Alabama's national title hopes harmed by uncharacteristically vulnerable defense

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Defense let Alabama down at times after years of powering the Crimson Tide to wins and titles.

The result was a team that got caught up in a couple of shootouts, gave up too many big plays and finally succumbed to Ohio State 42-35 in the playoff semifinals Thursday night in New Orleans. With Lane Kiffin's offense piling up yards and points, this wasn't vintage Alabama, except for the winning and contending.

Tide coach Nick Saban's team fell short of the national championship game and a shot at its fourth title in six years. The group might actually have overachieved in winning 12 games and the Southeastern Conference title simply because of a defense and offensive line that weren't as dominant as they had been in recent years.

"This team excelled all year long," Saban said. "They kept Alabama in the forefront of college football everywhere in the country, based on the hard work and the improvement that they made throughout the season.

"So I'm very proud of what this team was able to accomplish."

Alabama's unprecedented six-year run as the league's top defense ended, and the Tide ranked 58th nationally defending the pass.

Then Blake Sims, who hadn't been prone to big mistakes, threw three interceptions in both the regular-season finale against Auburn and the Sugar Bowl.

"We turned the ball over a lot," tailback T.J. Yeldon said. "It killed us last year. It killed us this year. Coming into a bowl game, you've got to take care of the ball."

Now come 'Bama's two offseason rituals: The wait to see which juniors will leave to enter the NFL draft and how many blue-chip recruits sign with the Tide.

Wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was third in the Heisman Trophy voting, and All-America safety Landon Collins both are considered likely first-round picks. Yeldon is also among the other highly rated players who could turn pro.

Sims, Cooper and the offense all put up big numbers for the Tide during Kiffin's first season as offensive coordinator. It was a dynamic pairing of Kiffin's offense and the Saban/Kirby Smart-led defense.

The defense didn't fully hold up its end of the bargain for a change. Alabama allowed 226 passing yards a game and 19 touchdowns. The Tide was the nation's only team that hadn't allowed an opposing back to top 90 yards all season before Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott ran for 230 yards and two touchdowns.

The Tide also had its five-year streak of leading the SEC in scoring defense ended by LSU. Alabama led the nation in that category in 2011 and 2012, but gave up 18.4 points a game this season, more than double the 2011 yield of 8.2 points.

Elliott put the Buckeyes up by 14 points with an 85-yard run late in the fourth quarter.

"We gave up far too many big plays in the game, which has been a problem for us toward the end of the year," Saban said.

Presumably, Alabama will still be regarded as among the favorites in the SEC and nationally going into next season.

But the Tide will have to find a new quarterback and reload in other spots.

The defense only had three senior starters while the offense loses at least seven, including three offensive linemen.

Cooper, who said after the game that he hadn't made up his mind on the NFL decision, noted that the Tide won eight straight games after losing to Mississippi. He said it was hard in the emotional aftermath to absorb Saban's postgame message praising the team's season.

"Everybody wrote us off after the Ole Miss game and after the Sugar Bowl last year saying we wouldn't be a good team," Cooper said. "But we fought all season, we got here and we just came up short."

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