Crimson Tide need to be challenged before Playoff
Halfway through the college football season, Alabama has looked unstoppable to a degree we’ve never seen in the modern era. Pick whatever team you want as the gold standard — 1995 Nebraska, 2004 Southern California, 2001 Miami (Fla.), 2005 Texas — and none of them destroyed opponents like this, so quickly and overwhelmingly that the games are non-competitive by the second quarter. So far, Alabama is pretty close to what you’d imagine it would look like if an NFL team played a college squad. In fact, at this point, there’s probably only one way Alabama fails to win a national championship: The Crimson Tide might be too good for their own good. Admittedly, it’s a theory based on very little data. And it’s certainly possible the Alabama offense’s historic level of efficiency with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback makes it so much better than everyone else that no other team can physically compete. But if Alabama runs through the regular season 12-0 without getting challenged to play a second half, much less a fourth quarter, it could be counterproductive if the Crimson Tide ran into Ohio State or Clemson in a College Football Playoff game. In fact, it’s almost exactly what we saw two years ago. Though it could be more correlation than causation, it didn’t strike me as particularly surprising on Jan. 9, 2017, when Clemson was a stronger team than Alabama physically and mentally in the fourth quarter of a high-stakes game because, quite simply, Clemson had played more of them that season. Similar to the way this season is playing out, Alabama didn’t really get pushed much by its Southeastern Conference opponents outside of a strange 48-43 win in September over Mississippi in which the Crimson Tide trailed 24-3 early, then dominated until the last five minutes when Ole Miss scored two quick touchdowns and nearly had a chance to come back and win. The other 13 games Alabama played that year, however, weren’t particularly suspenseful. Even the LSU game, which was 0-0 going into the fourth quarter before Alabama won 10-0, didn’t really have the same feel because of how hopeless LSU was on offense (the Tigers finished with 125 yards and six first downs). Otherwise, these were the margins at the end of each third quarter until the national championship game: 28 over Kentucky, 18 over Arkansas, 25 over Tennessee, 12 over Texas A&M (with another TD 2:33 into the fourth), 41 over Mississippi State, 15 over Auburn, 24 over Florida and 10 over Washington. Compared with Nick Saban’s previous teams, including all of his national champions, that one was notably inexperienced at playing in close games, at having to execute under pressure when fatigue has set in and every play matters. Clemson, on the other hand, had been in several frying pan fourth quarters that year, beginning with the season opener at Auburn and games against Louisville, North Carolina State, Florida State and Pittsburgh (a loss) that weren’t decided until the final minute. It probably isn’t a coincidence that when Clemson and Alabama got involved in the same kind of game for the national championship, the team that had been in that situation a bunch of times looked a whole lot more comfortable than the team that really hadn’t needed to sustain drives or score touchdowns under pressure. And the “problem,” such as it is, of winning games too easily could be more pronounced this season given how Alabama’s offense isn’t lending itself to a lot of close calls. It’s certainly not Alabama’s fault that nobody it has played so far can hang into the second half, but it does leave Saban in the odd position of having to gin up some type of criticism to motivate his team, even if he has nothing more than the sloppy work done by backups in a 30-point game. And the truth is, that’s probably how it’s going to go, at least until a potential SEC championship game against Georgia. Since odds are Alabama won’t just cruise to the title without having to play a fourth quarter, it would be better for them in the long run if LSU or Mississippi State posed a threat and made Tagovailoa go the distance. But the way the SEC West teams have played thus far, particularly Auburn, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that will happen. Saban acknowledged Wednesday on the SEC coaches’ teleconference that the intangible quality of being able to execute under pressure is one of the few things he can’t simulate in practice. Until he sees it on the field, even Saban can’t really predict what the reaction will be if that situation presents itself in an organic way. “It’s impossible to create it if it hasn’t happened in a game,” Saban said. “There’s things we do in practice, especially always trying to practice end-ofgame situations, need a field goal, need a touchdown, this much time is left, when do you clock the ball, how do you take the air out of it if you’re ahead. We practice those things, but until you do it in a game you never know quite how ready you are for it. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure at some point it will happen this season.” Looking toward Alabama’s endgame, it would be better if it happened for the first time sooner than, say, Jan. 8 in Santa Clara, California.
Alabama’s Nick Saban says, “We practice those things, but until you do it in a game you never know quite how ready you are for it.”