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Initial Impressions from the National Championship Game

A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 21-0 victory over LSU in the BCS National Championship Game:

Jim McElwain has received his fair share of criticism over the years, and some of it legitimately so, but Monday night was his finest hour, a supreme effort that was daring, unexpected, and downright brilliant given the constant alignments that caused LSU so much confusion. With wide receivers going in the backfield, offensive linemen shifting pre-snap, running backs split wide and as the tight ends being used as the fulcrum of it all, at times on Monday night it was as if McElwain was playing world champion chess against John Chavis' chinese checkers strategy. Clearly some fine catches outside by the Alabama wide receiver corps helped, but even so the Alabama offense more consistently beat the LSU defense on strategy than on raw execution, and that ultimately falls on McElwain. Again, some criticisms can be made of his tenure in Tuscaloosa, but with two national championships and forty-nine wins on his resume, McElwain can largely brush those aside as he moves on to Colorado State, which incidentally had to be about the most excited fan base in the country outside of Alabama on Monday night.

AJ McCarron played his best game to date, and in doing so not only secured a national championship but also reinforced his hold on the starting job moving forward. McCarron will need more help outside at wide receiver before he can take a definitive step to the next level as a quarterback, but his performance on Monday night put on display the kind of growth that the coaching staff had been hoping to see, and with that it's exceedingly difficult to see anyone supplanting him as the starter at Alabama for the next two years. For better or worse, Phillip Sims will have to make a decision about his future with that consideration firmly in mind. National championship in hand, we'll use standard political refrain: McCarron will have to be caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy to lose the starting job.

The biggest surprise of the night, outside of the margin of victory, was that Alabama did so despite a relatively quiet night from Trent Richardson and a general inability to consistently run the football. The late touchdown run from Trent Richardson and closing-minutes success from Eddie Lacy skew the final stat line, but for the most part the LSU defensive line controlled our offensive line, and we simply could not handle their speed and explosiveness at the point of attack. For the first three quarters of the contest the running yards were few and far between and what little success was generated was done with sheer physical exertion. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers is far from the most highly-touted players on the Bayou Bengals' defense, but after Monday night a cogent argument can be made that he may be the best.

The LSU pass defense was not quite so stout, but admittedly had a solid showing in its own right. Ironically enough AJ McCarron and Alabama missed the two easiest pass plays of the night -- one a slight overthrow of a wide open Brad Smelley and the other a dropped touchdown pass by Brandon Gibson -- but in general the success came on good catches of good throws against tight coverage. It's easy to pick on Tyrann Mathieu, but he was largely the victim of good execution, and 'Bama tried its best to stay away from Morris Claiborne. Not the best night for the Tiger secondary, but not a subpar effort by any stretch.

The headliner of the night was the heavyweight Alabama defense and its suffocating showing against the clearly overmatched LSU offense. So much for the supposedly fat front seven not holding up well against the LSU speed on the Superdome turf. In reality, this was simply dominance of the highest authority, arguably the greatest defensive performance ever in the modern history of college football in a national championship game. How can anything less be said about a performance that only allowed five first downs, 92 yards on 44 plays, and which forced four sacks while not even allowing the opponent to penetrate their territory until the final minutes? It his been said before on this blog and I will reiterate again here: this defense replaces the 1992 defense as the new gold standard of defenses in modern college football. Given the increased dedication towards offensive football and the more general liberalization of rules in favor of the offensive side of the ball, it may be many years before college football sees another defense this dominant.

The run defense controlled the option, and was clearly much better prepared for it in the rematch, consistently stringing it out to the sideline and not allowing Jordan Jefferson and company to either outrace them to the corner or to cut inside for big gains. The interior running game was stifled and the pass defense was just as good, continuously assaulting Jefferson with a brutal pass rush while maintaining tight coverage on the outside all the while playing two deep safeties all night. It was simply sixty minutes of grown men versus boys on Monday night in New Orleans.

Despite the game-controlling defense and a two-possession lead, Alabama allowed LSU to stay in the game far longer than it should have, simply refusing to put LSU away despite having several opportunities to deliver the death blow down the stretch. Given their sputtering offense, LSU hung on for dear life and did so successfully for some time thanks to Alabama's continued red zone struggles and missed kicks. Truth be told, true freshman Vinny Sunseri is largely the unsung hero of it all, as it was his just-in-time blow to Jordan Jefferson that forced an errant throw to an open Jarvis Landry on the deep post that would have likely resulted in an LSU touchdown and which would have made it a one-possession game with just under seven minutes to play. It's hard to say that would have caused the game to have had a different result, mind you, but it would have made the final minutes far more intense and nerve-wracking.

Les Miles endured great criticism in the postgame for not inserting Jarrett Lee in the second half, but much of that criticism is misplaced. Jordan Jefferson played poorly and could not rekindle the magic of November 5th, but given the quality of the coverage on the back end and the intense pressure that the Alabama pass rush was generating, Lee would have all but certainly reverted to his career-long struggles against Nick Saban's defense had he been forced into the game (i.e. one touchdown against seven interceptions). The new face under center may have brought the occasional deep completion, but in general it would have just brought big sacks and interceptions, neither of which would fuel an LSU comeback and both of which would have likely only hastened their demise. You do have to feel badly on a personal level for Lee that he did not get an opportunity, but for all of his shortcomings Jefferson was the better option because he could at least possibly generate plays with his feet, and those LSU fans willing to sacrifice Miles at the altar for not making the late change are largely pasting over the harsh realities that Lee would have brought into the game with him.

Legitimate criticism, however, could be made over the late game decision-making and the overall offensive playcalling. Trailing 15-0 with twelve minutes left in the game and facing a fourth and four at his own 39-yard line, Miles sent the punt team onto the field. So much for the Mad Hatter designation; facing a critical decision in a situation that practically begged for a bold, risky move, Miles was as cautious and reserved as an old Amish man walking into a whorehouse. More importantly, though, why was it that we only saw the quick isolation pitch one time? And why no greater involvement of the tight ends in the passing game, as Alabama did consistently throughout the night? It's difficult to come up with persuasive answers to either question. Miles outcoached Saban in their previous two meetings, but Saban more than earned his redress on Monday night.

For Bobby Hebert: the reason LSU did not drive the ball down the field in the vertical passing game was because Alabama sat deep all night with two safeties and the combination of the physical coverage on the outside by the cornerbacks and the strength of the pass rush up front forced short, quick throws and did not allow either the time or the gaps in coverage on the back end to allow for deep throws of any reasonable chance of success. I would have assumed a former NFL-quarterback-turned-expert-analyst -- well, sort of -- would have figured that out from the press box, but apparently not. Consider that one on the house, Cajun Cannon.

Monday night was in many ways redemption for the Alabama special teams units, particularly the coverage units on kickoff and punt returns. Notice, though, how small of a difference in offensive effectiveness changed the outcome of many placekicks. By moving in only slightly closer than on November 5th, Jeremy Shelley was allowed to stay in the game, his lack of leg strength became less of an issue, and the successful conversions increased accordingly. Even so, though, in fairness the two missed field goals and the doinked extra point makes clear that the successes of the kicking game Monday night were more short-term fix than long-term solution.

It was somewhat surreal to see much of the LSU reaction to the loss last night. There was some rage and the faintest hint of meltdown, but by and large the emotion that exuded was shock at the outcome. In hindsight, far too many placed far too much reliance on a narrow 9-6 overtime victory, and more than a few legitimately expected Alabama to be the whipping boy in their coronation as one of the greatest teams to ever take the field. I was slightly pessimistic about Alabama's chances in the rematch, but even so those who expected the Bayou Bengals to roll over 'Bama like the Tide was a mere patsy were simply deluding themselves all along. LSU could have pulled out the victory, but an outright romp? Not a chance. At most they were going to fight for sixty minutes and pull out another narrow victory, and it certainly seemed like many imbibed the Kool-Aid by the gallon and lost sight of that.

Incessant purple and gold homers notwithstanding, a tip of the hat is in order to LSU for all that they accomplished this season. They have perhaps the most impressive resume of any non-national champion in recent memory, and there does have to be a bit of sympathy involved for a team that won so much and was so dominant only to walk away with nothing (and yes, I stand by that in light of an SEC Championship). On the positive side for the Bayou Bengals, though, with the amount of talent this team has returning next season, assuming they use this loss properly as a motivating tool -- very big if, of course -- this is a team with raw ability to embark on a Scorched Earth campaign next fall. I know the old line about how you cannot spell Les Miles without two L's (which was a half truth in hindsight), but this team has to be the preseason favorite next season and the November road trip to Baton Rouge looks daunting.

In other quick thoughts, Kenny Hilliard is going to be one scary player to face the next two seasons. Ditto for Anthony Johnson, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham. On initial glance it looked like C.J. Mosley either blew out his knee or his back (or both), but thankfully it was a dislocated hip that does not look as severe as originally feared. Trey Depriest played an outstanding game in place of the injured Mosley. Christion Jones had ice water running through his veins while fielding punts in place of Marquis Maze; he has to be considered the frontrunner for that job next season. Will Blackwell, you cowardly prick, Google "REC conspiracy," you and the Auburn fans will have so much to talk about. Can someone please tell Damion Square to start properly buckling his helmet? Ed Stinson had one of his better nights. Chris Underwood is a feel-good story for an under-the-radar player. Russell Shepard continues to be one of the most under-used players around. Had to be a great feeling for Eddie Lacy and Kenny Bell, both Louisiana natives. With the win in New Orleans, this senior class finished up with a 49-6 record and two national championships, which puts the 2008 recruiting class in its own stratosphere apart from every other that has come through 'Bama in decades.