"Everybody's got such a high expectation of what our team should be. I was just happy to see our players be happy about playing the game and winning. It really, sort of, if you want to know the truth about it, pisses me off when I talk to people that have this expectation like they are disappointed that we only won the game 14-13 and in the way we played. Really, that's frustrating. You want to talk about something that's frustrating, that's frustrating, to me, for our players, who play with a lot of heart in the game."
Dark times have fallen upon the Alabama Crimson Tide, whether the faithful and the coaching staff will admit it or not.
Gone are the days of game day confidence (some would call it arrogance), the kind that propels devoted fans of Alabama to believe with every fiber of their beings that the Crimson Tide will always emerge victorious. Sure, there are those Gumpaholics out there who would never admit doubt that the Tide will prevail (Updyke, anyone?) But crimson-clad realists who pumped sunshine following Bama's first loss of the season to Ole Miss were confronted with the reality that lowly Arkansas nearly, and easily could have, emerged victorious from last week's contest.
Sure, make excuses to soothe the soul. Couch yourself in the rhetoric of inclement weather football and a belief that Coach Nick Saban and crew "will make things right" in dominating fashion. But by doing so, one only ignores the reality of the matter: that this Crimson Tide football team is not the squad that marched to history over the last five seasons, staking claim to the closing of the BCS Era and cementing themselves in Bama football lore forever. It has an identity of its own to be sure, but to expect them to match that lofty goal is simply not realistic.
This week, Saban expressed frustration through the media (as he is oft to do) with these unrealistic expectations amongst the Bama faithful. He was displeased that some were discouraged that the Tide only won over an underdog opponent by a single point. Logically, he is right in doing so, as a team can't contend for a championship each year, regardless of what the Gumpiest among us may think.
But he is also parrying the other side of a blade he himself has wielded for years in his favor. He built this Crimson Tide machine, he was the Bama Messiah. He descended from on high to lead the downfallen legions back to glory, while in the meantime setting a bar that few teams in history could have reached, let alone eclipsed.
And now, in this year of waning power, reality has smited the Crimson Tide. The fact is, Alabama is thin at critical positions, despite being loaded at others. Injuries have taken their toll. As Saban said after the loss to Ole Miss, you can only coach the kids you have. Maybe what we've seen out of the Tide in the last two weeks actually represents the ceiling for this particular squad. Maybe Saban knows that, and has been projecting this publicly since the summer to prepare us for what he knew would be a frustrating season for those who expect domination year in and year out. Maybe the injuries to players like Kenyan Drake and Ryan Kelly have taken more of a toll than was anticipated, and maybe things like recruiting rankings and perceived depth don't project to on-the-field performance (at least in the short term.)
Regardless, there is a long shadow being cast over this Crimson Tide football team. Will 2014 be 2010 Redux? Or will this Bama team do what appears to be impossible at this point: win out and get a shot at another championship in the storied history of the program?
Much of that future course will be charted on the stars that fall on Alabama this weekend when the SEC's nouveau riche Texas A&M Aggies travel to Tuscaloosa for the second time since joining the conference.
Many remember, of course, the Ags' first visit to T'town. Former Aggie QB Johnny Manziel definitely remembers it, as it was his shock-and-awe campaign at Bryant Denny Stadium that launched him into (and probably cemented) his Heisman Trophy run.
Bama fans also remember the game all too well: a painful reminder that even the most dominant team of the decade has an Achilles heel, that even the SEC's most accomplished coach has weaknesses. What Texas A&M did on that fateful November day (in Bama's home stadium, no less) expanded the paradigm for other rising programs. It was the Battle of Yavin on a gridiron stage, when an underdog group of previously unheralded players crushed the might of the Crimson Empire and brought it back to the ground. That win proved to other teams that resistance was not futile, that Bama and Saban could, indeed, be defeated by an upstart. At the time, only LSU was the presumed rival to what Nick Saban had built at Alabama, and Kevin Sumlin and Manziel truly shocked the world with their 2012 win, paving the way for other wanna-be programs to believe that they too could dethrone the lumbering Crimson Malevolence.
But times have changed. Texas A&M can no longer plan the ambush, the sneak attack has been sprung. Saban and the rest of college football know exactly what to expect from aTm head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. The Ags will Air Raid, they will sling the ball, they will keep the pedal to the metal and pressure the defense. When teams meet the Ags these days, they know they better score and score often, because stopping that Aggie offense is all but impossible. Even in Alabama's win last year in College Station, the Aggies lit up the Bama defense for historically significant numbers. Just so happens Bama's offense was able to keep pace, and the defense got enough stops to slow (but not stop) the Aggie attack.
Seven games into the college football season, it is clear that Kenny Trill is not Johnny Football. It is clear that the days of dominant offensive line play have receded for the Aggies, if only for this year, as their ace-in-the-hole line has been in a degree of disarray in 2014. And the defensive play for the Aggies continues to be loathsome, placing them near the bottom of CFB's defensive statistics yet again.
But neither is this Bama team representative of teams in the past. Talented, yes. But this team has been winged by injuries. Don't buy the criticisms that there is a lack of leadership on this team. Likewise, it would be foolish to think that the team is simply being lackadaisical in its gameday execution. Maybe, just maybe, this team just doesn't have the key players it needs to knit itself back into its once-dominant form.
Time will tell. In the meantime, we can glean a bit of knowledge about the final outcome from the results of this game. Let's take a closer look, shall we?...
The Alabama offense versus the Texas A&M defense
Let's face it: last week's offensive output was discouraging...frightful, even. Alabama is a running offense, first and foremost. Statistics may vary from year to year, but even when the offense passes more than it rushes, much of the offense is predicated on the Tide's ability to run the ball at will. And Alabama should have been able to do so against and Arkansas defense that isn't particularly good at stopping the run.
But Alabama struggled. Maybe it was the wet field. Maybe. But what, then, explains the running woes against Ole Miss? Ole Miss indeed has a world-class defense this season, but even against great defenses, Bama has been able to run the ball in the past. Against Arky, Alabama saw its lowest rushing totals since 2010 (and we all know what happened that year.)
The problems with the running game are myriad, but most of them have to do with the offensive line play between the tackles (as has been recounted many times in this space previously.) Even before starting center Ryan Kelly was injured, the Tide had trouble imposing its will on opposing defensive fronts. It's clear that this line simply cannot count among its strengths run-blocking. They are effective pass blockers, but when it comes to putting a hand in the dirt, lining up, getting nasty and creating push, they simply have not gotten it done.
What is more troubling is that for whatever reason, no one seems to be able to explain it. Saban himself has copped to the weakness in his descriptions of line play thus far, but he has offered only tangential insight into the story behind the story.
"Maybe with healthier players and more continuity we'll continue to make progress, and I also think that we have to do a better job of executing all the way around. I don't think we've blocked people on the perimeter like we could have, or should have, or have...There's three things: Discipline, execution is really important to being a good football player and being a good football team, giving effort and playing with toughness, that's really important. The rest of it we have to do a better job as coaches of making sure that we're teaching the guys so that they have a better chance to be successful. That's really what we've been of focusing on this week to try and help our players improve. I think we're making progress. You never know until the game comes. That's kind of where it's at right now."
The players have been somewhat tight-lipped, but this week, right tackle Austin Shepherd provided a bit of a mea culpa of his own, from the perspective of a leader on the offensive line who has been around to see the Tide's offensive pinnacle over the last two years.
"Personally, I thought I played terrible. I kind of take responsibility for it. I don't think any of us had a good game. Probably the worst game we've played as a unit just to be straight up. I mean, I thought we were prepared. We just kind of didn't execute like we wanted to...I went back and watched it and it was kind of just one person here and there. I mean, one play I give up a sack, the next play Cam gives up a pressure, the next play right guard gives up pressure, just a lot of inconsistency. We just got to be more consistent."
Regardless of the ultimate cause of the running game woes through which the team has suffered the last two weeks, there is reason for hope. After all, when a team has an ailing running game, the best medicine is the Aggie run defense. The Aggies average 174 rushing yards allowed per game, good for 100th best in the nation. And those numbers are most undoubtedly skewed, as the Aggies have played only three teams that run the ball with authority (Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State). Not coincidentally, the Aggies' only losses have come in two of those games, and it took a come-from-behind effort for aTm to win the third.
Run defense is not the only issue for the Aggies, as the Texas A&M pass defense is currently ranked 92nd, giving up 222 yards passing per game. In total defense, the Aggies are ranked in the nation's lower quadrant as well, at 96th in total defense.
It's never a good sign when a defense has defensive backs listed as its leading tacklers, and outside of linebacker Justin Bass (34 tackles), the top five tacklers in maroon are DBs. Because the Aggies are so weak against the run, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder typically draws safeties up in run support, leaving the corners in man. Against Alabama, this could very well be the Aggies' undoing, as Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White will make hay in man-on-man situations against the fair-to-middlin' Aggie defensive backs. The Ags do have veteran leadership in the backfield, with Deshazor Everett at corner and Howard Matthews at safety. However, it simply won't be enough, as the Tide should have its way with an Aggie defense that has looked confused and disheveled against the stronger offenses it has faced this season.
Despite the Tide's woes in the running game, the offense should be able to score with relative ease against an aTm defense with few stars. One player on the roster may be of concern for Alabama, as defensive end Myles Garrett (23 tackles) is a freshman phenom who is on pace to break Jadeveon Clowney's freshman sack record. He's big and is fast-twitch rusher, and has recorded eight sacks in his freshman campaign (Alabama's entire defense only has 10 total in 2014.) While Garrett and fellow defensive line standout junior Alonzo Williams (26 tackles, three sacks) may make an impact, pass blocking has not been an area of concern for the Tide this year.
Expect Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to use pace to allow quarterback Blake Sims to find his rhythm. The Tide will make a point by bludgeoning that run defense early and often, not only for tactical advantage, but to give the Tide more confidence in its ability to run the ball. If Alabama can establish the run, the play-action game will be very effective against a less-than-equipped Aggie secondary.
The Alabama defenses versus the Texas A&M offense
Conversely, the Aggies' offensive strength plays directly into the weakness of the Alabama defense, namely in regard to pass defense. Sumlin's plan isn't shrouded in mystery: he wants to throw the ball and use his incredible playmakers to stun the Tide with a flurry of punches. It was a successful strategy in 2012, as Manziel and company lashed Bama's defense the way it had not been previously lashed. They jumped to an early 21 point lead from which the Tide simply couldn't recover without flawless execution. In 2013, the Aggies leapt to a 14 point lead before the defense steadied the ship with a few key stops and the Tide offense engaged in the footrace.
Expect no different this year. Just as Kenny Hill and his arsenal of receivers attacked South Carolina in the season opener, the Aggies will attempt to knock Bama's defense off its center early, allowing the offense to find a rhythm and keep its entire playbook viable. The Ags fell behind by 14 against Ole Miss in its most recent game, and the offense simply couldn't thrive under those conditions. If the Aggies fall behind early, they will be able to take fewer chances, and the A&M offense is one that thrives when it can capitalize on big plays.
Sure, Texas A&M has a great offense, both statistically and when exposed to the glare of the eye-test. They are currently ranked first in total offense, and second in passing offense. That much is known, and it is enough to scare the heck out of even the most confident Bama fan. After all, the Tide's struggles in the secondary represent an ongoing nightmare for a defense that once boasted no less than one lockdown corner each and every year. The last two years have been different, however, and the rotation in the backfield continues to change. The Tide has the nation's fifth ranked defense in total yardage allowed, and the third best rushing defense. But when it comes to pass defense, the Tide ranks an uncharacteristically low 31st.
Opposing teams have diagnosed these weaknesses, and they exploit them. Bo Wallace made perfect throws to beat Bama's coverage two weeks ago, and even Brandon Allen was able to slice the Tide secondary early in the Arkansas game. If not for drops and the sloppy weather, Arkansas (which is a running team primarily) may have had one of its best passing outings of the season against Alabama.
But the Aggie passing attack is different from any the Tide has faced this season. Sure, Ole Miss had future NFL'er Laquon Treadwell, and he had a strong game against the Tide secondary. But for perspective, Texas A&M has five receivers with more than 300 yards receiving through seven games. Ricky Seals-Jones leads all receivers with 37 catches, but Josh Reynolds averages 16.4 yards per catch and leads the corps in touchdowns with eight. As of late, freshman sensation and former five-star recruit Speedy Noil has made an impact, as he has 360 yards and three touchdowns on only 27 grabs.
Alabama will probably spend much of the game in nickel and dime packages after spending a great deal of time in its 3-4 base against Arkansas' run-based offense. But it is clear there is a drop-off in talent and/ or experience when there are five DBs on the field, as outside of All-American safety Landon Collins, former wide receiver Cyrus Jones is the most capable veteran of the remaining group. Safeties Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams are good enough against the average opponent, but they have been inconsistent this year and have had many big plays go over their respective heads. There is promise in Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown at corner, but both remain unseasoned and in large part, are still unknown commodities against elite passing teams.
What may be the Bama defense's saving grace in this game is the undercurrent of turmoil among the Aggie offensive line. For the last two seasons, the Aggie line has been loaded with future NFL talent. And it's not that the aTm front is not talented this year. However, they have not been dominant, and have had enough mental errors to give the Aggie faithful pause. Center Mike Matthews has struggled against strong defensive lines, and his snaps have been inconsistent at times. While that may not seem important, for an Aggie offense that depends on cadence and timing, things like low snaps can impact effectiveness. The remainder of the line has had its troubles as well, as Jarvis Harrison and Garrett Gramling have been unable to stem opponents' pass rushes in the same fashion as previous Aggie pass blockers. Tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was expected to be the next in a recent line of NFL linemen, but even he has hurt his stock this season with blown assignments and missed blocks.
With little threat of a potent rushing attack (the Aggies are ranked 40th in rushing offense nationally), expect Saban and Kirby Smart to bring the pass rush and disrupt the passer. Against the fleet-footed Manziel in the previous two games, the coaches have elected to use the mush-rush technique, which involves a less aggressive pass rush designed to force the QB to stay in the pocket and attempt to pass (the effectiveness of the technique can be argued.) This year, however, expect the staff to loose the hounds in regard to the pass rush. A struggling offensive line, less-than-stellar running game and a quarterback who, while athletic, is clearly no Johnny Football should give Alabama's defensive line and linebackers a chance to pin their ears back and pursue Kenny Trill.
If aTm can give Hill time to throw short, quick-release passes, the Aggies will move the ball. However, they have struggled this year (uncharacteristically so for a Sumlin offense) to throw the ball downfield, which is a critical component of Sumlin's overall strategy. If the deep threat is diminished, opposing defensive backs can sit on Sumlin's favored option routes. If the Bama pass rush can pressure the quarterback and disrupt Hill's timing with the wide receivers, the usually almost indefensible option routes will be far less effective. If Hill can't throw the short passes with ease, and the long ball threat isn't present, this game could bear little resemblance to the previous match-ups of the two foes.
For better or worse, neither Alabama nor aTm has played its best game of the season at this point. Both teams are extremely talented, but there has been a lack of urgency evident in the performances of both squads. In large part, it's been the little things for each team that have been problematic. When (not if) either team puts it all together, it will be a day of mourning for their respective unfortunate opponents.
Both teams, likewise, have been heavily criticized by their respective fan bases this season for not reincarnating the successes of the past. Will this vocal calling-out from fans and members of the media become an anchor of self-loathing that leads the teams to call their seasons unsuccessful? Or will the din of negativity serve as a rallying point, a chip on the shoulder, which gives each team a new sense of purpose and urgency? That remains to be seen for both teams, as neither squad has established its identity at this point in the season.
The location in the series have proven immaterial, as since aTm joined the conference, each team has won in the other's habitat. That said, one must believe that Bama is better off playing this particular game in BDS, as Alabama's struggles this year have come on the road (against West Virginia in Atlanta, Ole Miss in Oxford and Arkansas in Fayetteville.) This Alabama team seems to thrive on its home turf. That said, Texas A&M has been explosive on the road offensively, posting an average of 423.7 and 10 touchdowns in three road games versus 375.3 ypg and 16 TDs at home.
The kicking game is a draw, with freshman punting sensation J.K. Scott serving as a weapon in Bama's field position arsenal. Enough can't be said about the job the guy has done in flipping the field and bailing Bama's offense out of bad situations. Rarely are punters considered true weapons, but it is clear why Saban was so eager to sign Scott.
Though Bama gets the nod in the punting game, Texas A&M has the decided advantage at place kicker. The Tide's Adam Griffith has the physical tools, but he has struggled with consistency this year. The Aggie place kicker, Josh Lambo, has conversely flourished, as he is a perfect 40-of-40 on point-after attempts and is 7-of-8 on field goal attempts (with a long of 50...his only miss came from 40+ yards.)
And then there's the return game. While A&M uses freshman receiver Speedy Noil to great effect on returns (Noil is averaging 24.3 yards per return), the Alabama return game has proven a liability. Against Arkansas, Bama's return game became a comedy of errors, with the ball being put on the turf early and often. One could easily blame such foibles on the soggy weather last weekend, if not for the fact that Bama returner Christion Jones has put the ball on the ground previously this year, and misjudged the proper tactic on other return attempts. For whatever reason, the Tide special teams (outside of Scott) are a shambles, and as Saban has said in the past, special teams are just as important to the outcome of a game as the offense and defense. There is much for Bama fans to fear when Bama sends its special teams on the field, as bad, bad things can (and have) happened.
Alabama needs to rebound in this game, and it will take vastly improved execution to get out of this one with a win (despite the ridiculous 14.5 favorite Vegas has made the Tide.) Texas A&M will test the Tide defense the way no one else has this year, and that is a scary thought in and of itself. Will the Tide be able to pass its next exam heading into a brutal stretch run to finish the season? Or will Sumlin and Kenny Trill use this opportunity to once again leap into legend?
Many questions remain unanswered, but these things will come to light on what promises to be a beautiful Tuscaloosa Saturday afternoon.
As always...hope for the best.