"So do we get better or just shut down?"
It was a fair question. Considering this team began the season defending a national championship, looked unbeatable at one point to some people (most of whom weren't actually watching them) and, as of 8 days ago, were basically out of the race to even win the division (now crystallized, obviously), it was worth wondering whether our boys would bother to show up for the rest of the schedule.
It was even more harrowing when quarterback Greg McElroy opened the week by saying, "It feels like the end of the world around here." It was even worse later in the week when coach Saban called the week of practice "a very tough preparation for our football team."
Equally as troubling is recent history under coach Saban, as Cecil Hurt pointed out earlier this week on the radio: in 2007 and 2008, once the championship goals were off the table, the team shut down (first in a nightmarish November 2007, then in the Sugar Bowl in 2008).
So, yeah, there were plenty of warning signs going into Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. Moreover, I'm not sure there's any "getting better" at this stage in the football season. Teams pretty much are what they are at this point in the season.
Saturday night this team showed what it is vs. Mississippi State: a team with multiple playmakers on offense, a defense that has to scratch and claw to stay alive ... and seems to keep doing just enough to win. This isn't a championship caliber team — maybe it never really was, given the statistical metrics that were already a problem before the 2 losses that have grabbed all the headlines — but it is still a very good football team, one that is capable of winning every game remaining on its schedule (even if the coming storm that is SEC West champ Auburn looks terribly uninviting at the moment). That's not exactly a national championship identity, but it's still a position 85 percent of the college football fan bases in America would happily accept.
That includes Mississippi State. Sure, the Bulldogs are a much improved football team over the team that last ventured to Tuscaloosa, and they're almost certain to finish the season in a pretty good bowl game — that game vs. Arkansas looks pretty good at the moment — but watching them is reminiscent of watching Georgia Tech, or one of the military-style option teams. Put simply, creative though their running attack might be, that's the whole offense. State can't throw, doesn't have any real explosive football players and absolutely CANNOT come from behind on their own. Which means that, just like the Sylvester Croom days, they can only win a certain way: score early, force a turnover or two and hold on for dear life as the other team grows increasingly frustrated. Once Mark Ingram turned Greg McElroy's bubble screen into a 78-yard touchdown in the second quarter, Saturday night's game was effectively over. And everybody in the building knew it.
That's Alabama football in the year after: Doing Just Enough to Win. We'll see how long it hangs around.
Some other thoughts ...
— It was impossible to watch Saturday night's game and not think of Nick Bell, the late Mississippi State student-athlete who died only 5 weeks after discovering he had cancer. It's a damn shame we spent the last two weeks talking about the cloud around Cameron Freaking Newton and Auburn fans' "standing by" him, while barely anyone talked about Bell and his State teammates who are coping with an actual tragedy. I can't imagine what it's like to be them.
Anyway, 'Bama officials handled that delicate situation about as well as they could, pausing for a moment of silence before the game and asking the band not to play "Rammer Jammer" afterwards out of respect (the band obliged, but some students took up the cheer anyway).
— The thing that's been the most frustrating this year? Missed tackles. Alabama's defensive hallmark since Nick Saban showed up has been its fundamentals on defense: they're rarely out of position, don't miss tackles, and as a result, don't surrender very many big plays. It's one thing for young players to make incorrect reads in a complicated defense; missing tackles is unacceptable, particularly in the spread era (when one missed tackle often means a 5-yard gain becomes 30). Alabama fans should expect better.
— The second most frustrating (but sort of predictable) thing: Alabama's defensive line play has been sub-standard at every turn. Last night the Tide's collection of nose tackles was worked at every turn; Nick Gentry played the best of anybody, and he wasn't exactly blowing things up in there ('Bama did record 5 sacks, which is mildly encouraging).
— The next person who suggests A.J. McCarron should be the starting quarterback over Greg McElroy — yes, the same McElroy who's lost a grand total of TWO games as a starter in two seasons, the MVP of the SEC Championship Game and the quarterback of the reigning national champions — should punch himself (or herself) in the face. Do it again for good measure.
— Do you ever wonder if Alabama's offense has too many playmakers for its own good? Coach Saban very often talks about the concept of identity in football, and Alabama's offensive identity in 2008-2009 was a brutish physical team that crammed the ball down everybody's throat and threw it occasionally, just to keep everybody honest. This offense doesn't seem to have that identity — sometimes we're a spread team, sometimes a pro set, sometimes we run the ball to the 4, then throw it 3 times and kick a field goal. And there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it; it's like McElwain is a bored kid playing a Madden dynasty.
— I'm convinced Mark Jones and Bob Davie, as an announcing team, are part of an elaborate prank by ESPN. That's the only explanation for their continued employment, right?
— I don't want to jinx it, but Mark Ingram appeared to be settling into a rhythm down the stretch Saturday; it looked like his vision returned, and he was making decisive cuts and finishing his runs with power. That's good news for us.
— The fact that we failed to score twice inside the 5 in the fourth quarter is disconcerting, although not as disconcerting as coach Saban essentially spanking A.J. McCarron on live television.
— The thing I'll miss the most when Julio Jones is gone — and there's no way he comes back for 2011 — is his willingness to do the little things most wideouts of his caliber simply don't do. He's the best run-blocking receiver I've ever seen, he never complains about touches and he always rises to the occasion. It's tempting to call his career here disappointing, if only because he came in with so much hype and has never really become the talk of college football. Such a characterization would be wrong, though; without Quintorris Jones playing wideout the last three years, this team wouldn't be what it is.
And what that is, for better or worse, is a very good football team. We'll see how we remember them once they're finished.
See you next week. Roll Tide.