league’s remaining Playoff contenders, LSU and Georgia; they improved significantly over the course of the season as Trask settled into the starting role; and they emphatically won their home state. A 2nd consecutive bowl win/top 10 finish would dial up the anticipation heading into the offseason to levels Gainesville hasn’t experienced in a decade.
The best of the week …
1. Lynn Bowden Jr., QB, Kentucky
Saturday’s 45-13 win over Louisville was most likely Bowden’s last performance in Lexington, and it was unquestionably his best: In ghastly weather, with no pretense whatsoever of putting the ball in the air, he shredded the Cardinals for 284 yards rushing on 12.9 per carry, scoring 4 touchdowns and setting a single-game SEC record for rushing yards by a quarterback in the process.
LYNN BOWDEN JR. TO THE HOUSE ‼️‼️ pic.twitter.com/HW5SuFVxyD
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 30, 2019
Where would Kentucky be without their MVP? As a team, the Wildcats set a school rushing record for the 2nd consecutive week with 517 yards in all, including 3 gains of 60+ yards by 3 players. Since converting from wide receiver at midseason — more or less out of sheer necessity — Bowden is 5-2 as a starter with 1,136 yards and 11 TDs rushing on an SEC-best 8.2 yards per carry, leading UK from the September doldrums to a 4th consecutive winning season despite presenting no threat to beat opposing defenses with his arm.
Players like him (what few of them there are) are the reason All-America teams include an “all-purpose” slot; any of them fail to put him in it should go straight into the trash.
2. Jaylen Waddle, WR/KR, Alabama
Waddle is often the odd man out in Bama’s stacked receiving corps, but he stole the show against Auburn in one of the most electric Iron Bowl performances in recent memory: 230 all-purpose yards, 4 touchdowns, zero remaining doubts who will serve as the focal point of the passing game next year after the rest of the rotation moves on to the next level.
His FOURTH touchdown of the game. Incredible. pic.twitter.com/mypZCE3D43
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
All 4 of Waddle’s scores either tied the game or put Alabama ahead, including a 98-yard kickoff return in the first half that effectively canceled out an Auburn pick-6 on the previous play from scrimmage and re-energized the Tide when they appeared to be at a low ebb. By the 4th quarter, Gus Malzahn feared him so much in the return game that they dialed up Auburn’s game-clinching 4th down gambit with a little over a minute to play specifically to keep the ball out of Waddle’s hands with the game on the line — the only good idea the Tigers had for containing him all day.
3. Jonathan Greenard, DE, Florida
Greenard wreaked his usual havoc in the Gators’ sack-happy win over Florida State, personally accounting for 3 of the team’s 8 sacks with a forced fumble (see above) and a handful of additional tackles. That effort moved him into the SEC lead with 9 sacks for the season despite missing all or most of 3 games.
4. Joe Burrow, QB, and Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
The most prolific pass-catch combo in the nation continued their assault on record books and opposing secondaries against Texas A&M, connecting 7 times for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns — the lion’s share of Burrow’s 352-yard, 3-touchdown night as a whole.
With that, Burrow (aka “BURREAUX”) climbed to that top of 2 more statistical lists, setting the SEC record for passing yards in a season (4,366) and tying the single-season mark for touchdowns (44). With 17 of those TDs, Chase is just one shy of matching the SEC record set by Florida’s Reidel Anthony in 1996.
5. Zakoby McClain, LB, and Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
The Tigers gave up a lot of yards to Alabama but made plays, too: Brown finished with 7 tackles from his interior line spot, including a career-high 4 tackles for loss, as well as a key pass deflection that helped force Alabama’s ill-fated field goal attempt on the Tide’s final possession. And in addition to his team-high 11 tackles, McClain made arguably the biggest play of the day, flipping the field and the scoreboard on a pick-6 that’s going to remain in circulation for decades.
Honorable Mention: Florida QB Kyle Trask, who shredded FSU for 343 yards, 3 TDs and no picks in arguably his best game of the season. … Auburn kicker Anders Carlson, who went 4-for-4 on field goals in the Tigers’ down-to-the-wire win over Alabama, all of them from 40+ yards. … Alabama RB Najee Harris, who accounted for 172 yards on a career-high 31 touches. … LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who continued his second-half tear by accounting for 138 total yards and 2 TDs in the win over Texas A&M. … LSU LB K’Lavon Chaisson, who led the defensive effort against the Aggies with 6 tackles and 2 sacks. … Mississippi State RB Kylin Hill, who racked up 132 yards against Ole Miss on a career-high 27 carries. … Mississippi State DB Marcus Murphy, who had 8 tackles against the Rebels in addition to an interception. … Georgia QB Jake Fromm, who was just 14-of-29 passing in the Bulldogs’ win over Georgia Tech but connected on 4 touchdown passes to 4 receivers. … And Tennessee RB Eric Gray, a true freshman, who ran for more yards (246) and touchdowns (3) against Vanderbilt than he’d gained all season in a 28-10 win for the Vols. The biggest chunk of that total came on a 94-yard TD run in the 2nd quarter, the longest scrimmage play in the SEC this year.
* * * * *
And with that, another season of Superlatives is officially in the books. Congratulations to this year’s runaway winner in the weekly standings, Joe Burrow, on what is surely the most prestigious honor he will claim over the coming weeks.