At Kevin Sumlin’s press conference this week, ESPN’s Sam Khan Jr asked (paraphrasing): “Is there anything from the win against Bama 5 years ago that sticks with you?”. To which Sumlin replied: “Not really. That’s about the farthest thing from my mind right now.” That’s unfortunate, not only because Sam likely didn’t get the content for his article this week, but also because I think there are lessons to be learned from that game and that experience. Bama has been beaten every year from 2012 until today. So let’s take a look at the question: “How do you beat Alabama?” The simple answer is: “You don’t.” But since Texas A&M and Alabama are playing this week, and A&M has actually beaten Bama in the recent past, it’s more fun to explore some possibilities.
Step #1: Have a mobile QB
Alabama is so sound on defense that they typically know what you’re going to do on offense before you do it. The way to counter this is the wildcard of a QB that could pull down the ball and run. They have to commit an extra defender to spy a mobile QB, and that creates opportunities on other parts of the field. A running QB isn’t going to have success every time, but the threat of a QB run can do wonders for your offense, if you can keep the Tide defense guessing. Even if it’s for a split second.
Texas A&M was the team that laid out the modern blueprint for beating Bama in 2012 when Johnny Manziel took the SEC by storm. Johnny didn’t run wild over the Tide like he did against most other SEC teams that season, but he did rack up 107 yards on the ground.
Let’s look at some other examples:
In 2013, Auburn’s Nick Marshall had his day defeating the tide. Marshall ran to the tune of 126 yards.
In 2014, Ohio State defeated Bama behind the legs (and arm) of Cardale Jones, as he managed 89 yards rushing.
2015 was the outlier as Bama’s lone defeat came at the hands of Ole Miss and Chad Kelly. Kelly only had 34 yards rushing, so there were other factors that we’ll get to momentarily.
In 2016 Clemson’s Deshaun Watson ran for 74 yards against the tide, but the item of note here is that was on 21 attempts. Clemson was committed to running the ball with their QB. This threat forced the Tide to respect that component of the game and it put Clemson’s other skill players in better positions to make plays.
Step #2: Don’t make mistakes
In 2016, Alabama made teams pay for making mistakes. We’re talking turnovers and special teams gaffes. Bama had 12 non-offensive touchdowns in 2016. That’s a crazy stat. The scoop n’ score became a regular sight every week for the Tide defense. If you can limit your mistakes, and take care of the ball, you’re forcing Bama’s offense to do the work of putting points up on the board. Don’t give them any freebies with a pick-6 and you have another piece of the puzzle in your pocket.
Step #3: Make Bama pay for their mistakes
So far this season, through 5 games, Alabama has yet to turn the ball over. They are the only team in football standing on that mountain top right now. Let that sink-in. Zero turnovers through 5 games! So this step is going to be hard to come by if you’re going to beat Bama, but it’s a must if you’re going to turn the game in your favor. Bama’s game in 2015 against Ole Miss (mentioned above) is the example we’re citing here. Ole Miss produced 24 points off turnovers, and yes, those were some freak turnovers in that game, but they still happened, and the Rebels made them pay for it. If Bama makes the rare mistake, you have to take advantage of the moment if you’re going to win.
Step #4: Utilize Age and Experience
Alabama is the model that all of College Football aspires to be in this regard. They reload every year with Juniors and Seniors that have waited their turn, and now they are ready to take the stage. And these aren’t just any Juniors and Seniors, they’re usually 4 or 5 star Upperclassmen. Your game against Bama isn’t the time to trot out a bunch of redshirt and true Freshmen. They haven’t seen Bama’s level of speed and most importantly their sound discipline. Their Upperclassmen have been watching film and practicing your plays for the last 3 or 4 years. They may know them better than you do at this point. So if you have an Upperclassmen that is competing with a Freshman at his position, this might be the time to go with the experience of the Upperclassmen instead. What you’re going for here is that the probability of a veteran player making a mental mistake should be lower than that of wide-eyed Freshman who’s been riding the coat-tails of his athleticism over his experience up until this point. Bama is going to disguise their defensive formations and run blocking schemes in ways that you haven’t seen before. You need to counter their age and experience with your age and experience in an effort to limit mistakes.
In summary, those are a lot of things you have to get right in order to beat Alabama. In other words, you basically have to play your perfect game to have a chance. And even then, the Tide is still better than you are and they’ll probably still come out on top.
Coaches like to use the phrase: “Act like you’ve been there before”. My message to Coach Sumlin would be: “You’ve been there before, so act like it. Utilize what you’ve accomplished in the past to give yourself a chance against your mighty foe”.