And so, here we are: Alabama almost assured of a number-one ranking in the next BCS, staring at two-loss LSU in Death Valley on Saturday. The last time Alabama ventured to LSU as a number-one team? 1979, when Charley McClendon refused to re-schedule a Saturday-night game for television purposes, in order to have a chance at beating Bear Bryant's Tide on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium (Alabama won the game 3-0 and went on to win the national title).
Maybe the most shocking thing about this is to consider what things were like the last time Alabama played in Baton Rouge.
You remember that one, right? It was 2006, only two years ago. It feels like a million years ago. Perhaps you blocked it out of your mind.
Here was the setup: Mike Shula's (last, as it turned out) Alabama team came into the game having lost two straight, including a ghastly home loss to Mississippi St. They had disappointed in every big moment that season, losing in OT at Arkansas (the famous Leigh Tiffin Game), at Florida and at Tennessee. Shula's famous "Do What We Do" offense had crossed the line from "conservative" to "sad and predictable," and all signs pointed to the Tide -- 6-4 at that point -- losing out and possibly sneaking into Shreveport (and they did, and they lost there, too).
Meanwhile, LSU looked like a tour de force. Les Miles' second Bengal Tiger team really should've won the national title in '06 -- they lost by four at Auburn, and by 13 at Florida in a game where they turned the ball over something like 257 times (Florida wound up winning the title that year). The Tigers featured senior JaMarcus Russell, a physical freak of nature and the core of the defense that won the title the following season.
What followed was predictable: Alabama's defense -- not talented but well-coached and scrappy -- simply could not stop Russell for most of the first half, and the Tigers led 21-0 almost as quickly as the game started. And that was pretty much that: 'Bama lost 28-14, lost the next week at home to Auburn, fired Shula and lost in the Independence Bowl as well.
Two years later, things have changed indeed. Alabama has the best coach in the country -- not much argument right now -- one of the better defenses in the country, and an offense that simply continues to defy expectation. We as fans have spent all season waiting on the team to fail, but they haven't.
Maybe this is the week. LSU is a big, fast, physical football team, even if their two best wins all season were against Auburn and South Carolina (combined record: 9-9). The atmosphere is sure to be unreal -- ESPN Gameday is going, Nick Saban is coming back for the first time since 2004 and LSU fans will almost certainly make it difficult on the team and the coach. The Tide doesn't possess the psychological advantage in Baton Rouge it used to have back in the days when LSU simply couldn't beat them at home (1 loss and 1 tie on the bayou from 1969-2002).
Still, each time I think this team can't do something, they go ahead and do it. Alabama has answered every challenge placed before it all season, including a road thumping against the same Georgia team that hammered LSU two weeks ago.
Regardless, it's amazing to to think we're here right now, giving where we were in November two years ago. Simply stunning, really.
Other thoughts from Homecoming weekend:
-- To paraphrase John Madden, a win over Arkansas State, obviously, is a win over Arkansas State. And there were a number of things from the game -- a red-zone INT and a missed field goa -- that will need to be corrected before this Saturday. But our team handled everything in business-like fashion, they dominated a pretty good Red Wolves offense with their defense and they were never in any real danger of losing the game. That's almost exactly what you want from a Homecoming affair.
-- This is a leftover note from last week, but it's applicable this week as well: can we drop the whole "Julio Jones is gonna be a good player someday" thing? I'm pretty sure the dude's already arrived, aren't you?
-- That reminds me, speaking of announcers: the Alabama broadcast team handled themselves like unprofessional jerks in the first half on Saturday, gleefully calling out the Auburn score at every opportunity and carrying on as though Alabama was dominating the action (when the score was 14-0 at halftime and would've been 7-0 if not for Rashad Johnson's pick-6). I understand the hometown announcers tend to be homers, sure, but, in the words of my mother, "We can do better."
-- The strides made by this offensive line have been remarkable. As recently as the aforementioned game two years ago, this offensive line was considered as much a liability as anything else. Now they're one of the best units in the country. Incredible.
-- Weird facts that may or may not have anything to do with anything: in 1992, Alabama won its most recent national championship. That coincided with a presidential election, also: the American people chose Bill Clinton for the first of two terms. The last Democratic president before Clinton? You guessed it: Jimmy Carter, who served from 1976-1980. Alabama's last two national championships before '92 came in '78 and '79. Is it worth voting for Cyrus from "The Warriors" for the chance to win a national title? I have no idea.
Elsewhere in college football ...
-- Obviously, the biggest game of the night was Texas Tech's upset over the Teasips. At one point, however, nearly every game showing on my television was down-to-the-wire: Pitt-Notre Dame, FSU-Ga. Tech and Illinois-Iowa all had entertaining endings. Everyone except UGA-Florida.
-- That reminds me: before everyone falls all over themselves about Florida, keep in mind that they didn't exactly dominate Georgia statistically: UGA actually outgained the Gators by 25 yards, and out-passed them by more than 100 yards. The difference, obviously: turnovers. Georgia turned it over four times (to Florida's none), with more than 170 yards of returns off those miscues. And there's no statistical evidence suggesting that forcing turnovers is anything more than pure dumb luck, either -- keep in mind, the Gators blocked two punts to set up short fields in last week's beatdown of Kentucky, too. Is there much difference between Florida now and the Florida team that was struggling at the beginning of the year? Maybe, but I doubt it.
-- While I refuse to get on the "Fire Tuberville Now!" bandwagon, Auburn's coaching staff made some curious decisions Saturday. For starters, why did they allow their final drive of the first half to go dry without calling a timeout? What was the point? Then, in the fourth quarter, the Teagles faced 3rd-and-13 on the Ole Miss 20, trailing 10-7. Given the amount of trouble they've had scoring points, given that Kodi Burns isn't the greatest passing QB, something safe (a draw, a screen) seemed in order. Instead, interception, Ole Miss TD on the ensuing drive, ballgame. I don't get it. I really don't.
-- Phil Fulmer's Vols turned in another non-effort in another game that might have granted the coach a stay of execution. At this point, it's like Phil Fulmer is daring the university to fire him.
-- Just finished watching Central Florida and East Carolina. Pretty sad, actually, like watching a 2A high school game (except for fewer people).
-- Great win for Texas Tech. But they're not getting to the finish line without at least two losses. Just saying.
Not everything changes, after all.