Pouya Dianat/Sports Illustrated

Low Tide: Has Alabama lost its air of SEC invincibility?

By Zac Ellis
October 16, 2014

Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt offered some foreshadowing before his then-No. 11 Rebels toppled No. 3 Alabama on Oct. 4. “We understand that we haven't played a team that's going to be as good as Bama,” Prewitt told FoxSports.com the week prior to the game. “But we don't really think Bama is as good as they have been. And we're better than we have been.”

Prewitt might have been on to something with the Crimson Tide. Ole Miss beat Alabama 23-17, the Rebels' first win over the Tide in 10 tries. The next week Bama squeaked out a 14-13 win at Arkansas over the same Razorbacks program that Alabama beat by a combined score of 104-0 in the teams' previous two meetings.

While coach Nick Saban’s squad still sits at 5-1 and No. 7 in the AP Poll, its performance raises the question: Has Bama's air of invincibility disappeared?

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As the Crimson Tide prepare to host No. 21 Texas A&M on Saturday, they aren’t looking very Tide-like. Saban’s vaunted program, which has gone 79-16 and won three BCS titles since his arrival before the 2007 campaign, appears vulnerable. That doesn’t mean Alabama won’t make a run to the SEC title game or compete for a playoff berth. But it has more than a few kinks to work out before that happens.

Questions surrounding Bama arose at the end of last season. The Tide had their sights set on a spot in the final BCS championship before Auburn’s miraculous Kick-Six spoiled their shot at its third straight crystal ball. A disheartening 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl followed, marking Alabama’s first consecutive defeats since the end of the 2008 season.

Detractors criticized the Crimson Tide for being unfocused in the Sugar Bowl after falling short of another national title, and Alabama spent the offseason answering questions about complacency. But this fall hasn’t entirely quelled concerns. The Tide allowed 365 passing yards in a season-opening 33-23 win over West Virginia on Aug. 30. They turned the ball over five times and committed 11 penalties in a 42-21 victory over Florida on Sept. 20.

Alabama’s troubles finally caught up with it against Ole Miss. It committed eight penalties and two turnovers as the Rebels closed out the game on a 21-3 run. Turnovers plagued Bama again last week; it fumbled four times against the Razorbacks, losing two in the first quarter.

“They’re all little mental errors,” said Michael Casagrande, who covers Alabama football for AL.com. “Saban was talking about how they’re playing with so much anxiety at this point that the mistakes kind of compound themselves. They’re trying too hard not to make a mistake, and they end up making another one.

“It’s the kind of thing where you see the look on [Saban’s] face after these things happen, and you can just tell. He’s trying to stay calm when talking about it, but you can tell it bothers him deep down.”

date opponent result
Aug. 30 West Virginia W, 33-23
Sept. 6 Florida Atlantic W, 41-0
Sept. 13 Southern Miss W, 52-12
Sept. 20 Florida W, 42-21
Oct. 4 at Ole Miss L, 23-17
Oct. 11 at Arkansas W, 14-13
Oct. 18 Texas A&M ?
Oct. 25 at Tennessee ?
Nov. 8 at LSU ?
Nov. 15 Mississippi State ?
Nov. 22 Western Carolina ?
Nov. 29 Auburn ?

That anxiety comes, in part, from sky-high expectations. Alabama cemented itself as college football’s premier program during the last several seasons. It inked the country’s top recruiting class in six of the last seven years, per Rivals.com, and created a revolving door of talent that has only fueled the promise of more. That notion eats at Saban, who lamented the perspective this week.

“Everybody’s got such a high expectation for what our team should be,” Saban told reporters. “I was just happy to see our players be happy about playing a game and winning. It really sort of -- if you want to know the truth about it -- pisses me off when I talk to people and they’re disappointed that we only won the [Arkansas] game 14-13 and in the way we played. That’s frustrating.”

However, the truth is the close wins might point to larger problems. Alabama hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent since topping No. 10 LSU on Nov. 9 last season. It has three straight losses to ranked foes. In Football Outsiders’ latest F/+ efficiency rankings, the Crimson Tide sit at No. 10, behind four SEC programs: Mississippi State (No. 1), Ole Miss (No. 2), Auburn (No. 3) and Georgia (No. 9). Alabama was ranked fourth prior to its narrow win over Arkansas.

Bill Connelly, the statistical guru of SB Nation’s "Football Study Hall," currently projects Alabama to go 5-3 in SEC play. Before the loss to Ole Miss, Connelly’s numbers gave the Tide a 14.8 percent chance at a 7-1 conference record. Now, Connelly gives Bama a 6.1 percent chance of surviving with just one league loss. That’s jarring for a team that hasn’t lost more than one SEC game since 2010.

Most of the Tide’s problems have come on offense and special teams. Alabama averaged 42 points per game during its 4-0 start under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Since then, it has managed just 4.9 yards per play and 15.5 points per game. Its offense ranks 11th in the SEC in red-zone production (82.1 percent), and its 6.5 penalties per game are more than every SEC team except Texas A&M.

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Alabama’s offensive line, which has been without injured center Ryan Kelly, has made life difficult for quarterback Blake Sims and the team’s stable of backs. Making matters worse, Ole Miss and Arkansas did a solid job of limiting electric receiver Amari Cooper, especially the Razorbacks, who held him to two catches.

“I couldn’t even find the last time they had a rushing total as low as they had on Saturday (66 yards, 2.1 per carry) and won a game,” Casagrande said. “It was that bad. With the passing game, the past two teams have been keying on Amari Cooper with safety support over the top. So, he hasn’t been able to get down the field in some of those plays that were so effective against Florida. It’s effectively taken him out of the game.”

The Crimson Tide’s special teams are also among the nation’s worst. They rank 111th in the FBS in special teams efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. In its past three losses, Alabama made just two of eight field goal tries. Saban noted the personnel hasn’t changed, so coaches must find a way to keep players in line. “It is frustrating that we make these mistakes,” he said. “But our focus as coaches needs to be, what do we need to do to teach the players so they can do it better? And do it more consistently?”

A year ago, Auburn knocked Alabama from its perch atop the SEC. Now, Mississippi State and Ole Miss also appear more dominant than the Tide. At least one former Bama star places the blame on locker room leadership. Last week Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron told Tuscaloosa’s Tide 99.1-FM radio show that while Alabama fans shouldn’t panic about one loss, the roster is missing “true leaders like we had last year.” McCarron later backtracked, claiming he meant to say that Alabama needs more “vocal” leaders.

It's premature to write the obituary for the Crimson Tide’s season. Alabama had one loss when it captured national titles in 2011 and '12. All of its goals are still attainable. But it’s obvious Saban’s team can’t sleepwalk through an increasingly more formidable SEC West. The next test comes Saturday against Texas A&M, which averages a league-high 43.9 points per game. Alabama also has remaining challenges against Mississippi State (Nov. 15) and Auburn (Nov. 29). What was once an assumption is now anything but.

“There’s always this mounting pressure, especially just from the general public and the general feel of things around here, that you’ve got to hold this empire," Casagrande said. "You’ve got to keep these things at their peak level at all times. I’m sure that can get mentally exhausting.”

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