The Crimson Tide won its first nine much the same way it took two of the previous three national championships — with a run-based offense that didn’t put its stout defense in a tough position.
In Saturday’s 29-24 loss to Texas A&M, that philosophy seemed to come undone, starting on offense. If you watched this one at home and shouted at the TV for the Crimson Tide to run the ball more, you aren’t necessarily wrong. Alabama seemed quick to rely on its passing game and abandon what seemed like a solid running attack.
Because of that, the Crimson Tide comes to the season’s stretch run with only a slim chance of making the BCS National Championship Game. In the BCS standings released Sunday night, Alabama (9-1) is fourth, trailing three unbeaten teams: No. 1 Kansas State, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Notre Dame.
All three have two regular-season games left, and Oregon will play a Pac-12 Championship Game. Alabama needs to beat Western Carolina and Auburn to end the regular season, beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, and hope two of the three unbeatens lose. And even then, who’s to say Alabama would be guaranteed a BCS spot over any other one-loss team?
It all goes back to the run-pass split Alabama used Saturday. Against Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide called only 29 running plays and 36 passing. For some teams nationally, that’s a typical split. For others, that actually is too much running.
But for Alabama under Nick Saban, that’s an awful lot of passing, even with a quarterback like AJ McCarron, who ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency.
In the previous 63 games, which date back to the start of the 2008 season, Alabama has had a more pass-heavy split only three times, all in 2010. The Crimson Tide lost all three: Auburn (25 run calls, 46 pass), LSU (28, 37) and South Carolina (22, 42).
All the passing shortens Alabama’s time of possession, which gives an uptempo team such as Texas A&M exactly what it wants — a chance to run more plays. The Aggies ran 77 of them, and afterward, Saban said one of the best ways to defend a talented quarterback like the Aggie’s Johnny Manziel is to keep him off the field.
That essentially is what Alabama did in the second period when Texas A&M was allowed only one drive, and the Tide won the quarter 14-0.
Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier calls the plays. He sits in the press box along with running backs coach Burton Burns. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, receivers coach Mike Groh and tight ends coach Bobby Williams are on the sideline.
Although Nussmeier makes the calls, he answers to Saban, and as history has shown, he likes run-based game plans.
Nussmeier called plenty of play-action passes, in which McCarron would fake the handoff and then roll back and pass. It worked especially well on the last drive when McCarron completed a 54-yard pass to receiver Kenny Bell, which put the ball at the Texas A&M 6-yard line.
Then in four plays after that, Alabama called for three passes, although McCarron scrambled on two of them. The final fourth-down pass got picked off.
Eddie Lacy, who seemed on his way to one of the best games of his career, carried only 16 times for 92 yards. He carried once on the final drive.
As for the last play, Saban said, “I’m not going to criticize the call, but I’m like everybody else when it doesn’t work, I wish we would have done something else.”
Maybe he wishes Alabama had done something else the whole game?