For the Alabama football program, gritty defense and making plays when they mattered the most on that side of the ball have been staples in the Nick Saban era over the past decade or so. Success in these and other realms of competition have allowed the Tide to earn BCS national championships in the 2009, 2011 and 2012 seasons.
However, failures in many of these areas are exactly why Alabama lost Thursday night in the Sugar Bowl to Ohio State, and why the 2014 regular season appeared to be such a struggle in the possibly overrated SEC West.
The secondary has presented serious issues for the Tide all season long. Allowing big plays in the passing game has shown Alabama to be vulnerable. This was no different on Thursday, as a 47-yard strike from Cardale Jones to Devin Smith gave the Buckeyes their first lead of the game on the first drive of the second half. The score gave Ohio State momentum and really helped turn the game around, completing the Buckeyes’ comeback.
Another point of consistency this season was Lane Kiffin’s tendency to fall in love with the pass at inopportune times, rather than sticking with the run, with either Derrick Henry or T.J. Yeldon. Thursday night was Henry’s show, as he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. However, he got only 13 carries for the game. Henry also had a 52-yard reception, yet got only 15 touches total for the game.
Alabama turned the ball over twice in the Sugar Bowl, which was something that is fairly new for this campaign. While Blake Sims has been inconsistent at times this season, the turnover bug was something that had not really hit him until Thursday, with three second-half interceptions. One of the interceptions was a pick-six, the first for the program since 2007.
The Tide has also been strong against the run most of the season, due to the team’s size in the trenches. Entering the game, the Tide was allowing just 88.7 rushing yards per game. Ohio State rushed for 281 yards, including 230 from Ezekiel Elliott. In addition, Alabama entered the game allowing 312.4 total yards per game. Ohio State had 348 at halftime and 537 for the game in the Sugar Bowl. The success on the ground led to the Buckeyes’ 28-0 run in the second half.
The Tide was also not able to make a play when it mattered the most in this game. While it did not allow a first down for much of the fourth quarter, Alabama still had an opportunity to get the ball back, down 34-28 with just over three minutes remaining. However, the Tide defense allowed Elliott to break lose again and scamper 85 yards for another score. In the program’s most recent title year (2012), there is no doubt that the Alabama defense would have gotten that ball back.
Over the past six seasons, Saban was 55-2 when his team scored over 28 points. Much of this is due to strengths of the Alabama teams that were not present in the 2014 season.
While Alabama has no issues reloading annually, the Tide will have this very task in 2015. The offense will lose Sims, Amari Cooper, and a great deal of offensive line depth. While the program will lose some depth on defense, that side of the ball will not be hit quite as hard.
While it is difficult to pick against Saban to be back in the playoff in the 2015 season, it is less about talent and more about getting back to the traditional strengths for the program that will lead to continued success. There is no doubt that it will be an offseason emphasis in Tuscaloosa.