The most difficult equation in college football is especially hard to solve because just when you’ve worked out one half of the problem, the other half changes.
That’s what has made a strategy for beating Alabama tougher than Fermat’s Theorem in the past couple of weeks. Just when LSU and Mississippi State seem to have deciphered the rate of acceleration that made the Crimson Tide offense so explosive in its first eight games, the UA defense suddenly throws absolute zero into the mix.
In less mathematical terms, even if you can hold Alabama under 30 points in a game, there’s still the problem of scoring 31 (or 32, in honor of Saturday’s freezing temperatures) yourself.
There seem to be a number of factors affecting the offense at the moment. First, give the opponents some credit. LSU and Mississippi State are strong defensive teams, far better on that side of the ball than any of Alabama’s earlier foes. Second, starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looks to be hurting from a year’s worth of accumulated hits. That’s obvious regardless of any amateur diagnosis of his knee.
Whatever the precise balance of those two factors might be, the effect is obvious. Tagovailoa’s longest completion against Mississippi State went for 25 yards. In September and October, he was hitting 25-yarders in his sleep and was mixing in some 65-plus in there like it was the 4 p.m. dinner special at Golden Corral.
On the very rare occasions he had to throw deep against MSU, the passes were off, either because the timing was off or the knee was bothering him, or both.
Nick Saban cited the pressure.
“Two things happen when (teams) pressure,” Saban said. “You either handle it and you make big plays because there are fewer guys on the back end or the quarterback gets pressured and you’re not able to make those plays. I thought they covered pretty well and we didn’t separate real well and we got way too much pressure in the pocket.”
The Alabama protection (and the run blocking) seemed affected when guard Deonte Brown had to leave the game with turf toe. Also, everyone knew what Saban and others preached all week: the Mississippi State pass rush, led by Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons is hellacious. It was educational, if not exactly entertaining, for Alabama fans to see that sometimes other teams have NFL talent, too.
State didn’t have the talent to match that on offense. If Tagovailoa was roughed up, Nick Fitzgerald was downright mauled by the Alabama pass rush. MSU amassed less than 200 total yards and wasn’t able to flip field position for most of the game.
They had one notable long run after a mis-tackle in the backfield on an odd-looking option play and their seeming touchdown drive at the end of the first half netted nothing. Debate the block-in-the-back call that negated an apparent MSU touchdown among yourselves, but there was no sustained way to gain yardage against Alabama.
Saban grumbled a bit about “style points,” reflecting the idea that Alabama should win by 50 every Saturday. The Crimson Tide is actually beyond that now. Get past The Citadel next weekend (and Lord, how the nation will howl about the scheduling that may give Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Najee Harris and more of the walking wounded a chance to rest) and Alabama is in the College Football Playoff with two more wins. It doesn’t matter if they come by a single point.
Winning as Alabama has historically won, with defense, is not a problem. But you can’t blame Alabama fans for missing the fireworks.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.