Alabama’s run toward another national championship is beginning to feel like a procession.
Nick Saban’s team has reached peak mid-2000’s Miami level, obliterating all teams in its path (and doing so while reaching maximum fun level as well).
So, is there any team remaining on the Crimson Tide’s schedule, or anywhere in the country, which can knock them off?
Let’s take a look at what it will take, schematically, and which teams have a chance:
What does it take?
To beat Alabama, it requires what Liam Neeson refers to as a “particular set of skills.”
Offense: Offensively, teams need to be able to move at a quick pace, not just in terms of tempo but getting the ball out of their quarterback’s hands quickly. A quick rhythm passing game, featuring more than screens, is essential to avoiding the pass rush.
As is being productive without the use of play-action passes. Arkansas showed back in October that a rhythm passing game isn’t enough when it’s based on a heavy use of play-action. Alabama’s front is simply too overbearing and play-action concepts take too long to develop.
The other key it to find a play-caller who is creative enough to constantly move the launching point and can find ways to isolate the Crimson Tide’s safeties. Alabama utilizes a lot of safety rotations. Finding a way to isolate those guys in coverage is the best way to generate explosive plays. It’s particularly important given that Eddie Jackson is out for the year with an injury.
Protecting the ball is often cited on in-game broadcasts. But that seems pretty obvious: don’t give them extra possessions.
Defense: On defense a team needs similar key principles.
For me, the biggest thing is linebackers with eye discipline. Lane Kiffin’s offense is constantly challenging an opposing defense’s discipline; using ghost motions, play-fakes, and option football. Most of its explosive plays in the run game come when linebackers overpursue or misread angles. Against Tennessee, Kiffin called the same concept four times in a row for two drives, with different window dressing thrown in to challenge the Vols’ backup linebackers. Those linebackers failed to key on what was a fake and what was not, leading to huge chunk plays. Having a pair of inside ‘backers who can diagnose and attack, while remaining in attack mode, is the building block to slowing down Alabama’s rushing attack and putting them in third-and-long situations.
For as electric as Jalen Hurts has been, there are flaws: throwing under pressure and throwing down the field.
Applying pressure is obvious. By definition, pressure makes it more difficult for the quarterback. But Hurts particularly struggles with pressure. Per ProFootballFocus, Hurts is last among all FBS quarterbacks in passer rating when pressured.
Hurts has also struggled throwing downfield. Most of his passes of 20 yards or more come on coverage busts or receivers creating big separation in 1-on-1 matchups. If a team is able to create organic pressure by rushing just four and dropping seven into coverage, they will be able to diversify coverages and potentially bait Hurts into a bad throw down the field.
LSU showcased all of those defensive principles two weeks ago but fell flat on the offensive side of the ball.
Who has a chance?
So, who on the schedule can put all of that together? Let’s start with the back end of Alabama’s regular-season schedule.
Chattanooga: I won’t waste our time on this one.
Auburn: Strange things happen in the Iron Bowl. Were Auburn at full strength, it would have a fighting chance. No offense puts a bigger strain on the range and mobility of safeties, and its offense had developed into a quick rhythm attack, attacking through formations rather than on slow-developing vertical concepts.
Unfortunately, the team may be too beat up to even compete. Injuries to Sean White and Kamryn Pettway cloud things for the offense. And the defense lacks the necessary firepower to make it a low-scoring contest. Their defensive line is currently 34th in havoc rate, which is fine, but not good enough to disrupt Hurts without sending help. Barring mass turnovers and monster individual efforts from Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, I do not give the Tigers a shot.
So, how about potential SEC title game matchups:
Florida: Again, if Florida had health on its side, I’d give the Gators the best shot of anyone outside of the College Football Playoff. They have, for me, the best linebacking duo in the conference at reading and attacking downhill: Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. However, Anzalone is out for the year, and Davis continues to battle a series of injuries. Beyond those two, the Gators are missing safety Marcus Maye. Alabama runs so many perimeter plays that having a safety who can rotate, play in space and cover the entirety of the field in the run game is a must. Maye was that guy for Florida, and now he’s unavailable.
Offensively, for as poor as the Gators’ offense have been, it at least wins through play design rather than pure execution. Coach Jim McElwain runs what I call a deception-based offense: constant motion and shifts that put a big strain on the defensive secondary and linebackers. If any play-caller can come up with some designs that take advantage of the Crimson Tide’s safeties, it would be McElwain.
Having said that, the sheer number of injuries along the Florida’s offensive line and defense submarines any chance it would have. And that’s without a discussion about their woeful quarterback situation.
If Florida loses to LSU on Saturday, the SEC East will be Tennessee’s to lose.
The Vols were already smoked by Saban’s crew early in the year. So, I guess you can project how this is going to go.
Their passing game lacks the precision and rhythm to do much damage through the air. And like Florida, their defense is far too beat up to on the back end. Their linebackers and safeties were all over the place in the 49-10 beatdown back in October. And although the backups that came into that game have had more time to play, they still lack the discipline needed to keep up with myriad fakes and presnap movements that would be thrown at them.
College Football Playoff
It’s unlikely that anyone will put up great resistance prior to the playoff. And even then, the likes of Wisconsin, Penn State, Louisville and USC would all be completely overmatched if they were to make it into the final four.
That leaves a couple of potential challengers: Michigan, Washington, Clemson and Ohio State.
Of those four, it’s Ohio State that is best built to take down Alabama.
On both sides of the ball the Buckeyes present problems for the Crimson Tide’s weaknesses and strengths. On offense, they challenge the entire width of the field, putting particular pressure on safeties to cover in space, converting edge-rushers into run-down defenders via the option game, and get the ball out of quarterback JT Barrett’s hands quickly by design. Although the offense has sputtered at times this year, it remains as talented as any in the nation.
But it’s the defense that would represent the biggest problem in a one-game playoff scenario. The Buckeyes second- and third-level defenders are as athletic and disciplined as it gets. They have enough talent to man up and play an execution style of defense or set coverage traps against a true freshman. In the run game, they have the best diagnose-and-attack linebacker in the nation: Raekwon McMillan, who plays in front of the best safety in the nation, Malik Hooker. In terms of eye discipline and gap integrity, it doesn’t get much better, nullifying a lot of what Kiffin is trying to exploit.
Up front, they’re just as good. A young front four is 12th in the nation in havoc rate. And schematically they’re built to stop the option, using gap exchanges and reconfiguring the B gap to take away quarterback runs.
Yet, given the state of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes may not even find a place in the playoff. If that’s so, I can see no team with the personnel or scheme to stop a crimson coronation. Coincidently, that might just be why they make it.