TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Last week, players from a tiny school in South Carolina marched across Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium as if they had just sprung the biggest upset in the sport’s history. It did feel that way. The scoreboard read Alabama 50, The Citadel 17, but the Crimson Tide’s FCS opponent, of all teams, hung with the defending national champions for two quarters, and by gosh, the Bulldogs were going to celebrate properly, so they lingered on the field, sang their alma mater and then ran into the visiting team tunnel to a standing ovation from their own fans and even from Alabama’s.
A week later on this same field, the losing team did nothing of the sort, but in the smallest of ways, the feeling lingered: Is Alabama beatable? The scoreboard read a similar result—Alabama 52, Auburn 21—but the Tigers and the Crimson Tide were in a three-point game at halftime, and Auburn pulled within 10 points late in the third quarter. You’re probably wondering why we’re over-dramatizing a 31-point margin of victory. That in itself should explain the dominance of 2018 Alabama: If one small crack in its crimson armor is exposed, we criticize, sometimes unfairly. We are nitpicking here, understand? We are looking for a reason that this team won’t run roughshod over its next three opponents to cruise to a 15–0 finish and a national championship.
On Saturday, the Crimson Tide allowed 34 yards rushing and a pair of critical completions on an Auburn scoring drive, fell for a double-pass touchdown and had a punt blocked. All of a sudden, the Tide seems susceptible to early points, if not late pressure. If Nick Saban’s team isn’t capable of bashing The Citadel and seven-win Auburn in the first half, what could college football’s elites—Georgia first, then maybe Clemson, Notre Dame or someone else—do? Alabama answered that question in the second half with the most dynamic aerial attack that college football has to offer this side of Norman.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw five touchdown passes to five different players in the final two quarters, setting a single-game school record for total touchdowns with six. He found Jerry Jeudy for 46 yards (all that guy does is get open), Josh Jacobs for 33 (he bulled his way into the end zone), DeVonta Smith for 40 (he’s so fast), Henry Ruggs for 22 (on one of the best catches you’ll see this season) and Jaylen Waddle for 53 (we thought Smith was fast and then this freshman boat-raced the Auburn secondary).
Tagovailoa completed 11 of 12 pass attempts in the second half. He was so good that Saban mentioned the top individual prize in college football by name in the postgame news conference. “You don’t get to win a Heisman Trophy, you don’t get recognized for being the best performer in anything, if you don’t have the right stuff,” the coach said. “Kobe Bryant got asked when he [visited] here what motivates him more—how much you love to win or how much you hate to lose. He said neither one. ‘I get motivated because I want to be the best player I can be.’ [Tua] is motivated to be the best player he can be.”
At this time, we’ll remind you that Oklahoma and Alabama are operating simultaneous Heisman campaigns for their respective starting quarterbacks. The Sooners a few days ago fired a broadside to the USS Tua by releasing a graphic that compares the two quarterbacks’ statistics. But the Heisman quibbling can wait. Let’s get to next week’s SEC championship game in Atlanta, where Alabama gets Georgia in the same building in which they beat the Bulldogs for the national championship less than 11 months ago. That’s when we’ll see how big the dent is in the Crimson Tide’s breastplate.
A team that cruised through the first nine weeks, highlights by a 29–0 skunking of LSU in Tiger Stadium, has never looked so imperfect, even if it’s still winning games by four touchdowns. The glitches in this animatronic beast are beneficial, say those operating the controls. “We need stuff like that,” said Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher. “Not every game’s going to be a blowout.” Coaches will tell you that adversity is a significant part of building a team, and the Crimson Tide experienced little of it during the first two months of the season. Now they have fought through some hardships, and they’ve not only survived them unscathed, but used them as reminders of how their quarterback is perhaps the best in the nation, how their receivers are as skilled as any and how their defense can rough up desperate offensive units.
Malzahn opened up his bag of tricks on Saturday knowing full well that the Tigers needed something special to pull the upset. Auburn rushed everyone on a punt block (successful), let a receiver throw a pass (successful), ditched a field goal attempt on fourth down for a pass from the old-school swinging gate formation (not successful) and tried a flea flicker (also not successful). What the Tigers didn’t do is try to advance the football late in the second quarter, seemingly comfortable with allowing the clock to expire when dealt relatively good field position at their own 33-yard line. When you’ve got Alabama on its heels, you keep shoving, both arms outstretched, until you can’t shove anymore. “Don’t ask me why, but it doesn’t seem like we had the right kind of energy in the first half,” Saban admitted afterward. “Don’t know if it was anxiety or what it was, but we seemed to settle down and play better in the second half.”
Auburn missed its chance. Saban made a point at halftime of telling his team, “We’re going to have to change the way these guys think and get after them because now they think they can win.” The halftime locker rooms this Saturday and last Saturday were unlike the previous nine. “Come earlier in the season we were doing things we needed to do,” Smith said, “but towards the end of the season, we stopped doing things we needed to do, not doing the right techniques and stuff like that. It shows us what we really are, when you have to pick it up.”
Pick it up they did. While this game ended more triumphantly than the one against The Citadel, it did provide another data point, as the CFP committee might say, in a case to be made: Maybe this Alabama team isn’t completely unbeatable.