Offensive breakdowns in scoring position and a special teams meltdown, highlighted by three missed field goals and a blocked field goal, likely cost No. 2 Alabama more than its 9-6 loss to No. 1 LSU in overtime on Saturday. It likely cost Alabama a chance to play for the national championship.
Alabama (8-1) now has to finish its regular season without another loss, then hope LSU (9-0) finishes as the lone unbeaten team from a Bowl Championship Series conference.
Even then, history says poll voters who can impact the BCS standings are not likely to allow for a rematch in the national final. They had a chance in 2006, when Ohio State beat Michigan 42-39 in a 1-vs.-2 game in the regular-season finale, and didn’t send Michigan.
Coming into Saturday’s game, pundits pegged the likeliest scenario for a BCS final rematch between Alabama and LSU as an Alabama victory in a close game Saturday. The conventional wisdom was that voters would be more likely to forgive LSU for losing a close game in Tuscaloosa.
Conventional wisdom also left no doubt that Alabama and LSU had distinguished themselves as the nation’s top two teams this season, and each team still has at least three games to play.
“We have to hope that the people who make those decisions look at the whole body of work and choose the two best teams in the country,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
But Alabama certainly lost style points for their argument Saturday. The score shows the defensive struggle that many anticipated, but the reality for the Tide showed blown chances and poor special-teams play.
The obvious blame lies on the feet of kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster, who combined for three missed field goals and one blocked field goal. They failed to get the ball through the posts on Alabama’s first three possessions and its overtime possession.
Foster, Alabama’s long-distance kicker, missed from 44 and 50. Saban then tried Shelley, the short-distance kicker, from 49, and Shelley’s rare attempt to kick low and straight was blocked by LSU’s Bennie Logan.
Foster’s attempt from 52 yards on Alabama’s lone overtime possession helicoptered low and left.
Those weren’t the only special-teams mishaps for Alabama. Marquis Maze failed to field a Brad Wing punt in the fourth quarter, and it rolled an additional 30-or-so yards back. The punt covered 72 yards to Alabama’s 19-yard line.
Wing pinned Alabama inside its 20 four times. Alabama started five possessions at its 20 or worse.
Add that LSU kicker Drew Alleman was good on all three of his field-goal attempts, including the game-winner from 25 yards, special teams were a clear difference in the game.
But not the only difference.
“Those weren’t easy kicks,” Saban said. “You’ve got to say something about what you did offensively to stall when you get to that point.”
Short answer? When Alabama got to scoring position, it went backward.
The overtime possession saw quarterback AJ McCarron throw incomplete to running back Trent Richardson twice then suffer a sack. There was also a substitution penalty on second down.
A 5-yard loss on a Richardson run around left end put Alabama behind the chains on its first scoring threat. A substitution penalty plus Eddie Lacy’s run around left end for a 6-yard loss doomed the second threat, after Alabama reached LSU’s 23.
Alabama reached LSU’s 24 early in the second quarter, but a sack of McCarron and a 6-yard loss on a reverse play to wide receiver Marquis Maze prompted Saban to try another field goal.
Alabama’s biggest near-miss came on another gadget play, when Maze lined up in the wildcat on first down at LSU’s 28 early in the fourth quarter and attempted a pass.
Maze lobbed the pass to tight end Michael Williams, and LSU’s Eric Reid had enough time to leave his man, catch up to Williams and wrestle the ball from Williams’ hands as the two fell to the turf at LSU’s 1.
All of those situations bring Alabama’s play calling into question, but Saban defended the Maze pass.
“I think we scored on that last year against Florida on the same play,” he said. “Their guy did a good job of recovering and competing for the ball.”
After the first two missed field goals, one wonders why Alabama didn’t consider a pooch punt to do what Wing did all night --- pin the opponent deep.
Alabama also minimized a golden opportunity after Barron intercepted a Jarrett Lee pass in the third quarter. He returned to LSU’s 25, but an illegal block by Josh Chapman backed the Tide up 10 yards.
LSU held, and Alabama settled for a 46-yard Foster field goal.
So many chances Alabama had only to come up with little or nothing. Pundits who vote on polls evaluate such things, especially if they’re looking for reasons avoid setting the precedent of an in-season rematch in the BCS final.
Teams worthy of championship chances take advantage of opportunities. Alabama had LSU at home and had the ball in LSU territory all too often and blew it.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.