TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban has taken flak recently for a perceived weakness against teams that run some form of a hurry-up or no-huddle offense.
This was particularly brought to attention last year, when Alabama escaped a massive shootout with Texas A&M, lost to Auburn and then ended the season with a surprise loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Maybe that’s why on Saturday, after the team’s first scrimmage of the fall, Saban sought to put an end to that perception when asked an otherwise innocuous question about working to combat such teams.
“But, you know, in all honesty, guys, you all make way too much of this,” Saban said. “I mean, the last game the team (Auburn) had 21 points against us with 30 seconds to go in the game, and I don’t think anybody held them to 21 points all year long. I saw them score 60 in the SEC Championship Game, or whatever."
Saban continued: “We shut Ole Miss out here. We had four turnovers against Oklahoma that led to 28 points ... So when you look in it deeply relative to how the other teams do, do we need to play better or do we play as well against those teams as maybe some other teams? I guess you could make the case for that.”
There’s no denying that Alabama struggled against those three teams last season. According to D.C. Reeves of TideSports.com, 41.7 percent of the Crimson Tide’s yards given up in 2013 came against Texas A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma.
But can you blame those results on Saban and Alabama struggling with uptempo teams? A closer look at the numbers and circumstances in those three games tells a different story.
|Alabama's defense against no-huddle in 2013|
|Opponent||Result||Yards against||Opp. yards/game in 2013||Difference|
|Texas A&M||W 49-42||628||538.4||-89.6|
|Ole Miss||W 25-0||205||473.3||268.3|
|cfbstats & B/R research|
Alabama actually gave up the most yards all season (and in school history) in its win against Texas A&M. So while it didn’t blemish the Crimson Tide’s record, it still raised concerns about their ability to stop these high-octane teams.
But Alabama’s performance against Texas A&M was more about talent than scheme.
Wonder Boy Johnny Manziel made magic on several occasions. And he had the benefit of a huge mismatch on the outside.
That led to the 279-yard performance he had against the Crimson Tide, not the system he was operating in.
When it has the talent advantage—like it did against Ole Miss—the opposing offensive game plan isn't a problem.
“How about keeping the ball away from them? How about controlling the ball on offense so they don’t have the ball so much?” Saban said on Saturday about the Texas A&M game. “That’s something that we did in the A&M game. We didn’t play very well on defense in that game, in my opinion.”
Alabama actually contained Auburn pretty well.
The Crimson Tide held the Tigers to just 393 yards of total offense—well below their season average of 501.3 yards per game. And their 28 (offensive) points were similarly low compared to Auburn’s 39.5-points-per-game season average.
(Saban pointed out that it was only 21 points with 30 seconds to go. With all due respect to Saban, Nick Marshall’s game-tying touchdown to Sammie Coates came with 32 seconds left on the clock, and you can’t just selectively omit points scored against.)
Alabama was gashed, to be sure, just not as much as Auburn had been doing to teams all year. And it squandered plenty of opportunities that had nothing to do with defensive preparation for tempo.
There were field-goal misses of 44, 33 and 44 yards. Amari Cooper dropped a touchdown in the end zone. T.J. Yeldon failed to pick up a 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter that could have iced the game.
Offensive and special-teams execution issues (including untimely field-goal return coverage) doomed Alabama in the Iron Bowl, not its defense.
And in the Sugar Bowl, an uninterested Alabama team met a highly motivated Oklahoma.
The motivation excuse can seem convenient, and it certainly doesn’t excuse a loss. But it could be a better reason for the defeat than weakness against a certain scheme. (And it did start a pretty entertaining back-and-forth between Saban and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.)
Saban noted the challenges he faced from an attitude perspective.
And from the players’ point of view, it’s hard to get up for a game like that when a national championship has become the standard.
Star wide receiver Julio Jones was in a similar scenario. The 2008 Alabama team lost a 31-17 dud Sugar Bowl to Utah after a tightly contested 31-20 loss in the SEC Championship Game. Jones noted the similarities in the two Sugar Bowl losses.
“You see, the Sugar Bowl, when we're there, it's like championship or not,” Jones said in a recent video interview with Sports Illustrated. “Sugar Bowl? Nobody cares about playing in the Sugar Bowl."
Saban’s point about the turnover margin in that game was true, too. Twenty-eight of the Sooners’ 45 points were scored off turnovers. Twenty-one of those points came off turnovers where Oklahoma took possession inside UA territory and includes a fumble recovered for a touchdown where the Oklahoma offense didn’t even see the field and an interception back to the 13-yard line.
That’s a problem with the offense putting the defense in a bad position to succeed, not a defensive weakness.
Alabama had defensive problems last year, to be sure, and gave up big plays at inopportune times. The Crimson Tide dealt with some entitlement issues and lack of execution on offense that was just as much, if not more, a reason for its two losses than the defense.
It’s easy to create a narrative based on wins and losses, but a closer look shows that Alabama facing uptempo offenses was not the main problem last season.
“I think we need to improve on defense period,” Saban concluded on Saturday. “I think we need to improve in coverage. I think we need to improve in mental errors. I think we need to improve how we strike people up front. I think we missed too many tackles today, so we’ve got to tackle a whole lot better. And we can’t give up big plays. And we’ve got to be able to pressure the quarterback better. So I think if we can do all those things better we’ll probably play against everybody better.”
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