TUSCALOOSA — Amid his complaining about the “unfair” treatment Alabama received at critical junctures in Saturday’s 48-45 Iron Bowl loss, a visibly frustrated Nick Saban managed to strike at the root of what went wrong this season.
“The disappointing thing to me is we came here with the idea that we needed to play with a lot of discipline, not get a lot of penalties, do a great job of executing and doing our job on a consistent basis,” Saban said. “And I don’t think we did that great (Saturday). We got way too many penalties, put ourselves in a lot of bad situations. (We) certainly moved the ball well enough, struggled in the red zone a little bit. … We just didn’t play well enough.”
And while that’s true enough, the Crimson Tide’s struggles this season were far more pervasive than simply one poor performance against its biggest rival. In fact, many of Alabama’s issues this season seemed to fly in the face of prime tenets that Saban established in building the program into a powerhouse more than a decade ago — defense and self-discipline.
Overall undisciplined play and self-sabotaging penalties were prevalent concerns throughout the Tide’s “disappointing” 2019 campaign, all of which came to a head Saturday with the season-high 13 penalties for 96 yards — including three false starts on the final offensive possession of the game.
“Whether you slap a guy on the head or you rough the quarterback, or we don’t snap the ball when we’re supposed to so we get five false starts, all those things to me are things that we need to have more discipline so we can execute those,” Saban added. “And I’m not criticizing anyone, I’m basically making the point that these are lessons to be learned.”
Under Saban, Alabama has traditionally been a model of self-discipline. Over an 11-year run between 2008-18, it only amassed double-digit penalties in a game nine total times — and never more than twice in the same season.
This season, the Tide (10-2, 6-2 SEC) topped 10-or-more penalties in a game a whopping four times, all coming in conference play to lead the SEC with 90 penalties for 830 yards.
The 90 penalties in 12 games are the single-most under Saban, surpassing the 89 for 835 yards — another Saban-worst mark the year’s team is poised to break — during the 2015 national championship season.
After failing to top 70 total penalties in a season during Saban’s first eight years at the helm, it’s surpassed 85 penalties in four of the past five seasons — the lone exception 2017, the last time it won a national title.
This season is just the fifth-ever time Alabama has eclipsed 90 penalties in a year, the last time during the school record-shattering 121 penalties for 1,024 yards in 2002. With five more penalties in its bowl game, the Tide will have committed the second-most in program history.
“Bad discipline, that’s where it came from — bad discipline,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said Saturday. “We’ve had it all year and it shows up every time we play a good team. That’s on us.”
Another rampant issue has been the Crimson Tide’s inability to rise to the elevated defensive standard of prior iterations, when Alabama was notorious for its stingy and relentless defense that prided itself on manhandling opposing offenses.
But that simply wasn’t the case this season, and hasn’t been for some time.
Alabama has surrendered more than 30 points in a game 15 times (7-8) since the start of 2013, including three times this season (1-2). The Tide is just 4-7 since 2013 when its opponent scores at least 35 points, including four straight losses — the two this season and its last two national championship losses to Clemson.
But things were especially porous this season, with both LSU and Auburn topping 45 points during pivotal late-season conference games. In fact, the 48 points surrendered Saturday were the most Alabama has ever allowed under Saban, surpassing the previous-record of 46 set by LSU just three weeks prior.
Some may attribute both the lack of discipline and defensive lapses to key injuries such as the preseason ACL tear to junior linebacker Dylan Moses and the resulting widespread youth movement that took place with six of the team’s nine true freshmen starters coming on defense.
Not that Alabama’s defensive players are buying into any such excuses.
“I don’t attribute that to them being young and affecting (the overall team),” senior safety Jared Mayden said Saturday. “When you came here, you know we’re disciplined — that Coach Saban preaches discipline.
“So just because you’re young doesn’t mean you don’t … there’s enough older guys that you can look up to that show discipline. So when you go out in the game we expect you to have discipline, whether you’re young or old, you’ve got to have discipline on the field.”
Whatever the reason, this season’s Crimson Tide simply didn’t live up to its own championship-or-bust expectations and what that means going forward is yet to be seen.
The last time Alabama lost more than one game during the regular season was in 2010, when the defending national champions lost on the road at South Carolina and LSU before dropping a rare home Iron Bowl in a nail-biter, 28-27, to Auburn to end the regular season.
That year’s Tide went on to take its frustrations out on Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, a potential bowl destination for Alabama this season.
Still, this year’s struggles have once again opened the door for pundits to question whether the 68-year-old Saban has lost something as he’s aged, or if his Crimson Tide has simply faced too much turnover as a result of its decade of dominance to maintain the same standard of superiority it once held over college football.
For his part, Saban shouldered the responsibility for once again righting Alabama’s proverbial ship, though what that looks like next year with greater roster turnover expected this offseason is sure to test even his notoriously steely resolve.
“It’s very disappointing, I know our fans are disappointed, but I can promise you that our players are disappointed and we’re all very, very disappointed,” Saban said Saturday. “And it’s my responsibility to get our team to do these things better and that certainly will be the goal in the future.”