Initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 29-24 loss at the hands of Texas A&M:
From the outset, a very disappointing performance and final result in Tuscaloosa, with an atrocious start finally giving way to a last-second heartbreaker after a valiant comeback effort falls just short. Before we get to further analysis, though, it probably ought to be understood that the end result is not particularly surprising given the overall level of performance. 'Bama went into Death Valley eight days ago knowing it had two key showdowns ahead, and unfortunately the Tide responded by being fairly significantly outplayed by both opponents. The loss to A&M is a painful one, but with the on-field struggles the past two weekends most Tide fans should probably be somewhat relieved that 'Bama didn't drop both games.
Most glaring issue yesterday was the horrendous start, which was a disaster in nearly every way imaginable. The Alabama offense opened the game with three consecutive three-and-outs, and the defense one-upped the incompetence by allowing three touchdowns while rarely even being able to get A&M onto third down. Really just a nightmare replay of the debacles from years gone by in New Orleans and Columbia, and with such a big hole 'Bama really put itself in an impossible situation. You cannot win a game in the opening quarter, but you certainly can lose one, and to a great extent that is what Alabama did yesterday afternoon against the Aggies.
Bad start notwithstanding, the defense never really settled in even as the game progressed, and nearly all afternoon were just hanging by a thread against the Aggie offense. The sole "stop" of the first half nevertheless allowed A&M to go 13 plays for 62 yards, and while it looked to be headed in the other direction with consecutive three-and-outs to open the second half, the struggles ensued and the defense allowed over 170 yards of total offense and ten points (not counting a drive ending with a missed field goal) on the following three drives.
Hard to pinpoint any specific defensive issue given that the unit as a whole didn't do anything particularly well. Adrian Hubbard and others struggle to keep contain of Johnny Manziel on the edges, tackling continued to be very poor for the second week in a row, and the defensive backfield proved porous in coverage. As expected, 'Bama changed defensive personnel by adding John Fulton into the game, but while the South Carolina native held up reasonably well, the pass defense just couldn't get the necessary stops. Manziel completed nearly 80% of his passes, and 'Bama could not produce any real negative plays on a consistent basis to get the Aggies behind the chains, so in effect the A&M offense practically lived on and second and third-and-short. Even when 'Bama could get A&M to third down, though, failure remained the norm with the Aggies going 11-18 in such situations.
Hate to be a pessimist about the matter, but I believe that, more than anything else, in the past two weeks we have seen some underlying defensive issues finally being exposed. LSU and Texas A&M combined for over 850 yards of total offense against the Tide and the 'Bama defense could not force a single turnover in either game, and on the whole the defense just simply did not have much of an answer for the opposing offense. Tackling has been a consistent issue, pass coverage has been porous, the pass rush has largely be ineffective, and in the aggregate the unit just has not be able to do anything of note to affirmatively stop opposing offenses. You've got to do something to get a stop, and all too often the past two weekends the 'Bama defense has failed to do anything.
Defensive struggles aside, the offense was little better, and was also a major culprit in the abysmal start with three consecutive three-and-outs to start the game. Production improved following the bad start, and the 24 points is respectable enough, but there were numerous missed opportunities down the stretch, and a lot of points were left on the board. The third quarter, in particular, was almost crushing for the Tide due to offensive failure, in that 'Bama controlled the quarter yet only managed to score three points and thus went to the fourth quarter trailing the Aggies. In general, third quarter offense has been a major problem in recent weeks, and that only continued yesterday afternoon. In the past six games, the Alabama offense has only scored ten points combined in the third quarter, while going three-and-out on eight different occasions.
For the second weekend in a row, the catalysts behind the offensive struggles were three-fold: Poor quarterback play by AJ McCarron, bad playcalling by offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and an inability to protect the football.
A.J. McCarron, once again, played great football in the closing minutes, but he was nothing if not a major liability in the first 50 minutes of the game and it was his poor play was largely that placed Alabama in a situation where it needed yet another a major comeback late in the fourth quarter. He missed numerous open receivers throughout the day, starting on the opening drive with an incompletion to Amari Cooper, and two slight underthrows on deep routes late to Cooper and Kenny Bell proved deadly ('Bama scores touchdowns on both with well placed balls, but the two long completions yielded zero points for the Tide due to ensuing turnovers). Give him credit for effort, but at some point he simply has to hit open receivers when the opportunity presents and, hopefully, creates some plays on his own with some well-thrown balls, and you cannot simply waste three and one-half quarters before the light goes on. Just no real excuse for the struggles, either. The offensive lined played well, the receivers made plays, the running game was reasonably effective, and the A&M secondary isn't particularly good; McCarron simply has to produce under those circumstances.
The more concerning issue was arguably offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who has looked well in over his head the past two weekends. After refusing to embrace the successful running game in Baton Rouge despite the Tide's struggles in the passing game, Nussmeier face-planted yet again yesterday afternoon by abandoning a running game that was having success and which Texas A&M never actually stopped on a consistent basis. The fourth quarter was the biggest issue with Nussmeier, and the playcalling issues presented themselves early. After the defense ultimately forced a field goal to keep it a one-possession game, Nussmeier dialed up three passes, which netted four yards and a three-and-out.
The damning playcall sequence for Nussmeier, however, was the goal-to-go series to end the game. With the football sitting first and goal on the A&M 6-yard line, Alabama, with its strong power running game, had four plays to run it in from six yards out. Give it to Lacy or Yeldon? No, it's pass time again with McCarron (even without Kevin Norwood, thus forcing Kenny Bell into the game), and the busted play that results actually loses a slight degree of yardage, and from there 'Bama has only three plays to pick up nearly seven yards. Then, given the highly predictable tendency to come back to the run after a failed first down pass, A&M stacks the box, stuffs the run of Lacy, and suddenly 'Bama was forced to try to throw it in from the five on two passes, both of which obviously failed.
Just an absolutely indefensible series by Nussmeier, and in general his overall performance the past two weekends ought to cause significant concern in Tuscaloosa. He was fine enough against the overmatched opponents earlier in the season, but you earn the title and the paycheck by calling quality games in tough situations and against difficult opponents, and by that measure Nussmeier has been an abject failure the past two weeks. Simply put, this is not the Pac-12, and when you have an ineffective quarterback mixed with an effective running game, you run the football, particularly in goal-to-go situations in the closing minutes.
Finally, the death blow of it all with the offense were the three turnovers, and in particular the T.J. Yeldon fumble was just an absolute dagger to the chest. 'Bama had seized all momentum at that point and seemed destined to go down the field to take the lead, and it was just poor ball security on the part of the true freshman. Yeldon has done some amazing things this season, but ball security has been issue for him recently, and it proved costly yesterday. He essentially went from being the hero to the goat in seven days.
On the whole, the offense played relatively well, but given the struggles of the defense "relatively well" was simply not enough. 'Bama needed the offense to compensate by having a big performance and lighting up the scoreboard, and to that end the offensive line and the receiver corps played very well, but ultimately issues with McCarron, Nussmeier, and ball security limited their production just enough to lose out in a heartbreaker.
In other quick hitters: Kevin Sumlin has to be the SEC Coach of the Year, with all due respect to Hugh Freeze. True freshman Tyler Hayes proved to be the goat on the game-ending offsides and no meaningful excuse can be made for such a simple mental error. Not sure Nick Perry ever saw the field yesterday. A&M picked on John Fulton heavily, and he had the toughest match-up of all, but in general he held up relatively well down the stretch. Amari Cooper and Kenny Bell played well despite fighting through injuries. Ridiculous that the helmet-to-helmet blow on Eddie Lacy did not result in a penalty; tend to imagine that A&M defender will be getting a suspension from Mike Slive. Cody Mandell had arguably his best career performance yesterday, averaging 56.5 yards on four punts, though tackling issues by the gunners reduced the net below what it should have been. 'Bama held star A&M defender Damontre Moore in check for most of the afternoon, not that it did a lot of good to boost the UA passing game. Play of the game, in hindsight, may have been the stuffing of Yeldon on the key third down late in the third quarter.
In the end, just a tough loss and always particularly stinging to lose with a team with so much potential just playing so poorly when it counts the most. Again, though, how can you really be upset with the final result? The result was naturally indicative of the underlying performance, and, again, 'Bama is really just fortunate that it found a way to get a win in either of the past two weekends.
And, though many of the 'Bama faithful will be loathe to admit as much, the critics who have long since accused this Alabama team of being the by-product of a surprisingly weak schedule have largely been vindicated the past two weekends. Michigan? The Wolverines are unranked at 7-3 and needed a last-second rally and overtime to beat Northwestern yesterday. Tennessee? The Vols are 4-6 and Derek Dooley is getting fired. Mississippi State? Bullies have played three quality teams all year and lost to all three by a combined 76 points. Basically Alabama has played two good teams all season and have been outplayed by both. Good luck successfully defending that resume on the merits.
With an undefeated record removed from the realm of possibility, all focus now undoubtedly turns to the BCS standings. 'Bama is not eliminated just yet, but will need at least two major upsets in the final three weeks and on the whole it seems unlikely that the Tide can get back in the mix. While chaos could result like it did a year ago, the odds are likely against it and until notified otherwise you can safely consider the Alabama national championship dreams were crushed by the Aggies. Losses have consequences, folks.
Nevertheless, most will keep a close eye on the BCS race, but for the time being Alabama simply has to focus on improvement, addressing the numerous issues which have arisen the past two weeks, and trying to make the most of what is left in the season. Western Carolina and Auburn should produce relatively easy wins, but if the Tide plays in Atlanta like it has the past two weeks, it will need another last-second miracle to avoid falling at the hands of Georgia.