Tuscaloosa, AL–It was Alabama’s first team meeting before spring practice of 2015. Coach Nick Saban wanted a basic answer to a basic question. To make it interesting, he used a basketball analogy.
“Coach said that our program is like a Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina–schools that basically get to the Sweet 16 every year. They expect that,” said Ryan Kelly, Alabama’s senior center. “But the team that wins the national championship is the one that knows how to finish. Why do some teams know how to finish and others don’t?”
After winning three national championships in four seasons (2009, 2011, 2012), Alabama has closed the past two seasons in less-than-satisfactory fashion. In 2013 the Crimson Tide lost to Auburn 34-28 in the historic “Kick Six” finish, knocking them out of shot at the SEC title and likely a chance at the BCS championship.
Last season Alabama overcame a 23-17 loss at Ole Miss in October, climbed back to No. 1 and, after beating Missouri for the SEC championship, was the top seed going into the first College Football Playoff. In the national semifinals in New Orleans Alabama took a 21-6 lead over Ohio State only to watch the Buckeyes score 28 straight points and win the game 42-35. Ohio State went on to beat Oregon for the national championship.
Thus for Alabama a season that included 12 wins, an SEC championship, and a berth in the playoffs was, rightly or wrongly, rendered a disappointment. And the veteran players I visited with in Tuscaloosa this spring were pretty clear about what went wrong.
“We had a good team but we also had a lot of new guys who had never been in that situation before and they relaxed,” said Kelly. “I felt a change when we got to New Orleans.”
Senior corner back Cyrus Jones was more blunt in his assessment.
“We lost our focus. We had a letdown,” said Jones, an All-SEC performer in 2014. “We underrated the capabilities of our opponent. That’s not who we are.”
“The great teams I’ve seen in any sport–including some of our great teams here–knew how to close out a season,” Saban said as we sat in his office. “They understand what it takes to play all the way to the end and finish. That is what we have to learn how to do.”
After the psyche-crushing loss to Auburn in 2013 was followed by a complete flop against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, Saban sat in the same chair and talked about pushing his 2014 team to get its identity back. What Saban meant by that was reclaiming Alabama’s ability to dominate the line of scrimmage and simply overpowering opponents into submission. In other venues Saban has called it “our mojo”
No matter the name it comes down to this: Saban’s best teams were physically and mentally superior in the fourth quarter. They knew it. More importantly their opponents knew it, too.
Alabama was not that kind of team in 2014. The Crimson Tide won 12 games because quarterback Blake Sims (3,487 yards passing) and wide receiver Amari Cooper (124 catches, 1,727 yards) had career-defining seasons under the watchful eye offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The Alabama defense led the SEC in stopping the run but was way too vulnerable on third down, finishing seventh in the SEC in third down conversion defense (37.8 percent). In the national semifinals Ohio State converted 10 of 18 third downs, including of string of eight straight conversions.
Alabama gave up 620 yards of total offense to Auburn but still managed to win the Iron Bowl 55-44. Against Ohio State Alabama allowed 531 yards of total offense (281 on the ground). The Crimson Tide won a lot of games in 2014 but the way they were doing it was very un-Saban like.
“We still haven’t gotten our identity back,” said Saban.
“We just didn’t play up to our capabilities,” said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. “We didn’t pay enough attention to detail. When you look back on it now, we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds.”
There were some real-life reasons that Alabama’s defense struggled. Despite the presence of safety Landon Collins, who will be a first-round pick in the NFL draft, the secondary was very average by Saban/Kirby Smart standards. Some of that was the fact that Alabama simply was not as talented in years past. And there were games that Alabama’s corners were left on an island too many times. I’ve been led to believe that issue has been addressed.
And it should also be noted that, because Kiffin’s offense was successful and quick to score, and because of the struggles on third down, Alabama’s defense was on the field for a record 945 plays in 2014. By contrast the 2011 national championship defense was on the field for 720 plays.
Now all that makes for interesting conversation but what does any of it mean for 2015?
Offensively, there is a lot of work to do coming out of spring practice. Alabama needs to find a quarterback. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer who played in seven games last season, seems like the logical choice. There are other options such as redshirt freshman David Crornwell and true freshman Blake Barnett.
And after watching what he did with Blake Sims, I just believe Kiffin is going to figure it out.
I’m more concerned about the offensive line, where only Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson return.
“We have the guys we need,” said Kelly. “We will be fine.”
Centers never lie so I’ll trust in Kelly.
With the departure of T.J. Yeldon to the NFL, the baton at running back is passed to Derrick Henry, who edged out Yeldon for the team rushing lead with 970 yards on 172 carries (5.8 avg). And if Kenyan Drake fully recovers from a broken leg, which he appeared to do in the spring, he will give Alabama a speed dimension at the position that is hard to defend. Freshman Bo Scarbrough was having a good spring when he suffered a knee injury in early April. Whether or not he can get back for the season remains to be seen.
The real question is whether or not Alabama has the talent at wide receiver to replace the production of Cooper, DeAndrew White, and Christion Jones, who combined for 183 catches and 2,495 yards last season.
This much we do know: With Jarran Reed returning for his senior season and joining guys like A’Shawn Robinson and Allen, Alabama’s defensive front might be the best of the Saban era. The linebackers will be good as Reggie Ragland, a Butkus Award semi-finalist, returns for his senior season. And with that front seven providing the pressure, there is little doubt the secondary will be better.
Alabama will be in just about everybody’s top five in the preseason. But will the 2015 team finish strong and reclaim the identity that Saban seeks?
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