Alabama might be too good for its own good

Dan Wolken: Crim­son Tide could use a chal­leng­ing game be­fore play­off

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Dan Wolken

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 quar- ters 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 Ala- bama’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.

NEL­SON CHENAULT/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Alabama is un­de­feated with Tua Tago­v­ailoa lead­ing the way.

NEL­SON CHENAULT/USA TO­DAY

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.”

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