In the wake of any loss, especially a one-sided defeat like the one Alabama endured against Clemson on Monday night, there is an instant rush to dissect every play and engorge at a buffet of second-guessing complete with endless recrimination, armchair expertise and that soft-serve ice cream of the social media world, unlimited hindsight.
There may be a forest in there somewhere but the immediate reaction is to cut down all the trees.
Why was Tua Tagovailoa throwing a risky pass into the flat on Alabama’s first possession? Why run that much-debated fake field goal? Why abandon the direct snap to Josh Jacobs after it had been effective earlier in the game, especially when Alabama had a first-and-goal at the 1 and ended up nine yards away from the end zone after fourth down?
Sometimes there are good answers to these questions. Players can be injured or fatigued in the course of a game. Opposing coaches can make adjustments. In the modern media world, it’s difficult to get time and access to ask a head coach — Nick Saban, in this case — for such specifics in a hectic postgame locker room. There is also the flawed assumption that when a play goes badly, offensively or defensively, that any other play would definitely have worked.
I’m not here to defend the design of the fake field goal but I wonder about things that were passing through Saban’s mind? What was his confidence level in a kick at that point, when a miss (or a doink) would have had the same effect as the failed fake? It can’t have been 100 percent. Even if it was, what were the mathematical calculations he was considering as he watched the play of a depleted secondary? The fake came on Alabama’s first drive of the second half but did Saban sense that his team couldn’t win by swapping field goals for touchdowns?
The point is there has been a lot of yelling about checkers when the game, sometimes, is chess. The moves are sometimes part of a strategy that unfolds over the course of the entire game, or several weeks, or a season. That’s what will make the next few weeks intersting, as Saban chooses a replacement for Mike Locksley at offensive coordinator — and that might not be the only staff change.
The fascinating thing about final games, even ones that bring the kind of pain Alabama felt Monday, is you get to see what a team has become over the course of a year — what it is, not what it might be. That applies do both sides. This is strictly conjecture but I’d have been willing to wager that had Alabama and Clemson met on Labor Day — before Dabo Swinney made a quarterback change, before Trevon Diggs and Christian Miller were injured — that the outcome would have been significantly different.
There were two apex moments for this Alabama team — in the early season, when Tagovailoa was unstoppable, and in November, when Tua slowed down but the defense seemed to be stepping up. What happened in the postseason, though, was that defensive deficiencies started to show. Yes, Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense, especially the receivers, were uniquely suited to exploit those deficiencies.
Alabama was sound enough against the run, but was doomed by the lack of any dynamic plays on defense. No sacks. No turnovers. No critical third-down plays to get the Crimson Tide off the field. That’s what affected everything. That’s why a switch to Jalen Hurts probably would not have changed things. That was where doom began. On third down after third down after third down.
There is a lot to be fixed on defense going into 2019 although history says Saban can fix it. But what will the offense become? Does it become a showcase for Tagovailoa, or does it develop an unhealthy dependence on him to win shootouts? That might be the route Alabama has to go in its big games.
There can be no returning to 2011 — college football has moved past that, especially when facing opponents with elite quarterbacks. There must be passing but is there a formula for power to go with it? A healthy Tagovailoa can be great. ESPN’s Tuesday morning broadcast feature that asked if Tua had gone “from Hero to Zero” was a wild swing of a pendulum even in a “flavor of the week” business.
Alabama still has the pieces to solve the puzzle, the potency to reverse Monday’s storylines. But doing that doesn’t start with some play-call in a hypothetical 2019 playoff game. It starts with the important decisions that Saban faces now.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.