Sunday, August 31, 2008
shut down, (nearly) shut out ... shut up
One of the most important nights in Alabama football history occurred on Labor Day Weekend in 1971. Paul Bryant's Alabama team -- which had gone 6-5 the previous two seasons, followed him by him nearly leaving for Miami to coach the Dolphins (you read that correctly) -- traveled to the Los Angeles Coliseum to take on Southern Cal in a Friday-night, nationally-televised game.
It should be noted that USC in 1971 was quite good. The season before, they'd come to Legion Field and dismantled an outmanned Alabama team in the famous "Sam Cunningham Game," which many pundits now agree helped speed up the integration of college football in the South. And with Alabama's only real threat on offense graduated -- quarterback Scott Hunter -- it seemed painfully clear to even the biggest Tide homers that Bryant's squad was making the trip to receive another whipping in '71.
Except Bryant knew something no one else did. Frustrated by his offensive game plan over the last two seasons -- which featured too much passing (even though by today's standards the stats look tame -- the legend spent the summer learning the wishbone from Texas and Darrell Royal. And somehow, he spent four weeks installing the system in fall camp in complete secrecy (and no, this wouldn't work today under any circumstances).
When the Tide came to the line in a three-back set, the Trojans were shocked. It took them nearly a half to adjust, and by that time, Alabama led 17-0. They ultimately won 17-10 in an upset that shook the nation.
Maybe the significance of that win wasn't as socially significant as the game from the season before, but the importance of that night for Alabama fans can't be understated. After nearly sliding into mediocrity during the latter half of the '60s, the program was back. Alabama was a player on a national stage again, and again a big dog in the SEC -- they ultimately won the conference, whipped Tennessee and Auburn (and Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan) and lost only once: in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska.
For some reason, I found myself thinking about that night in L.A. after last night's dismantling of Clemson in Atlanta. Alabama hasn't been mediocre for the last 10 years -- they've been worse. Since 1997, the program has experienced three sub-.500 seasons (after only one since 1957), hired five different head coaches, suffered through a crippling NCAA probation and two separate sex scandals involving those aforementioned head coaches, and become the butt of jokes around the conference it used to consider its playground. Quite simply, we've sucked.
Adding to the misery has been the string of agonizing losses in high-profile non-conference games during that period. UCLA, Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida State: in each case, Alabama had a chance to make a statement on a national stage; in each case, Alabama played competitively; and in each case, Alabama fans ultimately walked out of the stadium, muttering things like "shoulda won that game, dammit." The Tide's most memorable non-conference win during the past decade was the 2006 Cotton Bowl, when Joe Kines' defense frustrated Mike Leach's gimmicky Texas Tech team long enough for Jamie Christensen to win it on the ugliest made field goal try in school history.
And on Saturday night in Atlanta, it all changed.
Alabama 34, Clemson 10.
Here's the most surprising thing about that victory: it wasn't a surprise. Nothing about that final score was a fluke, there was no garbage-time touchdown to make a close game seem like a blowout -- if anything, C.J. Spiller's kickoff return made the game seem closer than it actually was.
No, Alabama won last night's game by 24 points, because Alabama was (and is) 24 points better than the ninth-ranked team in the nation. Play that game again today and you'll get nearly the same result. Next week, week after next, at their place or ours. The better team won Saturday, and won decisively. As Cecil wrote today, the game was basically over in the first quarter.
OK, so before we go crazy fawning over each other after this, it's important to note that it's just one game. And one game against a vastly overrated opponent at that: as Doc Saturday notes today, the Atlantic Coast Conference got its lunch thoroughly handed to it all across the landscape, including Virginia Tech's self-destruction against East Carolina. Watching the replay and hearing Kirk Herbstreit rant about Clemson being flat, about Clemson having no emotion, about Clemson rolling over, etc., I couldn't help but wonder, "Have you considered the possibility that maybe they're just not that good?"And I feel pretty strongly when I say they're not -- seven or eight teams in the SEC would beat Clemson. I believe that.
Still, it's hard to temper the enthusiasm that comes with a satisfying win like that. In prime time on national TV, Alabama lived up to the hype. Maybe better days are ahead, after all.
A few other random thoughts (at least partially affected by our Saturday festivities and the fact that I tried making Sangria and succeeded only in getting drunk).
-- As my dad and my brother -- both in attendance -- noted, Terrence Cody more than did his job up front. On more than one occasion, Cody occupied at least two blockers, something he'll be almost required to do if Alabama's going to run the 3-4 successfully.
-- Two hidden turning points that helped solidify things: Rolando McClain stepping in front of Cullem Harper's pass to cause an interception (followed by a half-ending drive that netted a field goal); and the offense sustaining a possession following C.J. Spiller's long return and not allowing Clemson any more momentum. Both were huge in keeping the foot on the throats of the purple ones.
-- Speaking of Spiller, why weren't he and fellow back James Davis a bigger part of Clemson's game plan? How can you tout the best back combo in the nation, then allow them to handle the ball only eight times? If I were a Clemson fan that would infuriate me; even Houston Nutt -- as shaky a game coach as there is on the planet -- never went through a game without over-thinking so much that he took the game out of the hands of McFadden & Jones.
-- Good John Parker showed up Saturday night. That's the John Parker who was around for most of the Arkansas game, the fourth quarter against Georgia and against Tennessee. Will he stay for the season? We'll see.
-- As much excitement as surrounded Julio Jones, Mark Ingram proved to be the frosh who showed out. A powerful back with soft hands, he's the sort who evokes memories of the Stallings era -- which, by the way, is where we've all been trying to get back to ever since the old man left.
And no, we're not back there yet. But, depending on what happens in 2008, we as fans can look back at Saturday night and say the tide turned on Labor Day weekend.
Back with more on the weekend at large once it's completely finished.