"... And so I’m picking Alabama. Unless something stupid happens."
Perspective is a funny thing. This time three years ago, the program I've followed religiously since the third grade (or thereabouts) was mired in the midst of the worst decade in its history, had just lost to LSU for the fifth straight season, and was about to embark on a month that could only be called "Rock Bottom" (Mississippi St., La-Monroe, Auburn ... all losses). What's worse: we were all so innured to the losing — after all, we were on our fifth coach and had seen a decade of mediocrity or worse at pretty much every turn — that nobody really raised much of a fuss. That November wasn't fun, but then not much had been since around 1999, anyway.
Here's why I'm bringing this up now: yesterday's loss made me angry. I stomped around the house, cursing everyone I could think of. I thought I'd destroyed my cell phone. I didn't drink enough, so the anger didn't dull. I just couldn't believe a team with a chance to win a championship wasted it with such a lousy performance on national TV. Again.
This morning, sitting in church — a must for everyone who takes football way too seriously (like me) — I realized that what I said during the bye week continues to be true: the fact that Alabama football matters this much, not just to me but everybody in the nation, is indicative of how far this program has come in such a short time. During the aforementioned November, if you'd told me how things would play out over the next 36 months, I'd have called myself a buffoon for being so angry about a second loss, about continuing to be ranked in the top 15, and about the crime of not winning the West or the SEC after two years of BCS-caliber football.
The thing that hurts about Saturday, of course, is the knowledge that I was completely wrong. For 14 solid days I thought about how Alabama matched up with LSU, ultimately coming to the conclusion that LSU couldn't beat Alabama without "something stupid" happening, like a myriad of terrible turnovers or Les Miles doing something crazy that somehow worked (like what's happened about 15 times during his 5-year career at Red Stick).
Instead, LSU beat Alabama straight-up. A number of headlines have focused on LSU's successful trick plays — the fake punt, the fourth-down reverse — but those were just part of it. As Dr. Saturday points out:
Here, LSU met the odds-on favorite to return to the BCS title game, outgained them by more than 100 yards and turned in four straight scoring drives in the third and fourth quarters for a late, two-score lead. The Tiger defense held a versatile, star-studded offense a full 120 yards and two touchdowns below its season averages. Maligned quarterback Jordan Jefferson, overseer of the SEC's least productive passing attack, hit 10 of 13 with zero turnovers against the league's No. 1 passing defense, including his first touchdown pass in two months, a 75-yarder to Reuben Randle. The final score couldn't be attributed to trickery (a successful fake punt in the third quarter didn't lead to any points), luck, Alabama gaffes or any other brand of Milesian voodoo. It was just one enormously talented outfit making the plays to beat another.
Perspective or no, that's disheartening. And an ominous note for the month to come, particularly the final week.
Some other thoughts:
• Look, I know it's probably not cool to rip college kids, particularly babies like DeMarcus Milliner (who, yes, inexplicably squatted on a short route on the game's decisive play instead of covering the deep ball). Having said that, Alabama's defense is full of big-name players that have proven to be, for lack of a better term, frauds. Frankly, I'm tired of bashing the secondary when the front-7 — particularly alleged All-Americans like Marcell Dareus, Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower — can't control the line of scrimmage against anybody or make a sure tackle. Wanna know how many sacks we registered Saturday? One. And it was by Josh Chapman, the nose guard who's in the game to control the line of scrimmage, not rush the passer. That's beyond ridiculous.
• While OTS was underrating the impact Glenn Dorsey had in 2007 in his gameday post — we averaged less than 1 yard per carry in that game, remember — he's quite correct in his assessment of Drake Nevis' absolute destruction of William Vlachos. Not only did Nevis disrupt Alabama's run game all day long — helped in large part by Trent Richardson's injury — but he completely annihilated Vlachos on the game's decisive play: the sack that led to the fumble that led to the field goal (which turned out to be the deciding points). Vlachos should be properly ashamed.
• In the Birmingham News' Sports section, periodically, they run some of the highlights from the chatter off al.com, one of the dumbest running features, and only because it glorifies anonymous flamers who have no sense of football or anything else. But I did peruse the comments today, and one of them was spot-on about the coaching in Saturday's game. What, exactly, did Alabama do with its bye week? Because it certainly looked ill-prepared on every level Saturday: LSU was (at least) a step ahead in every facet of the game, and Alabama had no new wrinkles or anything that might be considered "creative" on any level.
How, for example, did we get fooled on the fake punt that led to LSU's first touchdown? Really? No one considered they might fake a punt near midfield, with only 1 yard to gain?
I recall before the season, for example, saying I was looking forward to seeing how the coaching staff would use Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson together. I'm still waiting. Since he threw a TD pass vs. Florida, I think we've snapped it to Marquis Maze twice. And all of the complex blitzes we used last year to affect the quarterback when we couldn't do it with our front in 2009 have apparently been shelved, to our detriment.
For two years, this staff pressed all the right buttons at all the right times. For much of this season they haven't appeared to press any buttons; they've just brought the same tired game plan to battle on both sides of the ball, then flailed helplessly when it didn't work.
• When we talked about luck in preseason, here's what we meant: in the fourth, leading 14-13 and having to punt it back to LSU, there was a moment where the Tigers nearly gave it up after Cody Mandel — who's also been a disappointment this season — bounced a punt off a return man's leg. We had three guys near the football. They had one (incidentally, the same guy whose leg the punt bounced off). But their guy got the ball back. And they scored a few plays later.
• This, by the way, is the official end of the ride for this particular group of Alabama stars. Next year we'll be contenders again, but with a totally different feel. McElroy will definitely be gone; Ingram and Jones will be, as well. There exists the distinct possibility someone else will call plays — Jim McElwain's name has surfaced already as a candidate in Colorado — and the defense will likely have a different look, as well.
So, some perspective: since Aug. 30, 2008, this team has played 37 games, and has won 33 of them. In that time they gave us a Heisman Trophy, two appearances in the SEC Championship Game and a BCS national championship, all the while restoring the pride in the jersey that was missing for much of the decade that preceded it.
And yes, 3 games still remain on the schedule, plus a consolation prize in some nearby locale like Dallas, Orlando or (possibly) Atlanta. But let's appreciate this run, and these players, while we still can.
Perspective, after all, can change pretty quickly.