Football

Have injuries pushed Alabama to its tipping point?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A strange thing happened late Saturday night: For the first time since the opening week of the season, people actually paid attention to Alabama.

Like, they watched the game and everything.

The previous eight weeks had passed by in a blur of sleep-inducing dominance. Nick Saban’s squad was so much better than the competition that it only made sense to doze off or change the channel. Even a prime-time game against LSU in which Alabama didn’t play its best was overlooked because the Tide never trailed and wound up winning by two touchdowns.

But on Saturday, on the road against Mississippi State, that all changed. Alabama’s offense stumbled out of the gate, the defense struggled to contain QB Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs’ running game, and late into the fourth quarter, Mississippi State was actually winning. It took a brilliant performance from QB Jalen Hurts to pull Alabama back from the brink and leave Starkville undefeated.

Here’s the problem, though: Everyone saw what happened. Miami-Notre Dame got out of hand early, so Alabama took center stage — warts and all. And suddenly there are concerning questions being asked about the Crimson Tide.

The issue at hand isn’t debatable. It’s injuries, plain and simple.

No one wants to hear about injuries because every team deals with them, but even the most ardent of SEC haters would have to look at what Alabama has dealt with this season and understand that this isn’t your typical case of wear and tear. The attrition at specific positions has put Saban’s defense in danger of reaching its breaking point.

If we’re being honest, Alabama’s vulnerability is something we should have seen coming for a while now. Because in the midst of that blowout win over Florida State in the season opener, Alabama lost two of its best pass-rushers in outside linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller.

Overlooking that was a mistake that wouldn’t come full circle until Alabama’s win over LSU on Nov. 4, when starting inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton was lost for the season with a knee injury and reserve inside linebacker Mack Wilson was sidelined for an expected four to six weeks by a foot injury. On top of that, star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick pulled a hamstring.

All that attrition came to a head against Mississippi State. The lack of experience and depth at outside linebacker was exposed as the defense struggled to seal the edge when Fitzpatrick ran the read-option. Losing Hamilton, the signal-caller of the defense, no doubt played a part in the team’s inability to get off the field on third down. And Fitzpatrick? He played, but you could tell that he wasn’t 100 percent.

The issues at linebacker speak for themselves — no defense can lose four key players at a single position and not experience a drop-off — but the day-to-day status of the All-America candidate Fitzpatrick creates a troubling domino effect in a secondary in which he’s capable of playing all six positions. The moment he pulled his hamstring, he became a liability in pass coverage, forcing Hootie Jones to play safety and Tony Brown to move to nickelback — two solid role players suddenly asked to do much more.

An Alabama defense that had allowed just 66.4 rushing yards per game and two total touchdowns on the ground in its first eight games of the season has now yielded an average of 161.5 yards rushing over the past two games, in addition to four rushing touchdowns combined.

After beating Mississippi State, Saban lamented a “myriad of mistakes” that included players losing containment, not blitzing when they were supposed to and not covering well at times.

“So,” he said, “lots of things to correct.”

On Monday, he tried to piece it together.

“When you have changes,” he said, “whether … those changes are inevitable because of players missing or whatever, those are all things that have some impact on how you’re able to play and what you’re able to do. Whether it’s how you communicate, the guys getting in the right things, doing the right things, not making mental errors, or having the confidence that every player out there is going to be able to do what he needs to do effectively.”

And therein lies the rub for those who would brush off Alabama’s injuries and point to the never-ending crop of four- and five-star players riding the bench. Because while five-star inside linebacker Dylan Moses was a prodigy LSU recruited as early as the eighth grade, his talent can only overcome so much. He can’t outrun experience and he can’t suddenly be skilled in performing all the duties Hamilton was expected to take care of at inside linebacker.

As Saban explained, “The stability of the defense has to be created through confidence in the signal-caller making the right calls.” Lose that, and you’re going to feel it.

Maybe Moses can develop into Alabama’s signal-caller, or maybe it’s veteran reserve Keith Holcombe who will step up.

Whatever the case, it’s not going to be Hamilton. It won’t be Wilson, either. And Lewis and Miller aren’t coming back before a bowl game.

What’s more, offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher, a three-year starter, is dealing with a high-ankle sprain that has him out this weekend against Mercer and threatens to sideline him against No. 6 Auburn the week after.

With Auburn surging and Alabama nursing a slew of injuries, the Iron Bowl has become a more compelling matchup, one that could serve as an elimination game for the College Football Playoff and decide who will face Georgia in the SEC championship game.

Even if Alabama survives, you have to wonder what kind of shape the team will be in coming out the other side.

The fully stocked, dominant Crimson Tide are gone. What we’ll see from here on out is a team held together by backups and bandages.

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