Seven games into this 2021 football season, just who is this Alabama team?
It’s a simple question, perhaps one a beat writer should answer, but really … what’s the identity of this version of Crimson Tide football? It’s a question we posed to Nick Saban.
“Well, I’d say right now, based on what we just did,” Saban said, “that’s still sort of up in the air.”
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And that’s fair considering the three-game stretch Alabama’s just had entering the final Saturday before an open week. From a surprisingly easy win over dangerous Ole Miss to an equally shocking loss at unranked Texas A&M to last week’s angry response at Mississippi State, this team’s frankly hard to define.
For Saban, the trajectory is positive coming off the 49-9 pounding of Mississippi State. This was a group he said had yet to play a 60-minute game before using the tag exactly when describing the seventh game of the season.
These growing pains were not unexpected after losing a veteran core from a 2020 national title team that produced six of the first 24 NFL draft picks this spring. From that leadership vacuum, Saban said he sees encouraging steps from the 2021 group after labeling last year’s team the easiest he’s ever coached.
That’s more of a big-picture identity, but the route to a 6-1 record took different forms in execution.
Offensively, the 2020 group ran it 476 times while throwing 425 passes. The split is almost identical this year with passes on 47.5% of the plays compared to 47.1% a year ago. There was more of a home run threat a year ago in the passing and rushing games with Mac Jones distributing to Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris.
Jameson Williams has been the top threat for a big play most of the season but John Metchie and Brian Robinson had touchdown catches of 46 and 51 yards respectively at Mississippi State. Where Williams had 10 catches at Texas A&M, he had just three targets and two catches (one for a 75-yard touchdown) in Starkville.
Three different receivers have led games in receptions. And while Brian Robinson’s led rushers in every game he played, Roydell Williams had a 100-yard game against Southern Miss and Jace McClellan caught three touchdown passes among his 10 receptions before a season-ending knee injury.
Where Robinson had just five catches in the first five games, he has 10 in the last two.
And where tight ends Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley had 17 catches and seven touchdowns in the first five games, Latu has their only reception in the last two games for a 10-yard gain at A&M.
There’s an interesting line between being unpredictable and inconsistent.
The run-pass ratio has varied wildly from game to game. The 50 rushing attempts against Ole Miss (compared to 27 passes) were the most for an Alabama offense since 2017 when Jalen Hurts was at quarterback. After the game, Saban said Robinson’s 36-carry day — one fewer than the combined workload from his first three games — wouldn’t be a return to a pound-it-down-your-throat running identity.
A week later, Young broke his season-high for passing attempts (48) at Texas A&M by a margin of 10 as Saban hinted publicly that Alabama should have run it more than 34 times.
And a week before the 50-carry day against Ole Miss, Alabama had just 28 and 91 yards (3.3 average) at Florida. There’s more stability and consistency in the last three rushing performances with averages of 4.2, 4.5, 4.8, respectively
Granted these games aren’t played in vacuums and defenses learn from what worked/didn’t work in earlier games.
How does quarterback Bryce Young define the identity of this Alabama offense?
“I think we pride ourselves on being relentless, physical, fast, and our offense is really prepared and ready to do anything that’s given to us,” he said. “Evaluating who we’re playing, looking at the defense, game-planning each week. We have a lot of pride in being ourselves, but understanding that things might look different from week to week and we’re able to communicate and be on the same page for changes we make. All that ties into our identity.”
The sophomore passer from Pasadena had a blemish-free, four-touchdown game at Mississippi State. And through almost four full games, he went without an interception as his turnover-less streak hit 143 passes to open his Alabama career. Then he had one interception in each of the next three games, each with increasing culpability and ramifications.
Pass protection was relatively solid in the first two games against Power 5 competitions with just three sacks before Ole Miss and Texas A&M combined for seven.
It’s run the full spectrum for a Crimson Tide defense that entered the season with considerable hype. Linebacker Will Anderson more than lived up to that preseason buzz but there have been hills and valleys throughout.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones was booed in the first half Sept. 18 before leading the Gators to within a two-point conversion of overtime of a 31-29 Alabama escape job in Gainesville.
Two weeks later, a volatilely explosive Ole Miss offense came to Bryant-Denny Stadium only to manage a meager 109 first-half yards and zero points in what ended a 42-21 Alabama romp.
To that point, Alabama had allowed just 19 first-half points while scoring 149 in five games.
Of course, a week later a sputtering Texas A&M team that scored just 32 points total in the previous two games outscored Alabama 24-10 in the first 30 minutes in College Station. The same pass rush that sacked Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers seven times in Starkville had zero on Aggie Zach Calzada in the 41-38 upset loss.
It looked like a completely different team seven days later against Mike Leach’s unconventionally dangerous offense that threw for 300 yards but scored zero touchdowns.
“I feel like we’re trying to get back to the standard that we set for ourselves at the beginning of the season,” Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore said. “We wanted to be a relentless, physical, ball-taking, ball-hawking defense, and I feel like this past weekend, we started to take steps toward that. But you know it’s a work in progress every day.”
It’s just been harder to predict this fall as it’s been more of Jeff Lebowski’s “strikes and gutters, ups and downs” than last year’s bull rush to a national title.
Saban had a more positive tone speaking Monday about the direction of the 2021 Crimson Tide after making a statement at Mississippi State.
“I think we took the first step of that in the last game,” Saban said, “and hopefully we’ll be able to build on that in the future.”
Who really is this Alabama team?
The next few weeks will hold the real answer as it plays for an SEC West title without a safety net but an upward trajectory after a true dud of a performance at Texas A&M.