NEW ORLEANS—Remember the times when Nick Saban’s Alabama defenses were impossible to do anything against?
When they allowed 8.2 points per game in 2011. When they brought teams to their knees in 2012.
It looks like, for now, those days are over. That is, if you know what you’re doing.
Alabama was torched for 429 yards in a shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, leaving the Alabama faithful streaming out of the Superdome in shock of what had just taken place.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight had just lit up the Tide to the tune of 348 yards and four touchdowns, picking apart a suspect secondary and supplementing those throws with quick runs that kept Alabama’s defense off-balance.
And they did it all with a theme all too common to torching Alabama’s defense: a hurry-up tempo.
There were questions of who would even start at quarterback for the Sooners, but head coach Bob Stoops elected to go with the more mobile Knight over redshirt junior Blake Bell. The gamble clearly paid off.
In what wasn’t too much of a diversion from what the Sooners had done this year, Oklahoma came out flying, using many looks that Alabama saw in the Iron Bowl in its last game against Auburn.
“They were running side to side before we got our play,” Alabama freshman defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson said. “Getting us with those little gashes wore us down, got a little tired, but we started to fight back and control it.”
But it wasn't anything Alabama wasn’t prepared for.
“They played a pretty good game tonight and they did what they needed to do. Everything they did we expected them to do,” sophomore safety Landon Collins said. “The fast pace, the bubbles, the trick plays, they did everything we expected them to do. We just didn’t play to our standard.”
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, then, for Alabama. Many of the players simply blamed execution.
“We practiced all the plays they ran,” redshirt junior linebacker Adrian Hubbard said. “None of the plays were a surprise to us. Just execution. We were ready for what they had, we just didn’t execute the right way.”
It’s hard to tell if the gaudy statistics put up by teams that can execute the hurry-up offense against Alabama means the downfall of Saban and his dominant defenses. Certainly, adjustments will be made this offseason, and if it is simply a matter of execution, that is easily correctable with the right mindset.
But 2013 left the Alabama defense with more questions than answers in regard to the up-tempo style.
Auburn and Oklahoma (and Texas A&M to some extent) gave teams a blueprint on how to move the ball on Alabama. Saban’s challenge this offseason will be to find a way to slow down these offenses and show that he is still one of the great defensive minds in the game.
If not, the up-tempo style will only continue to haunt Alabama.