CECIL HURT: Has the SEC West suddenly become the Big 12 East?
A late night drive through the dark, damp Mississippi countryside, through cotton fields along Highway 45 that will be ready for harvest as soon as the mud dries, ended safely. After a shortened night’s sleep, there was only one thing left to do: look at the window to make sure there were no oil wells pumping away across the street, There were none, confirming that this was still Tuscaloosa, not Norman, yet the feeling lingered that I had seen the University of Alabama football team transform into Oklahoma on Saturday night.
Before everyone in two states gets indignant, that doesn’t mean the struggling Sooners of 2020 but the College Football Playoff OU teams of recent vintage, the ones quarterbacked by Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, teams that could win their league and make the CFP but inevitably ran into opponents that they could not outscore in the postseason. That doesn’t mean they were bad teams. But the collective Alabama fan base always looked at those teams with a sideways sneer because they “played that Big XII defense,” which encompassed missed tackles, wide receivers running open and a consistent inability to get off the field on third down.
First, let’s accentuate the positive. Yes, Mayfield and Murray won Heisman Trophies but after Alabama’s first three games, there is no statistical reason not to mention Mac Jones in the same company. His numbers on Saturday night, when by his own admission he knew that the Crimson Tide “had to score every time” were remarkable, especially when you consider he also had a 200-yard rusher to complement him in the backfield. Second, on some of the Lane Kiffin-designed pass routes, the Alabama secondary maintained good social distancing, so there’s that.
Several more points could be made about the difficulty of playing defense in 2020, with rules clearly creating an offensive advantage but here is one more before moving ahead. Nick Saban knows and conceptualizes more about defensive football in the time it takes him to have his Little Debbie oatmeal pie and his cup of microwaved coffee in the morning than I could learn in three lifetimes, so the concept that Lane Kiffin “knew Alabama’s (defensive) signals” is perplexing. Saban didn’t make it sound illegal, noting that it was not uncommon, but he rarely brings up something out of the blue in his press conferences without having thought it out beforehand. What the mechanics of “knowing signals” and making perfect play calls to attack a defense are too much for me.
Surely, Alabama isn’t using the same signals it used when Kiffin was last on the staff and Jeremy Pruitt was defensive coordinator. Perhaps it means that Alabama’s tendencies are too predictable and Kiffin, play-calling savant that he is, consistently guess right on that basis. And if Kiffin did have some super-secret sign-stealing method, how quickly does he share that with Kirby Smart?
That brings us to this week’s challenge. If there is a team that is playing “vintage” Alabama football in the SEC right now, it’s the Georgia Bulldogs. They grind opponents down, stop the run, pound the football and are content to let Stetson Bennett be (here comes that phrase again) a “game manager.” Has that Georgia defense faced anything like the Alabama offense yet? No. But if Alabama can’t hold its own at the defensive line of scrimmage, if it can’t tackle in the running game, how long will that offense be standing on the sideline?
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt