How Alabama football, Nick Saban had their season fall apart

BATON ROUGE, La. – It was too loud and chaotic at Tiger Stadium to hear the crash of Alabama’s season late Saturday night. The fall happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that it was difficult to comprehend in real time. LSU coach Brian Kelly wouldn’t dare bet on two, would he? After taking some time off to reconsider, he would certainly reconsider, take the extra point and play a second overtime. Right?

But he did not do it. Kelly thought he had the perfect game to uncover an erratic Alabama defense, and he went for it. Quarterback Jayden Daniels rolled to the right and found an open target in tight end Mason Taylor, who rushed into the end zone to get the hit.

What happened next was a scene Alabama has become familiar with this season: a burst of noise followed by fans rushing onto the field in their thousands. Once again, Nick Saban and his players had to navigate the chaos and retreat to the safety of the visitors’ dressing room.

Three weeks earlier, Tennessee fans had done exactly the same when the Vols won with a walk-off field goal on the rule. But instead of the cigar smoke that hung in the air in Knoxville, fog shrouded the stadium in Baton Rouge. And thanks to some well-placed security guards, the goal posts weren’t uprooted and thrown into the Mississippi River.

When Saban sat down with the media to explain how his team lost to LSU 32-31, it felt similar to losing in Tennessee. The same resignation was in the voice of the 71-year-old. He listened intently to the questions asked; Instead of “Rocky Top” blaring through concrete walls, it was chants of “LSU!” And he had the same explanations: too many defensive errors, far too many penalties, no consistency in the running game, too little offense for star quarterback Bryce Young.

The most striking difference from Saban was a lack of hope. Because it was gone. To make the SEC championship game, Alabama would have to beat Ole Miss and No. 11 Auburn AND hope for an LSU collapse with losses at Arkansas and Texas A&M.

“Look, I can’t blame the players,” said Saban. “I am responsible for all these things. So if we didn’t do it right, that’s on me.”

Credit to Saban for not throwing his offensive or defensive coordinators under the bus — or any of his assistants, for that matter. But frankly, they are all to blame for the manager’s failure this season.

Alabama had the talent to win a national championship, let alone beat a two-loss LSU team that’s still finding its way after a coaching change. Young fullback Will Anderson Jr. is among the top three to five players in college football. Recruitment has remained strong thanks to more than a dozen consecutive top-five signing classes, so depth should be there. Additionally, Saban was the owner of the transfer portal this past off-season, signing All-Conference players and Power 5 starters at multiple positions.

Saban said it himself: Last year was construction season, not this one. Complacency — that old saw — couldn’t be to blame after the tide fell short in January’s national championship game against Georgia. Veterans Young, Anderson and safety Jordan Battle were convinced over the summer that this team was different. They said the players were focused and paying attention to the little things in a way they hadn’t before.

So what exactly was missing if not buy-in or talent?

development, that’s what.

The drop at the receiver has been noticeable lately. After producing a spate of first-round NFL draft picks (including current stars Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle) with Jameson Williams last season, Alabama struck gold in the portal. But the moment Williams was sidelined — first against Auburn, then in the national title game — the passing game cratered.

Perhaps asking Jermaine Burton to be another savior like Williams was asking too much. But remove Burton (and transfer colleague Tyler Harrell) from the equation and it’s a wonder no one among Isaiah Bond, Ja’Corey Brooks, JoJo Earle, Traeshon Holden and Kobe Prentice has been able to become a playmaker. Additionally, they were unreliable as a team with 21 lost passes — the fifth most among Power 5 schools.

Jahmyr Gibbs, a running back, quickly became Young’s most trusted receiver. But as good and versatile as Gibbs was along with backup Jase McClellan, neither has proven to be the kind of runner between tackles that Alabama desperately needs. Roydell Williams, who runs with power, has just 38 carries this season. As a team, 22.9% of rushes in Alabama went for zero or negative yards.

Without the ability to play Smashmouth football and without a receiver to stretch the field vertically, offense has become one-dimensional and opposing defensive coordinators have been able to blitz at will.

The result was hardly the kind of offense Young signed up for — the kind of dynamic attack that benefited his predecessors at quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones. Playing behind a shaky offensive line, Young had to run for his life. He’s been contacted on 22% of his dropbacks this season and pressured on 44% of his passing attempts against LSU.

Remove drops and throwaways, then adjust air yards, and Young’s adjusted completion rate of 78.0% is the best in the SEC. In other words, he’s playing up to and maybe even surpassing his game from last season when he won the Heisman Trophy.

But even he cannot overcome a flawed team like this. He can’t make up for a defense that has a habit of giving up big games, whether in close talk in Texas or in losses en route to Tennessee and at LSU — not to mention a near-loss unranked at home Texas A&M (but without Young). And he definitely can’t beat a team tied for most penalties (78) in the FBS.

Let that sink in for a moment. Saban, quite literally a defender who rages on the touchline against self-inflicted errors, has missed 671 yards from penalties, averaging 74.6 yards per game. The only way to describe this team from Alabama is sloppy and undisciplined. Even after a bye week in which Saban said he thought his team was perceptive, The Tide committed nine penalties, including two crucial pass interference calls in the fourth quarter.

After the loss, Saban called it an “understatement” to say his players were disappointed. This is the first time since 2010 that Alabama has had two losses before meeting Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Saban said they are capable of more, but “sometimes we beat ourselves and it’s kind of hard to overcome.”

Saban asked his team to “check their hole card” as they look to end the season strong. Players had to consider their own stocks, he said, and meet the goal of winning 10 games.

The last comment was strange. Alabama talks a lot about living up to the standard, but that usually means championships, whether SEC, national, or both. While winning 10 games would be a nice feather in the cap, it’s hardly what anyone in or around the program expected. Remember, this is a program whose strength coach once destroyed the runner-up’s trophy.

Crimson Tide fans will want nothing less than to return to the playoffs next season. But is that even possible? Young, Anderson and a handful of NFL draft hopefuls are likely to move on. And employee departures seem likely. Saban hasn’t specifically called out offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, but he’s been asking for more balance for a while and hasn’t gotten it. Saban said he wouldn’t question the offensive game plan against LSU, but then added, “Whatever we did, we put ourselves in a position to do it and we just fell short.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

No matter who goes and who stays, something has to change. Georgia threatens to win a second national championship and become the SEC’s power player, and Tennessee and LSU appear to be serious contenders again after a coaching change. To get back on top, Alabama must recapture what has made it so successful for the last decade — plus: being a team that not only refused to beat itself, but a team that was proud of it to go beyond defeating opponents and making them stop.

Maybe that means taking that back to a passing offense to re-establish a physical playstyle in the trenches. Perhaps that means a culture shift in defense where the hard nose that defined the era of Rolando McClain, Ryan Anderson and Mark Barron has all but disappeared.

During his September radio show, Saban hinted at how the mentality of this team has changed recently, which was evident at Tiger Stadium.

“We used to play better away than at home because we had some hateful opponents in our team,” he said. “And when they played on the road, they were mad at 100,000 people and not the 11 guys they were playing against. And they wanted to prove something to everyone.”

Not only does this current incarnation of Alabama football let itself be swayed by 100,000 screaming fans, it has made a habit of losing and giving those same people a reason to rush onto the field and celebrate.

The danger for Alabama is that losing becomes such a normal occurrence that fans won’t bother leaving their seats to go anywhere but home. Then you know the dynasty is over.

We’re a long way from that, but this season should serve as a warning that the foundation needs to be eroded and worked on. How Alabama football, Nick Saban had their season fall apart

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