Current Analysis: Alabama’s title hopes are effectively snuffed out with a loss to LSU

Current Analysis: Alabama’s title hopes are effectively snuffed out with a loss to LSU

A season that began to falter on Rocky Top came crashing down in Death Valley.

Alabama’s hopes of winning another national title this season were all but snuffed out with a 32-31 overtime loss to LSU on Saturday night in Baton Rouge.

The Tigers’ Mason Taylor caught the game-winning two-point conversion at the end of the first overtime after both Alabama and LSU had scored touchdowns, but coach Brian Kelly decided to go for the win — and he did.

LSU improved to 5-1 in the SEC with the win and now owns tiebreakers over Alabama (4-2 in conference play) and Ole Miss (4-1). That means the Tigers would have to lose both of their remaining conference games at Arkansas and Texas A&M to Alabama to advance to the SEC Championship Game — and that would require a Tide win next week at Ole Miss and the Iron Bowl.

Alabama might still have a shot at the Sugar Bowl, but the destination of the season at this point could be the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 2. Either way, 2022 will mark the fourth season in the last five to end without a national title for Alabama, which won five of nine championships before that.

Saturday marked Alabama’s first loss at Tiger Stadium since 2010 and the first time Alabama has lost multiple regular-season games since 2019 — when it missed the SEC championship game and New Year’s Six bowls entirely.

A 2022 season that began with high expectations, bolstered by a pair of decorated juniors in Bryce Young and Will Anderson, never quite got off the ground. Alabama looked vulnerable early in the season on the road to Texas, lost on the road to Tennessee and played its worst offensive game of the season at LSU.

Alabama will be playing for pride the rest of the season, but with Young and Anderson almost certainly headed to the NFL in January, an offseason of change is upon us.

Offense is no longer Alabama’s surefire asset

Nick Saban said as much last week was “unfair” to referee the offense last month, when Bryce Young missed a game and a half with a shoulder injury and didn’t practice before playing in the next two games.

With Saban saying in his pregame radio interview that Young had returned to practice before Saturday’s game, it may be fairer to judge the offense as unfit for part of the night at Tiger Stadium.

Alabama broke through LSU’s defense on its first drive, but Young’s off-target, off-platform throw to JoJo Earle was intercepted in the end zone to prevent a score. The next three drives started inside the 20-yard line and resulted in three-and-outs, fueling the visiting crowd to sense the growing struggles of the Tide’s offense.

The first half ended with more ball movement from Alabama — a 65-yard catch-and-run by Jase McClellan and a 63-yard drive — but neither resulted in a touchdown. The ability to run the ball in the red zone seemed absent from an Alabama offense that settled for field goals both times.

Another field goal ended Alabama’s 15-play drive early in the second half, and Young hit a third-down pass over tight end Cameron Latu’s head. After another three-and-out, Alabama’s offense got the break it needed when a facemask penalty extended a drive in LSU territory and ended with the Tide’s first score, Roydell Williams’ 2-yard run.

When Alabama went on a key drive with 6:52 remaining and down two points, the season may have been on the line as the Tide faced third-and-10 from the LSU 41-yard line. In his signature fashion, Young weaved his way through the LSU pass rush and knocked Brooks, who was sliding behind the secondary, off balance for what could have been the game-winning score.

Down by three points again in the final two minutes of regulation, Young led Alabama on a 10-play, 47-yard drive that ended with Will Reichard’s game-tying, 46-yard field goal.

Alabama entered the game ranked fourth in the nation in scoring at 43.1 points per game, but the offense offered little in close wins over Texas and Texas A&M — with backup Jalen Milroe at quarterback — and that theme resurfaced on Saturday night.

Alabama rotated through five wide receivers in the first half, but had 36 total yards on four catches from that group. The Tide continued to rely more heavily on its running backs in the passing game, especially Jahmyr Gibbs, a sign of how he’s been missing go to wide receivers she had the past four seasons. Gibbs finished regulation with seven catches on 11 targets, while Brooks had seven catches on 16 targets for 97 yards in regulation, nearly half of which were touchdowns.

Even when the Tide’s defense has faltered over the past few seasons — and that was hardly the case Saturday night — its offense has simply been too good to waste most of the time. That advantage appears to be largely gone, and the questions will only intensify with Bryce Young likely headed to the NFL this offseason.

Penalties, turnover margin continue to plague the Tide

An Alabama team that entered Death Valley ranked 121st in the nation in penalty yards lived up to its statistical reputation.

The Tide committed nine penalties for 92 yards in regulation, adding to an ongoing problem for a team that has been unable to shake off the “indiscipline” tag. Neither was particularly difficult until cornerback Eli Ricks — an LSU transfer who moved into the starting lineup two weeks ago — was called for third-down pass interference in the end zone in the third quarter, resulting in a touchdown on the Tigers’ next play .

Ricks was called again for another third-down pass interference in the fourth quarter, even though it was already free for LSU due to an Alabama offsides penalty. His teammate Brian Branch was later flagged for pass interference to push LSU toward the end zone on a drive late in the fourth quarter.

Henry To’o To’o was called for roughing the passer and Dallas Turner was called for unnecessary roughness in the first quarter, an early return to normal for an Alabama team that set a school record with 17 penalties for 130 yards against Tennessee. They were reduced to three for 20 against Mississippi State a week later, but that proved to be the exception.

Alabama also started the game with a minus-3 turnover margin, a stat that Saban often says correlates most with wins. The Tide’s 7-1 record belies problems turning the ball over and not generating runs so far this season, but that changed Saturday night.

Young’s interception in the red zone took away the points as the Tide was fortunate to avoid another turnover in the second quarter. Latu fumbled but touched the ball while his foot was out of bounds, ending the play before LSU recovered.

Defensively, Alabama couldn’t generate a turnover for the fourth time this season, missing a momentum-changing play that could have avoided a final score.

Mike Rodak is the Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.

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