Two things were uttered over the course of the first two days of 2009 that provide some insight into what happened Friday night [2 January] in New Orleans.
On Thursday after Southern Cal took care of Penn State, Pete Carroll stated that he does not think that “anyone could beat the Trojans.” Hmm, really? Because last time I checked, the Oregon State Beavers DID beat the Trojans. Now granted, he did go on to state that Southern Cal was “hard to beat right now” [emphasis added], and that means a lot. More on that in a second.
During the halftime segment of last evening’s [refusal to add the corporate label] Sugar Bowl, Jimmy Johnson (I believe) stated that Alabama was prepared to play for the BCS championship; Utah was prepared to play for the Sugar Bowl. Also very telling. Observe.
It could be argued that through the Alabama-Georgia game (and even until the end of October) that no one “could beat the [Crimson Tide].” They jumped out to an early lead that forced other teams to adjust their game plan. That was the Tide’s M.O. early on in the season. Shock and awe! And it worked. But college football — especially at the bowl level — is all about trends. And Alabama sputtered down the stretch and both Florida and Utah took them out and made them look vulnerable. Certainly, Southern Cal was dominant against Penn State. But had the two teams played on 25 September, it probably would have been the other way. So Alabama did not play the way that they did earlier in the season. That takes nothing away from Utah — the Utes cold streak was in early November [New Mexico thenTCU — both 13-10 wins], but Alabama had lost momentum towards the end of the season. The Tide hit their cold streak at the wrong time.
The second item is about preparation. Utah was very well prepared and executed to perfection. Alabama looked disappointed to be there, perhaps reverting back to the belief that Alabama should play for the BCS title every year (and quickly forgetting about the back-to-back 6-6 regular seasons). And I have already read message boards of ‘Bama fans who are “ashamed” to be Tide fans simply for being outcoached and outplayed by a Utah team that was not intimidated by Dixie’s Football Pride.
And I know that some will place blame on the fact that Alabama was missing arguably their best player on either side of the ball — junior left tackle Andre Smith. Save it. Yes, it did have an impact on Alabama’s game plan and it did play into the hands of Utah. Alabama has a great offensive line that is anchored by Smith. That is very hard to argue. But I have seen enough Alabama games this year (thanks to CBS) to know that the Tide’s O-line is an excellent run–blocking line. The line is an average to good pass-blocking line. The passing game is predicated on the running game and being able to utilize the play-action pass. Now, Smith’s absence and the shuffling of the offensive line obviously played a role in changing the game plan as Alabama loves to run behind Smith (and rightfully so). So I do believe that this perhaps led to Alabama throwing more than they wanted to and staying away from the run. Therefore, you can point to the suspension of Andre Smith for being the reason that Alabama lost to Utah.
HOWEVER, I think that to make that argument as the only reason Utah won is an injustice to the gameplan of Kyle Whittingham and the Utah coaching staff. Great coaches and great teams make adjustments when there is a major change in the depth chart and starting lineup. If Alabama was really that good, then the Tide would have made the necessary adjustments and executed a gameplan that would have played out better. But the shallowness of the Alabama depth chart really showed and Alabama had no answer for Utah’s defense (which was more impressive than the Utes’ offense). Alabama’s defense did get it going and was able to contain Utah after the first quarter, but by that time the Alabama’s offensive gameplan had deteriorated faster than Joe the Plumber’s popularity. EVEN IF Smith was in the lineup, the fact that Utah jumped up so quickly would have changed Alabama’s offensive mindset. Basically, Utah did what Alabama did to Clemson and Georgia — jumped up early and make the opponent go against their “comfort zone.”
So, Alabama fans, give credit where credit is due [granted, some have, but I have also seen a lot of whining]. Perhaps if the two teams played on 27 September, Alabama would have crushed the Utes. But they played on 2 January and Utah was clearly the dominant team. It could have been much worse had it not been for an incredible punt return by Javier Arenas and the early third quarter Brian Johnson fumble. Utah was the better team and it showed.