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Aftermath: Ignore the big themes — small breakdowns of The Process led to a loss against Clemson

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The unthinkable happened, but the warning signs were there all night for an off-kilter Alabama team

Johnny Cash Singing

The point of the below is not to provide a separate Initial Impressions. I’ve never written one; never want to, to be honest. Josh has his own, excellent article up. Instead, I am trying to highlight some little mistakes, and underanalyzed errors, that have been at play all season. Specifics from this game are brought up, to be sure. But Monday night was a culmination of small sins that Alabama had survived for 14 weeks while relying on a transcendent defense and preying on the mistakes of other opponents. Feel free to add your own small season-long gripes (return game, Tony Brown’s recklessness, etc.)

Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll read much about how Alabama lost this game. The immediate diagnoses are already out. And, as predicted, most are glib and do not really delve into the small things that added up to give Saban his first blown championship game and the first loss at Alabama when leading by double-digits in the 4th quarter.

And, that is really the most damning part about this loss: Alabama, a team that prides itself on doing the small things right, on playing to a standard, did none of those things well enough tonight to beat a team with a two-time Heisman finalist and NFL talent across the board (Clemson’s recruiting rankings average 13th over the past five years — this team has excellent talent.) It was out-executed by a sharper team with a cohesive coaching staff experienced in working with one another. And, as much as it pains me to type that, it is a tough truth that the returning players must live with and the coaches learn from: The Process is there for a reason.

Feel free to add your own small breakdowns in the comments. These are my observations.

But, first, some mood music:

  • Guard play: The offensive line has been a breath-holding affair all season. Pierschbacher has not really looked comfortable pass blocking at LG following the move from center. Worse, for the fourth year in a row, right guard has been a hit or miss affair and a revolving door. Alabama’s inability to get consistent push on the interior, or pressure on Hurts right up the middle, is directly traceable to either the personnel, Brent Key’s coaching, unit chemistry, or a combination of these things.
  • Cam Robinson’s penalties: Alabama would not be where it is without Big 74: let’s get that out of the way first. However, he has been mentally inconsistent throughout his career and very prone to mental errors. This season has been worse than most with his pre-snap and procedural penalties — and he was absolutely at his worst, mentally, in the playoffs. Robinson put the offense behind the chains on 1st- and 3rd-down five times against Washington and Clemson. Four of those drives were inside opponents’ territory. Alabama failed to score any of the five times, including two in the first half tonight.

I feel bad about singling out Robinson for attention regarding penalties. Penalties have plagued Alabama all season at inopportune times. However, the drive-killing, critical penalties that take potential points off the board and destroy momentum, have really been in his stock-in-trade this season... and were particularly apparent in his playoff performance, where he did not earn himself any money as the NFL draft rolls around. There is more to protecting a freshman quarterback than blocking -- there’s playing smart and not making Hurts’ learning curve even more difficult.

  • Wide receiver drops: Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Bo Scarbrough, OJ Howard, and Gehrig Dieter all had drops, all on catchable and even wide open passes. Combine those uncharacteristic drops with the inconsistent interior play and presnap penalties, both of which haunted Alabama tonight as they have throughout the season, and the offense was consistently behind the chains. As a group, this unit rarely comes back to the ball. Tonight was no different. Hurts will wrongly get the criticism for a team loss tonight, but the OL and WRs rarely put Hurts in a position to succeed, and those units deserve the lion’s share of that opprobrium.
  • Playcalling and personnel: Nick Saban gets criticized for being too conservative. In this case, with the “mutual” departure of Lane Kiffin, he was perhaps too aggressive. Sarkisian’s motto is balance. However, tonight we saw much more balance than good sense warranted.

Alabama as a team rushed for 6.8 yards a carry — unfortunately, the Tide only carried the ball 34 times. Of those carries, only 24 went to the backs. Even when Bo Scarbrough went down, Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs were moving the ball -- Harris was over 5 yards a carry and Jacobs at 4.8. However, Jacobs and Harris only had 8 carries between them. The nation’s No. 2 opponent-adjusted offense damned sure can muster more than 24 carries spread among three running backs. And, this has been an issue all season long. There was a time when Alabama platooned its backs better than most anyone in the country. The past two seasons that has not been the case, even in this season when the RB corps went a legitimate 4-deep.

And, while Sark’s overall scheme was better than Kiffin’s of the past few weeks (receivers were finding space, the passing wasn’t as predictable, etc.,) the rust did show, notably with panicky pass-calling when Clemson would score despite still leading: A true freshman quarterback, nursing a lead for 55:22 of game time, had no business putting the ball in the air 34 times, especially with the wide receiver drops, penalties, and offensive line play. It put the Alabama defense on the field way too many times — the game-winning touchdown toss was the 98th play a thin defense faced. I have no doubt Coach Saban will sort that one out.

  • Depth and communication: No, this is not my normal harangue about depth for the sake of depth, it is about the impact that injuries and lack of depth had on the best starting 11 in the game. The Tide defense, down Eddie Jackson, could absolutely afford no more injuries. Then, the SEC Championship game came, and Shaun Dion-Hamilton was lost for the year with an ACL injury. With those two players absent, the Alabama defense just has not been the same since. They were the smartest play-callers on the field (with SDH calling the defense as often as Foster;) they were responsible for ensuring communication. Tonight you saw frequent miscommunication. You saw the loss of leadership and defensive IQ with those two gone. Alabama had mostly dodged disaster despite having those breakdowns for the past month. But, a great quarterback like Deshaun Watson is absolutely going to be heady enough to spot it, calm enough to deliver it, and accurate enough to make even the best defense pay for being out of position. Brandon Allen feasted on communication breakdowns; Chad Kelly almost beat this team based on communication breakdowns; Deshaun Watson did.

There are many, many more takeaways from tonight. I could probably write a 50,000 word treatise on it, as could you. I will let you fill in your favorites below. But, for my part, I will not chalk the season up as a failure. Alabama played 13 freshmen this year; three of which rotated heavily or were starters on the offense. That offense, by the way, is brand spanking new and was helmed by a true freshman who was 17 years old in July. Despite the warts and growing pains, and despite the consistency issues on offense, and despite the transfers and MASH unit of injuries to the Tide this season, Alabama nonetheless swept its rivals, won 14 games, took home its 26th SEC title, made its third straight CFB Playoff appearance, and was one snap and 2 seconds away from going wire-to-wire. The scary part is, Alabama could potentially be better next season. This program is going nowhere; the talent is not evaporating; this coach’s desire isn’t waning; and the kids returning will carry a burning need for vindication until we do it all over again next year.

That’s pretty damned good no matter how you look at it.

Roll Tide.