Losing brings out the best in Alabama football head coach Nick Saban. The devastating effect of a loss produces a much-needed jolt into plans for the relentless coach and his program.
Monday night, Alabama football encountered its most lopsided loss in two decades. Disappointed Crimson Tide fans remind you of the sad clown. They are laughing on the outside, crying on the inside after their Tony Soprano-like panic attacks during the title game.
No one took the loss tougher than the maniacal head coach. For the first time under his leadership, Alabama appeared unprepared for a vengeful Clemson team, thirsting for retribution. Nick Saban is well-known for formulating adjustments whenever he loses. It is part of the process that keeps Alabama perched on the mountaintop of college football. One of the tenets of “the process” is admitting when you’ve failed. Adversity forces you to reinvent yourself. For this reason, Saban mimics future Hall of Fame coaching great Bill Belichick with his ability and willingness to implement and embrace change. His first task is refurbishing his oil-leaking defense.
Tighten up the defense
The 2018 defense, under the direction of new defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi, yielded 319 yards per contest. In the last three games, the Crimson Tide did not force a turnover. The last turnover occurred during the fourth quarter against Auburn (214 plays). All three quarterbacks passed for over 300 yards (Lawrence 347, Murray 308, and Fromm 301). Alabama did not register a sack against Clemson for the first time in 131 games versus a Power 5 opponent. Also during the three-game stretch, the defense allowed 106 points.
In comparison, the leaky 2014 Crimson Tide defense finished twelfth in total defense, allowing 328.4 yards per game. Once Ohio State curb stomped Alabama for 537 yards (Ezekiel Elliott ran for 230), Saban incorporated players losing weight (examples A’Shawn Robinson, Reuben Foster) to match the rave of no-huddle offenses. He knew the days of recruiting linebackers as big as 250 pound Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain were behind him. Big, lumbering safeties like Mark Barron were replaced with smaller ones, (Eddie Jackson) who could line up and cover slot receivers similar to corners. Losses to Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Auburn, forced Saban into simplifying defensive calls coming in from the sidelines allowing the players to play fast and attack instead of thinking.
On the flip side, the 2017 championship winning defense allowed 260 yards per contest, closing at number one in the nation. What led to the demise of the defensive juggernaut? The loss of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt weakened Alabama. A stellar defensive play caller, coach, and recruiter, his impact reverberated throughout Mal Moore Athletic Facility. Only three starters returned from last year’s starting unit, Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs, and Anfernee Jennings. The loss of outside linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christopher Allen did not help.
Moving forward to the 2019 season, what changes can Alabama make to regain their defensive prowess? Expect Saban to pour over the details ensuring the defensive failures do not occur again.
Recalibrate the offense
The national emergence of Tua Tagovailoa resembled a Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run tour. Critically acclaimed and a box office success, everything about the transcendent, smooth lefty came as advertised. Tua materialized into a generational talent for the Crimson Tide. Led by offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, the offense exploded for Alabama records in scoring offense and total offense. Nick Saban and offensive explosions sound like the Linkin Park/Jay Z mashup, Numb. The two married together doesn’t seem enticing. You believe it’s doomed to fail, but it actually fits and works flawlessly. Before you could even bat an eye, the Crimson Tide had already scored 28 points with Tua pulling strings.
Unfortunately, Alabama needs to rejuvenate the brutal physicality opponents hated and feared. The quick-scoring gunslinger offense led to the flawed defense spending more time on the field. Former Alabama All-American offensive lineman Mike Johnson discusses the changes in offensive philosophy for Alabama,
“We would out-physical you, run it right down your throat, 4 or 5 yard a play, nothing you can do about it. Now, it’s, ‘Let’s see if we can wear you out by going five wide and running past you.’
Reinventing the offense under new offensive coordinator Dan Enos, Alabama football needs to pound the ball and break their opponents’ will. Having a seasoned, commanding Tua under center is a bonus. Figuring out how to beat opponents without resembling a Big 12 shootout will certainly occupy Saban’s spring and summer.
Nick Saban is college football’s greatest coach for a reason. Saban has mastered every aspect of the game, recruiting, motivation, football knowledge, communication, and managing personnel. Saban needs to ensure his football program rededicate themselves to the little things and never again be outworked. The dreaded Alabama Crimson Tide dynasty is not over, although Dabo Swinney and Clemson are nipping at the heels.
The 2018 Alabama football season did not end as expected. Overcoming adversity is the Crimson Tide’s biggest foe next season.