In the pregame edition of this article, I said that Alabama would need to play "A+" football to make sure that the national championship was still squarely in the sights. Since the Texas A&M Aggies took down the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, you can already guess that the grades coming are not pretty.
Johnny Manziel came in and did exactly what Johnny Manziel does: He took play after play far past the breaking point and repeatedly put his team in the end zone. While Alabama had all the ingredients to cook up an answer, it seemed as if the recipe was completely lost.
It was almost as if Alabama was so determined to play "meat-and-potatoes" football that to win with a cheesecake recipe was a no-no. On the following 10 slides, the postgame grades are presented.
*My only request is that you hold all comments until after reading the whole slideshow. Some grades on the front end may look too nice, but the coaching slide explains a lot of that.
Overall Grade: C
Now, at first glance, I can understand why you would not like me to give a guy who threw two picks a “C,” but please hear me out. McCarron went 24/31 for 309 yards, a touchdown and two picks. The second pick is not completely charged to McCarron here. Yes, he threw the ball behind the receiver and it was picked due to that fact. However, when you have a certain play called, you tend to force the play more than you would if it were a self-called play, an audible or a play called.
McCarron proved that he could run the two-minute offense yet again in this game. He was exhibiting the same symptoms as he did against LSU: hurried eyes, panicked scrambling and general unsureness behind the offensive line. (Granted, some of that was due to the line breaking down.)
McCarron has a habit of having a racing mind in these big games. When the two-minute offense is called, the game is being run at the pace his mind is already running. McCarron turned in a solid performance that was not quite good enough for many reasons: two interceptions, a fumble and some silly penalties. He spread the ball around to eight different receivers in the game, which is a huge plus for him. It means he's not given to favoring one man under normal circumstances. The last point against McCarron was his tendency to bail out of the pocket about a half-second early. McCarron could have completed at least five more passes if he'd had the confidence to stand tall in the pocket and deliver better passes.
Overall Grade: A
Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon were quite a combo again, though Yeldon was underused in the game. Lacy had 16 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown. Yeldon had 10 carries for 29 yards, one touchdown and a fumble. Yeldon's fumble was a near-perfect play by a defender who literally hung his full weight from the ball to get that strip.
Overall, the Tide had 34 passing plays and only 26 rushing. If you factor McCarron's five “rushes,” that number is even more skewed to the pass. Texas A&M had the box loaded to stop 'Bama's run, but both tailbacks didn't get the memo. The major breakdowns were in the style of run being called. Alabama is supposed to rush between the tackles. However, what do you do when that isn't working? (We will cover the answer to that question in the coaches' slide.)
*Lacy had four receptions for 35 yards, and Yeldon capped his performance off with two receptions for nine yards.
Overall Grade: A-
Amari Cooper: Six receptions for 136 yards and one touchdown.
Kenny Bell: Three receptions for 73 yards.
Christion Jones: Three receptions for 21 yards
The wideouts did a great job in this game. They had some issues getting free at times, but someone was open more often than not. McCarron's racing mind and the defense bursting through the offensive line combined to effectively stifle the Tide's aerial attack.
While the receivers were getting themselves open, the play breakdowns were calling McCarron's attention away from them when that was happening. The Alabama offense could not get synced very much at all. The receivers were missed a couple of times in key situations that would have put the game in the Tide's control early, and McCarron didn't capitalize.
Overall, the receivers could have gotten open more. The major issue plaguing the Alabama team was the fact that A&M was playing “A+” football for about 90 percent of the game. Even bringing your “A-” game will end in a loss every time.
Overall Grade: B+
The tight ends did a good job, but it wasn't a perfect job. A few times, there were completely unblocked defenders coming through to McCarron while the offensive linemen were completely engaged.
Michael Williams: One catch for 20 yards.
The tight ends did a great job of springing the running backs and wide receivers to the second level quite frequently. Not necessarily every time, but enough to prove that there was an effective combination somewhere in the playbook that would have ended in a Tide victory.
Overall Grade: C
The offensive line wasn't terrible, but they weren't at their best this week. The offensive line did let some unhindered defenders through to the pocket a few times. (Not all of the mistakes were elsewhere on the offense.) The line got beaten more than a few times, as well. Texas A&M came to play football, and Alabama looked like it was still sore from last week. (Which they probably were, to be fair.)
McCarron's line broke down early on and gave him a scare. As mentioned before, he spent the rest of the night bailing out of the pocket a little to early. While a lot of that is on him, he was legitimately bailing out a lot, too. A&M stacked the box, and Alabama's offense was not in position to respond.
Overall Grade: C
On all counts, the defense did not get off the bus until the second quarter. The Aggies scored four touchdowns against the Tide, and that was at least one too many. Right out of the box, the Aggies went up 20-0 before the Tide even started to respond. The defensive line rallied and kept Johnny Manziel in the pocket for the controlling majority of the next three quarters, though. That earns them a ton of points. This game was not lost by the defensive line alone.
The Aggies rushed for 165 yards against the Tide's defensive line. That's the part of the game that partially falls on them. The holes that the running backs burst through should not have been there in the first place. (The linebackers were the ones who missed the tackles.)
Overall Grade: C-
The linebackers did miss a lot fewer tackles against A&M than they did against LSU, but that is of little comfort in a once-undefeated Tide locker room. The linebackers had some absolutely solid stands on third and fourth downs in the second half, but they gave up some seriously damaging plays in the short passing game.
With the opportunities that the defense handed the offense, it's difficult to place all the blame here. Those stops that the defense came up with were absolutely crucial in keeping the Tide in the game. They were also crucial moments that Saban can use in teaching them how to do what they do correctly. Is this game a teachable moment? Absolutely, but it was not all bad. (Only the first quarter was absolutely terrible.)
Overall Grade: D
The defensive backs were getting owned a lot in this game. Manziel may have made it through the defensive line and the linebackers on his own, but that's not the only area he was successful in. Manziel tagged the Tide for a 24/31 performance that resulted in 253 yards, two touchdowns and a win over the previously undefeated Crimson Tide.
The defensive backs gave up passes of over 20 yards to three different receivers throughout the game. As the last line of defense, it's not usually the secondary's fault if there's a first down given up. However, touchdowns of over 20 yards are completely the opposite.
This secondary was untested until it faced Tennessee. Tennessee didn't test them as much as people (including myself) thought it would. LSU tested the secondary much more than Tennessee did. Texas A&M took those game tapes and put together a plan that resulted in a Tide loss due to near-flawless execution by the Aggies.
Of little consolation is the fact that this team has just suffered the loss that will guide them to absolute domination of almost everyone on the schedule next year.
This guy did not earn the "F."
Overall Grade: F
For almost the entire game, special teams was the most gloriously successful unit on the field. Cody Mandell punted a total of four times for 226 yards, or 56.5 yards-per-punt. That's Ray-Guy-Award-winning punting from him. The coverage unit did not allow any punts to get returned for more than 14 yards.
However, when the feces hit the bladed turbine, the Tide was set to receive a punt with 40 seconds left on the clock. McCarron was set to possibly repeat his feat from Week 10 against LSU and lead a game-winning drive from the two-minute offense. The punt return unit had a youngster jump offsides, giving Texas A&M the first down that ended the game.
No, the game should not have come to that, but it did.
Overall Grade: D-
The one major point in the coaches' favor was the fact that they made adjustments faster than in other games. If not for the quick adjustments and the players' response to them, the Aggies would likely have gotten out to a lead greater than 20-0.
The bad news is that the coaches once again stuck to a game plan that wasn't working. They were calling passes when they needed to be calling runs. They made that mistake a lot. There were precious few screen passes called to the tailbacks, and there were almost no lateral passes to anyone in the backfield. Yes, those passes tend to attract attention and get tacklers to the ball faster than the team would want, but those passes also freeze the secondary for a second or two. That opens up the deep game quite well.
While McCarron was allowed to gouge the A&M defense with the two-minute drill late in the game, he was not allowed to truly enter that style of football until it was too late. Yes, I understand that Saban wants to control the clock. However, this Tide team is not currently built to do that. This Tide offense is built more like a Chip Kelly offense at the moment. That's due to the loss of personnel over the offseason.
We “get” that Saban has a system, and we “get” that he doesn't want to deviate from that system in any way. That system can yield a national championship every other year, assuming it's implemented to perfection. However, with a little deviation from the game plan (not the system in its entirety), the Tide could have had a perfect season this week.
No, Saban doesn't want to score quickly. However, if you aren't scoring at all, isn't scoring quickly still the better option? Given the defense's ability to stuff the Aggies, the answer to that question is “yes.” He's a great coach, and many teams all over the country would love to have beaten LSU and Texas A&M in the same season.
We were given hope that McCarron had been given more freedom under center, but it certainly didn't look like it. He was looking to the sideline for plays, and he was forcing plays to go where the coaches thought they should go. (It's not reasonable to think that he would avoid calling audibles that much if he didn't have to.) When he was given the opportunity to throw, he looked like he was going to throw regardless of how the play looked on the field. This is partially what caused him to toss two interceptions.
Yes, Doug Nussmeier is going to be a valuable asset to this team, but McCarron has spent two years learning the Alabama offense, not counting this year at all. Nussmeier just got to Tuscaloosa in 2012. While it is right and good to follow those placed in authority over you, there comes a time when you have to trust your lieutenants. They are in the battle every week, and they have seen more than you have.
The game is changing, and the “Johnny Manziels” will not stop coming to your doorstep. If you only have an answer for them in odd-numbered years, it's only a matter of time before you don't have an answer at all. Football will never stop being about who scores the most points. It's not about how those points are scored.
I just have one question for the coaches: When you have Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Jesse Williams on the same team and you're facing a 4th-and-Goal from inside the three, what should you do? (Hint: the answer isn't a short pass into one of the better defenses in the nation.)
There were a few “Whaaaaat?” moments in this game, but that potential game-winning play was the biggest one. Sticking to an unsuccessful plan is exactly what allowed Cade Foster to lose the game to LSU last year. Just pointing out some history repeating itself, that's all.