The truest champions — the ones we remember for years and years and years — are the ones that keep coming even with all those circumstances and setbacks, that won't be kept down because that's what champions do.
I wrote these words back in February. I thought about them all summer. I've been thinking about them since fall camp opened up.
Yes, it's true that every game is a big game when you're Alabama. Yes, it's fair to say that a number of teams — Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee — circle Alabama on the schedule every year, just because beating 'Bama can make a season. Yes, Alabama plays with a target on its back all the time.
But it's different when you're the champs. It just is. Other teams organize special events when you visit. You're the lead story on Sportscenter every time. And all anybody wants to do is knock you off.
This is the life of a champ defending his crown.
Let there be no doubt: Arkansas is a very good football team. Ryan Mallett, whatever his warts as a clutch player — as well as his bizarre tendency to refer to himself in the third person and talk like an extra from "8 Mile" — is an outstanding talent. On Saturday, the perfect storm I've dreaded all season — talented, focused quarterback, at home vs. a young, confused group of defenders — happened, and then some. The Hogs scored in two plays to open the game, rolled up 300 yards of offense in the first half, squashed two Alabama scoring opportunities with forced turnovers and led 20-7 late in the third quarter. Let there be no doubt: the goalposts in Fayetteville were scheduled to be torn down Saturday.
Only Alabama wouldn't roll over. For whatever other problems this team has, these are the champs. Or, as Dad said via text late in the game, "We may lose yet but we got guts." The Tide kept coming back and kept coming back ... and Arkansas folded.
Alabama 24, Arkansas 20 ... and still the champs.
Look, the party may be over as early as this Saturday. Most of us were so exhausted by Saturday's test of will, we missed Florida's rather easy dispatching of Kentucky.
I'm just pointing out this team proved it's unlikely to roll over. We take on all comers; feel free to knock us out if you think you can.
Some other thoughts ...
— While we're praising Alabama for coming back, it's worth noting that Arkansas folded like a cheap accordion in the second half. From the point at which they went ahead 20-7, they went punt-interception-interception. More to the point, they seemed timid on offense, like Petrino wanted to run out the clock and escape. It didn't work, and here's why: when you climb in the ring with the champ, you HAVE TO KNOCK HIM OUT. Trying to win a decision doesn't work. Period.
Furthermore, and I hate to disparage a college kid because Arkansas lost Saturday for a variety of reasons, but Ryan Mallett's last interception was a ghastly decision and an even worse throw. An experienced quarterback — particularly one who considers himself a Heisman contender — knows you have to eat the football and live to fight another day. Forcing the football into coverage like that was essentially an engraved invitation to the end zone. Game. Set. Match.
— Speaking of interceptions, kudos to Greg McElroy, who endured two awful picks — both of which would've been touchdowns had he made the right read — and a ton of curse words, from Nick Saban (probably) and my wife (definitely) but hung in there long enough to give his team a chance to win. Contrast that, for example, with what happened to South Carolina Saturday night in Auburn: the second Steve Spurrier saw weakness in his quarterback, he yanked him ... which would've been fine except he was on the road in the fourth quarter, in the loudest snake pit in the SEC.
While we're on the subject of McElroy, it behooves me to credit our pass protection, which has been nothing short of outstanding thus far in 2010. Arkansas did record 3 sacks on Saturday, but one of them was a coverage sack, the other on a blitz (Arkansas just out-schemed us) ... and I can't remember the other one.
— Speaking of pass rush, has anyone told Marcell Dareus that he's actually off suspension now? Yeah, they actually reinstated him two weeks ago.
— I actually turned off the sound Saturday, so I didn't hear much of what Verne and Gary talked about. But I did get a text message from a friend of mine accusing Gary of doing something to Ryan Mallett that's sort of disgusting. So I'll take that as a sign.
— Guess Jeremy Shelley answered my question about clutch kicking.
— I was extraordinarily happy for Dre Kirkpatrick grabbing the game-clinching interception. But I can't be the only one who noticed how Arkansas attacked No. 21 repeatedly Saturday. This could become a trend.
— Saturday's officiating crew was, um, suspect. I'd say more, but it would just sound like petulant whining. And Ryan Mallett did enough of that for everybody.
— I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fourth-down call to ice the game, notable because Dad was begging them to punt — his final text reads, "Punt please!" But the call actually makes as much sense as anything: frankly, if you had the choice of gaining an inch or punting it back to them with 50 seconds left ... that's basically a no-brainer, right?
Of course it is. Champs get a yard when they need one. And these are the champs.