The End of the End? How Alabama Lost and What it Means for the College Football Landscape

You’re an underdog.  You go into the game  essentially carrying the pride of your home state on your shoulders.  And, despite the pressure and seemingly impossible chances, you pull out a landmark victory for your program.

But, enough about South Alabama’s victory over San Diego State.  I want to talk about Alabama’s loss to Mississippi.

Now, I choose those words carefully.  Alabama LOST.  It is not to diminish what Mississippi did, which is WIN.  But, it is a fact that one team wins and one team loses; this is not soccer, after all.  And Mississippi did what they needed to do to win the game; good on them.  Besides, we’re not in the business of saying x-team lost and NOT y-team won [see this and this].

But the focal point of Alabama’s loss is related to how they played last night and more worthy of examination than what Mississippi did to win the game.  But, to give fair light to the latter…

Mississippi made plays with what they were given.  In any game, teams are handed situations with which they must handle.  Sometimes you are handed favorable situations and your tasks are much easier and the path absent of large hurdles.  In other cases, teams find disavantages and more obstacles with which to overcome.  Mississippi fell into the former — their job was made much easier thanks to Alabama miscues.  BUT, you still must capitalize on those “gifts.”  And that is what good teams do; that is what the Rebels did!

Look at the Florida-Florida State game in 2014.  The Seminoles continued to give the Gators gifts.  On three of tFSU’s first four possessions, Jameis Winston threw interceptions, giving Florida an excellent opportunity.  And what came of that?  Two field goals, plus another field goal [after a Seminole punt], and then a pick-six for Florida State.  A game that ended up 24-19 in favor of the Garnet and Gold could have easily been a runaway for Florida.  Instead, the Gators could not take advantage of the easier path presented to them and Florida State overcame their more difficult path.

Back to last night, Mississippi did what Florida [v. Florida State] could not; take advantage.  Again, that is what good teams do and Mississippi proved that they are at least good enough to take those opportunities and make the most of it.  And that is why Mississippi won the game.

But, how did Alabama (equally) lose the game?  And, what does it reflect on the state of the current great dynasty of college football?

Alabama lost based on a couple of factors.  First and foremost are the turnovers.  The very first one was self-inflicted — an Alabama player stumbling into returner ArDarius Stewart, which caused Stewart to fumble the football.  This was NOT a play directly caused by Mississippi; this was self-inflicted.  It made it easier for the Rebels and while Alabama’s defense stood tall, the score was still 3-0 right out of the box.  The other fumbled kickoff was all Mississippi; they directly caused the fumble and made the recovery.  All credit to them on that one.

What about the interceptions?  Again, Mississippi defensive backs caught the picks [and honestly dropped a couple of others], so it is not necessarily “self-inflicted.”  But, one can point to the decision-making of the Alabama QBs.  Cooper Bateman’s interception was on an ill-advised throw downfield.  Jake Coker’s first pick occurred when he stared down OJ Howard and CJ Johnson made a play on the ball.  Coker’s second interception was a back-foot throw that was completely unnecessary.

In all three cases, Mississippi defenders made the plays that they were supposed to make.  But in each of those three interceptions, the Alabama QBs made the job for the defenders easier than necessary.  The third pick was perhaps the most telling of what Alabama’s larger offensive issue may be.  It appeared that Coker did not go through his progressions; on that play he had players open in the shorter field.  And, given there was plenty of time remaining, that deep ball was completely unnecessary.  And yet, like the Johnson pick, Coker seemed to not just focus in on one player, but when pressured attempted to force it to that one player.  He deserved to get picked for that throw.  It was panicky and was not a great example of quality decision-making.

Ah, man!

Ah, man!

In the long term, that is an issue.  Bateman did not play poorly, and I think that had they stuck with Bateman, the read-option was going to open up the running for the QB.  ESPN highlighted how Mississippi collapsed on the running back, which would have allowed the QB to take off towards the left side of the field.  It was there, but the change at QB was made, and probably the better decision.  After all, Coker did make plays, both with his arm and his feet.

But, Coker’s ability to check down seems to be absent and that appeared to hurt Alabama last night.  There is a reason he did not beat out Blake Sims last season and the QB race this season was (and probably still is) unsettled.

Still, there is another offensive issue — the lack of a deep threat.  Look at how many times Alabama went deep and how, in each case, there was no true separation.  This is reinforced by 5.0 yards per pass attempt rate.  By not being able to stretch the field, it will make things tough on the run game.

For what it is worth, the run game is still solid.  Mississippi has a strong front line and did well shutting down the rushing attack early.  But, Alabama still averaged 5.1 yards on the ground and Derrick Henry still got his yards (23 for 127 and a touchdown).  But, I was still impressed with Mississippi’s defense.

Mississippi’s offense, on the other hand…I was less impressed with this.  Yes, some will point to the 6.7 yards per play average and that is fair; the Rebels got 433 yards on 65 plays.  BUT, 139 of those yards on two plays.  Two fluky plays.  The first was the high snap (which was bobbled), ill-advised desperation heave, ricochet off an Alabama defender right into the hands of a Mississippi receiver play.  That is about as fluky and lucky as you will see…66 yards to the house.  And that was on third down!  That’s not Mississippi racking up yards on Alabama; that’s a fluke.  Call it what it is.

The other play was the 73-yard pass that was reminiscent of the 2013 Iron Bowl play where Auburn tied it up.  When it looked like Chad Kelly was going to run, he pulls up at the last second and lobs a pass to a wide open Cody Core.  It was a great play and it really sucked in the Alabama defense.  However, what makes it “fluky” is not the borderline illegal forward pass; he was behind the line of scrimmage so it was legal from that perspective.  The problem was the linemen downfield, something that DID make the play illegal.  It is what it is; a penalty that the refs missed.  No different than the numerous holds that take place on any given play.  However, that such a penalty is NOT reviewable and the illegal forward pass IS reviewable is a “fluke” in the system.  Or, at the very least, it is a hole in the review process.

[NOTE: there was another game on Saturday where this same scenario occurred; player threw the ball when the were close to crossing the line.  O-linemen were downfield, but was not called.  the game where it occurred is escaping me, but i want to say LSU pulled it on Auburn].

Two plays — one a clear fluke and the other one where a (correct) penalty was not flagged.  Take those two “explosive” plays away and Mississippi averaged 4.67 yards per play.  Not as impressive as some make it out to be.  It is why I believe it is the defense that will carry the Rebels forward and NOT the offense.

Again, this is not to say that Mississippi did not earn the win.  They most certainly did.  Take those two plays away and who knows what would have transpired afterwards.  The point is that despite FIVE turnovers and nearly every break going the way of Mississippi, Alabama still had a chance to win it.  Alabama had their momentum crushed numerous times and yet STILL was able to come back.  Alabama (the team) could have folded like Alabama (the fans), but down double digits three different times and yet Alabama came back.  Despite all that, Alabama found themselves in it at the end.

But, here’s where the issue comes into play.  Either Mississippi is a really good team and Alabama is STILL really good to be able to stay in the game and have an honest chance [or three] to win this game.  OR, Alabama is no longer as good as usual and Mississippi beat a mediocre team even though they allowed that team to hang around.

The reason I bring that up is because various analyst are attempting to paint Mississippi as a legit BCS “Playoff” contender while also painting Alabama as being “past its prime.”  USA Today’s Dan Wolken argues that Alabama’s dynasty is replaced with “doubt” while Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde notes that the loss marks the beginning of the end for the dynasty.  The crux of the arguments appear to be that Mississippi is THAT good and Alabama is not as good.  But, if the Rebels beat a team that is on the decline, is Mississippi really that good?

If the “not as good” argument is referencing the recent championship teams, then yes the argument is valid.  However, if the argument is relative to this season, then I think it is wrong.  Alabama is still a good team and is STILL a team that can get into the “Playoff.”  But, this is also not the same championship-caliber teams that were seemingly invincible as in those three championship seasons.  I would say that this year’s Crimson Tide is more like the 2010 team; still a good team, but one that is not as complete as 2009 or 2011.

“But wait, aren’t you contradicting yourself?”  No.  What I see is an Alabama team that went through a few years where they were CLEARLY above everyone else.  Now, I see a team that is ahead of most of the other teams, but is closer to the norm.  I see a team with flaws that is still good enough to overcome them, but are also in a landscape today where other teams are good enough to exploit them [unlike before].  I see a more level playing field.  I see an Alabama team that does NOT compare to the 2009, 2011, or even the 2012 teams, but is still a very solid team that is still capable of running the table.

But, to say that this is the beginning of the end, as Forde did, misses the trend that even he notes — this is actually the end of the end.  The beginning of the end started in 2012 when Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel went into Tuscaloosa and unleashed a new demon onto the Alabama defense.  Remember, that game was a week after Alabama dispatched LSU and everyone thought it was clear sailing for the Tide.  That offensive style has been the equalizer to what Nick Saban built at Alabama.  It is one with which he is still struggling to adjust completely.  We saw that in 2013, 2014, and to a certain extent in Weeks 2 and 3 of 2015.

The beginning of the end of the dynasty started then.  Dynasties are defined by when one team separates itself so clearly from everyone else.  Now, Alabama does not have the clear delineation.  The Tide are still a great club, with as strong a front-seven there is in college football [secondary is a little suspect] and a strong running game.  But, the difference between the Tide and everyone else is no longer clear.  Mississippi and Alabama are now just among the same elite class rather than one ruling over the other.

Saturday night was the end of the end.  It showed that Alabama still is good enough to be a top team, but they are not the clear, dominant team of years past.  They can still get into the “Playoff,” but they are more in the pool with other top contenders rather than enjoying their own hot tub.

After watching Ohio State struggle and Alabama lose, it is clear that we are in an era of competitive balance where perhaps a new team/conference will emerge.  In other words, everyone is super.  And when everyone is super, no one is.

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