So, who needs a defense, anyway?
In a game that further signals the advancement of Big 12 football into the SEC, Alabama outscored and outlasted Ole Miss in Oxford, 63-48. It was the highest scoring game in Alabama history, and featured almost 1,400 combined yards of offense.
Being that this is an Alabama football program that has prided itself on defense over the years, we have plenty to say about a unit that surrendered 48 points. Let’s start with some positives though, shall we?
Through three games, this offense is historically great and not just by Alabama standards. Mac Jones is currently crushing Joe Burrow’s record passer rating from 2019 by nearly 10 percent at 220.3 vs. Burrow’s historic Heisman season at 202, and playing only SEC opponents to boot. To be frank, if he stays at that level, the Heisman will be a mere formality. There is simply no way that you can ignore the numbers he is putting up in the league that puts far more defensive players in the NFL than any other.
Against the Rebels, the Tide put up 10.1 yards per play. That is not per pass, folks, but per play. They had 43 first down snaps but only 21 second down snaps, and seven (!) third down snaps. They converted on six of the seven. Indeed, while the defense did itself no favors, part of the reason for the sheer number of total yards and points allowed was the number of possessions afforded the Ole Miss offense because their own defense couldn’t keep Alabama from scoring at a rapid pace, despite the Tide making every effort to commit to the run game. Alabama scored nine offensive touchdowns, rushed for 306 yards, and yet only held the ball for a shade over 28 minutes. That is patently absurd.
Everything about the offense was nearly flawless. There was one miscommunication between Alex Leatherwood and Miller Forristall that led to a sack, and Najee Harris fumbled on the goal line. On the fumble, the play should have been blown dead anyway, but Harris still needs to do a better job of protecting the ball in traffic there. I guess we can forgive Najee for that one though, being that he ran for 206 yards on 23 carries with five touchdowns, and added another 42 yards on three catches. Brian Robinson, Jr. was a beast as well, with 10 carries for 76 yards and a score.
The passing game was, of course, similarly flawless. Mac completed 87.5% of his passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns, with nothing even close to resembling an interceptable pass... and actually lowered his season passer rating by a smidge. DeVonta Smith had the starring role as a receiver in this one, accumulating a ton of YAC on his 13/164/1. Jaylen Waddle had a slightly smaller role this week, but he made perhaps the most critical play of the game on a leaping grab to put the Tide in scoring position late, where they finally managed to get a two score advantage. John Metchie didn’t get much action in the passing game this time, but his signature moment was manhandling his DB down the field on Smith’s score.
Other than the one miscommunication, the offensive line had little trouble with Ole Miss. Mac rarely had to move off his spot and the holes in the run game were substantial. I’m sure that film study will afford the coaches some teachable moments, but as a fan it’s tough to find much to gripe about from an offensive standpoint. The Tide had the ball 11 times, scored nine TDs, punted once, and got the ball to the one yard line before fumbling on the other.
So, about that defense...
Before we get into the many issues, some context is needed. This Ole Miss bunch has now played Florida, the Kentucky defense that just shut out Mike Leach yesterday, and Alabama. Against Florida they managed 7.9 yards per play, Kentucky “held” them to 6.9 per play, and Alabama surrendered 7.5 to them. Coming into the Alabama game they had converted 57% of their third downs, and Alabama allowed them to convert 53%. This offense is lights out, and Lane Kiffin is a mastermind at manipulating college defenders. Of course, at Alabama we expect the defense to be very near the top of the heap, and based on these limited numbers it was decidedly average compared to what others have done against the Rebels.
There is even a little bit of positivity for the defense. Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe have done a phenomenal job, and last night was no exception. Of Matt Corral’s 22 completions, 18 of them went to tight end Kenny Yeboah and slot receiver Elijah Moore. Surtain and Jobe have rarely been so much as targeted early in the season, which makes the defensive stats even more baffling. Malachi Moore has played reasonably well in the slot, particularly for a freshman, but he was victimized a bit by an elite player in Elijah Moore.
The most glaring problem is the safety position. Poor Daniel Wright seems to be giving a lot of effort, but he is routinely out of position. There were several examples last night, but the most glaring was an unconscionable decision to gamble for an interception, that he never had even a slight chance at snagging, thus allowing a long walk-in touchdown to Yeboah on the first possession of the second half and squandering the Tide’s first lead. Unfortunately Demarco Hellams hasn’t looked a whole lot better in the limited game action he has seen. Jordan Battle has been seemingly pretty solid, but he was tossed for targeting and will miss the first half of the Georgia game. It will be interesting and a bit terrifying to see what the coaches do at safety next week. That was the one position on the field that we didn’t know much about in the preseason, and thus far it has been an utter disaster. It’s almost like the football gods will never let you have a flawless team, no matter the recruiting success.
While it is early yet and improvement is possible, we probably have to accept that the secondary is going to have some issues. We knew that was a possibility. Of much greater concern, at least to me, was the performance of the front four last night. There has been a glaring inability to set the edge thus far, with neither Will Anderson nor Christopher Allen showing much ability to do that. Allen in particular got pinned inside by the tackles last night more times than I care to count. That simply cannot happen when the offense has the secondary spread out all over the field.
The front did manage to get a fair amount of pressure on Matt Corral, but time after time he managed to escape the grasp of defenders. Yes, he is a very good player, but there really is no excuse for the level of athletes Alabama deploys to blow so many tackles in the backfield. Hopefully this will improve going forward. The defensive line was supposed to be much improved and deeper than the unit we saw last year, and while returns were better in the first two weeks, last night the front four was a weakness. It’s hard to imagine an Alabama championship if this group doesn’t perform much better than this.
Dylan Moses and Christian Harris looked confused all night as Kiffin kept them in conflict. Moses said after the game that he believed that Ole Miss knew Alabama’s defensive calls and constantly had the right play called against them, which is the kind of thing that can get into a player’s head. Needless to day, Moses’ leadership was the other key cog in a purportedly improved Alabama defense, and last night there seemed to be little impact.
As expected after allowing 647 yards and 48 points, many fans are calling for Pete Golding’s head. To be sure, his platoon was in utter disarray last night. I am still skeptical that Saban blames Golding for the bulk of the issues though, and his postgame comments seemed to reinforce that notion. I could be misreading it, but Saban still appears to take responsibility for the scheme and the failures. It will be interesting to see if he makes any adjustments in roles on the staff. Of course, if he does we may not know it until well after the fact.
Alabama punted only once and it went for 40 yards. There was a great opportunity to down it inside the five, but Wright, poor kid, somehow let it get into the end zone. While he kicked nothing but extra points tonight, it’s hard not to be impressed with the way that Will Reichard confidently drills the ball. We will see how his results are going forward, but he kicks with a lot of confidence.
In the end, Alabama is undefeated through three games and now has the most anticipated game of the season coming up. The offense looks nothing short of otherworldly, though offenses all over the country are exploding. Kiffin mentioned the offseason chaos as a reason that college defenses who have to replace a significant number of starters are doing as poorly as they are, and there probably is some correlation there. Still, Alabama’s offense has been historically good and the defense historically bad.
If both keep up, it’s possible to win a title but there will be some nauseating moments along the way. Alabama fans will never get accustomed to giving up yards and points at this pace, and Nick Saban certainly won’t. The matchup next week should be better for the defense from a schematic standpoint, but considering what we saw last night that inspires little confidence. As of now, we have to assume that, like last season, we will go as far as a historic offense will take us.
Keep firing, Mac.