It just wasn't supposed to end this way.
Alabama rolled into the Sugar Bowl as a solid favorite, looked like the better team in jumping out to a sizable lead early, and then got simply railroaded by Ohio State to drop the Sugar Bowl 42-35. The loss ends the season for the Tide about ten days before we wanted, but considering how the game played out it's hard to believe that the team would have been able to compete with Oregon in the title game anyway. Some familiar flaws showed up in this one, and the Buckeyes managed to exploit each and every one. Some initial impressions:
Offensively, it was once again difficult to figure out the game plan. Coming into the game, much was discussed about the Alabama run game and the difficult matchup it presented for a Buckeye team that had been gashed with regularity. Star tailbacks TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry performed well, averaging well over 6.0 yards per carry including a robust 7.3 for Henry, yet they were only allowed a combined 23 rushes. This is especially baffling considering that Ohio State's defense was seemingly focused on taking away Amari Cooper, holding him to only 71 yards, his second-lowest output of the season. There were several head-scratching moments in this regard.
On the Tide's first possession of the second half, Blake Sims opened with an 18 yard scramble for a first down. On the following play, Yeldon gains eight yards to put the Tide in a favorable second and short, only to see two pass plays called with both resulting in sacks. The following drive was just as maddening, as Yeldon and Henry gained over 30 yards on three carries to get some breathing room following a punt to the Alabama one-yard line, only to see a short four-yard pass to Fowler on first down and an interception for a touchdown on third. First possession of the fourth quarter with the Tide down only six: Two Derrick Henry runs net a first down, then four consecutive passes net a punt. By contrast, Alabama's two touchdown drives in the first quarter featured seven rushes for more than 70 yards against only three passes. It's easy to point to a rough passing performance by Sims in his final college game as a culprit for this loss, evidenced by three interceptions plus a dismal 2-of-13 third down conversion rate that played a huge role, but one simply has to wonder what would have happened had the second half strategy emulated the 2012 SEC Championship game against Georgia where Alabama simply committed to running the ball. Top backs Eddie Lacy and Yeldon combined for a roughly-double 45 carries against only 21 passes in that one to send the Tide to the title game.
Defensively the Tide was exposed for the second time in three games, allowing a robust 537 yards including 281 on the ground. Featured back Ezekiel Elliott ran all over Alabama for 230 yards on 20 carries, with an 85 yard TD bolstering those numbers on the first series after star LB Reggie Ragland left the game with an apparent concussion as freshman Shaun Dion Hamilton was pancaked out of the hole with a crack-back block by a wide receiver. The Tide managed to hold QB Cardale Jones down from an efficiency standpoint, but he made every play he needed to with his arm and his legs as the Buckeyes converted a ridiculous 10-of-18 on third down. Indeed, it could be said that the third-down performance was the difference in this one as the Buckeyes continually managed to get off the field while Alabama couldn't. The secondary once again proved susceptible to the big play, allowing four passes of 25 yards or more. Early in the game the pass rush was strong but failed to get the massive Jones on the ground allowing for some big scrambles. As the game wore on it appeared that Alabama was content to let the Buckeye QB sit in the pocket and take its chances with him throwing the ball. The strategy worked to a large degree as the Buckeyes really didn't manage any sustained drives in the second half, scoring on a deep pass, the aforementioned 85-yard run, and an interception return. No matter how you slice it, the 2014 defense just couldn't live up to the lofty standards set by some of its recent predecessors.
Much will be written and discussed about the Alabama program moving forward as another top-ranked recruiting class will be signed in February and another QB competition will be featured in the fall. As far as the 2014 team goes, I think it is fair to say that they overachieved. Blake Sims has some well-chronicled limitations at the QB position, but he stepped up and squeezed every bit of performance he could out of the tools he was given while acting as the team leader and showing a ton of heart. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin deserves credit for contributing to Blake's development, occasional game plan issues notwithstanding. Amari Cooper had a season for the ages, landing himself in New York for the Heisman ceremony. He is expected and even encouraged to enter the NFL Draft along with Landon Collins, as both will likely be the first players chosen at their respective positions. A few other players have decisions to make in that regard, most notably Reggie Ragland and TJ Yeldon. Senior leadership will have to be replaced again on both sides of the ball in Sims and MLB Trey DePriest. In any event, the season may not have ended how we had hoped it would, but I have enjoyed following this group of young men who put it all out on the field every Saturday and managed to overcome adversity many times on the way to a record 24th SEC Championship. It was a fun team and another highly successful season under Coach Nick Saban's leadership. Great times to be an Alabama fan, folks. Roll Tide.