This time around, instead of playing the role of sneaky underdog nobody saw coming, we were the team favored to win (with nobody in the pundit world able to find a logical way for us NOT to win). This time around, instead of hosting a raucous celebration for the game, we were GOING to the game (more on this in a minute). And this time around, instead of Clemson, we had Virginia Tech.
Two things, by the way, separate Va. Tech from Clemson:
• Va. Tech is much better coached.
• In reputation and persona, Va. Tech is a tougher, much MUCH (insert "much" a few more times) tougher and more physical football program than Clemson. Against Clemson in 2008, Alabama slapped its opponent in the mouth and the opponent backed up. There was little chance Va. Tech would back up Saturday.
No, everything about this game felt ominous, right down to the Va. Tech fans' creepy color combination (which we ultimately decided made their section resemble a giant sweet potato casserole). And when I shared the giant knot in my gut with the elderly gentleman standing next to me in Section 121, he nodded in agreement.
"But I'll tell you this," he said. "If we can hang around and not beat ourselves, we'll win it in the fourth quarter."
Truer words, it turns out.
When I began watching some of the life-altering videos posted by bamafanzone from 2008 — and really, I watch them just about everyday now and I don't care how pathetic that sounds — I noticed a pattern from coach Saban's pregame speeches. Saban's pregame rhetoric seemed focused almost exclusively on the concept of identity, and it's pretty clear what he wanted for his team: to be a brutally physical team that could pound on the opposition for four quarters, ultimately breaking his will and causing him to falter. That was the identity of the '08 squad — they were simply tougher than everybody else, and that's why they won.
The identity of this '09 team still isn't entirely established — Saban brought it up again following Saturday's 34-24 win over Va. Tech — but it's clear they still carry some of that swagger. We win the fourth quarter. Every time.
I can't emphasize this strongly enough: this Alabama team is at least two touchdowns better than Virginia Tech. A glimpse at the postgame statistics drives home the point: Alabama outgained VT by a nearly 5-1 margin, out-rushed them 3-1, out-passed them more than 2-1. There was simply no way, our best against theirs, that Va. Tech could win.
But my worst nightmare (and probably Nick Saban's too) was that we wouldn't bring our best, not after a difficult offseason and tumultuous week leading up to the game, not with new personnel at key positions on the offensive line, with an unknown number of players possibly suffering from this mysterious flu. I had envisioned in my nightmare a game that featured multiple key turnovers, some big plays in the return game and a discombobulated offense that couldn't keep it together.
For three quarters, that's what we had. Just about everything that could go wrong did. Alabama essentially gave away 17 points in the first half — a kickoff return, an INT that set up a FG and one TD drive that was bolstered by a suspect pass interference call and two major-distance fouls against Rolando McClain — then missed a field goal to close out the half that would've given us the lead. Bullet meet foot.
Things only got more frustrating in the third quarter. A long run by Roy Upchurch was negated by a boneheaded fumble. A third-down strike from Greg McElroy turned into a DROPPED PASS by Julio Jones (how often does that happen?). The offense wouldn't stop killing itself with penalties.
No, it just felt all wrong.
Then came the fourth.
Obviously, the season in front of us promises to be long and arduous. We'll see multiple teams on the schedule who are better than Virginia Tech, some of them away from home. And there's no accounting for what will happen on the injury front or off the field.
On the other hand, it's hard to envision a scenario in which Alabama plays as poorly as it did for three quarters on Saturday. It's hard to believe they'll commit the kinds of penalties they did at such inopportune times. It's hard to believe they won't get better, be better down the road.
If you're in the SEC West, that's not good news.
Other scattered thoughts from Saturday ...
— They may have to do a better job reminding fans about the pregame handshake. When the two teams were approaching one another at first, it looked the rumble between the Greasers and the Socs, only I'm not sure which side was which.
— OK, before I say this, let me clarify: I'm well aware that no official anywhere has ever cost any football team a game, except in the minds of the fans (with the notable exception of the 1983 Alabama-Penn St. game). I get it. Loud and clear.
At the same time, I can't remember a game in which the officiating crew was more frustrating than Saturday. The stripes bolstered two different Hokie TD drives — first with a very suspect pass interference call on third down, then with a completely unwarranted late-hit foul on a kickoff return in the fourth (the dude wasn't even out of bounds). And that Ryan Williams TD run that made the score 27-24? Yeah ... Marquis Johnson had a hard time making the tackle because he was being mugged.
— Greg McElroy played a smart game for most of Saturday. As much as anything, he showed an adeptness for avoiding a mammoth pass rush, constantly stepping in between defenders to make his reads. And the fourth-quarter throw to Maze was right on the money.
— It's early, obviously, but Brandon Deaderick has a chance to become my favorite Alabama player who ever had a bullethole in his arm.
— It must be a lousy feeling to know you have to tackle Mark Ingram. The dude has no handles.
— Notable difference for this year's 'Bama defense vs. last year's: they're bringing much more pressure in the backfield. I won't know until after I see a tape, but it appeared the Saban/Smart combo brought extra rushers on roughly 40% of the snaps. And they were bringing them from such different angles, Tyrod Taylor didn't appear to know what was going on.
— This moment cracked me up: at one point during the third quarter, Va. Tech was facing a third-and-inches near midfield, and a Hokie lineman jumped offsides ... only Nick Saban had called a timeout seconds before because he didn't have the right personnel on the field (the eventual play actually came back because of a hold, resulting in a punt). I bring this up only because there was a very large man one section over from me who was furious about this turn of events. He screamed bloody murder about how Saban should know better than to call timeout in that situation, to the point that everyone in his section was alternately a) trying not to laugh at him; b) thinking about calling a medic to prepare for his inevitable cardiac arrest. That's what this game was like for all of us.
— The text-message MVP of Saturday was my old co-worker Jason Halcombe, watching the game from his home in Dublin, Ga. A few of his best:
• "So, how many potential dog-fighting ringleaders are currently on the field for Beamer tonight?"
• "When I think about value, I think Wrangler. When I think starved for attention, I think Brett Favre."
• "The statement 'He has great speed, but they really want to show he can pass the ball' best describes a) Mike Vick; b) Marcus Vick; c) Tyrod Taylor; d) any Va. Tech QB in history."
• "What band director in H@*$ dreamed up the bright idea of adding the xylophone into the Imperial March? Needs more cowbell."
• "I will cash out my disability policy and give it to anyone willing to slap Bretn Musberger, put him in a choke hold while whispering an anecdote from the LLWS!"
• "ESPN crawl at half: Saban to Lions if 'Bama loses to Hokies, Erin Andrews tells Oprah"
• "Flash Forward on ABC: Harold discovers Kumar behind worldwide blackout in attempt to steal all White Castles and run off to VT with Doogie Howser!"
• "Who in a recession mind, you, is droppin $24.97 for what amounts to a turkey hat that you get to wear all of six times?"
• "How much you willing to bank that Musberger is wearing white knee-hi sox with his Men's Wearhouse suit?"
• "ESPN crawl: Bradford blows shoulder, Tebow responds, 'Told you God said I should have won that Heisman. I mean, I do mission work in Asia for cryin out loud.'"
• "I think I could scare a bunch of kids at Halloween if I donned a Beamer mask and carried a ma-cheh-tay."
• "And ol' Tyrod has proven he can throw: at the goal post, to a Va. Tech trainer and almost to a 'Bama db. Great job Tyrod!"
— Finally, one more anecdote to share from inside the Ga. Dome: one of the advertisements they kept flashing on the jumbotron during the game was for Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital and its heart unit. The tagline read simply: "Is your Heart ready for some football?"
And ya know what? I'm not so sure anymore.
Roll Tide, anyway.
We'll try to have some thoughts from around the CFB universe either late today or tomorrow.