Alabama's loss leaves plenty of questions
January, 3, 2014
By Edward Aschoff | ESPN.com
NEW ORLEANS -- The focus was there. So was the determination and the motivation.
But as the final seconds of the Allstate Sugar Bowl dripped off the clock inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alabama once again had to watch someone else celebrate a wild finish. For the first time since 2008, No. 3 Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC) lost back-to-back games after falling 45-31 in stunning fashion to 11th-ranked Oklahoma (11-2, 7-2 Big 12).
The team overwhelmingly pegged to win it all from the beginning of the season to just before Chris Davis' miracle return on the Plains on Nov. 30, was once again dragged down to earth with a head-scratching loss.
"We were more focused than we needed to be. We were ready to play, we just came out slow," safety Landon Collins said. "We came out very slow, very sluggish -- not to the Alabama standard."
While the talk all week leading up to the game was about Alabama being prepared and motivated to play the Sooners, the Tide were out-muscled at their own game. This team looked fired up from the jump, but so did Oklahoma. The Sooners didn't have near the talent that Alabama did, but it was the tougher team on the field.
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron, playing his final game for the Crimson Tide, was sacked seven times as Alabama lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.
So it begs a couple of questions: Was Alabama as great as we thought it was? And where does it go from here?
For all the talk about Alabama being favored against national championship opponents Auburn and Florida State, the Crimson Tide looked nothing like the best team in the country Thursday night. A fluke play ended their BCS title hopes, but this Sugar Bowl debacle ended any sort of "best team" talk.
Alabama was repeatedly pushed around, run by and slammed to the ground against an Oklahoma team that struggled to find its identity until late in the season.
The team so used to mistake-free football saw all of the demons that plagued it in some form or fashion this season attack all at once. The secondary couldn't keep up, the offensive line broke down, T.J. Yeldon fumbled and AJ McCarron had two uncharacteristic interceptions.
Oklahoma's makeshift offensive line stuffed the biggest line it had seen all season. Alabama struggled to put consistent pressure on quarterback Trevor Knight, who picked the Tide apart for 348 yards and four touchdowns, after being the on-again, off-again guy at the position all year.
In Saban's first six seasons at Alabama, no quarterback threw four touchdowns against Alabama in game. Now, two have in this season (Johnny Manziel’s five being the other one).
"We had it in our minds that we could beat these guys, that we could move them off the ball," Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said.
"In our opinion, they're the best team in the country, but we out-executed them."
When Alabama swung back with a pair of Derrick Henry TDs -- one a 43-yard run and the other a 61-yard reception -- to pull within a score in the second half, the Sooners fought back, exploiting Alabama's defense, especially its secondary. Collins admitted that the uptempo offense tired guys out, helping Knight & Co. find space.
"Once they got tired with that uptempo -- we knew they were big boys up front -- and we started to get them sweating and a little bit winded, we could start pounding them a bit," OU running back Brennan Clay said. "We started hitting those creases up the middle and finally they broke."
Then, there was the Alabama offensive line, which looked more makeshift than Oklahoma’s, yet was only down one starter -- right guard Anthony Steen. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio struggled all night to stop Eric Striker, who finished with three sacks. As the game went on, McCarron could barely stand upright, as he was sacked seven times.
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyNick Saban admitted that maybe Bama wasn't as focused as it needed to be late in the season and it paid for that in the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
"We were late off the ball, technique was all whacky a couple times," Kouandjio said. "If you're going against a normal guy, you'll get away with that type of stuff, but when you're going up against a top guy, it's not going to look good.
"It was all just being lazy on technique. They'll take advantage of that because they're good players."
To Alabama coach Nick Saban, you could sense that a performance like this didn't exactly surprise him after the way players took to preparation leading up to the Auburn game.
"I thought our team late in the season, from the LSU game on, maybe didn't have the focus we needed to have," Saban said. "We didn't pay attention to detail, didn't do little things right, didn't practice well. I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game.
"I just don't think that our players realized sometimes that they won so much that they realize sometimes what it really takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted, and that everyone that plays us has something to prove. And they have to change the way they think, and that's difficult to do. And they've gotta stick with the process with what they have to do to do it, and it's tough."
A loss like this can do two things to a program: It can motivate, or it can drain. Right now, players are saying it will serve as motivation, but losing leaders, including seniors McCarron and C.J. Mosley, will be major blows. Finding guys who can step up and carry this team will be a top priority for Saban moving forward.
"These losses are not the Alabama standard," Collins said. "We're looking to come into next year and stepping it up. These losses, they weigh on us and we have a point to prove now. We know people are coming at us because they always have a point to prove against Alabama, and now we have a point to prove against everybody else in the nation."
Players Provide Playoff Picks
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State