Alabama needed to do one thing this week to keep what little championship hopes they had alive: Win while showing they had learned lessons from the LSU game.
Alabama won, and it was 24-7 against a team that LSU beat 19-6.
Alabama had injured players, and, while I will take that into account during the grading process, I believe I still saw a few holes in their game that should have been plugged.
So, without further ado, here is this week's report card.
It's much harder to grade a quarterback when he's playing without all his tools; however, a good mechanic uses the tools he's got to get the job done.
A.J. McCarron only threw one pick in the game, as did LSU versus this defense. However, since he is also the tackler that saved the pick-6, he gets good marks for that. Going 14/24 in passing, he was below his average, although against this defense, that was to be expected. However, a few of those were his fault for throwing incorrectly, as opposed to just good defense.
The running game was stifled for much of the game. It's not that the opportunities weren't there; it's that the holes were open for such short periods of time. As the ball was snapped, the hole would open up, only to be closed by the time Richardson or Lacy got there. My suspicions were confirmed when Saban switched to the wildcat formation with roughly 6:00 left in the game. The wildcat was working as well as it would have early on; they just weren't using it.
Offense loses marks for the first and last touchdowns of the game, in my opinion. The first touchdown drive was extended twice by Mississippi State. While Alabama did score, the opportunity was given to them more than it was earned. The last scoring drive of the game wasn't "on purpose." Saban was playing the clock-eating game, but I'll discuss that further in the coaching section.
The McCarron that hits open receivers and opens up the defense for the run game is still under center somewhere. I'd like to see him come back. Too many missed throws in this game to grade higher than this:
Offense: C+, since he saved the pick-6.
Once again, defense is the one aspect of the game where it becomes difficult to find flaws. The touchdown scored against this defense had more to do with special teams than defense, so that's less of a flaw than it could have been. I knocked more points off the special teams score for that TD than I knocked off the defense.
The only other "flaw" in the game was the pop-fly interception opportunity. Four 'Bama defenders went for it at once, and no one came down with it. Eagerness, energy, attention to detail, all of these were present on the play, so I didn't take points off for it. If it happens again, maybe someone will call it, like we did in baseball. I can't punish four guys for doing what they should have done all at the same time.
The secondary didn't give up much, as the Mississippi State offense was held to 12 yards rushing and 131 total yards of offense.
Everything on defense is still looking excellent. If a team gets all the way down-field on you, there are some issues. The fact that Mississippi State's only converted drive was set up by Alabama's special teams speaks volumes as to the caliber of the Tide's defense.
This will be short and sweet, as the special teams did a few things to get their grade knocked down rather quickly.
Field Goals: 1/3. Missed from 49- and 31-yards out, and one made from 21-yards out.
I was going to give them a C- after the missed 49, because that was more of a playcaller's mistake, then they missed from 31, a hittable distance for either of our kickers, supposedly.
I dropped them to a D+ after the 31-yard attempt because "at least the special teams haven't allowed a huge return against them."
Enter: The 69-yard return in the final quarter to set up Mississippi State's only TD.
Special Teams: D- (At least the kick wasn't returned for a TD)
Here's where it gets interesting.
Coach Saban had a game-plan. Coach's plan won the game, but could have done more. We all know he's one of the best, so I will not call out all the things he did right. Report cards are about constructive criticism.
First, the run game had opportunities to be effective, but the hole was closing fast. Playcaller's solution: run a delay, which was less effective because the hole was already closed before the delay count was over. Result: fewer yards overall on the delayed runs than on the normal ones.
I was begging the T.V. screen to "please run the wildcat, so Richardson/Lacy can hit that hole hard!!!"
They didn't until coach stumbled upon the correct game-plan when he started running the clock at 6:00 left in the game. That drive's success had less to do with Mississippi being tired than it did the fact that the opportunity had been there the whole game.
Another aspect of the game that lost him points in my book was his response to the question about his kickers. When asked about his solution to the lack of kicking game, his response was, "I'm going to keep putting them out there, and they're going to start making them."*
I appreciate trying to give the kickers confidence, but going for it on 4th-and-2 and coming up short carries the same consequences as a missed field goal. At what point do you say, "We need to punt/go for it until we are in these kickers' ranges."?
I'm a huge Nick Saban fan. Saban is an A+ coach in my book, and he has brought life to this program that hasn't been seen for a long time.
However, coaching like you can't see what's happening on the field isn't going to do anyone any good in the long run. When we have a kicker, use him. When we don't, don't. When the game-plan is working, stick to it. When it isn't, change plans. Please, Saban, don't just keep calling the same plays while the ship goes down.
Coaching: C (The lowest grade I feel I can give a coach who won by 17)
They won a difficult game on the road against a very capable defense while shorthanded.
I won't give them lower than a "C," especially since the margin of victory was higher than that of the No. 1 team in the country.
A "C" is good. A "C" means there is room for improvement and that they can get much, much better.
As long as the defense brings their "A" game week-in and week-out, a "C" means there is room for error, even though that's not what the team wants.
With special teams performing as they have been, and the coaching staff calling plays that "should work" as opposed to the plays that are actually working, look for the Tide to finish in a top-five bowl game.
I just hope we bring the "A" game that day. I don't want them to fight this hard just to fall in the postseason.
*Quotes in this article I remembered from watching the game on ESPN, stats from espn.com