Alabama Football: Is Offensive Coordinator Jim McElwain Weak Link in Coaching?

Jimmy McMurreyAnalyst IINovember 18, 2011

Alabama lost seven games in 2007, but when Jim McElwain joined Nick Saban's crew of coaches in 2008 the team finished the regular season undefeated and were a mere breath away from playing for the national championship.  

Was this due to McElwain's influence or Alabama's stalwart defense defense?

Since Nick Saban worked out the kinks in '07, Alabama has had a consistently top-ranked defense in the nation.  In 2008 they were ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense, second in 2009, third in 2010 (only behind Boise State and TCU), and are holding on firm to first in every major defensive category in 2011.  This is because of recruiting and genius defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

The sad fact, however, is that Alabama has never had an offense to match the might of the defense.  Recruiting certainly isn't the problem, as the team hauls in big offensive prospects year in and year out, including No. 1 ranked pro-style quarterback, five-star Phillip Sims.  Nick Saban isn't the problem, as he doesn't call the offensive plays.    

This leaves very few places to put the blame on Alabama's offensive woes.  Sure, they run all over weaker opponents, but when teams really show up to play the offense struggles.

Alabama always has big names on their offensive roster and get a lot of attention at the beginning of the year, have not been ranked consistently high nationally like the defense is.  The game plan is to control the ball and let the defense work, but you have to score more points than the defense allows.

In 2008, Alabama was ranked 35th in scoring offense with 30.1 points-per-game, up from their 64th ranking in 2007 with 27.1 PPG.  

Some are wondering if Trent Richardson is being used properly, and if he is shouldering too much of a load in the wrong ways.
Some are wondering if Trent Richardson is being used properly, and if he is shouldering too much of a load in the wrong ways.Butch Dill/Getty Images

2009 had them earn a 21st place ranking with 32.1 PPG, the year Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy.  Quite an improvement.

2010 saw the same marked increase.  They returned three starting offensive linemen, which included senior left tackle James Carpenter and freshman All-American Barrett Jones.  They also still had championship quarterback Greg McElroy, Heisman-winner Mark Ingram, running back anomaly Trent Richardson, and freak of nature Julio Jones.  

Where did that get them?  They finished the season ranked 18th with 35.7 PPG, which is a great spot to be, but they dropped from their 12th ranked 2009 rushing offense to 30th.  They lost three games, which most blame on the defense, which again ranked third in the nation behind only TCU and Boise State.

Opposing defenses focus fired Alabama's Heisman winner and Trent Richardson, but they actually churned out a better average with 5.09 yards-per-carry in 2010 as opposed to the 5.01 in 2009. 

Why, then, did they go from 550 carries in 2009 to 467 in 2010?  I recall Alabama fans griping in 2010, wondering why on earth they wouldn't run the ball more.  

In their first 2010 loss, Ingram and Richardson combined for a mere 17 carries.  Sure, they were getting the best the South Carolina defense could give and were behind in points, but why give up so quickly on the best running back combination in the country?

In 2011, the Crimson Tide has put a lot of points on the board, but struggled against both LSU and an underwhelming Mississippi State team, as well as multiple first-half struggles against much weaker opponents.  

In the LSU game, Jim McElwain ran Richardson 23 times, and an painfully-injured Eddie Lacy five times, but didn't run the very capable third string running back, Jalston Fowler, at all.  Instead, he had his rookie quarterback throw 28 times against the second best (some would say the best) secondary in the nation, which included future top-10 NFL Draft pick cornerback Morris Claiborne and turnover-machine Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu.  

On top of this, early in the game against LSU Trent had much success with short dump-off passes, screen passes, and runs to the outside.  Despite this, the plan for most of the game didn't include these.  Instead, simple runs up the middle were the main course.  

Runs between the tackles have been fairly lackluster all year with Richardson being met in the backfield all too often.  The blocking hasn't quite been there, and the use of an H-back as opposed to a fullback is a questionable decision.  I discussed this in-depth in my article "Is it Time for the Tide to use Jalston Fowler as a Fullback?".

They say defense win championships, and that rang true for Alabama in 2009.  But in 2011, with the best defense in college football, possible the best in many decades, the team doesn't look to be bringing home the crystal football.  

Alabama's play-calling on offense has been questionable at best, predictable at worst, and Jim McElwain is the man calling those shots.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is certainly pulling his weight, but is his counterpart doing his?