Sunday, October 10, 2010

week 6 thoughts: snap back to reality

Before we start talking about yesterday, does anybody remember Rocky III?
I've spent a great deal of time thinking about this movie in the offseason, probably because I've spent so much time thinking about this football program in the context of the "Rocky" movies. Recall that Rocky didn't win his first bout with the champs; he simply went the distance and earned the respect of the nation — sort of like the 2008 team that won 12 straight and took the eventual national champs (Florida) to the wire in Atlanta. It wasn't until the second time around, a year later (as we discussed here last December) when Rocky finally reached the impossible, beating Apollo on a improbable double knockout — much like Alabama overcoming the invincible Gators in Atlanta in 2009 and winning the title.
In "III," Rocky, now the champ, spends the first 10 minutes or so of the movie whipping a string of tomato cans, including one he appears to knock through the ropes (yes, consider the parallels between that scene and last week's Florida game).
And then he meets Clubber Lang, a young, hungry challenger who disrupts Rocky's retirement scene, says some derogatory things to his wife and eventually goads him into a fight. Rocky doesn't work hard on his training — over the objections of his trainer — and, needless to say, the fight doesn't go well.

Look familiar? It should.

Since February, everyone's talked about this team's chances to repeat what happened in 2009. They've pumped up Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson as the world's most dangerous duo (CBS even gave them a horrible nickname, "Fast & Furious"). Greg McElroy's undefeated streak as a starter has been dissected and discussed until everyone got thoroughly sick (including me). Even unheard-of players like Marcell Dareus and Dont'a Hightower became known quickly as the next big things on a defensive scale.
To put it simply, Alabama, the rough and tough football team that prided itself on brutality and ruthless football, got domesticated.
Our Clubber Lang moment was coming and we all knew it — then it happened Saturday. South Carolina 35, Alabama 21.

Let there be no doubt: nothing about Saturday's game was a fluke. South Carolina outhit, outplayed and outcoached Alabama Saturday, absorbed all of 'Bama's counter-punches, threw some more punches of their own and eventually delivered the knockout blow in the fourth quarter. They didn't win because of the officiating, a spate of turnovers or even Alabama's lousy long-snapper: they won because they were the better team, pure and simple.
How Alabama responds, then, is the true mark of a champion. In the movie, Rocky mopes for a while, gets Apollo as a trainer, moves to California to train for the rematch, mopes some more, has a bizarre shouting match with Adrian on the beach and eventually regains the Eye of the Tiger. I'll let you figure out how the movie ends.
Our boys don't have that kind of time or luxury. Ole Miss is not a team to be taken lightly, bad losses or no. Alabama can't afford to ride around on a motorcycle looking sad, or walk around with heavy feet. No, if the champs are to remain the champs, we must regain the Eye of the Tiger, and regain it quickly.

(Note: Whether we will eventually be forced fight an invincible Russian in Moscow on Christmas Day for no money, or fight our protege in the street on the 6 p.m. news ... I mean, we'll see.)

Some other thoughts ...
— It's difficult to describe how locked in Stephen Garcia was Saturday, but let's try: he hit 17 passes for an average of 10.1 per pass, 3 touchdowns and a pick. His second touchdown pass was his best: if you watch, you see Mark Barron in position to swat it away, only he misses it by a millimeter or two. The expression on his face says it all — "what?" That's just the kind of day it was.
— Having said that, I must agree with OTS' assessment of the play-calling. How could Trent Richardson get a mere 6 carries? Why weren't we running more inside the 10 on the drive that ended in a missed field goal? And where was all the ingenuity — the varied formations and personnel packages — that the offense showed against Florida a week ago? It was McElwain's worst game since ... well, last year's South Carolina game. And the defense couldn't bail us out this time.
— We're still displaying the same problems we've shown all season defensively: an inability to pressure the quarterback, control the line of scrimmage or make a key tackle. And by the way, I said these were problems last week vs. Florida, only they bungled things inside the 5 twice, so everybody pretended it didn't happen.
— Coach Saban took the blame for the failed fake field goal, saying it was "probably not a very good call." I didn't really hate it: McCarron playing holder opens up multiple possibilities, and it's not like the kicking game was altogether trustworthy Saturday. Then again, when you're throwing to a reserve linebacker and expecting him to break a tackle (or two) to achieve success, you probably didn't deserve it.
— If South Carolina were playing Florida today, who would you take? I know who I'd take.
— One more note and then we're done: I would be remiss if I didn't pay respect to the regular-season win streak itself, which stretched from August 2008 and included some of the most dominating performances I can ever remember. To put it in perspective: the last time Alabama lost a regular-season football game, I was sports editor in Talladega (covering the game, no less), Tommy Tuberville was still head coach at Auburn and only a fool would have believed the Tide would win the national championship in two seasons. I can't express in words what these last two years have meant to me, what they've meant to Alabama.
But the best perspective belonged to my wife, who shrugged and said the following last night: "Honestly, it's kind of a relief for it to be over. Now our guys don't have to worry about going undefeated or defending anything — they can just let it hang loose and go play football."

There's still miles to go in 2010. Let's pick ourselves up off the canvas and prove we're worthy of defending the title.

Roll Tide.

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