Sunday, November 30, 2008

and that, as they say ... is that

"Damn ... I don't want to lose to these folks again."

My dad said those words standing outside Mary Hewell Alston Hall in Tuscaloosa Saturday morning, eating and drinking and looking towards Bryant-Denny Stadium with a sense of foreboding.

Is he pessimistic? Are he and I overly negative? Absolutely. But the words illustrate the mentality of Alabama fans, particularly when it comes to Auburn.

See, we as Tide fans like to pretend we don't care that much about Auburn -- we like to pretend it's Auburn who's obsessed with us (that "little brother" thing), that the rivalry with Auburn is an important game, but only in the sense that it's another SEC game and a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Honestly, we just don't think that much about Auburn, we tell everybody who can hear.

The truth is slightly more complicated. As a fan base, we have great expectations. We want to win championships -- SEC championships, national championships. We want to be an elite program. Beating Auburn, in most cases, isn't going to make our season.
On the other hand, losing to Auburn sure as hell won't accomplish anything. Losing to Auburn means having to hear about "the streak" for 12 more months, to hear about how Alabama fans are irrational, have expectations too high, live in the past, blah, blah, blah.
Furthermore, we can't NOT think that much about Auburn. They're our neighbors. Our relatives. Our wives (in the case of my dad). We think about, read about and watch Auburn, just as much as we watch our own team -- after all, we're football fans.
So this was a big game for all of us, despite what some Auburn bloggers believed about Tide fans looking past it. Nobody wanted the comeback season of the Nick Saban Era to be cut short by a loss to our in-state brethren.

I don't guess I need to tell you how we're all feeling today.

The fact is, it's the first time in a while that Alabama fans have had occasion to feel completely positive about the team's performance. As I stated at this time two years ago, for every positive Alabama football has experienced in the past decade, there's been at least one negative. The SEC Championship in 1999 was immediately negated by a loss in the Orange Bowl and the mess that followed in 2000. The last moment of joy that came against Auburn -- 2001 -- was dampened quickly by the horror of the NCAA probation that followed in January. A 10-win season in '02 was slightly tainted by the knowledge that there was no postseason at the end of the rainbow -- then a loss at home to Auburn made everyone forget about the 10 wins to begin with. And, of course, there was the last 10-win campaign, which ended with the Brodie Croyle sackfest at Jordan-Hare and Tommy Tuberville snidely holding up four fingers in the middle of Pat Dye Field (or whatever it is).
So maybe that's the significance of Saturday, as well as the season overall: in the words of Oddball from Kelly's Heroes, "Positive waves, man ... positive waves." Not only is the team ranked number one in the nation, not only is it preparing to face Florida in the biggest SEC Championship Game EVAR, but the roster sports only 9 seniors. And the head coach has proven himself (arguably) the best recruiter and hiring of assistants in the country.
Maybe we're not entering a golden age here, but it sure feels that way. And yes, beating Auburn -- ending the misery in Tuscaloosa, ending the 6 years of frustration and anguish, sending them home without a bowl bid to squabble about their own problems -- was the necessary next step.

As for the game itself, I began thinking about the last 6 years against Auburn, and what each loss had shown about Alabama in each case. It occurred to me then that each game -- for each team -- was a microcosm of how each team's individual seasons had gone. From the perspective of an Alabama fan, every loss to Auburn since 2002 was symbolic of a team that couldn't rise to the occasion when it mattered most, for one reason or another (in '04 there was a giant hole at quarterback, in '05 the offensive line was dreadfully thin, in '06 ... well, let's not even go there).
Saturday was no exception. Likely there will be Auburn fans that will say -- as some of the Auburn players said afterwards -- that Alabama was handed the game, the same way they've been handed games all season, or somesuch. And that's partially true, sure.
But the other half of that is this: good teams force others to make mistakes in big situations. Bad teams commit mistakes in those same situations. In other words, what happened Saturday was a simple statement on everything wrong with Auburn, as well as everything right with Alabama: i.e., the Tide has been forcing other teams into bad spots all year, and Auburn has been killing itself in big spots all year. That's just the way it is.
The most telling part of the game came in the second half, when Alabama dominated Auburn up front in a way that hasn't happened since ... well, 2001. I, of course, have a long memory where these things are concerned, and I immediately remembered writing the following lines at this time last year:
No scheme Saban or Kevin Steele could design, however, could keep Auburn from pounding them up front with that big offensive line. And by the way, that's the same thing Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and even Mississippi State were able to do consistently to Alabama this season. Whether it's offseason training, recruiting or a mere attitude adjustment, Alabama has got to get better up front defensively. If you can't stop the run in this league, you shouldn't be able to win consistently.
Actually, all three things happened during the offseason. The presence of Terrence Cody, et al., was a huge difference from a season ago (when the "talent" up front included the likes of Wallace Gilberry). Clearly, an entire offseason under Saban's weight regimen has made a huge difference on both sides of the line. And it's obvious this team is all on the same page and has a clear identity: they enjoy being bullies, enjoy pounding the crap out of the opposition, enjoy watching the other teams wilt in front of them down the stretch.
In fact, the perfect emblem of the game was Andre Smith, in the fourth quarter, on his final play in the game, chasing a block downfield and losing his helmet in the process. That's this team's personality. And I love it.

Some other thoughts ...
-- You knew Alabama fans weren't going to comport themselves with the utmost class after the game. But chasing Auburn players out the gate on their way to the locker room and holding up seven fingers may have been a step too far. Just saying.
-- My deepest sympathies in the game went out to Tez Doolittle, an Opelika alum who fought back from crippling injuries to receive a sixth year of NCAA eligibility, only to have it disintegrate into this. Tez really deserves better.
-- The future of Tommy Tuberville, obviously, is up for discussion. Frankly, it seems as though this season took something significant out of him, from the Franklin saga to his bizarre conference in which he insisted he hadn't had a stroke until Saturday. He seemed remarkably at ease in the postgame, which can be interpreted as a) a guy who's already made peace with his departure or b) a classy loser who's been assured he's coming back. Obviously, I have nothing to do with the decision-making process. I say his body of work has already shown what he is: a consistently good defensive coach with the ability to pull upsets in big games, but probably not a guy who's going to helm a championship program on a consistent basis. I say Auburn keeps him, but he needs to hit a home run with his next OC hire. Then again, I said the same thing about Mike Shula two years ago.
-- One of the reasons the right guy calling the plays can make a difference: early on, Auburn was controlling the line of scrimmage defensively and badly overplaying to Alabama's strong side. McElwain adjusted by quick-snapping at the line a few times (pushing Auburn out of its comfort zone defensively) and then running counter-action to the weak side. Once they'd gained a little momentum, it made all the difference in the world.
-- On Alabama's last TD: to me, it seemed like what Bill Simmons referred to as an "Eff You TD." In other words, you've rubbed our noses in it for the last six years, so ... Eff You (interesting because Saban's former boss, Bill Belichick, patented this idea last season). On the other hand, Saban DID have his second team in the game, and the pass was essentially a throwaway. So it's not as though he was running a full-court press with a 20-point lead with 2 minutes to go. The pass actually was eerily similar to the play that ended Tyrone Prothro's career in a similar situation against Florida in 2005, yet another difference between Shula and Saban.
-- Notable pregame appearances: Sara Evans (there to ruin the National Anthem) and Siran Stacy (apparently recovered enough from his injuries to jump around and jack up the crowd).
-- Other plays that might have helped turn the game in Alabama's favor: Saban's timeout at the end of the first half (taking 3 points off the board) and a dropped interception on Alabama's first possession of the second half (might have been 6 the other way).
-- Glimmer of hope for Auburn fans: on a second-half run right before his second fumble, Kodi Burns simply abused Rolando McClain and might have gone for a huge gain had not Rashad Johnson caught him by the foot. Also worth noting: Auburn's best drive of the game came when Burns was in a two-minute situation (aided twice by ridiculous blitzes brought by Alabama). If Tommy Tuberville can hire the right guy to shepherd Burns for the next seven months, that Auburn team will be back and back quickly.
-- My cousin Jamie referred to Auburn as "the meanest field positioners in the nation." Let's see them put THAT line in the media guide next year.
-- One other subtle adjustment I liked: in the second half, when it became obvious that Auburn was intentionally kicking away from Javier Arenas, the Tide sent Julio Jones deep in a double-safety set, essentially daring the Tigers to try kicking away from him again.
-- And finally, arguably the greatest moment of the game: the loudest Rammer Jammer I've ever witnessed.

You know what? We'll worry about Florida tomorrow.


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