Monday, October 27, 2008

weekend thoughts -- rolled and smoked

With each passing week, I become more mystified about what to do with this Alabama team.

You've probably figured it out by now, but when it comes to my favorite team, I'm the ultimate pessimist. I've reviewed our weaknesses so many times it makes me sick; I keep looking at that schedule and wondering where the first loss is going to come; I've already prepared myself for a failure that simply must be inevitable.
I'd anticipated that the team would be decent in 2008. Decent, but not great. There were too many question marks -- the depth, the quarterback, the youth -- to predict anything but "better than last year, I think" for this year's team.
Of course, each week I've been proven wrong. This team keeps proving me wrong. Against Clemson (maybe they were overrated, but still). Against Arkansas. Against Georgia.

Still, I haven't been able to shake the feeling that the team isn't that good. Maybe my familiarity with the team keeps hurting my judgment -- I see John Parker and I keep thinking about the Single Worst College Football Play I've Ever Seen, instead of the guy who's torched Clemson and Georgia. All season, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And as our team's ranking has continued to climb, I've lived with the knowledge that the shoe will fall harder and harder.
Which, naturally, brought me to Saturday. I wrote about this on Friday, but everything about this game felt wrong. We're ranked too high, we were missing our bellcow (Terrence Cody) and we were facing a Tennessee team that may or may not have figured out some things in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State (admittedly quite terrible). And, of course, there's the Fulmer factor -- the fat one hates Alabama above all others and would absolutely be expected to pull out all stops in a last-ditch effort to stay employed.
I wasn't alone. Multiple ESPN analysts -- even Lee Corso -- tabbed the Vols to pull the upset. And when I read 3d Saturday, everything was confirmed: were in trouble, serious trouble.
And the thought of everything accomplished this season going down in flames to a 3-4 Tennessee team -- any Tennessee team -- was loathsome. I was more nervous before this game than I have been all season.

By now, you know how it turned out.

Alabama 29, Tennessee 9. And it wasn't even really that close. It wasn't the best Alabama's looked all season -- I don't think this team can be much better than it was in the first hlaf against UGA -- but it was still pretty damned impressive. Tennessee's not a great team, by any stretch. But Alabama did what good teams do when faced with an inferior opponent -- they weathered the initial wave of emotion, executed in crucial moments and ultimately imposed their will as the game wore on.
Was it boring? If you're a casual fan, probably. But it was thorough, and that's ultimately what Alabama fans ask of their teams.

So, then, what to make of Alabama? I still have those doubts, of course, and I still don't like being ranked second.
On the other hand, where else can we be? Every challenge put in front of this team has been answered, and answered with authority. Maybe they don't have the flash of Texas or USC, but they've whipped two teams (Georgia and Clemson) considered to be on par with those powers in the preseason. When a team simply won't lose, eventually you have to get on board.
So that's where I am today: on board. This is my team. And if that other shoe drops anytime soon, I guess I'm going to have to let it fall right on my head.

Some other thoughts Saturday ...
-- As much as I'd like to exonerate the officiating in Neyland, I simply can't. Mark Ingram's "fumble" that Eric Berry ran back for a non-touchdown was probably the right call, but the offensive pass interference late called against Lucas Taylor was simply awful. The UT fans who are upset with that call should be upset. That's pretty much all anyone can say.
-- Speaking of Berry, what happened to the supposed danger he posed to Alabama's defense? After the Vols spent all week discussing how they were going to use him, here were his final numbers: 1 reception, 3 yards, 7 tackles. Furthermore, the amount of time the ESPN crew spent talking about him during the first half (they kept using words like "electric" and "special") was completely disproportionate to his actual impact. He made one big hit -- the lick on Marquis Maze -- and spent the rest of the time basically out of sight.
-- While we're on the subject of the announcers, I realize it's better for ESPN if the game is close, but is it really necessary for the crew to pump up the underdog that way? Todd Blackledge spent so much time discussing how well UT was playing that he failed to note that it was Alabama, not the Vols, that weathered the early storm, never surrendered a meaningful touchdown and put together a dynamite touchdown drive -- 66 yards in 6 plays -- to effectively put a stamp on the game.
-- Also, Todd: Tennessee's defense didn't "wear down" in the fourth quarter. They quit. Just like I predicted they would on Thursday.
-- Speaking of quitting, Senor CFB described Phil Fulmer thusly after Saturday:
In case you’re keeping score at home, Fulmer is now 3-5 against Mark Richt, 0-4 against Urban Meyer, and 1-4 against Nick Saban. The defense played hard but the offense is so bad it makes one numb to watch. And there is no reason to believe it is going to get any better. Tennessee (3-5) has four games left (South Carolina, Wyoming, Vanderbilt, Kentucky). The Vols will be lucky to win two. And here is the clincher: I was on the field for the last five minutes of Saturday night’s game with Alabama. I couldn’t believe how much Crimson was in that stadium and how loud they were. When you’ve got Tennessee people selling their tickets to Alabama fans then Mike Hamilton (Tennessee athletics director), you have a problem.
-- I continue to be impressed with how well-coached this Alabama team is. Defensively, they give up no cheap plays -- even when the score was 29-3, they weren't yielding anything -- and are rarely caught out of position. They rarely miss tackles and always have the other team backing up. And on offense, they're not perfect, but they can show teams a variety of looks and
-- Unexpected big contributor Saturday: Roy Upchurch, who actually played fullback a few plays in the game, including the first touchdown. We've been waiting for him to break out ever since he showed up on campus, and he may just have.
Which, of course, brings me to the point I'm afraid to bring up: Alabama may just be putting together a run like Auburn had in 2004. John Parker isn't a phenom like Jason Campbell, and the Coffee/Ingram/Upchurch trio may not have as much NFL potential as the Carnell-Ronnie Brown tandem, but otherwise the parallels are there: meager preseason expectations, a no-name defense, some early wins, and suddenly the fans believe nothing is impossible.
Will they make it there? We'll see. I'm just thrilled to be having this conversation right now.


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