There ain't no two ways around it: the end of this football season sucked. A game thrown away to an arch-rival with last-second Alabama mistakes and Auburn heroism, and a loss to an out-of-conference superpower that looked, at least coming in, as if they weren't even in Alabama's league. The Alabama fan base is understandably upset about events and showing it in its own inimitably comic way, and the college football world is taking full advantage of a rare opportunity to laugh at, and gloat over, the Tide.
The real question is whether these last two games are a turning point that will lead to disarray. The easy reference point for that question is 2008, where, just as in 2013, Alabama was lined up for a national championship shot before ending the season with a loss to an SEC foe and an upset Sugar Bowl loss to a supposedly outmatched opponent. The next year, Bama bounced back for an undefeated national championship run.
But there's a difference this year. That Florida loss in '08 stung, but in reality that was a game where the Tide played its best ball and lost to a superior team that was forced to also play its best ball; most Bama fans, including yours truly, held their heads high after that loss. And the loss to Utah was easily explained away as the result of a listless start and a 21-0 1st-quarter deficit, as the Tide certainly spent most of that game looking like at least a somewhat better team than the Utes.
There was nothing about this year's Auburn game to fill Alabama fans with pride. That was a bitter loss that happened in a shocking way and the fan base was left shocked and disheartened. And there was nothing about the Sugar Bowl loss that would lead one to think Alabama could've win if they had just played another quarter or two: indeed, things swung decidedly Oklahoma's way late in the game.
Unlike 2008, than, I see the program at a crucial point. All the pieces are there for another championship run in 2014, both in terms of the roster and the coaching staff, but how about the mental pieces? It is more likely than not that this bad run of events will lead, in the short run, to a lackluster finish to the recruiting season, very possibly including further decommitments, and recruiting disappointments could help build more mental fatigue and malaise in a vicious circle. The strongest roster in the world won't win championships if the clubhouse is in disarray.
The teenagers and early 20-somethings that make up the team tend to take their mental clues from the environment they live in, so part of it is up to you and me. If the off-season is full of shrieking insanity and despair from the Tide fanbase, that stuff is likely to percolate into the team and 2014 could be a tough one. So while it's OK, and mentally healthy, to take a few days to grieve and rage over recent disappointments, then we've really got to get our stuff together and get the Tide Nation positive about this program again.
It shouldn't be hard to do, and it starts with recognizing that nothing is ever as bad as it seems. We all know how very, very close Alabama came to winning the Auburn game, and the reasons the Tide lost to Oklahoma were one part correctable errors and one part great play and great coaching from the Sooners. As a starter, not only Alabama's coaches and players but the entire college football world can be forgiven for not having seen that fantastic 60 minutes of football coming from Trevor Knight, a guy who had thrown for 471 yards on the season with a 52% completion percentage and 4 picks.
But Knight's heroics aside, and while Alabama's offense was not at its best in the game, this loss is on the D. If Knight hadn't overthrown his guy across the middle on the first possession, leading to a Landon Collins pick, that play is a touchdown and OU scores on every first-half possession.
Things were different in the second half, after a patented Nick Saban halftime adjustment - until Oklahoma got the ball back with 6:14 left and a 7-point lead. All Alabama needed was a stop and McCarron and crew would get the ball in good field position with plenty of time yet for a patented Bama ball-control drive.
It was not to be. (1) On 3rd and nine at the 13-yard-line, with 5:29 left, Bama blitzed when Oklahoma had the perfect play call, a screen to the same side. Still, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix got to the back two yards short of the first after a hustling Jeoffrey Pagan cut off the sideline, but for some reason went with the shoulder hit instead of wrapping up, and the ball-carrier was able to stagger and lunge ahead for another three yards and the killer first. (2) On 2nd and 10, with 4:15 left, C.J. Mosley bit when the receiver on a middle screen faked right, leading to an easy first-down completion. (3) On 3rd and 8 with 2:45 left, Jarrick Williams was called (correctly) for pass interference. The Tide finally stopped Oklahoma there, but Alabama got the ball deep in its own territory with less than a minute left and no time outs remaining. A miracle was needed, and it didn't happen.
So the immediate past is bleak for this defense, but is the future? I don't think so. While a blueprint for beating Alabama's D is certainly emerging - play fast, run around them, and wear them out - Nick Saban knows that, too. He has already started recruiting smaller and speedier defensive players and will certainly continue to do so. I would expect slightly smaller guys like Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen, Da'Shawn Hand and Christian Miller to have a shot to be big players up-front next year, and I'm thinking that this year's off-season conditioning program is going to focus a little more on building speed and quickness and a little less on building muscles.
You can also expect the Alabama secondary, which clearly goated it up the last two games, to be much improved in 2014. There's a clear pattern in Saban's tenure in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs struggle to make an impact in their first year under Saban's coaching, and then shine in their second year. Alabama had no less than five new cornerbacks on the roster this year: Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve, Maurice Smith and Johnathan Cook. Due to circumstances, they were forced to play while ordinarily they would be learning the system, but next year they will be second-year Nick Saban cornerbacks, and not only that but they will be second-year Saban cornerbacks with an experience bonus. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that they will be a lot better than they were this year - plus they will have at least one new 5-star buddy, and hopefully two. Alabama will not again be vulnerable to getting its cornerback situation blown totally up by one inconvenient injury like the nagging foot injury that slowed Deion Belue all year, and particularly in these last couple of games.
So there it is. Go ahead and break a few things, just not your children or dogs, and maybe enjoy a bottle or three of fine, hard liquor. But after that, remember that recruiting has gotten better every year, Nick Saban still has that fire in his eye, and there remains no other program that any sane or intelligent program would prefer being a fan of.
And as for right now, let's talk about the positions.
One of Alabama's greatest quarterbacks went out with a whimper instead of a bang, turning in an indifferent final game. It topped off a final season that was very good but clearly not as good as the one he had in 2012, despite the benefit of world-class pass protection most of 2013 along with one of the best receiver corps in college football if not the best. He is still and will now forever be the only quarterback who ever started in two winning BCS national championship games, but the lofty pinnacles of college football fame that seemed possible only a few weeks ago are not to be.
McCarron certainly had his moments against Oklahoma, but unfortunately they pretty much all came in the first half. His back-shoulder pass to DeAndrew White that turned into a long gain was a thing of beauty, as was the perfectly-thrown TD bomb to White not much later.
But it shouldn't be too surprising that AJ, who has spent half the season with enough time in the pocket to read the sports page back there and then complete the pass later, did not handle a whiff of pass rush pressure with aplomb. Once Mike Stoops smelled blood, he let go the blitzing dogs, and got results like the first play of the 4th quarter, a 3rd and 11 attempt where McCarron got happy feet as soon as he got the ball and well before the rush got to him. DeAndrew White was open for the first down, but McCarron was too busy tap-dancing to see him, and the play ended in a 4-yard sack.
As a result, Alabama's second-half passing game was all but a complete bust. Doug Nussmeier dialed up pass 15 times in the second half and for his trouble got one 3-yard scramble, five sacks for 38 yards, and 5 completions in 9 attempts for 86 yards, including the 61-yard TD pass to Henry that was all on the freshman's legs. Take away that 61-yard gain and the other 14 pass plays in AJ McCarron's last half as an Alabama player netted -13 yards.
McCarron's lack of aggressiveness hurt the team, too - and unfortunately that lack of aggressiveness most likely filtered down from the head coach, who famously took the St Paul's signal-caller under his wing from AJ's freshman year. To my distress, McCarron was quoted in Sports Illustrated a few week as ago as saying that when "[a]ny possession ends with a kick, it's a good one. An extra point, a field goal, a punt." No, AJ, no. Please no.
But yes. AJ has been and remains simply too prone to throwing it away to avoid the sack, even on 3rd down. In the first quarter, he threw the ball away on 3rd and goal from the 5 when he still had a chance to go through his progression - and while keeping the ball would have risked a sack, what's the harm in a sack on 3rd and goal from the 5? Trailing 31-24, he threw it away quickly before the pressure got to him on 3rd and 7 with 3:30 left in the 3rd quarter. Most egregiously, he threw it away on 3rd and 8 with 9:04 left and trailing by two touchdowns, even though OJ Howard was available for a possible first down. McCarron would've had to throw around a blitzer, and the throw would certainly have been risky - but punting with 9 minutes left and a 14-minute deficit isn't just risky, it's a recipe for losing the ball game.
The first pick was egregious, an inaccurate throw into triple coverage for which the best you could hope was that the OU DB would drop it. The second one wasn't nearly as bad, but AJ missed inside a little when a strong, accurate outside throw was demanded, and the Oklahoma defender made a strong break on the ball. The fumble was just one of those things, as AJ was blindsided and had nowhere to go since Leon Brown was getting pushed back in front of him just before he was hit - you sure couldn't blame McCarron, in that situation, for standing in and looking for a guy downfield instead of getting rid of it, as it was desperation time.
By the way, I've been ranting all year about players lunging out toward the goalline without full control of the ball, but I don't think I've seen a single play as unwise as that big Sooner lineman windmilling the ball with one hand to get a TD when Oklahoma didn't need a TD at all. He could easily have wound up giving Bama another chance with that insanity.
I have to think T.J. Yeldon was still nursing a sore ankle, because he was sluggish the entire game. Yeldon is always slightly slow out of the blocks, as he habitually picks his way through the line instead of rocketing through it, but it really showed up on the two or three occasions where he got running room in the opening field. Yeldon ran hard and with purpose, but he simply did not run with the explosiveness you have to have in a big-time back and that we have seen in him before.
Derrick Henry, on the other hand, had a coming-out party. You have to suspect that he won't run over SEC defenders the same way he steamrolled the Sooner's smallish guys, but still, #27 showcased not just power but speed and elusiveness.
Unfortunately, his parents turned out the lights on the coming-out party at 9 o'clock and sent everybody to bed early, as Henry got exactly one touch in the 4th quarter (with which he turned a simple swing pass into a 61-yard TD). It was obvious by that time to a blind man wearing a helmet at the bottom of the ocean that he was a far more dangerous option than Yeldon, but the staff turned to Yeldon in the 4th quarter and the result was a predictable and pedestrian 6 carries for 25 yards.
I can think of no reason for that but an obstinate determination to only use veterans in the clutch. I have no patience for that kind of thinking. You don't earn a spot on the field when it counts by virtue of experience. You earn it by being the best at your position, no other way.
And by the way:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>I'm not goin anywhere. Miss me with all this transferring mess. Much love to all my teammates and coaches. We doin big things next season</p>— Kenyan DrakeTM (@KDx17) <a href="https://twitter.com/KDx17/statuses/418991388915552257">January 3, 2014</a></blockquote>
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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>I take full responsibility for my actions and respect is a core value my parents taught me at a very young age</p>— Kenyan DrakeTM (@KDx17) <a href="https://twitter.com/KDx17/statuses/419580397878784000">January 4, 2014</a></blockquote>
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It wasn't their fault. Amari Cooper shaked and baked with the ball, DeAndrew White turned into Mr. Deep Threat, and Kevin Norwood wasn't targeted much but still showed his stuff with a beautiful sideline layout for a key third-down reception late in the first half. (Lest I harsh AJ too harshly, I should note that McCarron made a great effort on that play to frantically escape the pass rush and still put it in the perfect position to a covered guy.)
But where was everybody else? I didn't even see Christion Jones on offense. McCarron only went for O.J. Howard once, and the pass was knocked down at the line. Kenny Bell got a couple of short outs directed his way, Brian Vogler nothing.
In the bigger picture, I really expected Howard to become a force in our receiving game as the season went on, and I'm not sure why it didn't happen. Howard only caught 5 passes in the last 7 games - and averaged 22.6 per reception. Howard blocked well Thursday night, though, and the Tide ran between him and Shepard successfully in a couple of power situations.
I'm even more surprised that Chris Black has yet to see competitive playing time. His short garbage time appearances were enough to see that he is one of the most explosive players on the team. Where has he been? Small wonder that he tweeted "reconsidering, true story" just after the Sugar Bowl (it has since been taken down).
Alabama's offensive line "problems" have been blown way out of proportion by Bama fandom in the wake of the loss. Alabama's offensive line was just fine this year, and while they didn't have their best game Thursday night, it really wasn't bad. The run-blocking was pretty good, as the Tide's two tailbacks combined for 172 yards on 25 carries, a fine 6.9 average, which is even better if Yeldon was actually hobbled, as I suspect.
While AJ saw a lot more pressure than he has seen in the past, it really wasn't all that terrible: he just didn't handle it well. You really can't expect Cyrus Kouandjio to keep up with a guy who weighs 100 pounds less than him and runs deep circle route rushes while the QB is taking all day. You've gotta give CK some help in that situation, and when OU goes to the all-out blitz in the 4th quarter, you've gotta pull out the screen pass. Where was it?
Still, there were some breakdowns. The first sack came when Arie Kouandjio inexplicably tried to push forward and attack his man - OU lineman Geneo Grissom, who was a terror all night despite coming into the game with only 2 sacks - on a first-quarter dropback pass. All Grissom had to do was dodge to the side and then he had a free path to McCarron. Big brother Cyrus was beaten twice on the circle route by OU's mighty midget linebacker Erik Striker, Grissom got around Leon Brown once, leading to a hurry, and Austin Shepherd allowed his man to rush McCarron into an incompletion, one of #79's only miscues all season.
While Alabama missed Anthony Steen, I don't think they missed him much. I don't mean that as an insult to Steen, but as a compliment to Leon Brown, who filled in capably. Brown pass-blocked well most of the time and the Tide ran behind him several times, including on the first short Yeldon touchdown and on Henry's 43-yard TD run. On that play, Ryan Kelly chipped Brown's man and then got into the second level to get the linebacker and spring Henry, part of a very fine night overall for Kelly.
This group doesn't get the blame, either. Oklahoma was held to 98 yards rushing, 2.7 yards per attempt, and most of that came when Sooner backs bounced it outside into areas that aren't the DL's responsibility. Oklahoma had almost no success running it up the middle.
Pagan opened up the 3rd quarter with a sack when the OU lineman whiffed on his juke to the side, and A'Shawn Robinson got one good pressure in the 4th quarter. While generally Alabama's defensive line did not make the pass-rush impact that Oklahoma's did, to a large extent that was because Trevor Knight spotted his man and got rid of the ball quickly play after play. I don't think he ever got the chance to camp out back there, which McCarron at least enjoyed the experience 2 or 3 times. The line got the kind of pass rush a Saban team gets: not withering, but enough to stay on the quarterback's mind.
Oklahoma clearly game-planned away from C.J. Mosley, relying on quick outs, downfield throws, and bounce-out runs, and so while #32 was not as dominant as he has been in most recent games it wasn't because he played poorly. He twice made nice plays to stop second-half flair passes behind the line, and twice got some of the best pressure of the game on Knight.
Mosley wound up with six tackles, one less than Trey Depriest. Depriest was a force in the inside run game, making back-to-back physical stops at the line of scrimmage at one point in the second half, but he is not the kind of guy who will make a difference in the bounce-out runs and quick outs department.
Adrian Hubbard's best play of the night was deflecting a 3rd-down sideline pass. Otherwise, he wasn't particularly visible and lost contain on a 12-yard outside run in Oklahoma's clock-killing late 4th-quarter drive.
It was not a pretty night for the Alabama defensive backfield, and while Tide fans have scorned Bama's corners all year, it was, if anything, even uglier for the safeties.
Except for Clinton-Dix, who had a good night overall, with the aforementioned failure to wrap up on a crucial 4th-quarter 3rd-down screen pass his only real blemish; he gave up an early 8-yard TD pass, but only on a perfect strike against excellent coverage. Clinton-Dix twice nailed Oklahoma running backs in the backfield, blew up another outside run behind the line, and was consistently tight in coverage.
Otherwise, it was a rough night for the Bama defensive backfield. For starters, Eddie Jackson was not the Messiah come again that Bama fans have been expecting him to be for some mysterious reason, as he didn't really set the world on fire when he got to play against Ole Miss. My best guess is that Tide fans seem to have a love affair with big cornerbacks.
At any rate, Jackson didn't really play poorly, but he was playing a good 10 or 12 yards off the line the entire first half, and the Sooners went underneath him time and time again, completing six passes in front of #4 in that half alone. In the 2nd half, the coaches brought him up to the line, and Oklahoma went after him only once. That once was for a crucial 35-yard gain, but only on a perfect over-the-shoulder-into-the-bucket pass where Jackson had decent coverage.
The freshman showed good tackling form, and got plenty of opportunities with OU repeatedly going after his man. Jackson led the team with 10 tackles, and a couple of them were good hard shots.
Deion Belue, across from him, was also lit up, giving up 5 completions for 74 yards, 2 first downs and a TD before leaving the game early in the 4th, apparently with an injury. Expectations were that Belue would be fully healthy after the bowl layoff, but this was seems not to have been the case.
The worst offender was probably Jarrick Williams, who only gave up two receptions for 42 yards but was twice flagged for pass interference, including the crucial 3rd-down call on OU's clock-killer drive. While Trevor Knight was mostly accurate, Williams got lucky twice when Knight threw inaccurately to guys who had gotten behind him for what would've been TDs with on-the-money pegs.
It was also a rough night for Landon Collins, who set over-aggressive angles in sideline pursuit several times, gifting Oklahoma with extra yards too oten. He made an excellent tip-drill catch on his early pick, but he, too was bailed out by an inaccurate throw as that would've been a touchdown if the receiver had been accurately led. Collins gave up four completions for 70 yards and two touchdowns, and both the touchdowns were fairly ugly: a 45-yarder for Oklahoma's first TD, when Collins went for the pick or deflection and a perfect throw got by him, and the crucial 4th-quarter TD when Collins for some reason fixed his gaze on Knight's desperate scramble toward the sideline and allowed his receiver to sneak past him and into the open middle of the end zone.
The only pass breakup came from the much-maligned Cyrus Jones, who saw action in the 4th after the Belue injury and had tight coverage on the only two balls thrown his way. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Cyrus will start next year in game one. Don't be hatin'.
It was a decent but not great night for Alabama's special teams. Cody Mandell ended a splendid season with a 42.0 net average on 4 punts, including one that was downed by DeAndrew White at the 1-yard-line. How many punts has Alabama downed inside the 3 this year? I think the number has been pretty extraordinary.
Cade Foster was only 1 for 2 on short field goals, but repairing his reputation as a field-goal kicker was an impossible task. Cade made two tackles on kickoffs, including what was probably a touchdown-saver after he made a particularly poor short kickoff.
Christion Jones had a 70-yard punt return TD called back, but there's really nothing to complain about on that one. Kenny Bell pushed the gunner in the back egregiously to spring Jones, and really Kenny should've just let Christion take his chances with that guy because there was no way under the sun every ref on the field would miss such an obvious clip in such an obvious spot. Kevin Norwood's blatant push in the back on the same play was slightly more subtle but not much and was also called, while Derrick Henry could easily have been called for a 3rd clip. On the same play.
And that's how it went. But it will go better next year. Mark it down folks, mark it down.