Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sugar substitutes, Utes and so forth

If you've read this blog with any regularity, you know about its author and the relatively negative outlook he tends to have, particularly when it comes to Alabama football. I can't really help it -- I've watched enough football to know, at this point, all the things that can go wrong in a 60-minute contest and 14-game regular season. I'm not sure if that makes me a true fan. But that's the way it is.
For once, I threw most of that to the wind for the Sugar Bowl. This football team gave me -- along with the rest of the crimson-wearing legions -- so much this season. Realistically, I anticipated 3 or 4 losses in a best-case scenario for 2008. I anticipated something better than Shreveport. I anticipated pulling an upset or two against Georgia, Tennessee, LSU or Auburn.
I anticipated a gradual improvement process. I didn't expect to be 12-1, to be in New Orleans for the new year, with the possibility of finishing the season in the top-5 in the nation.
And yet, that's where we were on Jan. 1.
Frankly, the result of the Sugar Bowl wasn't as important to me as beating Tennessee in Knoxville, or cleansing those abominable losing streaks against LSU and Auburn. With all the good that happened this season, anything that happened in New Orleans was gravy.

As it turns out, maybe the rest of the Alabama fan base -- as well as most of the roster -- approached the Sugar Bowl the same way I did. Tide fans were pretty laissez-faire the night before the game (or, in this case, "laissez lez bon temps roulez") while Utah fans were raucous and engaging. Before the game, the Utah fans who showed up did so early, and made plenty of noise -- the 'Bama fans who made the trip were quiet, and fairly relaxed (and ohbytheway, I have a sneaking suspicion that a number of the empty seats weren't unsold tickets -- they likely belonged to people who simply couldn't muster the motivation to leave the Rue Bourbon).
That difference was evident in the first quarter between the two teams. Alabama -- aided in no small part by the Smith suspension that caused the offensive line to shuffle around like musical chairs - looked lethargic out of the gate, something they haven't done all season; Utah looked sharp. Alabama missed tackles, something they haven't done all season; Utah hit and hit hard. Even on the sidelines, Alabama's game plan was uninspired; Utah's was flawless. As Gentry Estes put it ...
With or without Smith, Alabama seemed to still be going through the motions down here. It starts with players, who are people just like me and you. They groaned to themselves when Utah was the announced opponent, just like most fans. In fact, one prominent player was overheard in the locker room after the Florida game as saying that if Alabama drew Utah he might as well not even show up. That guy showed up and played poorly last night.
Put simply, Alabama was outhustled, outcoached and outplayed, and it showed in a 21-0 first-quarter deficit.

It wasn't until the second half that it dawned on me the difference in the game for 'Bama and Utah. For Alabama, the Sugar Bowl was a chance to cap off an outstanding turnaround season, get to 13 wins for the second time in school history, represent the SEC well by continuing a fantastic bowl season for the conference and sustain positive feelings going into the winter conditioning program (not to mention the burgeoning expectations that are bound to come with the sizeable returning class for 2009).
For Utah? The Sugar Bowl, simply, was the biggest game in the history of the program. Ever. Utah's biggest win up to this point was its dismantling of 8-3 Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl in 2004 (the school's first major bowl appearance, as well as the last game for Urban Meyer as head coach of the Utes). The Ute players played like a team that wanted to make history, and now they have. Whenever anyone does any research of Utah football, they'll have to start with the 2008 team, the team that finished 13-0 and dismantled mighty Alabama from the SEC.
Watching their fans celebrate in the fourth quarter, I couldn't help but be happy for them. And I wasn't alone -- walking up and down the Quarter on Friday night, I saw multiple instances in which fans -- some Alabama fans, some just sports fans who happened to be in New Orleans -- congratulated Ute fans, shaking their hands, slapping them on the back. How could you be anything BUT happy for them, after all? They'd just witnessed the biggest win in the history of their program -- their joy must have been vaguely akin to how Alabama fans felt the first time the Tide won the Rose Bowl. Utah stood toe-to-toe with an ESSEESSEEE opponent and whipped them like they'd stolen something. They deserved to celebrate.

For Alabama, the loss revealed something coach Saban has repeated since the beginning of this season (and yes, it's vaguely Bryant-esque): this team was never really that great. A month of back-slaps and high-fives -- as well as the loss of the best player on the team, Andre Smith -- was just enough to take away that chip-on-the-shoulder edge Alabama had played with all season. And without that edge, Alabama had flaws that any quality opponent could expose and expose repeatedly: the secondary is vulnerable; the DL can't generate pressure without blitzing; the offense doesn't play well from behind; the quarterback isn't effective when he's under pressure; and so on, and so forth. It's why one of the first things Saban discussed afterwards was recruiting.
"The seniors did a great job for this team. But we need to continue to improve as a program for the future. We need more good players, more depth in the program. We need quality big people. We need quality skill guys. We need a lot of things for us to continue to improve to be the kind of program that is recognized as kind of a dominant program on a national level."
Nowhere was that lack of depth more obvious than on the line. Smith, obviously, is a behemoth whose absence can't be underestimated. But more than that, without him, the line is thrown into chaos -- Mike Johnson, the starting left guard, has to move to left tackle, which means you have to throw a second-teamer (in this case, David Ross) to left guard. Then Johnson got hurt -- the extent of his injury I never heard -- meaning we had to move Drew Davis from right tackle to left, meaning now you have a second-teamer playing right tackle (I have no idea who was playing RT Friday night).
You get the idea. Utah, of course, was smart enough to exploit this weakness by constantly shifting its DLs prior to the snap -- confusing everyone's assignments -- and dialing up blitzes from unexpected places. Against Alabama's regular OL, with everyone playing in his place, having practiced together since August? Probably nothing we couldn't handle. Friday night? It basically turned every pass play into a jailbreak.
Which raises the terrifying question: is this Alabama's offensive line for 2009? I don't like to think about it, but it's certainly not outside the realm of impossibility (particularly with yesterday's predictable announcement that the junior is heading to the pros). If it is, you'll need a quarterback who can move outside the pocket ... because he's not going to be able to set up in the pocket very often.

A few other, scattered thoughts ...
-- I'm with Dr. Saturday on this one: maybe Utah didn't prove itself worthy of a national championship vote. But, along with USC in the Rose Bowl, they at the very least proved there are two teams worthy of consideration.
Looking at Utah's -- and here I invoke a phrase used in March for selections to the basketball tournament -- body of work in 2008, they needed a failed two-pointer to beat a 3-win Michigan team, and barely survived consecutive games against New Mexico St. and TCU (the TCU game they wouldn't have won if not for an horrific performance from the opposing kicker). Their best win of the season -- other than the Sugar Bowl, obviously -- was a three-point win against Oregon St. at home.
So no, Utah shouldn't win the national championship. The point is that you can't make a definitive case for either team in the BCS championship. A two-team system simply isn't cutting it. Honestly, I think we'd all be having more fun under the old bowl system, with every national contender playing in its traditional game and the possibility that multiple teams could claim a championship when the season's over.
-- Little things that cost Alabama dearly: on his second possession, John Parker Wilson missed a wide-open Nikita Stover down the middle of the field on what would have almost certainly been a touchdown. And, of course, two missed field goals by the perpetually baby-faced Leigh Tiffin, either of which would've kept the Tide in the game in the fourth.
One more: early in the fourth -- with the score 28-17 -- PJ Fitzgerald killed an outstanding punt at the Utah two-yard line, with the chance to take advantage of outstanding field position (or possibly another Javy Arenas runback) with a quick three-and-out. So what happened? Well, Utah picked up one first down, then Arenas failed to field the ensuing punt at his own 40, which led to a big hop away from him, which led to Alabama starting from its own 20 instead of near midfield.
It was pretty much over after that.
-- One of the more interesting aspects of Utah's game plan: by running a no-huddle attack for much of the game, the Utes effectively eliminated Terrence Cody's impact on the game. He barely played after the first series, and with good reason -- mobile though he may be, a 380-lb. guy simply can't run 30 yards, then line up and run a play without a breather, then do that again consistently.
-- Poor John Parker Wilson. I can't think of a quarterback in Alabama history who's run hot-and-cold more.
The raw numbers are impressive: he's the career Alabama passing leader in almost every category; he played behind an offensive line that could barely protect him for two of his three seasons; he endured multiple coaching changes -- including one of those coaches being named Mike Shula -- and his brother embarrassing his family on that ridiculous "Two-A-Days" show; he quarterbacked the team to a 12-2 season.
On the other hand, he never solved the maladies that beset him from his first day as a starter: he doesn't throw well outside the pocket; he has a tendency to favor one receiver over the others (this year's DJ Hall was Julio Jones); if you can pressure him he'll force the ball in places it doesn't belong (insert tasteless joke here).
I don't know how history will remember John Parker Wilson, Alabama quarterback. Hell, I don't know how I'll remember him. But if fans are willing to run him down for his missteps, they'd damn sure better thank him for what he gave to Alabama.
-- Speaking of DJ Hall, I saw him Thursday night hanging at Razzoo on Bourbon. It sort of made me sad -- I don't think he showed up with anybody, just showed up and stood there waiting on 'Bama fans to recognize him. A few of them did.
Tyrone Prothro was there also, along with brother Quinton (who I'm almost certain is not 21). Both of them, naturally, were exceedingly popular.
-- One more note on the Andre Smith saga: I truly hope all those 'Bama fans who were so quick to slam the big LT for being selfish and a bad teammate when news of his suspension first broke -- when they had no idea what haappened -- are willing to come forth and recant (now that we know it wasn't him, but one of his crazy uncles, apparently causing all the trouble). Well-done, folks. Well-done.
-- Finally, looking ahead, BSR has a great report on 'Bama's scholarship numbers for 2009. Don't look for there to be nearly as much howling this offseason as t here was in 2008.

And with that, we can effectively put a cap on the 2008 season. Scrolling back to the first Monday of game week, we've done the best we can to provide you with one (mostly rational) fan's thoughts on what's going on. We'll do the best we can to get everybody through the months between now and more Alabama football.
Until then, one more big "thank-you" to the 2008 Crimson Tide. Roll Tide Roll.

1 comment:

-D. said...

I talked to Prothro for a few minutes at Razzoo. Did I tell you?