Check out what Alabama coach Nick Saban and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had to say after falling to Clemson 44-16 in the national championship game.
USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Way back in October, when Alabama was rolling over opponent after opponent and everyone was marveling at the Crimson Tide’s new offensive approach – and especially, the fantastic results – Nick Saban issued a warning.
“Everybody sees the pretty convertible, or the pretty girls driving it,” he said. “But nobody sees the oil leaking or the bald tires.”
Monday night, the machine malfunctioned. After Clemson’s 44-16 victory in the College Football Playoff national championship game, all of those issues he’d worried about were suddenly evident. And so was this:
In the debate over whether this was Saban’s best team, we missed that it was instead one of his most flawed. Buried beneath all that offense, all year long, was a defense that, by Alabama’s lofty standards, at least was pedestrian.
It didn’t matter for most of the season, as Tua Tagovailoa and all of those other talented playmakers routinely shredded opponents. But Monday, against an offense at least as powerful as ’Bama and a quarterback in Trevor Lawrence who is at least as good as Tua, a glaring deficiency was exposed.
Lawrence threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns. Clemson piled up a total of 482. Alabama allowed six plays of at least 20 yards, including TD passes of 62 and 74 yards. With a four-man rush from a highly regarded line, Lawrence was rarely pressured.
Afterward, the Alabama locker room was a mixture of shock and defiance. During postgame interviews, player after player parroted similar lines: They just needed to execute better. Defensive end Raekwon Davis, as one example, started with this: “We just got whupped.” But then he continued:
“Nobody did their job. The pass rush, the run stop, it wasn’t there. … We weren’t prepared. It was just us. It wasn’t anything they were doing. We killed ourselves.”
Davis probably didn’t intend to slight Lawrence or his teammates. And Davis wasn’t necessarily wrong. Alabama’s defense did not execute. But it’s because against the best offenses it faced, this year’s unit was not capable of the kind of execution required.
The statistics did not necessarily reflect it for most of the season. But after Monday’s loss, Alabama finished the season ranked 16th in total defense, allowing an average of 319.5 yards. In the more telling stat, the Tide allowed almost 5 yards a play (4.89, 24th). Clemson averaged 7.7.
It was a sharp departure from what we’ve seen throughout the Tide’s reign. A very young secondary did not measure up to what we’ve seen in the past. While Quinnen Williams emerged as a monster at nose guard, the defensive front was shy on depth.
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And attrition on the coaching staff might have been as important. Among the fascinating things about Alabama during Saban’s tenure has been how assistant coaches change but the Tide keeps rolling along, but we might finally be seeing the effect of all the departures.
In the last three years, Alabama has lost defensive coordinators Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt to head-coaching jobs. So Saban elevated Tosh Lupoi, who had never called formations.
“There’s still the old fundamental that good pitching beats good hitting,” Saban told USA TODAY in October. “You’ve got to keep from getting beat sometimes before you win.”
That had always been Alabama’s formula: defense-first, and the offense will eventually score points. This season, everything got turned upside down.
And for most of the season, those leaks weren’t easily seen. It didn’t seem to matter.
But no matter the formula, that’s almost always been true during Saban’s tenure. The perception is the SEC schedule is a tough gauntlet; the reality is Alabama routinely rolls through almost all of it.
The Tide’s defensive issues weren’t critical until the Playoff. Go back a few days to that Orange Bowl semifinal against Oklahoma. The Crimson Tide grabbed a 28-0 first-half lead, and it was over. But in retrospect, the defense was exposed, even in the win.
It took Kyler Murray and the Sooners too long to crank up, and Oklahoma’s defense was too terrible for it to matter, anyway. But Saban seemed obviously relieved after winning the semifinal – did you see him, almost giddy, tossing oranges to people from that stage during the postgame trophy presentation?
It might have been a clue. He was very concerned about Oklahoma’s potential to damage the Tide, and what might have happened in a full-on shootout.
Monday, we saw why. Clemson’s defense rattled Tagovailoa – and it seemed, Alabama’s coaches, too – into mistakes. When Alabama’s offense could not keep up, it was over, because the defense was not good enough to slow Lawrence.
When he met Saban at midfield following the game, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney told his rival, “See you next year,” and he’s probably right. Tagovailoa returns. The offense figures to be highly potent once again. But even with all of those weapons, there will be soul-searching in Tuscaloosa during the offseason, and perhaps some retro-fitting, too.
With the bulk of the defense returning, as well as the annual infusion of new talent, no one should be shocked if the Tide is much improved in 2019. But staff changes would not be a surprise, either. Nor would at least a slight adjustment to the offensive approach. Could Bama revert to more ball control in order to help out the defense?
We’ll see. But Monday brought a jarring revelation of what Saban already knew: This Alabama team wasn’t his best, but instead one of his most flawed. When a leaky defense finally burst, it left a fabulous machine in a smoking heap.