2014 brought a lot of changes to Tuscaloosa, and more than its share of questions.
After years of running a relatively staid one-back, run-first offense that had seemingly lost a step, the successful-but-loathed Doug Nussmeier was “encouraged to find other opportunities.” Alabama’s inability to consistently dial-up successful running plays late against Auburn, fogetting about Derrick Henry in the Sugar Bowl, and an unforgivable goal line pass call against Texas A&M probably doomed Nuss, at the end of the day. The Tide lost all three games, and many attributed play-calling as more than partially responsible for the ‘Bama’s losses.
So, it was with some surprise that the then-recently fired and disgraced Lane Kiffin came to Tuscaloosa, first as an observer and then as the Tide’s offensive coordinator.
His task was not an easy one.
The Tide’s two-year recent exodus of talent saw Alabama lose Eddie Lacy, Trent Richardson, several all-world offensive linemen, and the best quarterback in program history. We’ll not even go into a fanbase that was resistant to a coach that many remember as the mouthy punk at Tennessee and deserved victim of Rocky Block. In what would now be a four-year offseason worry, the offensive line had questions and was unsettled on the right side. The secondary had lost its best performers to the draft. And, though the DB corps suited up an ungodly 21 players, there were not any reassuring answers: Too many were freshmen (Marlon Humphrey, Tony Brown, Levi Wallace, Anthony Averett, Hootie Jones); injured (Ronny Clark); players needing to prove their worth (Cyrus Jones, Geno Smith, Eddie Jackson;) role players (Maurice Smith, Jabriel Washington;) or just plain didn’t pan out/have the talent (Bradley Sylve.)
(Having flashbacks yet?)
Many thought that FSU transfer Jake Coker could be the answer to at least one of the questions under center. But, he would not be available until the Fall. And, in his spot appearances, it was clear that Coker still didn’t have it. He hadn’t mastered the playbook; his release and decision-making were slow...he just wasn’t there. That left Alabama’s QB depth chart a disaster: two freshmen (Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell,) a redshirt sophomore clipboard guy (Alec Morris,) and a senior converted athlete, Blake Sims. The latter was the only player with a few, but meaningless, snaps under his belt.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, Blake Sims won the tentative starting job in what would-be a month-long quarterback battle with Coker. And, man, Sims’ first start against West Virginia was not reassuring. He did a decent job moving the ball, but he seemed to have limited arm strength, he was not making plays with his athleticism, and he was slow recognizing coverages.
Yes, Alabama won that ugly game, 33-23. The next week Alabama would paste an historically-bad FAU team 42-0. Week Three brought another tuneup win, 52-12, this time against a rebuilding Southern Mississippi team that had gone winless the season before. No one was fooled by wins over the C-USA, Sun Belt and Big 12. So, there was palpable concerns when the Tide opened its SEC schedule the following week against the 2-0 Florida Gators, they of the All-SEC talent up front, All-Americans in the secondary, and a Saban disciple/defensive guru on
After forcing a a quick Florida three-and-out, and a beautiful 58-yard Gator punt, it looked like the two teams were going to settle in for an old-fashioned SEC defensive slug fest.
Then, on Alabama’s first play of the game, at their own 13-yard line, the Tide came out in an empty set...and magic happened.
87 yards later, a new Blake Sims was born, a new Tide weapon was found, a new Alabama Crimson Tide team took the field, and the quarterback battle was effectively over. We know how that season ended, of course, highlighted by an unexpected SEC title and an improbable appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff. For Sims it would be the first of many deep shots that terrified SEC defenses and allowed him to have the best season ever by an Alabama quarterback. That season, incidentally, also allowed Amari Cooper to have the best season ever by a Tide wideout, and win the school’s first ever Biletnikoff trophy.
More importantly, for an Alabama offense trying to find its identity, that 87-yard bomb was the most important play of the early season.
A few years ago, we went further in depth on this dagger in our “Inside the Play” series with Coach Kyle. Feel free to see how this play developed and why it was so successful.
87 days ‘til Alabama football.