No half-assed partial set of SEC football previews on a Braves blog would be complete without a discussion of Mac’s alma mater and mine, the University of Alabama.
But what’s there to discuss about Alabama? We’re really, really good. Like college-football-historical good. The last team to pull off the “three national titles in four years” trick was 1994-97 Nebraska. And that was the end of Tom Osborne’s run. Nick Saban is nowhere near done, and nowhere near satisfied. The recruiting-and-development machine is humming along.
The U.S. government may have declined to build a Death Star, but Saban accepted the challenge, and he decked his out with a waterfall just because. So the interesting question w/r/t Alabama is not “Is this thing capable of destroying any planet in its sights?” (Yes.) It’s “Where are the thermal exhaust ports through which a perfectly placed shot could blow the thing up?” Like any machine, Alabama has vulnerabilities which might, maybe, if you bring your best game and Bama is just a bit off that day, be exploitable.
We’ve only lost seven times since the 2007 Iron Bowl, but those seven games (and a few near misses) are the guide to how 2013 Bama could lose a time or two this year. A brief rundown of potential ways one might turn No. 1 Alabama into something lesser:
Theory 1: Create Chaos and Improvise
Alabama’s defensive playbook is almost literally rocket science; it’s like 500 pages long and neither you nor I understand it. But in layman’s terms, it allows the on-field defensive captain (C.J. Mosley, this year) to adjust to whatever formation the offense has out there and basically dictate ahead of time what matchup advantages they will and will not give up. As long as everyone stays in their lane, this works.
The teams that have had the most success against Alabama in the past five years are the teams that have had quarterbacks with mobility and improvisational ability. Bama doesn’t really have game-changing pass-rushers, and if you can get outside the pocket and get your receivers into a playground-style “just run around and get open, or maybe I’ll just scramble for the first down” situation, the best-planned defensive schemes can fall to pieces.
This is by far the most popular and successful method of beating Bama, but if you don’t have the personnel, forget it. (Looking at you, 2011 Auburn.) So you can limit this idea to the teams that have a really good dual-threat quarterback, which quarterbacks appear approximately 1.5 times on the 2013 schedule.
Archetypical example: 2012 vs. Texas A&M
Honorable mention: 2008 vs. Florida, 2010 vs. Auburn (second half)
A poor man’s version of this: 2010/11 vs. LSU (w/Jordan Jefferson at QB)
2013 candidate: Texas A&M; (Ole Miss if absolutely everything breaks right for them.)
Theory 2: Throw Over the Top
This team is similar to 2010’s Bama team in that for all its top-to-bottom talent, the secondary is thin and somewhat inexperienced. Dee Milliner, last year’s shutdown cornerback, was drafted in the first round by the Jets to replace Darrelle Revis. And Robert Lester, who developed into a ballhawk at safety, graduated.
Into their places slide Deion Belue, who was the DB most teams preferred to throw at last year, and HaHa Clinton-Dix, who has held the SEC’s “most amusing name” title since Captain Munnerlyn went pro and left the title vacant. Belue and Clinton-Dix were starters last year, but in lesser roles; into their old places slide John Fulton and Vinnie Sunseri.
While we remember Milliner and Lester as shutdown DBs, in 2010 they were the newbie guys who didn’t quite have the 500-page playbook down and could get caught out of position to drastic effect. There will be similar growing pains in this secondary, and a team with a competent vertical passing game could have some success. Fortunately for us, Bobby Petrino is no longer in the league. If Les Miles decides to let Mettenberger air it out, though…
Archetypical example: 2010 vs. Arkansas, 2010 vs. South Carolina
2013 candidate: LSU
Theory 3: Catch ‘Em On A Tough Week
2010 Alabama played six different SEC opponents who had a bye week to prepare for the game, and lost to three. 2012 Alabama played a brutal @LSU/Texas A&M back-to-back and came out visibly flat for the first quarter of the latter game.
A wise man once said “If you give Nick Saban six weeks to prepare, he’d beat Batman.” Actually that was just some guy on an internet message board, but the concept stuck with me. You’re much better off vs. Saban when he’s occupied with something else, and you’ve got some time to get your players healthy.
Unfortunately for non-Alabama fans, the 2013 schedule has no such opportunity; after Texas A&M comes a cupcake, and after LSU is a trip to Starkville, where no one expects Mississippi State to be anything other than its usual Statey self. And those are the only regular-season games against currently-ranked opponents.
Archetypical examples: 2010 vs. South Carolina, 2012 vs. Texas A&M
2013 candidate: none.
Theory 4: Hit ‘Em In The Mouth
This is by far the riskiest strategy, because Alabama has spent years stockpiling the best athletes suited to its particular brand of smash-mouth football, and would be more than happy to engage you on this turf. If you don’t have the dudes to get in the trenches with Alabama, you’re gonna have a bad time. Notre Dame found this out the hard way in January.
But Georgia lined up its old-man-football concept against Alabama’s beef and moved the ball all day last SECCG. They’re literally the only team in the last five years I can remember doing this, and they needed all the special teams luck to have a chance to win, but damned if they didn’t almost pull it off. (That was the second-best team in the country last year, and I will hear no argument to the contrary.)
They’re bringing back their entire offense this year, and if they can rebuild the defense quickly enough to get through South Carolina (or if SCAR takes a couple inexplicable late-season losses, as is their wont), I’d expect to see the Bulldogs back in Atlanta in December. In which case we’re back to December 2012’s concept of two teams running the hell out of the ball with a rotation of future-NFL backs, with veteran quarterbacks throwing out of play-action now and again to keep the defenses honest against the run. Should be fun.
Archetypical example: 2012 vs. Georgia
2013 candidate: Georgia
So that’s our season, basically. Two obviously loseable regular-season games (A&M, LSU), one deep-sleeper trap game (Ole Miss), one team I’d be worried about in an SECCG (Georgia), and zero chance that if we make the BCSCG we do anything but clown some hapless Big Whatever team. (Watch this clip of Saban showing how Alabama intentionally put Manti Te’o in a double-bind where they knew his assignment was to play up on the run, but he was also responsible for covering the TE on passing plays. So of course ‘Bama runs play-action, the TE runs behind Te’o, and he catches an easy TD pass off the play fake. With six weeks to prepare it’s like picking the wings off a moth for Alabama’s coaching staff.)
If you are a fan of a program on our schedule and not discussed here, my advice is to just go mow the lawn or play Ultimate Frisbee in the park or learn a foreign language or something when Alabama comes up on your schedule. It will not be pretty and you will not derive any enjoyment from watching it. Sorry. (Note: Not actually sorry.)
Off day. Discuss as you will.