Midseason Grade: B- (with a huge asterisk)
Final Grade: A-
This is going to be, as always at Alabama, a referendum on the defensive coordinator. Grab a cup o’ joe, and let’s chat.
Thus, while it is somewhat unfair to criticize Pete solely for the defense’s woes, he must get docked on his ability to adjust to the game in real time. Alabama has done a fantastic job adjusting at the halftime (one quarter against A&M aside). That cannot be denied. Alabama has surrendered 117 points on the season — just 34 have occurred after halftime. The fact that the Tide is adjusting so well means that, like the 9 new starters on the field, Pete is also learning as he goes: the coach can be coached. So to Golding also goes that credit (as well as Coach Saban, Coach Strong, and Coach Kelly, who are helping him learn his way with halftime adjustments).
But perhaps the biggest adjustment of all has been in the staff’s collective realization that you go to war with the troops you have, not the ones that you want. It is a rebuilt defense that performs better with the play in front of them, that is more physical and assignment-sound when it is kept simple, and that can rely on their athleticism to make plays rather than scheme. The past three games of the Alabama Crimson Tide defense look almost nothing like the first three...and the real start began in the second half against Georgia.
One needn’t peruse my writings too long over the prior two-plus years to gauge my feelings about the Alabama defensive coaching staff at times. The SparkNotes version is this: Pete Golding was woefully out of his league. He did not have enough experience coaching the various position groups (and many he had not coached at all). He schemed poorly; he adjusted even worse. His background is in a multiple-look, blitz-heavy scheme and not in the 3-4, and it showed. Yet, for all of those deficits, he was still better than Tosh Lupoi, an able recruiter, an excellent position coach, and a man who just will never have “it” to coach Nick Saban’s defense.
Ask me how I feel going into 2021?
Well, in the offensive coaching review, I said that there were two coaches that is absolutely critical that Alabama gives a raise to and extends their contract; one on each side of the ball. Holmon Wiggins was one, and the other is the much-maligned Pete Golding.
Nick Saban and the UA Board of Trustees beat me to the punch. Pete Golding did, in fact, get an extension and a raise last month. He is now earning a cool $1.5m, and is on staff through Feb. 2024.
And you know what? He earned it. He came to Alabama with a lot of supposed potential, which we frankly did not see his first season. His second year, 2019, there were flashes at time that he was truly getting it. But there were still far too many deficiencies in the minds of many to justify retaining him for 2020. Then, as last season rolled around, and it was apparent from Saban’s full-throated defense of Golding, we would have to learn to live with him and come to an uneasy peace.
That was a detente that seemed irreparably damaged following the University of Alabama surrendering a program record in rushing yards allowed and total yards allowed in Oxford, Mississippi. Lane Kiffin surely schemed for that game for 10 months, but the competency gap was glaring. You had a neophyte matching wits with one of the game’s luminaries, and it absolutely showed.
Golding was certainly not helped out by a disinterested Christian Barmore, a pass rush that was getting close but not sealing the deal, a safety position that was targeted gleefully every time No. 3 stepped on the field, Dylan Moses attempting to run the defense for the first time ever — coming off an injury no less, and a lot of youth and inexperience on the defensive line.
Personnel, in short, comprised a significant extenuating circumstance, and one that was not fully within his control. Getting all of those guys playing their assignments were the responsibilities of the position coaching. Getting the right plays called up was his. And, for a full month, he frankly seemed to be stuck in neutral.
But, as players got more reps and saw what they were supposed to do, as they executed, as Barmore began playing to his First Round potential, as young DBs stepped up the defense not only improved, it positively shined. They played fast, they played aggressive, they played with a purpose and assignment-sound. And, even when they didn’t start the game with their best foot forward, they usually got there after halftime, when — and get this — Pete Golding made the right adjustments.
The end result, in a year where Alabama had zero FCS gimmes or paycheck beatdowns, is that the Crimson Tide defense ranked first in the SEC in scoring defense (19.4 points per game) and third in rushing defense, passing defense and total defense. Given the start that they had, the babies all over the field, and the fact that Alabama played a full third of its season against teams ranked in the Top 20 of adjusted offense, that is a hell of a statement.
Here are the adjusted stats between 2019 and 2020, and bear in mind that Alabama played 13 FBS games, including 10 SEC games, an SEC Championship, and two playoff opponents:
2019 SEC PPG: 25.4 (3rd)
2020 SEC PPG: 19.4 (1st)
2019 RYPG: 137.15 (37th national; 7th SEC)
2020 RYPG: 113.08 (17th, 3rd SEC)
2019 Passing Defense (3rd, SEC)
2020 Passing Rating Defense (3rd, SEC)
2019 Total Defense (5th, SEC)
2020 Total Defense (3rd, SEC)
Alabama held ten of its 13 opponents to 24 points or fewer. It pitched a shutout against ‘State and surrendered a grand total of 6 points against the Wildcats and Hogs. After the bye, the Tide allowed just 36 points in its final four games. ‘Bama held its two playoff opponents to 38 total points, and 24 of those were in second-half garbage time. Were it not for Super Bowls against two of the best in the biz, Dan Mullen and Lane Kiffin, Alabama’s defensive stats would have crushed last year’s in practically every category. But, you know what? At the end of the day, yards and points aside, the defense got the stops they needed to. They won games. And the Tide won a title.
The same cannot be said for 2019.
Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. But great players often grow into their greatness, sometimes taking a full three- or four-year cycle. This year will be Golding’s third full season, and between his recruiting, his demonstrable improvement against a brutal schedule in almost impossible circumstances, and the faith that he has earned from the Head Man, the extension and raise were warranted. This is an era where teams with elite talent are just not going to go down without swinging for the fences. And as much as we don’t like bend-don’t-break, Pete is learning to master that style of play.
Grade the 2020 Alabama defensive coaching
This poll is closed
B / B-
C / C+
C- or lower (explain yourself WITHOUT mentioning Ole Miss)