A few thoughts from the early aftermath of the Tide's 24-21 loss to LSU:
- Busted flat in Baton Rouge, it would seem. We've written for weeks here at RBR that we would find out for certain what this team was made of when we made the road trip to play LSU, and I'm afraid to say that indeed came to fruition. Unfortunately, the returns simply are not what we had hoped for. We are not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, but having said that we are not really a particularly good team either, and we are certainly nothing resembling a great team (no matter how loosely defined). No offense to LSU, they clearly deserved to win yesterday afternoon, but had we really been as good as we had all hoped (and some expected), we would have won this game with no great difficulty.
- In hindsight, we arguably lost this game in the first half, or at the very least allowed a golden opportunity to deliver an early knockout punch to slip through our hands. LSU played poorly early in the game, gaining only 45 yards of total offense on their first five drives, while Tiger Stadium had the collective atmosphere of a high school jamboree game. Unfortunately, we matched their incompetence blow-for-blow, and instead of seizing control in this game when we had the chance, we went into halftime with a meager 7-3 lead and allowed LSU to live to fight another day.
- In the final analysis, turnovers played a very big role in the outcome in the outcome of this game. We could not force a single LSU turnover -- how is that even possible with Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee at quarterback? -- and the Bayou Bengals picked up ten points off the two Alabama turnovers, staking out an early 3-0 lead with the interception on the tipped ball and taking a commanding ten-point lead in the final minutes with the Greg McElroy fumble. You will not lose the turnover battle and win close games with any degree of consistency, and if nothing else we were given a first-hand illustration of that harsh reality yesterday afternoon.
- After injuring his left foot on the early touchdown catch, Trent Richardson never really returned to the game in any meaningful capacity. He registered only one carry after the injury, and his absence hindered the offense. Mark Ingram looked better after the bye week, but Richardson looked a bit better in early action, and if nothing else Richardson would have probably been a better choice at times in the second half when we were getting beaten physically at the point of attack. Unfortunately, the question now becomes whether or not he can play next weekend, and given how limited he was in the second half of this game I'm afraid you have to say that his availability may be in doubt against Mississippi State.
Drake Nevis... I hope you at least tipped William Vlachos extra at the end of the night. Nevis consistently annihilated Vlachos and everyone else we put in his path, and he was the key to the LSU defense. He was the driving force behind their success against our running game, and it was his presence that made all of those interior blitzes so effective. We haven't had a center thumped quite like that since Taylor Britt was in the starting lineup against Auburn in 2005. And speaking of Auburn, given the caliber of player they have in Nick Fairley, Gene Chizik and Ted Roof will probably need some alone time after watching Nevis eat our interior offensive line for dinner. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Nevis has played as well as Glenn Dorsey was hyped to be in 2007 but never actually was. Dorsey never gave us anywhere near the problems that Nevis gave us yesterday afternoon.
- In what has become a routine talking point in these initial impressions pieces, our offensive line was once again consistently dominated in the running game. The line generally did well enough in pass protection, relatively speaking, but the running game was a fight for every inch. The occasional run garnered success, but the success rates on interior runs were incredibly low. The majority of the success we had in the running game came on the outside, and it's hard to build the entire running game around that when the opposition has so much speed. We tried to run it in between the tackles, but more often than not it was simply a wasted down. We replaced Mike Johnson and Drew Davis with adequate players who were arguably upgrades, but even so for whatever reason the line play has just not been the same this season. Nevis played a big role in our struggles yesterday and he deserves to be called out for his great play, but I'm afraid this has been an ongoing issue for 'Bama for quite some time now. To pin all of our struggles at the point of attack yesterday afternoon solely on the great play of Nevis would be ignore the issues we've had in recent weeks before playing LSU.
- The biggest surprise of the afternoon? The fact that our coaching staff was seemingly asleep at the wheel on a handful of trick plays from Les Miles and company. Who really did not see the fake punt coming? And on a 4th and 1, after calling a timeout, exactly who in the holy hell really thought Les Miles was going to call a tailback dive into the line of scrimmage? How coaches the caliber of Nick Saban and Urban Meyer have been played like fools with his antics this year I'll never know.
- A hat tip of the houndstooth fedora is in order to Julio Jones, who had yet another fine performance. He had ten catches on the afternoon -- almost more than the rest of the team combined -- and if nothing else he consistently beat Patrick Peterson all evening long. It's a shame to see that his career in Tuscaloosa is coming to a close, simply because we'll probably never have another receiver with his unique combination of elite physical ability and general humility. In an era dominated by insufferable, egotistical wide receivers, Julio Jones is a breath of fresh air.
- The defense played very well in the first half, but the second half was a complete and total collapse. From the opening play of the third quarter through the deep completion to Reuben Randle to deliver the dagger through the heart, the LSU offense ran 38 plays for 326 yards (8.5 yards per play). And when you play so poorly one of the worst offenses in the country turns into a juggernaut before your eyes, what do you even say? How can you allow an offense that has been that bad for so long rack up 21 points and 300+ yards in a half without so much as breaking a sweat? The final seconds notwithstanding, the only time the LSU punter saw the field in the second half was to run a fake. Again, though, to reiterate what has been written in this piece in previous weeks, there really is no use blaming one thing in particular because we have not done anything consistently well this season on the defensive side of the ball. We are just not a very good defensive football team this season, and that harsh reality once again reared its ugly head in the second half.
- I suppose at this point you could consider dates with our defense to be rehab for bad, ineffective, and uninspiring quarterbacks. First it was Stephen Garcia, and now you can add Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee to the group. Please don't let Chris Relf be next. It's easy to say that quarterbacks of their caliber aren't very good, and while that's true, this is the SEC and when you consistently allow receivers to run free, these guys will make those throws more often than not. We ain't playin' 'gainst the WAC here, folks, you're actually going to have to make some plays in your own right instead of just hoping your opponent will give you gifts for sixty straight minutes.
- Blown coverages were once again a major problem in the defensive backfield. The 75-yard touchdown pass to Randle was the result of a busted assignment on a zone coverage by Dre Kirkpatrick, and the back-breaker completion to Randle in the closing minutes was the result of DeMarcus Milliner inexplicably jumping on an underneath route on 3rd and Vicksburg. Clearly we have issues in the defensive front seven to boot, but at some point you are going to have to be able to cover people on the back-end, and we simply have not been able to do that with the consistency needed this season.
- The biggest defensive concern I had coming into this game was the interior run defense against Stevan Ridley, but believe it or not we actually stopped the interior running game for a change. LSU tailbacks barely averaged 3.5 yards per carry on 32 rushing attempts, but unfortunately our lack of containment killed us in the end. LSU picked up 70 yards on end-arounds and jet sweeps to wide receivers, Jefferson picked up 27 yards on his own, and Jasper picked up another 23 yards on the fake punt. It was three yards and a cloud of dust with the tailbacks, but all of the other carries averaged over ten yards per pop. Sometimes stopping the run on conventional rushing attempts between the tackles is simply not enough.
- The people continuously fretting over the possibility of Jim McElwain leaving Alabama for a head coaching job may as well at this point spend their time and energy worrying about whether Robert Brantley will leave Alabama to run for president. The Alabama offense has not been bad this year by any stretch, but it has been nothing special, and given the amount of talent and experience we have on the offensive side of the ball there is not likely a single offensive coordinator in the nation who has gotten less out of more this season than Jim McElwain. Now, all of this junk about whether or not McElwain should be fired is garbage, but even so you can rest assured he'll never prominently highlight his 2010 offense on any future resume. This season has not been his finest hour. When an offense with this much talent, depth, and experience consistently struggles to get above 21 points a game, something is not right.
- All of the outcries from some over a supposed lack of intensity are simply misplaced. We played very hard yesterday afternoon, and as you would hope our level of energy and effort rose to the meet the occasion at the very end when our backs were against the wall. At the end of the day, though, a lack of effort and intensity is simply not the issue. We play hard, but playing hard is not necessarily playing well. You have to play hard and play well. It's not an either-or proposition.
- In so many ways, this game succinctly summarized the entire season in sixty minutes. Flat performance? Slow start? Struggles to establish the run? Defensive breakdowns? Inability to rush the passer? Poor tackling? Inability to get off the field on third and long? Close games? If you were to look back at this entire season and choose one game that would define the entire season, this would be the game you pick.
- In hindsight, as I wrote a few weeks back, perhaps we should just all recognize that this whole notion of "reloading" is largely garbage. Perhaps that was true at one point in time, but look at how that has worked in in recent years. Texas followed up a national championship in 2005 with back-to-back 9-4 seasons, and Florida followed up a national championship in 2006 with an 8-5 season. LSU won a national championship in 2007 and went 8-8 in conference play the next two seasons. And, look at how Florida and Texas are faring this season. The Gators have fielded arguably their worst team in years, and after getting thumped by the likes of UCLA, Iowa State, Baylor, and Kansas State, the Longhorns will have to pull at least one upset in the final three weeks to even make a bowl game (and by that I mean a bowl game in Shreveport, literally). By comparison, our 7-2 start looks quite envious. That's kind of the issue with overly complaining about our fortunes this season, it could be much worse. Head on over to Shaggy Bevo if you don't believe me, or, hell, just read the meltdown piece Tuesday morning.
- Do we now have a quarterback controversy on our hands? The offense is middling, we'll need a boat load of points to beat Auburn, any realistic hopes of a national championship or a BCS berth have ended, and after the game Greg McElroy was limping with an ice pack on his knee. Maybe nothing comes of it and McElroy finishes the year, but it would be disingenuous to ignore it entirely at this point.
- Unfortunately, for now we are reduced to merely playing for pride and hopefully being the spoiler for Auburn. Having said that, though, we've got a lot to play for, and the downside will be ugly if the poor performances continue over the final one-third of the season. Beating Auburn will unfortunately be a stretch at this point, but Mississippi state is a solid team in their own right coming off of a bye week, and with the recent death of Nick Bell, you can rest assured they will play with intensity. Moreover, on a more practical note, if we have another performance like we had yesterday against LSU, the Mississippi State game will likely at least go down to the closing minutes, and Auburn will likely blow us out the water. Keep in mind that if we run the table we can probably get to Orlando and perhaps finish up 11-2, but if we lose to both Mississippi State and Auburn, we could fall to fifth in the SEC West and end up in the Liberty Bowl. Yesterday afternoon was quite obviously frustrating and discouraging, but we've got to rebound quickly or things will become much worse.