Play the entire 2019 movie backward.
See if you can find the point that led to the end — yes, there is a bowl game left but Saturday was the effective end of the standard season to which Alabama aspires.
Go from the strange substitution penalty that ended a great Alabama-Auburn game on a anti-climax. Keep going past the missed field goal that might have tied the game on Saturday night. Rewind your way through the 100-yard pick six and the 13 penalties. Pause and muse a little on how the first half ended, with Auburn given an out-of-the-ordinary opportunity at a field goal that ended up making a difference. Keep going through all the false start penalties or personal fouls that pop up in ugly cameos, not just Saturday but in every single game.
Where do you pinpoint the moment? How different would it have been had Tua Tagovailoa not been lost in horrific fashion in Starkville or, for that matter, if he hadn’t sprained an ankle against Tennessee? Was that when the seeds were sown for a five-point loss against LSU (when Tua played at less than 100 percent) and a three-point loss against Auburn? Was it when Will Reichard made a misstep on a kickoff and injured his hip to the extent that he couldn’t kick again? Do you wind all the way back to August, when Dylan Moses and Josh McMillon were lost to injury, taking invaluable experience with them?
All those uncontrollable things happened. Such is the nature of football.
But what was controllable? What could have made the difference in a season that wound up eight agonizing points short of goals?
“The lesson to be learned,” Nick Saban philosophized after the game, “is how important it is to be disciplined.”
Would Alabama have been better with all those absent players (plus LaBryan Ray and DJ Dale and so on)? Obviously. Did they still have enough talent to finish the season without a loss (a remarkable statement on the talent level of this squad)? Yes, although with due respect to Mac Jones, the absence of Tagovailoa might have made the playoffs a puncher’s-chance situation.
But without discipline, was the foundation sound?
There seems to have been a point — and maybe you’d have to go back to 2018 to find it — where the balance between talent and discipline tipped to the talent side. Alabama can score prodigious numbers of points. But the best teams under Nick Saban so far didn’t rely simply on that. They had great talent. Scan around the NFL rosters if you need confirmation. But what made Alabama so devastating was this: They beat teams, sometimes badly, and they didn’t beat themselves. They weren’t perfect, as Saban himself has noted. You aim for that standard without ever reaching it, although you can come close. But the mistakes seemed uncommon and, often, not fatal.
So, in the wake of Auburn’s 48-45 win on Saturday, there is a crossroads. Saban himself said as much. You can’t simply stop worrying about talent. The Southeastern Conference is too good. But is it just going to be about talent, or is the discipline going to return? That might be a slower rebuild than simply restocking the roster. The past two seasons have been highly pleasurable to watch if you love offense, but in a program that is built on hardware, not highlights, the discipline, the attention to detail, the accountability needs to be restored. The will was there on Saturday. If Alabama wanted a moral victory, it could point to a 60-minute effort with an inexperienced quarterback against a vaunted defense.
Moral victories don’t play in Tuscaloosa. They carry no weight.
Saban is a giant in coaching. He will surely make the necessary moves, whether that means philosophy or staffing. This was not a happy movie, this 2019 season. The one thing that would be worse would be a sequel.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt
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