TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – What it looks like when a dynasty wobbles: thousands of Alabama fans hitting the exits like Derrick Henry hitting a hole. With 10 minutes left in the game, their team down 20. When the going got tough, the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd got out.
What it sounds like when a power program loses its grip: the sliver of visiting Mississippi fans cheering last and loudest, celebrating their first win here since 1988 and their first back-to-back victories over the Crimson Tide ever.
What it feels like when the foundation cracks: denial is in the air. “They didn’t beat us,” Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said. “We beat ourselves.”
That discredits a phenomenal effort by Ole Miss to win a wild, exhausting, endless affair, 43-37. It fails to acknowledge a team that could be good enough to finally win the Southeastern Conference Western Division. It glosses over the performancy of a team that was more poised, more prepared and more confident in a caldron of hostile noise. It falls short of telling the whole truth.
But it does tell part of the truth. Alabama beat itself silly with turnovers commmitted (five of them) and a lack of turnovers created (zero). It beat itself with one massive coverage bust on a 73-yard touchdown pass (that should have been called back on an illegal lineman downfield), and on missed tackles in the secondary that led to big plays. It beat itself with erratic quarterback play (three interceptions thrown) and shaky special teams (two fumbled kickoff returns and a field-goal unit that cannot be trusted).
Here is the inconvenient part of that truth: the great Alabama teams didn’t suffer from those problems. They certainly were not a minus-five in the turnover department at home. They got quarterback play that was good enough to win, instead of just shaky enough to get the Tide beaten. And they never gave up the point totals that the recent Tide teams have surrendered.
The last two SEC teams to enter Bryant-Denny have scored 44 and 43 points – Auburn in a loss last November, Ole Miss in the win Saturday. The average points allowed in Alabama’s five losses since its last national championship: 37.4. The number of 30-plus-yard scoring plays surrendered by Alabama in those five losses: 11, with nine of them 40 yards or more and four of them 66 yards or more.
A couple of those lightning-strike plays were pretty flukey: the immmortal 109-yard kick six by Auburn; and Ole Miss’ high snap-panic-throw-helmet-deflection, 66-yard touchdown Saturday night. But most of the huge plays were the result of what has become a chronic issue for Alabama: breakdowns in the secondary, in coverage or tackling or both.
Nick Saban, one of the great defensive coaches of all time, hasn’t been able to put a top-shelf secondary on the field for the last couple of years. Nor, for that matter, has he been able to find a star kicker or a star quarterback.
Those are glaring and surprising problems for a program that, year-in and year-out, recruits the best talent in America. How is Alabama not three-deep in stud kickers and quarterbacks? Every year?
Ole Miss certainly had the advantage at both those positions Saturday night – most notably quarterback. Chad Kelly was playing in his first SEC game, but it was hard to tell. The nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly showcased a powerful arm and no fear in throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns – with zero interceptions.
Alabama gave Cooper Bateman his first career start against the Rebels, and while his completion percentage was good (11 of 14), he threw an interception that set up Ole Miss points. That led to a return of previous starter Jake Coker, who led some big scoring drives – but also threw two interceptions of his own.
“The mistakes that we made, all that we gave away, cost us the game,” Saban said, while largely sparing his QBs from criticism.
Still, you wonder how Alabama has found itself in a spot where, in a huge SEC game, its best QB (Coker) is a transfer from Florida State and its go-to receiver (Richard Mullaney) is a transfer from Oregon State. Last year Alabama needed a career reserve to step up at QB as a fifth-year senior (Blake Sims) to play better than anticipated. That shows there have been some glitches in the recruiting machine or the player-development machine.
Then there are the turnovers, which also run counter to the Saban Way.
From 2009-12, when Alabama was winning three national titles, it was a plus-53 turnover margin. That’s a huge number. Since then the Tide is a minus-3, and a minus-five over the last 17 games. The program has become sloppier.
Those are the cracks in what has been America’s strongest football foundation.
Saban stressed afterward that the Tide lost to Ole Miss last year and still made the College Football Playoff. It’s a valid point – losing this game doesn’t disqualify Alabama from anything.
But losing at home ratchets up the difficulty the rest of the way. The Tide still must visit two current unbeatens (Georgia on Oct. 3 and Texas A&M on Oct. 17), plus host unbeaten LSU on Nov. 7. And to win the West, it must hope the Rebels lose twice in league play the rest of the way.
And losing to Ole Miss again puts a dent in a favorite Saban stat – he’d been 9-1 at Alabama in revenge games against opponents he lost to in the last meeting. The only repeat winner against Saban in the last seven years was LSU, in 2010 and ’11. Now Hugh Freeze can say he owns two pieces of Nick, too.
Winning in Bryant-Denny Stadium was a landmark achievement for Mississippi, one the Rebels can rightfully rejoice in. But this stunning upset also had the look, sound and feel of a program-altering loss for mighty Alabama. The Nick Saban Era could be reaching a crossroads in its attempt to regain past glory.