Tuesday, January 10, 2012

championship thoughts: Undisputed

I have many bad habits as a sports fan, the worst being an incessant pessimist where my favorite team is concerned. Among those habits, though, is this one: I can't stop thinking about the big picture. Each win, each loss, each bad break, each positive sign — I get flashbacks, I start thinking about history, about momentum, about way too much. It's hard for me to enjoy the moment.

So you'll have to forgive me a moment if I couldn't stop myself last night on my way out of the Superdome. Just give me a moment. This time 5 years ago, Alabama had just hired a new football coach, its fifth of the decade. We were coming off an agonizing 6-7 season, the fourth sub-.500 season of the decade. We were pining for glory days that we were pretty sure couldn't ever return.

I don't know how I got here.

It's not just the national championship, which Alabama owns outright for 2011, after its win Monday in New Orleans. It's not the domination of LSU, a bully football team that was pushed from pillar to post all night long. It's not even the joy that comes from shoving it in the faces of every expert that whined about how Alabama didn't deserve to be in the big game in the first place.
Quite simply, the Crimson Tide is a national power again. Starting with its demolition of Clemson in Atlanta in 2008, Alabama has been a part of the national-championship conversation almost constantly for the past four seasons. They were a 12-game winner and a division champ in 2008; a 14-game winner with SEC and national titles in 2009; and won 10 games during a down year in 2010.
But the 2011 team might just be the best of the bunch. Sure, it's a team with a loss on its record, and for the most part it was a workmanlike team that didn't do much to catch the eye of the casual observer. In a way, though, that is its genius.
It's so good, it's unwatchable*. All season long, watching the Crimson Tide has been like watching a boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of a mouse. By the fourth quarter of this game, with LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson clearly reeling from a combination of pressure and frustration, you could have also compared it to watching lions team up on a wounded gazelle. There's no artistry to it. It's not designed for your viewing pleasure. It's just a pride closing in for the kill.
* Here I note that television ratings for Monday night's game were predictably abysmal. In an alternate universe, Oklahoma State would've played in the game, been blown out and still no one would have watched.
It would be easy — and indeed, some will argue vehemently in the future — to diminish Alabama's defensive performance for coming against an LSU team that has "no offense." Consider the following, however:
• In games against teams that weren't Alabama, the Tigers' average margin of victory was roughly 41-11. They averaged nearly 190 yards per game rushing, exactly 161 yards per game passing, and that's not even accounting for their efforts on special teams. It was not a team of singles hitters, by any means.
• Alabama's defense kept coming and coming, continually making stop after stop, unaffected by how many points their offense wasn't scoring. At one point, I looked up and noted that we were ahead 12-0, only it felt like 28. That's the kind of confidence this defense inspired in 2011.
I don't know how we got here.

Some other thoughts ...
• It would be impossible to put into words what the atmosphere was like inside the Superdome Monday, or in the French Quarter for most of the weekend, but here's my best shot: Sunday night, my wife and two of our friends were hanging out in the courtyard at Pat O'Brien's, the famous birthplace of "hurricanes" and home to one of the coolest bar setups of all-time. So we're not really paying attention, when all of a sudden we hear the distinct sound of brass music coming from just a few feet away. At first we thought it was a jazz band that came to entertain the denizens. In fact, it was the Golden Band from Tigerland ... or, at least, a portion of it. They led the crowd in a few cheers, played a rousing version of "Hey Fightin' Tigers," then disappeared like ninjas. I have absolutely no idea how that came about or how they pulled it off, but the moment came and went with barely a shrug. It was that kind of weekend in the Quarter.
(Note: Herbstreit and Musburger made a point to note in their broadcast that the crowd was predominantly LSU fans. And maybe it's possible I was just blinded by my crimson-colored glasses, but I would almost swear it was a 50/50 split, or very close to it. Which is what happens when you pit two traditional rivals in an awesome city that both of them know well and can travel to with relative ease.)
• So apparently this year's version of the BCS embarrassment is enough to make them finally come up with something better. I'm OK with that. Here's the thing, though: Alabama fans have no reason to feel at all embarrassed (even though I may have argued otherwise) to boast about this team. This team controlled everything within its power to control. That's what it was supposed to do. Everything else is out of our hands.
• Braves & Birds touched on this today, but allow me reiterate: Herbstreit said this morning on ESPN that LSU's offensive game plan was to attack Alabama on the edges, attempt to stretch them horizontally, hopefully opening the middle in the process for its power runs. If that was indeed the case, then that plan was stoooopid. Alabama's defense was and is far too fast to be beaten that way. And LSU fans — while they probably shouldn't have booed their own QB — do have a right to wonder why the Tigers never even attempted to test Alabama down the field*.
* Here I should note that I have absolutely no idea if LSU attempted to test Alabama down the field, really. At no point did they throw the deep ball. It could be they had receivers running down the field, and Jordan Jefferson just never could find them. 
• In the biggest wins of the Nick Saban era — 2008 Clemson, 2008 Georgia, 2009 Florida, to name a few — Alabama's offense has done exactly what it did last night in New Orleans: Throw in early-down situations, take an early, and (most important) possess the football, limiting the opportunities for the other side. A.J. McCarron did his best impression of his predecessors, John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy, by avoiding mistakes and hitting a handful of timely throws. It also helps when the offensive line keeps your jersey (mostly) clean for the entire game.
• One guy who had a huge night this time around: Nick Gentry, who whipped LSU's interior linemen multiple times for big hits, and recovered Jordan Jefferson's fourth-quarter fumble that sealed the deal. Gentry is typically a pass-rushing specialist, and it was clear that part of LSU's game plan was to attempt to run when they saw him in the game. Didn't work last night.
(One other note: I feel like I would lose to Nick Gentry in a fight. I feel like most of us would.)
• One of LSU's linemen was upset about officiating or something. Also, somewhere Brent is mumbling "Honey Badger" in his sleep.
• To answer the question posed by Dr. Saturday, when I remember this team, probably the thing I'll remember most about it is its icy professionalism. I spent most of Monday dying — repeat: dying — at the number of points Alabama was leaving on the field: the missed TD pass to Brad Smelley, the missed pass to Brandon Gibson at 1, the punt return that Maze couldn't convert because his hamstring exploded. But Alabama's defense didn't care. It just shrugged it off and moved on.
During the season, my grandmother, an Auburn fan, complained that Alabama is "boring." And she's right. It's not a flashy team; at times, it might even be downright dull.
And that's OK. Because you can be dull, and still be the best.

With that, we can officially put a cap on the 2011 season. Good Lord, how did we get here?


Mel said...

GREAT post. Sums up my thoughts completely! ROLL TIDE!

Sciv said...

Love it!

Lauren said...