Sunday, November 28, 2010

week 13 thoughts: cold and empty

In May, the boys from Every Day Should be Saturday — Florida fans operating arguably the best college football blog on the planet — penned a warning to 'Bama fans about the rigors of rooting for a team one season after a championship. It was pure gold at the time and went largely ignored by just about everybody. One of the best points of advice: Alabama would suffer a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" game.
You might win it, true: but it will be there, a game where half the team refuses to show up and the other team plays like their balls are on fire and you're holding fire extinguishers. For Florida last year, this was Arkansas, a game we won but became the blueprint on how to play us for the rest of the teams we faced in 2009. On at least one weekend (probably during an early kickoff) you're going to get your ass kicked unexpectedly, and even if you win you'll be more stunned than relieved for a week or so.

I found myself thinking about that Friday night, after a 28-27 loss to Auburn in a choke job/comeback that would've been incredibly unpredictable if I hadn't been silently fearing it from the moment Mark Ingram's fumble rolled through the North end zone in the second quarter. No one asked better questions than RBR and Jess Nicholas.
And why did we never find an identity? Why did the offensive line become so damn Shula-esque after September? Why did the defensive line play poorly all season despite boatloads of raw talent? Why did the linebacker corps look so bad with so many heavily recruited players? Why couldn't we get a stop on third and a mile? Why couldn't we run the football with two tailbacks who'll make tens of millions on Sunday? Why did we basically have one receiver on Saturdays when we had about ten guys rated as four-star prospects on National Signing Day? Why did the playcalling get so predictable at times? Why were we so soundly beaten in the second half of football games? Why could we not even get lined up correctly, on offense or defense? None of these are easy questions, but in the aftermath of the disappointment they must be asked and they must ultimately be answered correctly moving forward if we are to improve and to get back to where we want to be.

Important questions, all. But the truth is, the margin of error in this game is so thin, it was somewhat ridiculous to expect what happened last year to happen again.
Consider that, in 2009, to achieve a 14-0 season, we had to come from behind in Week 1 to beat Va. Tech, had to survive putrid offensive performances vs. South Carolina and Tennessee, and needed fourth-quarter rallies to defeat LSU and Auburn. That was before we even got to the season-defining wins over Florida and Texas. We forced turnovers at opportune times, avoided key injuries, caught every important pass and converted every important down. We were good, but we were also insanely fortunate.
(Auburn fans: This may sound familiar.)
And so 2010 — and particularly Friday at Bryant-Denny — can be chalked up, largely, as a regression to the mean. This team finishes the regular season 9-3, with road losses to the SEC East champions and a 10-2 LSU team, to go along with a one-point loss to the current number-one team in the country. Only in defense of a championship could such a mark be thought of as a failure.

Looking forward, the truth is that the next six months are likely to define this program for the next two season. Remember that Florida, after winning the championship in 2006, lost four games in 2007 even with a record-setting offense. The program followed that up with 26 wins in the next two seasons. Alabama will almost certainly continue to recruit at a high level, will continue to function at a high level — don't forget, we won 9 games this season and didn't put together a complete effort one time — and will continue to have chances to win championships.
The difference between being "very good" and "great" will be in where we go from here. Which means it's time to get started with this bowl game.

As for Auburn, Ric Flair famously said that to BE the man, you've got to BEAT the man. Auburn came into the defending champ's house, absorbed some massive body blows, got knocked a time or two ... and then came all the way back. That's what a champion does. Kudos to them.

Some other thoughts ...
— In reality, Friday's game was lost (for the most part) by a poor offensive effort in the second half. When my wife asked me to compare this game to last year's SEC Championship Game, I told her that it was never really accurate to say our defense shut down Florida — a more accurate description is, our defense made Florida work for everything, and the offense dominated time of possession and kept Tim Tebow & Co. off the field.
This time? Well, Alabama's defense didn't limit Auburn's big plays — the Tigers had touchdowns of 36 and 70 yards — and the offense couldn't keep the Tigers off the field in the second half, repeatedly wheezing out. And when Auburn gave up a golden opportunity to re-assert control — the fumbled punt at the 27 — Alabama wasted it and settled for a field goal. That gets you beat.
— I'm still waiting to see how our offensive coaches intend to use Ingram & Richardson in tandem. Guess I'll have to play that out on a video game.
(Note: Thinking about 2011, I'm guessing there won't be any question as the offense's identity. With a new quarterback and new faces at receiver, the offense will belong to Trent Richardson as long as he is healthy. That's really the whole story.)
— On two very large plays — Fairley's forced fumble late in the second half and T'Sharvan Bell's vicious sack of McElroy that put the QB out in the fourth quarter — it appeared Auburn had figured out our snap count. This is significant because it seemed LSU was reading something similar. I often wonder if I'm the only one who notices this stuff.
(By the way, Anthony Steen was largely responsible for the Fairley sack, then compounded his mistake by not playing until the whistle and allowing Auburn to jump on the loose ball. Not acceptable.)
— Was it me, or did Demarcus Milliner get picked on a lot Friday? This wouldn't be a total shock since teams have been picking on him all year, but ... I mean, sheesh.
— Underrated play that helped cost us a chance to win: Cody Mandel's 13-yard punt following Bell's sack of McElroy, which gave Auburn the ball at the 27-yard line, instead of backed up against its own goal line. Again, the sort of thing that gets you beat.
— Scarbinsky was nice enough to pen a column detailing Nick Saban's spotty record in close games. Thanks, buddy.
— The trending concern, of course, is that in two of the three losses for this season — LSU and Auburn — Alabama was soundly outplayed in the second half. Considering this team built its reputation in 2009 as a fourth-quarter football team, to be so badly thrashed — physically and mentally — in the second half is something that needs to be addressed.
— I'm not going to make any jokes about Auburn possibly having to vacate this win two years from now. So just move on.
— The game itself, of course, is long going to be remembered as the greatest choke/comeback in the history of the series, right up there with the famous "Punt 'Bama Punt" game in 1972.
If you want a silver lining, here's the best one I can come up with: You know what was the most significant thing about "Punt 'Bama Punt?" It was the only Auburn victory over 'Bama for 11 years.
(I'm grasping at straws, I know.)

In any case, Roll Tide. See you tomorrow.

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